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Contenders Need To Reconsider the Importance of a Leadoff Hitter

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Tim Anderson Gives Chicago What Division Rival Sorely Lacks

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Last February an article posed the question, “Should Good Hitters Lead Off?” Like many issues in 2020, that query by Bleacher Report's Ben Clemons was never really answered.

Partly it was prompted by the Chicago Cubs, whose new manager David Ross was tinkering with the idea of using sluggers Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant in the lead off spot. Typically both guys fit the definition of middle of the order hitters, due to their power potential and their ability to drive in runs.

Based on the numbers, as well as the overall failure of the Chicago offense, the switch to lead off did not work. From that spot in the order, Rizzo hit only .182, forty points below his overall batting average.

His teammate led off in nearly half of the games, and he fared even worse from the top spot. Bryant managed to hit just .177 while leading off, a big reason his overall average dipped to .206.

Were the Cubs the exception, or the rule, in having such paltry numbers from the lead off spot last season? A glance at the team that won it all, the Los Angeles Dodgers, might provide some insight.

Mookie Betts, who had the season before topped the lineup of the World Series Champion Boston Red Sox, repeated the performance after being traded to the Dodgers last winter. The team they ousted in six games had a relatively unknown lead off hitter in Yandy Diaz, who ended the season with an impressive .307 batting average.

He alternated between lead off and the third slot, but one look at his numbers clearly show that he would have been better off staying in the latter. Diaz hit just .250 while leading off, compared to .362 as the number three guy.

It is amazing that the Rays managed to win the pennant with such an unimpressive lead off man, especially since the team they beat in the American League Division Series had the best first hitter in all of baseball.

DJ LeMahieu, who captured the batting title with a .365 average, was in the lead off spot in every game he started. He proved himself a throwback to revered lead off legends such as Rickey Henderson or Pete Rose or Tim Raines, so it is little wonder that the Yankees brought him back on a lucrative free agent contract.

Immediately behind the Yankees in the standings were the Blue Jays, whose main lead off hitter finished with a .301 batting average. Bo Bichette, like most players of the current era, fared much worse in the lead off role, where his number was .272.

Still in all, Bichette's average eclipsed that of the man long considered one of the premiere lead off men in the game, Houston center fielder George Springer. In his final year before free agency, the four-time All-Star hit .265 as a lead off hitter.

That mediocre stat could be a key reason the Astros, who had captured two pennants in the past three years, finished 2020 with a losing record. Springer's career average from the lead off spot is more than points higher, revealing a marked decline that may have been part of the reasoning behind Houston making little effort to re-sign him.

In spite of its losing record the Astros managed to advance in the playoffs, primarily because Springer's numbers were not nearly as low as those of Minnesota's lead off guy. Max Kepler managed just a .226 batting average from the top of the order, an issue the Twins may want to address before the new season begins.

Their toughest competition figures to be a greatly improved White Sox team, who already have a much better lead hitter. Tim Anderson led off every game he started, and he finished with a stellar .322 batting average.

Few teams pay much attention to their lead off hitters in this current era of home-run centered baseball, but this simple examination of last year's playoff teams indicates their importance. The Yankees recognized that need when they signed LeMahieu and, other than the White Sox, the other contenders should address it as well.