Prototypical leadoff hitters become dying breed
The leadoff spot isn't what it used to be, or even what it was originally intended to be. For proof, you don't have to look too far.
Just think back to the 2011 postseason.
At the top of their lineups, the Brewers had Corey Hart and the Rangers had Ian Kinsler (two power hitters); the Yankees had Derek Jeter, the Phillies had Jimmy Rollins and the Cardinals had Rafael Furcal (three aging shortstops); the D-backs had Willie Bloomquist and the Tigers had Austin Jackson (two guys with .317 on-base percentages in 2011); and the Rays had Desmond Jennings (a rookie).
So, to put it another way, none of the eight teams that reached the playoffs needed a prototypical table-setter to get there.
Trend? Anomaly? It's hard to tell. But it does seem like the traditional leadoff hitter -- who specializes in working the count, drawing walks, making contact and almost entirely using his speed -- is a dying breed in today's game.
In 2012, young Angels center fielder Peter Bourjos is hoping to become a part of that endangered species, but first he'll have to improve his strikeout total -- one that ranked 15th in the American League this past season.
He, too, notices there are fewer and fewer players who can lead off these days.
And Bourjos has an interesting theory as to why that may be the case.
"I think from a young age, all these kids are saying they want to hit for power," Bourjos said. "I don't think too many guys are sitting there in Little League or in high school saying, 'I want to be a leadoff guy.'"
In a sense, it has always been like that. As Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine once put it: "Chicks dig the long ball." As Ralph Kiner was deemed to have said long ago: "Home run hitters drive Cadillacs, and singles hitters drive Fords."
But in this day and age -- with baseball distancing itself from the steroid era, when guys like Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds made previous home run records laughable -- the desire to hit balls over fences seems to be even greater for developing ballplayers.
I, for one, preferred the fast leadoff hitter over the mighty home-run hitter growing up. I was drawn to the Willie Mays Hayes character in "Major League," loved watching the weak-hitting Chuck Carr play and bought all of Kenny Lofton's shoes.
But I was the minority.
"There are guys out there that relish [consistently getting on base], but there are those that don't," said Brett Butler, a former All-Star, longtime leadoff hitter and current Triple-A manager in the D-backs system.
"They don't try to walk, they're not looking to lay down a bunt. They're not looking to do that because, let's face it, the game today has changed in regard to putting up numbers, that the home runs and RBIs are going to get you more value. And the fact of the matter is a lot of them look at it that way. But you still have those that understand what the importance of a leadoff guy is all about and in fact knows, 'If I get on base, that's going to help our club win.' And they're selfless players that do that."
Ichiro Suzuki and Juan Pierre are two good examples, but Pierre is 34 and Ichiro is 38, and neither is as productive as he once was.
In fact, the list of players who finished 2011 with at least a .350 on-base percentage and 30 steals is quite short: Jose Reyes (formerly of the Mets), Emilio Bonifacio (Marlins), Matt Kemp (Dodgers), Jacoby Ellsbury (Red Sox), Ryan Braun (Brewers) and Kinsler.
Of that group, only four -- Reyes, Bonifacio, Ellsbury and Kinsler -- did most of the leading off for their respective teams.
But Angels manager Mike Scioscia doesn't believe the production from the leadoff spot is diminishing. Instead, he looks at guys like Ellsbury, Kinsler, Hart and Andrew McCutchen -- those who bring power to the first spot of the order, a la Bobby Bonds in the 1970s -- and actually sees it getting better.
"I think you're seeing more dynamic players," Scioscia said. "So if anything, it's improving, because they're bringing the on-base [percentage] that a prototypical leadoff hitter takes, but they're combining it with the ability to drive the ball out of the park. And that's a unique combination."
Whatever your perspective, it's hard to deny that it's different -- on-base percentage and walks are down, strikeouts are up.
The on-base percentage from leadoff hitters went from .347 in the 1990s, to .341 from 2000-09, to .329 the last two seasons. In those same time frames, plate appearances per strikeout went from 7.47 to 7.13 to 6.30; and plate appearances per walk went from 10.63 to 12.13 to 12.75, respectively.
As Butler will tell you, it's all about developing a mindset with young players -- a task that's seemingly harder today.
"I don't think there's a whole lot of difference between the way it was then and the way it is now," Butler said. "I just think today, it's more of a lack of education for these players to have the ability to do that."
But the game has a tendency to change from era to era, and history has always had a tendency to repeat itself.
Maybe someday, the speedy, slap-hitting leadoff man will rule the land once again -- and perhaps Bourjos will no longer be part of an endangered species.
"I think it'll eventually get back to that, just because they've cleaned out the game with steroids," Bourjos said. "I think you're starting to get rid of the steroids aspect, so the speed is going to come back. I think you're going to see more of the prototypical leadoff guys come back into the game. But it might not be for a little bit."
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.