The ten worst leadoff hitters since 1957by Steve Treder
March 04, 2008
Our buddy Brandon Isleib has done it again! He's provided me with a spreadsheet chock full o' fascinating stuff.
Using the "Batting Orders" feature on Baseball Reference, Brandon compiled every instance since 1957 (because that's as far back as the data are available) in which a team has deployed a given player at a given batting order position in its starting lineup for at least one-half of its games—in other words, which players have been "regulars" at a given spot in the order. It's great stuff: seeing what kinds of of orders teams used, which orders remained static over several-season periods, and so on.
There are any number of interesting things one might do with this treasure trove (and if you'd like a copy of the spreadsheet, just email me). But in my wickedness I've decided that what I'm going to do with it for now is identify which players were the worst regulars at each slot in the order.
We'll start with the leadoff position, and over the next few months we'll progress through the entire batting order.
The stat I'm using to rank these stinkers is OPS+. Certainly, OPS+ isn't the be-all and end-all of offensive measurement, and especially for the leadoff role its blindness to baserunning performance is problematic. But, hey: this isn't a serious "study;" it's just for fun. Plus, OPS+ is what Brandon included in his spreadsheet, and who am I to quibble with Brandon?
So, let's have some fun.
(Dis?) Honorable Mentions
The following futile leadoff men didn't quite crack the top (bottom?) ten, but they all did a really bad job of hitting, yet for some reason their managers wrote names at the top of the lineup card for at least half of the season.
Several of these were really bad hitting teams, and it might be the case they didn't have many better alternatives to hit leadoff. The more intriguing cases are the good hitting teams: think of how much better they might have hit without this dead weight at the top of the order.
The most interesting case is the 2007 Red Sox. This organization has Bill James on the payroll as a consultant, for crying out loud, and yet they persist with Julio Lugo and his .294 OBP in the leadoff slot for 82 games?
All right, on to the Terrible Ten.
Tied for ninth-worst leadoff hitter since 1957
Horace Clarke, second baseman, 1968 New York Yankees (team OPS+: 97)
Overall: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH ROE GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 137 607 52 9 26 23 0 46 0 3 7 8 20 7 .230 .258 .254 .512 When Batting Leadoff: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH ROE GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 133 586 51 9 23 20 0 45 0 3 7 8 18 7 .229 .256 .253 .509
Vince Coleman, left fielder, 1994 Kansas City Royals (team OPS+: 91)
Overall: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH ROE GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 102 477 61 28 33 29 0 72 1 4 5 2 50 8 .240 .285 .340 .625 When Batting Leadoff: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH ROE GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 93 434 55 26 26 29 0 69 0 4 2 2 46 5 .230 .274 .333 .607
His name has since become an instant punchline, a shorthand summary of the Yankees' shortcomings between their great periods of the early '60s and mid-'70s, but in truth Horace Clarke wasn't all that bad a ballplayer. He was your basic light-hitting second baseman with good speed and a decent glove; lots of teams over the years have used guys like this in the middle infield, and plenty have been worse than Clarke.
The reason Clarke became so prominent (aside from playing in The Big Apple) was that his manager, Ralph Houk, insisted not only on playing him every day through thick and thin, but in batting him in the leadoff spot, no matter what.
Houk had a long career as a manager, with three different franchises, and "The Major" was a quiet, gruff no-nonsense type who seemed to command the respect of his players. But he had a thing for using no-bat second basemen at the top of the order: before Clarke came along, Houk had made a leadoff hitter out of Bobby Richardson (whose 1961 season just missed making the Honorable Mention list above), and in Detroit Houk would insist on batting Gary Sutherland in the No. 2 slot (and we'll be seeing him next time).
Clarke in 1968 had the misfortune of timing his worst year at the plate, relative to league norms, with the league's lightest-hitting norm in about 60 years, and the result was a raw stat line that's downright scary. He produced nine, count 'em, nine extra-base hits that year, and scored 51 times from the leadoff spot in nearly 600 plate appearances. Wow.
With Coleman, on the other hand, there was at least a reason for him to bat leadoff: he was one of the very greatest base stealers of all time. His problem, of course, is that stealing bases was the only thing he did well, at all; in every other respect Coleman was a weak offensive player (note the Honorable Mention for his 1986 season), and to make matters worse he was a left fielder, delivering meager run production from a position that really can't afford that luxury.
Coleman's base stealing was valuable, no doubt. But his feeble hitting drained away that value, particularly in the season above, in which Coleman put up a .285 OBP in an environment in which the league-average OBP was .350.
Tied for seventh-worst leadoff hitter since 1957
Roger Metzger, shortstop, 1972 Houston Astros (team OPS+: 113)
Overall: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH ROE GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 153 715 84 17 38 60 1 71 1 9 10 7 23 9 .222 .288 .259 .547 When Batting Leadoff: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH ROE GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 151 707 84 17 38 60 1 71 1 9 10 7 23 9 .223 .289 .261 .550
Walt Weiss, shortstop, 1994 Colorado Rockies (team OPS+: 95)
Overall: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH ROE GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 104 486 58 16 32 56 0 58 0 4 8 6 12 7 .251 .336 .303 .639 When Batting Leadoff: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH ROE GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 74 343 47 15 25 39 0 39 0 3 6 3 9 5 .273 .356 .343 .699
The 1972 Astros were a very good-hitting team. They had a couple of guys who would have been terrific batting leadoff: they had Jim Wynn, who compiled a .389 on-base percentage, and they also had Cesar Cedeño, who had a .385 OBP and stole 55 bases to boot.
But no, manager Harry Walker decided that having Metzger soak up more than 700 plate appearances in the leadoff spot was just the ticket. Not only did Metzger have the worst slugging percentage of any Houston regular that year, he also had the worst OBP on the team—and in a lineup that includes Tommy Helms, that takes some doing.
Metzger was a tall, skinny guy who covered tremendous ground at shortstop. But he couldn't hit the ground if he fell out of an airplane. The fact that he started nearly 600 major league games batting either leadoff or second is simply amazing.
Weiss wasn't quite as slender as Metzger, but he was built along the same lines, and was in fact a quite comparable player in many regards. The 1994 Rockies were in just their second season of existence, and thus could be excused for not having a whole lot of talent on hand, but manager Don Baylor's choice of Weiss at the top of the order (he batted second when he wasn't leading off) wasn't helping.
Sixth-worst leadoff hitter since 1957
Julio Cruz, second baseman, 1980 Seattle Mariners (team OPS+: 81)
Overall: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH ROE GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 112 497 66 14 16 59 0 49 1 13 13 6 45 7 .209 .306 .258 .564 When Batting Leadoff: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH ROE GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 112 495 65 14 16 59 0 49 1 12 13 6 45 7 .209 .306 .259 .565
Cruz was a jackrabbit with a light bat, but usually he didn't hit nearly this bad. In 1979, in fact, he'd put together a pretty good season as the Mariners' leadoff man. But like the Rockies, the Mariners at this point were a young expansion team, and they featured a truly rotten offense in 1980. As bad as Cruz's OBP looks, bear in mind that Seattle's team on-base percentage that year was .308.
Thus the decision of managers Darrell Johnson and Maury Wills (who replaced Johnson in early August) to continue to bat Cruz in the leadoff spot is defensible. His performance was a problem, for sure, but this was a team with almost nothing but problems, and they didn't have any obvious better alternatives for the top of the order than Cruz.
Fifth-worst leadoff hitter since 1957
Don Kessinger, shortstop, 1967 Chicago Cubs (team OPS+: 102)
Overall: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH ROE GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 136 628 61 17 42 33 1 80 4 7 16 3 6 13 .231 .275 .272 .547 When Batting Leadoff: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH ROE GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 135 621 60 17 41 33 1 80 4 7 15 3 5 13 .230 .275 .272 .547
Leo Durocher's effect on the sudden improvement of the Cubs in 1967 was widely hailed at the time. It wouldn't be until a couple of years later—beginning precisely in September of 1969, in fact—that any doubters regarding Durocher's managerial brilliance in Chicago began to emerge.
Teasing out the impact of the field manager on team performance is an extremely challenging task, of course. With that caveat, my opinion is that Durocher wasn't as brilliant as he looked before late 1969, nor as problematic as he subsequently appeared; being the attention-hog that he was, Durocher tended to overshadow everything around him, both positive and negative. Nevertheless I think Durocher's decision-making in sorting out the talent on hand in 1966-67 was generally quite good.
But certainly not everything he did was smart, and perhaps nothing Durocher did was less smart than to install Don Kessinger as his leadoff hitter in 1967, and then to resolutely stick with that decision through the rest of his Chicago tenure. Kessinger wasn't quite as weak a hitter as Roger Metzger, but he was close; all in all Kessinger and Metzger were almost the same ballplayer. Neither had any business at the top of the order.
With the '67 Cubs, Durocher's decision was especially bad, given that the regular lineup included a guy far better-suited to batting leadoff than Kessinger: center fielder Adolfo Phillips, who had pretty good on-base ability and excellent speed. In 1966 Durocher had gone with Phillips in the leadoff spot and Kessinger batting eighth, which made perfect sense. But the next year he switched them around, and stayed with that bass-ackwards arrangement through 1968.
In his playing days, Durocher had been a slick-fielding, banjo-hitting shortstop, extremely similar to Kessinger (and to Metzger, and to Weiss). Understandably, Durocher saw something of himself in Kessinger, and he was quite patient and encouraging with him. But Durocher and Phillips didn't get along at all, and one wonders to what extent this batting order strangeness was a manifestation of the degree to which Durocher just didn't perceive either player with objective clarity.
Fourth-worst leadoff hitter since 1957
Alfredo Griffin, shortstop, 1981 Toronto Blue Jays (team OPS+: 74)
Overall: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH ROE GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 98 414 30 25 21 17 1 38 1 6 4 6 8 12 .209 .243 .289 .532 When Batting Leadoff: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH ROE GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 75 327 23 19 19 13 0 30 1 5 3 6 5 9 .203 .236 .284 .520
The 1988 Bill James Baseball Abstract contained one of that series' most intriguing articles, entitled "SQ, IQ." In it James pondered the issue of how the "intelligence" of ballplayers might be expressed in their play, considering five criteria:
1) The tendency to not make errors
2) Command of the strike zone
3) Effective baserunning relative to speed
James was the first to admit that the process was quite unscientific, but his nomination as the least baseball-smart player of the 1980s era was none other than Alfredo Griffin.
Indeed, Griffin through his career was most assuredly error-prone, hacktastic, a terrible percentage base-stealer, amazingly inconsistent, and unable to build upon an established level of performance.
This is what James had to say about Griffin's 1981 season, in the 1982 Abstract:
Made 31 errors, the most of any major league player. He stole 8 bases in 20 attempts in 1981, giving him a career total of 49 steals in 103 attempts. It is ... a bit of a mystery why he has played so badly, but I think of him [along with another player] who could play well if there was something in front of them worth playing for, but who sort of lose interest, understandably, in their present positions. It would probably be a good opportunity to investigate the motivational value of sitting on the bench and watching a player who is half as good as you are play for a month or so.
One must wonder, given his entire body of work: was Alfredo just pulling our leg the whole time?
And if so, was Blue Jays' manager Bobby Mattick in on the joke? And for that matter, was the entire Toronto organization, putting together a ball club featuring an aggregate OPS+ of 74?
Tied for second-worst leadoff hitter since 1957
Ducky Schofield, shortstop, 1965 San Francisco Giants (team OPS+: 101)
Overall: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH ROE GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 90 421 39 13 19 33 0 50 3 5 8 7 2 4 .203 .272 .251 .523 When Batting Leadoff: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH ROE GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 88 404 38 13 18 32 0 50 2 5 8 7 2 4 .203 .271 .253 .524
Brian Hunter, left fielder, 1999 Seattle Mariners (team OPS+: 101)
Overall: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH ROE GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 114 527 71 20 34 32 0 80 1 3 14 8 44 5 .231 .277 .300 .577 When Batting Leadoff: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH ROE GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 102 467 67 19 33 28 0 69 1 3 12 6 38 4 .238 .282 .313 .595
The results the 1965 Giants got from Schofield as their primary leadoff man were obviously ghastly, but—bizarre as this may sound—the decision of manager Herman Franks to deploy Schofield in that role wasn't entirely insane.
For one thing, for the preceding couple of years playing for the Pirates, Schofield hadn't been all that bad a hitter, and the one element of his offensive game that was slightly better than league average was his ability to get on base. It was only upon arriving with the Giants in a trade in late May of 1965 that Schofield forgot how to hit (more precisely, it was in mid-June of '65 that Schofield's bat went south; in his first three weeks with San Francisco Schofield batted .313, with a .410 OBP in 78 plate appearances—I'll leave you to do the math as to how rotten he was the rest of the way).
For another thing, Franks didn't have a whole lot of appealing alternatives. The Giants in that period were astounding in their capacity to present a shining core of terrific sluggers, and a pitiful rabble of offensive stiffs surrounding them. These are the other guys Franks tried in the leadoff spot that year:
- 21 games: Matty Alou (.274 OBP, 59 OPS+)
- 20 games: Jim Davenport (.304 OBP, 86 OPS+)
- 11 games: Tito Fuentes (.269 OBP, 38 OPS+)
- 11 games: Harvey Kuenn (.352 OBP, 68 OPS+, traded away shortly after Schofield arrived)
- 4 games: Jose Pagan (.272 OBP, 47 OPS+, the guy who was traded to get Schofield)
- 4 games: Jesus Alou (.317 OBP, 97 OPS+)
- 3 games: Hal Lanier (.256 OBP, 51 OPS+)
Clearly Franks would have been far better off just forgetting about the whole "setting the table" business, and starting off with Mays-Willie McCovey-Jim Ray Hart. But, of course, that sort of thing just isn't done.
And then there's the sad case of Brian Hunter, a Vince Coleman wannabee. At least in Hunter's career up to this point he'd played center field while hitting weakly and running wildly (we see his 1998 performance above on the Honorable Mentions list). But when the Mariners traded for him in late April of 1999, they already had some guy named Griffey handling center, so Hunter was handed the left field job (as well as the leadoff spot), and he proceeded to stink it up something fierce.
Manager Lou Piniella's blunder was two-fold, given not only that just about any freely-available replacement-level corner outfielder could have been plugged into left field and hit circles around Hunter, but also that anyone else in the Seattle lineup would have been a more effective leadoff hitter than Hunter, his stolen bases notwithstanding: not only Hunter's OPS+, but his OBP as well were by far the worst of any Mariner who accrued more than 50 plate appearances in 1999.
Moreover, Seattle committed a third blunder with their choice of Hunter. Those 1999 Mariners blasted 244 home runs, the sixth-highest total in history, rendering Hunter's lone asset—his splendid capacity to get himself from first base to second on those rare occasions he got himself to first— highly irrelevant.
Worst leadoff hitter since 1957
Ivan DeJesus, shortstop, 1981 Chicago Cubs (team OPS+: 86)
Overall: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH ROE GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 106 460 49 12 13 46 2 61 0 10 5 2 21 9 .194 .276 .233 .509 When Batting Leadoff: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH ROE GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 59 265 27 5 5 31 1 35 0 8 3 0 18 4 .173 .272 .204 .476
In the Bill James quote above wondering how Alfredo Griffin could possibly play that badly, the other player he was considering along with Griffin was this guy.
Here's what else James had to say about DeJesus in that year's Abstract:
Mysterious year. He's a good fielder, but he's not Mark Belanger, and anyway the reason the Orioles could win with Belanger is that Weaver knew enough to bat him eighth or ninth most of the time and pinch-hit for him at will. DeJesus is not a major league player if he hits .194.
The common question regarding both Griffin and DeJesus isn't why they were given starting jobs, and the leadoff role, in the first place; both had shown the ability to perform adequately. The question is why their managers (in this case, Joey Amalfitano) persisted in leaving them in the starting lineup, and moreover in the leadoff role, for an entire season (albeit a strike-shortened season) in which their performance was so far beneath adequacy as to be comical. Perhaps the only answer is to be found by considering the length and record of success of the major league managerial careers of both Mattick and Amalfitano.
Of course, the most truly bizarre aspect of this amazingly wretched DeJesus season (from this point on James took to calling him "Ivan the Terrible") was that Phillies' GM Paul Owens decided that the time was right not just to trade for this guy, but to trade Larry Bowa and, yes, Ryne Sandberg as well to get him.
Many things, indeed most things in the realm of baseball, and in our world at large, may be rendered comprehensible to our powers of understanding. Some, alas, resolutely defy any such explanation.
We'll examine the ten worst second-slot hitters since 1957.
References and Resources
Bill James, The Bill James Baseball Abstract 1988, New York: Ballantine, 1988, pp. 165-166.
Bill James, The Bill James Baseball Abstract 1982, New York: Ballantine, 1982, p. 147.
Steve Treder can often be found spending way too much time talking baseball at Baseball Primer. He welcomes your questions and comments via e-mail.