In acquiring Dee Gordon from the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Miami Marlins had finally found themselves the speedy leadoff man they have wanted. After all, they have tried to find someone who could emulate Juan Pierre and Luis Castillo for years now, as the team's front office believes their speed was key to the World Series success of 2003.
The Marlins think Gordon at the top of the lineup is exactly what this team needs. I'm here to tell you that that is not the case.
Just Give Me a Chance
Think about this question. If you had to give one player on the Marlins 680 plate appearances in an ideal world, who would that be? Isolated from context, one would clearly say Giancarlo Stanton, or maybe even Christian Yelich. Yet at this point, manager Mike Redmond is essentially stating that, ideally, no one would receive more plate appearances on the Marlins than Dee Gordon.
The first thing that lineups provide are opportunities. The leadoff man gets the most opportunities to hit on a given team, so it is vital that the player who hits in that spot is good at hitting baseballs. Last year, the Marlins' leadoff hitters or players batting in the first slot had 764 total plate appearances. The players batting fifth got 684 appearances. That is a difference of 80 plate appearances over the course of a full season, if neither player was replaced or missed time. Consider that 80 plate appearances is about 13 percent of a reasonably full season for a player. That 13 percent could be make a difference if it is between a guy who cannot hit and a guy who can.
Marcell Ozuna is expected to be an above average hitter in 2015. FanGraphs projects a .258/.309/.435 batting line for the season, good for a .326 wOBA. Gordon is expected to hit .261/.312/.340 (.291 wOBA) next year by Steamer. The difference between these two players in 80 plate appearances is almost two runs. That's less than a fifth of a win.
The difference is small, but for a team in the hunt for a playoff spot but standing just outside that brink, every run counts. If the Marlins could make up two runs by moving a lineup around, which is a move that otherwise does very little collateral damage and requires no additional investment, it is reasonable for them to do so.
The Thing About Baserunning
The reason why the traditional lineup would have Gordon at the top is because of his speed. Gordon stole 65 bases last year and was worth around nine runs above average on the basepaths. The idea traditional lineup has a speedy leadoff man who can advance himself into scoring position and a guy batting second who can help him along that path, so that a big bopper at the third spot can drive that speedy runner home.
The truth is that that mythical scenario with the leadoff man getting aboard with no one out is only guaranteed to happen once, and even then, it really requires a bunch of things to happen in that first-inning situation. The lineup turns over regularly, and the "leadoff man" may only lead off an inning once in a game. The only guarantees is that the leadoff man starts the first inning and bats in front of the second and third hitters.
Now, if Dee Gordon gets on first base and has his threatening speed, he could use it to move himself to second base. Which of the following two Marlins hitters (stats from 2012 to 2014) would need Gordon's basestealing help to drive the speedster home?
Let's be a little more specific. Let's take a look at the players' percentage of hit types per ball in play.
Which one of those guys would have a harder time driving home Gordon from first base, thus making his basestealing more relevant? Both players hit a similar number of singles out of their total balls in play, but he also hits more extra-base hits and home runs. He's liable to drive Gordon in an easy trot a decent amount of the time! Meanwhile, Player 2 does not hit a lot more than singles, and he would be exactly the type of player who would benefit from having Gordon at second base instead of first base to help produce more runs.
Player 1 is Giancarlo Stanton, who will probably be batting third this upcoming season. Player 2 is Adeiny Hechavarria, who will likely be batting seventh or eighth this year. Gordon benefits Hechavarria and other power-light singles hitters more than he would benefit Stanton. In almost six percent of Stanton's career plate appearances, baserunners have reached home jogging after a home run. Why waste a potential stolen base from Gordon by letting him jog the remaining 180 feet? By batting Gordon lower in the lineup, he has more opportunities to steal in front of lesser hitters and actually give them a tangible advantage.
Now, this is not to say that speed or baserunning prowess is not invaluable at the top. Guys who get on base at the top of the lineup always face the problem of yielding double-play opportunities. You are going to need speed to get out of those. You also need speed to turn those doubles by guys like Stanton and Michael Morse into scoring opportunities from first base. This is why Christian Yelich grew to be an ideal leadoff man for the Fish; he is an efficient but not high-volume basestealer, and he is an intelligent and effective baserunner who takes extra bags and scores from first.
But if you have to choose between getting speed or on-base skill in front of someone like Stanton or Morse, who could drive guys home on their own, you can see why choosing on-base skill is more important. For effective power hitters like Stanton, baserunners are essentially in pseudo-scoring position anyway. Power makes basestealing a less efficient endeavor, and power hitters just need more baserunners on board rather than baserunners necessarily on second.
So if the Marlins are going to gain runs by shifting Gordon down the lineup, and they can get more advantage from his basestealing lower in the order, why bat him leadoff? Because of a lack of creativity and understanding about how teams score runs. The differences are not large, as we already illustrated. But if putting Gordon in a lower spot in the lineup adds even three or four runs to the team over the course of the year, that third or half of a win may be part of the difference between 88 wins and a quiet winter at home or 89 wins and a do-or-die Wild Card game.