Speculating About The Lead-Off Position

In recent years, the Brewers have been famous for their exquisitely-calligraphied lineup cards, courtesy of Jerry Narron. In 2015, the most frequently-seen names at the top of it were Jean Segura and Carlos Gomez—neither of whom are still with the team. Gerardo Parra led off the fourth-most often, and he is also no longer with the club. Thus, Scooter Gennett, who ranked third, is the only one of the four lead-off men from 2015 remaining in the Brewers’ organization, but it’s questionable as to how much playing time he’ll receive in 2016 after his disastrous 2015 campaign. The presence of Jonathan Villar, Orlando Arcia, Colin Walsh, and Aaron Hill also make it more likely that he’ll lose plate appearances. Other than those four, no one else started more than eight games at the top of the lineup.

This means that a void exists, one that manager Craig Counsell will be looking to fill this spring. While the current sabermetric consensus holds that specific lineup compositions don’t impact overall performance in a significant way, teams still look to get high on-base percentages and speed ahead of their middle-of-the-order power bats. Additionally, there is probably some psychological benefit to lineup stability, as players prefer to know what to expect when they arrive to the ballpark each day.

The problem is that the Brewers’ key hitters — the ones who are likely to be penciled into the lineup everyday — aren’t great options for the lead-off spot. Ryan Braun, Jonathan Lucroy, Chris Carter, and the Rymer Liriano/Domingo Santana corner outfield rotation are better candidates to be in the middle of the order — though there’s some chatter that Santana could lead-off on a regular basis. On the other hand, the club’s center field options (Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Keon Broxton, Shane Peterson, Alex Presley etc.) should probably hit near the bottom of the lineup.

Essentially, this leaves three lineup positions unoccupied: second base, third base, and shortstop. The Opening Day shortstop should be Jonathan Villar, barring something unforeseen, but if Orlando Arcia’s development goes well, Villar could be shifted to second base or the bench by midseason. Aaron Hill is apparently the current favorite to be the starting third baseman, but a strong spring performance from Will Middlebrooks or Garin Cecchini (two players who could be a part of the Brewers’ future) could force Hill to second base. Scooter Gennett should get a shot at second base as well, but his .233 TAv in 2015 was so disastrous that he is unlikely to be given a long leash.

Villar possesses dangerous speed on the bases, but he has a career .300 OBP, which is obviously not what one traditionally seeks in a leadoff hitter. Gennett is a below-average hitter whose .318 career OBP and .264 TAv establish that he isn’t the type of player to whom the team should want to give the most plate appearances of the game. Cecchini and Middlebrooks are unproven. They both have struggled in recent years and lost some of their top-prospect luster, so it seems more likely that they’ll hit at the bottom of the order to relieve any undo pressure. And once Arcia arrives, it seems logical to think that he’ll be given the same luxury.

Hill was once a quality offensive player, and his performances in some of his best seasons would make him an attractive lead-off hitter for this team. However, he’s now in his mid-30s and appears to no longer be the type of player who can perform on a daily basis, and—especially given his injury history—the Brewers cannot be counting on him to consistently set the table for their big hitters.

Thus, one argument could be made for Villar and the various second base options to receive some time in the leadoff spot. Villar’s speed makes him an obvious and stereotypical choice, while Gennett and Hill have each proven themselves to have an ability to make enough contact to not embarrass themselves. Without an obvious default choice (like 2015 Dee Gordon), Counsell is going to be able to mix-and-match, depending on pitching matchups, recent performance, and platoon advantages.

However, I believe the club should put Jonathan Lucroy at the top of the lineup. From 2012 through 2014, Lucroy was an above-average hitter at his worst and one of the better players in the National League at his best. At that time, he was a clear choice to hit in the middle of a relatively powerful lineup that featured various combinations of Ryan Braun, Carlos Gomez, Khris Davis, Aramis Ramirez, and Adam Lind. Now, the organization is in a different spot.  Braun remains, but a Quad-A rotation in center field has replaced Gomez and the unproven Santana/Liriano and Middlebrooks/Cecchini combinations have replaced Davis and Ramirez. Lucroy is no longer just one of several talented hitters; instead, he is one of the team’s only above-average hitters.

Even at his best, Lucroy was never much of a home run hitter, so it’s not as if his skill set is ill-suited to leading off. His ability to pound out doubles and get on base consistently, while perhaps not having the speed profile of a stereotypical leadoff hitter, would serve the team well at the top of the lineup. Additionally—and perhaps most importantly—even during Lucroy’s poor 2015, his on-base skills remained. His .326 OBP was still better than the marks put up by the options mentioned above. So even if his prime is truly over and he can no longer be the elite hitter he was for a few years, the skills that remain still make him a competent lead-off option.

A potential problem with Lucroy hitting lead-off is lineup balance. If he slots in atop the order, the remainder of the lineup lacks significant depth because there aren’t many good options to hit second, third, fourth, or fifth aside from Braun and Carter. On the flip side, if someone like Villar hits first, Lucroy can help provide some meat in the middle of the order.

Ultimately, though, lineup balance is less important than giving the most plate appearances to your best hitters, and Lucroy certainly falls into that category. Realistically, this is not a great team, and they don’t have that many hitters who are guaranteed to be productive. It’s tough to worry about lineup balance when you simply only have a few above-average hitters. Thus, while batting a catcher such as Lucroy first for significant periods of time would certainly be unconventional, it seems as if he is the best option for this specific group of players. It would afford many of the younger players the opportunity to hit in the less-pressured environment of the bottom of the lineup, while also allowing his specific skill set to thrive.

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