The Miami Marlins, Gorkys Hernandez, and Terrible Leadoff Men

Gorkys Hernandez: terrible leadoff man. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE

In last night's 8-4 loss to the Washington Nationals, the Miami Marlins had to face a lefty starter in Ross Detwiler and countered with what has become their typical lineup versus lefty pitchers. That lineup features primarily right-handed bats, and that includes at the top of the lineup, in which Gorkys Hernandez resides.

Yes, Gokyrs Hernandez is the Miami Marlins' leadoff hitter against left-handed pitchers. What follows is Gorkys Hernandez's career batting line and his ZiPS projection.

Hernandez AVG OBP SLG wOBA
Career (92 PA) .157 .231 .193 .204
ZiPS Proj .229 .289 .300 .267

Right now, the Marlins have a pitcher, Ricky Nolasco, who is hitting slightly better than what Hernandez has done this season (Ricky is hitting .178/.229/.222, .205 wOBA). That is the epitome of not doing well at the plate. Among the 12 position players on the Marlins right now, Hernandez is likely the worst hitter, and it probably is not a close contest.

So why is Ozzie Guillen batting him leadoff, where he will get the most plate appearances on the team in any given full game?

I mean, the answer is simple to Guillen, at least. Hernandez is blazing fast, so the only natural place to put him is leadoff.

That is an awful assertion.

No, batting lineups do not matter all that much, and no, batting a better player leadoff will not amount to too many more runs this season, but Ozzie Guillen's thinking remains flawed. The leadoff spot is not for the fastest player on the team; in fact, it should be reserved for one of the best hitters on the team.

Back to The Book

If you have read this site for much of the 2012 year, you will have heard of The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball, a look at a lot of different cliches and well-held thoughts in baseball that may or may not hold fruit under statistical scrutiny. In one of the chapters, the traditional ideas of the batting lineup are examined and challenged, and the authors of The Book broke down a lot of the traditional ideas of the spots in the lineup.

One of the positions in the lineup that received a significant makeover under The Book's recommendations is the leadoff position. Yes, the traditional leadoff man is the type of player Ozzie Guillen has sent up there this season for the Marlins, a fast player, regardless of hitting skill. The traditional manager wants a guy who can steal bases and get into scoring position with or without help of the number two hitter.

Great players sat at leadoff and followed this formula. The greatest leadoff hitter of all time was Rickey Henderson, and no one could argue that he was anything but fast. But Henderson was also a career .279/.401/.419 hitter (.386 wOBA) who walked in 16.4 percent of his plate appearances while only striking out in 12.7 percent of them. The idea that he was fast was important, but it also helped that he was good. Getting just the fast player batting leadoff is the sort of thinking that once gave Willy Taveras (career .274/.320/.327 hitter, .300 wOBA) a position as leadoff man for five horrific seasons and surely cost teams plenty of runs.

And therein lies the problem of the traditional leadoff man: the emphasis on speed is often placed above the emphasis on being good at hitting. It makes perfect sense that you would want a player who was actually good and not just fast. The leadoff man, presuming he stays in the entire game, will get the most chances at the plate. Why would a manager waste a the slot getting the largest number of opportunities on a player who was terrible at hitting, like Hernandez? The Book states that, because the leadoff gets the most opportunities, he should be one of the three best hitters in the lineup. Needless to say, Gorkys Hernandez is not one of those players.

Of course, being fast and getting on base are the focuses of the leadoff man as well, and it turns out those things are important too. The on-base aspect is especially important, particularly when it comes to walks. Because the leadoff man is guaranteed to hit at least once with the bases empty and more often in general because of the inferior hitters in front of him, the walk is at its highest value batting leadoff. Therefore, you would like to see a leadoff man be a player who draws among the highest number of walks on your team. In addition, being a good baserunner (if not necessarily basestealer) helps as well, as it assists in avoiding double plays and advancing extra bases on singles in front of your better hitters.

For the Marlins?

So we have established what we want in a leadoff hitter who is:

1) One of the three best hitters on the team

2) Walks more than most of the team

3) Is a good baserunner

4) If present, hits into the more than the average amount of double plays (the leadoff man has the fewest double play opportunities, so placing a guy who hits it on the ground for DP's more often in the leadoff spot guarantees avoiding at least one opportunity per game)

We can take each of those in order to determine who should be leading off for the Marlins against both lefties and righties. First, let us start off with who the three best hitters on the Marlins are in any given lineup. First, let's look at the players typically playing against lefties.

Rank Player Proj wOBA vs. LHP
1 Giancarlo Stanton .400
2 Justin Ruggiano .346
3 Jose Reyes .340
4 Carlos Lee .337
5 John Buck .300
6 Donnie Murphy .293
7 Donovan Solano .291
8 Gorkys Hernandez .275

Based on just this alone, we should consider Stanton, Ruggiano, or Reyes in the leadoff spot, and given the other considerations involved, Reyes is an easy choice. Batting second should be Ruggiano, and cleaning up should be Stanton. Lee would likely bat third and John Buck fifth in the lineup.

Rank Player Proj wOBA vs. RHP
1 Giancarlo Stanton .379
2 Jose Reyes .340
3 Carlos Lee .327
4 Justin Ruggiano .327
5 Bryan Petersen .316
6 Greg Dobbs .286
7 Donovan Solano .275
8 Rob Brantly ---

The projections have Stanton, Reyes, and either Lee or Ruggiano as the team's best hitters against righties. Given his superior sample size, I gave the nod to Carlos Lee. Again, given the profile of the other two hitters compared to Reyes, the easy choice for leadoff is Jose Reyes. He draws walks at a rate similar to, if not a little less than, the other two (7.8 percent projected), but he is a far superior baserunner who can take extra bases off of singles by Lee. The Book's recommendations here would be a lineup batting Reyes first, Lee second, and Stanton cleanup, with Ruggiano batting third and Bryan Petersen batting fifth to leverage a little of his basestealing.

Manager Ozzie Guillen's backwards thinking when it comes to lineup building likely has not cost the team a whole lot of runs, but it is indicative of poor thought processes that could pervade into other areas of managing. In this case, the Marlins could very easily return Reyes to his ideal spot at the top of the lineup, as he would be the best candidate for leading off against both righties and lefties.

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