The Futility Infielder

A Baseball Journal by Jay Jaffe I'm a baseball fan living in New York City. In between long tirades about the New York Yankees and the national pastime in general, I'm a graphic designer.

Saturday, December 01, 2001

 

Remaking the Yankees, Part II: The Leadoff Spot

In my last post, Part I of this series, I examined the Yankees' first base situation. Since then, they have continued to play footsie with Jason Giambi, but nothing more. The Yanks reportedly are waiting to see if the A's will revise their 6-year, $91 million offer or if any other serious suitors have emerged before placing their own bid. Meanwhile, Yogi Berra and Rudy Giuliani have both placed calls to Giambi, trying to sell him on the virtues of life in pinstripes.

Giambi is but one of the pieces in the larger puzzle of the soon-to-be remade Yankees. The current assumption is that they will sign at least one more big bat to go along with him in the lineup, probably at a corner outfield spot. But with Chuck Knoblauch departing, they also have a void at the top of the lineup which needs filling. Today, I'll look at how that fits into the Yanks' offseason plans.

The leadoff spot was one of the Yanks' relative weaknesses this past season. Knoblauch got the bulk of the at-bats, but hit only .246 AVG/.336 OPB/.347 SLG there, and was hardly the table-setter he had proven himself to be over the years. Shifted from second base to left field late in spring training because of his throwing difficulties, Knoblauch had enough distraction already without the redefined strike zone. The new high strike ate him alive, and for the first time since 1995, he had fewer walks than strikeouts. He was especially horrendous when leading off an inning: .203/.291/.267. Eeeugh.

But it was a tough year for leadoff hitters all over the AL. Several top-spot stalwarts had sub-par years; like Knoblauch, the strike zone may have had something to do with it. Only eight of the 14 teams posted an OBP higher than the league average at the top spot. Think about that--in the most important spot in the lineup for getting on base, nearly half of the teams couldn't find somebody who was at least AVERAGE! Here are the rankings, with the players garnering significant time (expressed as a percentage of the team's plate appearances in the #1 spot) for each team:
Team  OBP  Playing Time

SEA .385 Ichiro 93%
TEX .367 Catalanatto 47%, Greer 36%
MIN .348 Guzman 28%, Rivas 23%, Jones 18%, Lawton 16%
ANA .343 Eckstein 67%, Erstad 26%
TOR .340 Stewart 60%, Cruz 32%
NYA .334 Knoblauch 75%, Jeter 14%
DET .334 Cedeno 75%, Macias 20%
CHW .330 Durham 76%, Valentin 14%
CLE .322 Lofton 72%, Cabrera 13%
OAK .320 Damon 92%
TAM .320 Tyner 51%, Williams 21%, Winn 14%
BOS .312 Offerman 49%, Nixon 23%, Stynes 17%
BAL .287 Anderson 56%, Hairston 14%
KAN .282 [identities protected by the Federal Witness Relocation Program]
It was an especially tough year for leadoff hitters in the final year of their contracts. Here are the OBPs of four who fit the bill and are now on the market, including Knoblauch:
                 Age   2000   2001  Decline   Career

Chuck Knoblauch 33 .366 .339 .027 .382
Johnny Damon 28 .382 .324 .058 .346
Kenny Lofton 34 .369 .322 .047 .377
Roger Cedeno 27 .383 .337 .046 .355
Not exactly pretty, especially if you're looking to buy--and I didn't even list Brady Anderson and his .311 OBP. It's worth noting that the league OBP fell from .346 in 2000 to .329 last year, so these declines aren't quite as bad as they seem. Looking at this motley crew, Knoblauch had the least falloff, and he still had the highest OBP among thm. I'm not suggesting that the Yanks should re-sign him, just that he may still have enough to lead off for some team, somwhere, at least part-time.

The Yanks have reportedly had some contact with agents for both Lofton and Cedeno. Lofton is even older than Knoblauch, and considerably more frail--he's played over 150 games only twice in his career, and has averaged only 135 games a year over the course of the past 10 years. He hasn't been the same since injuring his shoulder on a head-first slide into first base during the 1999 playoffs, a textbook example of the hazards of such an ill-advised play. Lofton was a Gold Glove centerfielder from 1993-96, but at this stage of his career, he's a leftfielder if he comes to the Yanks. He's not a great option, though.

Cedeno, unlike Lofton, at least has the advantage of being in his prime. Some portion of his decline can be attributed to moving from Houston's Enron ("Home Run") Field to the Tigers' spacious Comerica Park. He stole 55 bases last year before the Detroit management benched him for the final 19 games to keep him from qualifying for incentive bonuses (the Major League Baseball Players Association is pursuing a grievance on his behalf, and with good cause). But he'll be playing on his fifth team in five years; his defense is atrocious, and his baseball fundamentals so suspect that he tends to wear out his welcome fairly quickly. One story from ESPN's Peter Gammons has a "respected talent evaluator" comparing him to an old Padres outfielder named Gene Locklear, of whom Don Zimmer once said, "He runs until they tag him out, and he chases flyballs until they stop rolling." Not exactly the kind of player the Yanks trip over themselves trying to sign (and I'm guessing that the "respected talent evaluator" was Yanks' Director of Scouting Gene Michael).

As I see it, the Yanks have two other options in the leadoff spot, barring a trade (Shannon Stewart, drool... ). One is a player whose OBP was .366 last season, which was actually better than his .368 the year before, relative to the leagues (he split his time between the AL and NL in 2000). His career OBP is .402. His biggest problem is his age--he'll be 43 on Christmas Day. By now you should have guessed that I'm talking about the greatest leadoff hitter in baseball history, Rickey Henderson. Henderson would come pretty cheap (not exactly a concern for the Yanks these days), but his set of skills is pretty limited overall. Still, the man can get on base, despite all of the baggage that he carries.

The other option is one already familiar to Yankee fans. Derek Jeter got 14% of the Yanks' plate appearances in the #1 spot, and he hit very well there: .324/.360/.543, a stronger performance than the .302/.371/.455 line he posted batting second. He's done EXTREMELY well there in the past: .406/.516/.510 from 1998-2000. While he has a tendency to jump on the first pitch rather than work the count, he hits extremely well when he does: .437/.462/.793 in 87 ABs. The Yankee brass seems to have taken note of all of this, and reportedly they are leaning in the direction of opening the season with him at the top and Alfonso Soriano batting second. Though Soriano has the speed to be a leadoff hitter, he needs to raise his OBP considerably from the .304 he posted in 2001 before that's an option.

I think making Jeter the leadoff hitter would be a great move--his power hasn't developed as dramatically as expected (particularly when you consider it in comparison of the other members of the Holy Shortstop Trinity). Until it does, he's better suited as a leadoff hitter than a #3, if you're going to move him out of the #2 spot. Also, none of the leadoff hitters who are on the market are worth filling a corner-outfield vacancy with at the expense of adding another more productive hitter elsewhere in the lineup. I mean, Cliff Floyd/Moises Alou or Kenny Lofton/Roger Cedeno--who would you choose? The answer seems pretty obvious.

So, having solved the leadoff problem for Joe Torre and Brian Cashman, I'll take a look at their corner outfield options next time around.

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