Why is Jimmy Rollins hitting lead-off?
I had heard before the season started that Dodgers manager Don Mattingly had made the decision to slot Rollins there and sure enough, he’s still there. Since it’s Don Mattinlgy, I’m not surprised. He was a great player back in the day, but has continually added to the mountain of evidence that having played doesn’t mean that you can manage1. Playing and managing are two different skills. Mattingly has shown time and time again that he is clueless when it comes to lineup construction, bullpen management, and in-game tactics in general.
Filling out the lineup card is said to be some sacred act by the manager with which nobody can interfere. This needs to stop. GMs need to find the courage to reign in their tactically incompetent managers. In any other line of work, employee incompetence reflects poorly on his manager. Why isn’t baseball the same way?
Dodgers President Andrew Friedman and GM Farhan Zaidi, both new to the organization this year, come from a strong analytical background. Friedman used to be the Rays GM and Zaidi worked in the A’s analytics department. If not Friedman, then at least Zaidi must be cringing with the decisions that Mattingly makes.
Given their respective backgrounds, Zaidi challenging Mattingly is extra difficult. Mattingly was arguably a top ten player in the league during his prime. Zaidi, on the other hand, is likely perceived by his players as a nerd who doesn’t know anything because he never played. It’s a ridiculous perception that are strawman and tu quoque fallacies, but that’s the way players and coaches think. Maybe some day they’ll learn that analyzing the game and playing the game are two different skills. Regardless, at the end of the day, Zaidi is the boss. Mattingly is easily costing his team two games a year at the absolute minimum, possibly more, and that doesn’t even take into account his miscues in the playoffs. It won’t be easy, but Zaidi is just the kind of GM to hold his manager to a higher standard.
Back to Rollins, I can guess why Mattingly mistakenly believed that he was the best choice for the top of the lineup. Rollins has plenty of experience doing so and is still a good baserunner. Last season he stole 28 bases and had a 5.6 BsR, which was especially impressive as a 35 year-old shortstop. Mattingly still subscribes to the outdated, disproven belief that speed and good baserunning is the most important attribute for a leadoff hitter to have. It is not. Leadoff hitters, obviously, get more plate appearances than anybody else in the lineup, so a good OBP is especially important. As the saying goes, you can’t steal first.
Even in his prime, Rollins was never a high OBP guy. He only had an OBP above .340 twice in his career. Don’t get me wrong, an OBP that can best be described as above average is great when combined with great baserunning and defense at shortstop. Furthermore, an above average OBP combined with speed makes for a good leadoff hitter. Although Rollins is still a good baserunner, he just makes too many outs to be at the top of the lineup. Last season he had a mediocre .323 OBP. Going into this season, ZiPS had him projected at a .305 OBP. What’s the logic behind putting an out machine at the top of the lineup? Rollins is still a solid player overall, and I lauded the Dodgers for acquiring him, but he’s being misused as a leadoff guy.
Howie Kendrick is a significantly better option to be batting leadoff. He had a .347 OBP last season and that’s projected to be only slightly lower this year. You don’t normally put somebody with a .526 SLG at the top of the lineup, but that’s a total fluke. He’s hitting in a pitcher-friendly stadium and that 25% HR/FB is grossly unsustainable. He has a career .134 ISO and currently has a .231 ISO. It’s not going to continue. Put Kendrick at the top of the lineup and enjoy the extra runs.
Billy Hamilton, Joey Votto, and !@#$ Bryan !@#$ Price
Ok, since it’s been covered to death and is kind of old news at this point, I’ll only briefly discuss Reds manager Bryan Price’s profane tirade. I completely understand his frustration with the media, but he was wrong. You can’t get mad at reporters for reporting. It’s their job. While I believe that the value of a lot of baseball reporting is greatly diminished as a result of social media and the internet in general2, as long as Price’s employer chooses to continue its current relationship with press, Price needs to be professional and show those journalists some respect. Maybe since Price is so bad at his job, he believes that nobody should do their job well?
Take Billy Hamilton for example. Price is making the same mistake with him that Mattingly is making with Rollins. PECOTA projects him to have a .298 OBP and he had a .292 OBP last year. That sucks. Hamilton may literally be the fastest player to every play the game (seriously), but again, you can’t steal first. It makes no sense. Only Zack Cozart projects to have a lower OBP. Put him 8th. Dare the opposition to intentionally walk him in order to face the pitcher.
While we’re on the subject of Hamilton, I have to say that he’s turned out better than I thought he would. Going into last season, he appeared to have 20 power and was at risk for having an OBP that was much lower than it turned out to be, but would steal ~70-80 bases. Ironically, he ended doing better at the plate and worse on the base paths. He hit 6 home runs, and while his 79 wRC+ is really bad, it surpassed my expectations. He stole 56 bases but was caught 23 times. A 71% success rate is hurting more than it helps, although he still turned in an excellent 7.6 BsR.
Hamilton is likely not going to improve much offensively if at all, but he has made improvements in other aspects of his game. For one, his defense is getting better and better. He’s a converted center fielder who played the position well even when he was raw and inexperienced at it. He didn’t always take the best routes to the ball due to his inexperience, but was frequently able to make corrections because of his blazing speed. Hanging an 80 grade on any tool is an understatement in only the rarest of instances, but Hamilton’s speed is one of those instances. Hamilton has learned center field well and has become an excellent defender there. Last season he had 14 DRS and 20.1 UZR. His defense is really where most of his value came from, and he’s on pace to do even better this year. According to Fangraphs prospect writer Kiley McDaniel, Hamilton grades out as a 70 defender with a 50 arm. He’s not going to throw out a lot of runners, but range is far more important anyway.
The biggest improvement that Hamilton has made so far is with his baserunning. He has 13 stolen bases and has only been caught once. Furthermore, he currently has a 4.1 BsR. In April. That is ridiculous. Even if you project some regression, he’s still on track to add 2 WAR solely through his baserunning. That’s twice as good as the best baserunners generally do.
Back to Price, he is one of many managers who misuse his closer, and when that closer is Aroldis Chapman, that is especially egregious. Chapman has arguably the greatest fastball of all time and is coming off a season where he struck out a ridiculously, incomprehensibly absurd 52.5% of the batters he faced. Why restrict such a weapon for save situations? If you’re in a jam in the 8th, 7th, or even 6th inning, strikeouts are exactly what you need. A pitcher who has the rarest of abilities to be able to have a 50/50 shot at striking out a batter is the best way to put out a fire.
Price is going to lose games due his obstinacy over saving his closer for a save situation, if he hasn’t already. The NL central is going to be the most competitive division this year, and the Reds can ill afford to throw away games.
I will give Price one piece of credit. Batting Joey Votto second is exactly what he should be doing. It has been proven that the 2-hole is where you should be batting your best hitter3, and not third as it has been traditionally believed. You want to give Votto and his plus-.400 OBP as many plate appearances as possible. I’m not sure how a traditionalist like Price came to bat Votto second instead of third, but you have to give him credit for it. That small change can gain the team one extra win over the course of the season.
Dee Gordon: Another Who Shouldn’t be Leading Off
Are you detecting a theme here?
Dee Gordon is off to a torrid start this season, hitting .409/.418/.484, which is good for an excellent 150 wRC+. So what’s the problem with him leading off? If he were a true talent .418 OBP player then he’d be perfect to lead off, but he’s not. He finished last season with a mediocre .326 OBP and was projected to have a .311 OBP going into this season by PECOTA. Gordon’s current success can be chalked up to a ridiculously high .463 BABIP. His line drive rate is a little higher than normal, but that doesn’t explain what we’re seeing here. Of course, small sample size explains everything.
Remember, he pulled this same trick last year. Through April 2014, Gordon had a 143 wRC+, thanks in part to a .385 BABIP. He then turned in a 94 wRC+ the rest of the way. Simply put, he turned back into Dee Gordon.
I believe that Gordon is going to crash harder than simply a regression to the mean. It’s disturbing how he has been a non-factor on the base paths so far. He’s stolen 8 bases but has been caught 6 times. He currently has a -0.1 BsR. Furthermore, while he’s always been bad at drawing walks, his current walk rate is sitting at a paltry 3.0%. What I really find worrisome is that Gordon has turned into more of a hacker than ever. The percentage of balls outside of the strike zone that Gordon is swinging at has risen by 6.3% over the previous season. His swing rate overall has gone up by 8% over the previous season. It’s working out for him so far, his strikeout rate is actually sitting at 3% lower than his career rate, but I guarantee you that the opposition is going to discover this and adjust. Gordon’s free-swinging ways are going to start to cause him a lot of outs.
The other night, I was watching my Mets play the Marlins and heard the guys in the Mets booth praise Gordon for a great defensive play that he had made. It was a great play, but then they went on to credit Gordon for generally being a great defensive 2nd baseman. That part is just not true.
Gordon’s speed and athleticism tends to fool people into believing that he’s better with the glove than he really is. It’s similar to when people overrate Adam Jones’ defense. He’ll make great plays, but then he cancels them out with misplays, which for whatever reason people tend not to remember. However, Gordon has been more consistent in his defense so far this season. If he keeps it up, he may grade out as a plus defender in 2015.
Dee Gordon can be a useful baseball player. He needs to learn to take a walk and be more selective at the plate. Of course, he also needs to come out of his baserunning slump.