The leadoff dropoff

Earlier this winter, The Hardball Times offered prospective fantasy baseball writers the opportunity to compete in a Hardball Times fantasy league. Entrants wrote fantasy baseball articles, the best of which would be chosen as our winner. While we could only choose one winner to play in the league (congratulations, Dave Chenok), we had so many great articles that we have decided to publish some of the best. This is one of those submissions.

Thinking of drafting Elvis Andrus next year? What about Denard Span or Austin Jackson? Hitting leadoff, particularly in the American League, may not be as valuable as you think.

In 2009, AL leadoff hitters averaged over 70 RBIs. In 2010, they averaged just over 54. Some fluctuation is expected, but a league-wide drop of over 16 RBIs is unprecedented. 54 RBIs is by far the lowest average in AL in the last ten years.

* Data reflects RBIs for whoever hit leadoff each game. For example, if Ichiro Suzuki played one game hitting in the number two position and got an RBI that game, that RBI would not be included in the data because he was not batting in the leadoff spot.

So what happened? Let’s take a look at some possible explanations.

1. “Year of the pitcher”
Given that run scoring declined from 2009 to 2010, we would naturally expect a decline in RBI totals. From 2009 to 2010, the average AL team had eight percent fewer total RBIs (decrease from 746 to 686). During the same period, the average number of RBI from AL leadoff hitters plummeted 23 percent (from 70 to 54).

The “year of the pitcher” may account for some of the missing RBIs, but there is obviously more going on here.

2. Eight/Nine hitters got on base less
I’m going to make a bold statement and say that it’s easier to knock runs home when batting when the hitters in front of you reach base. Let’s examine the OBP of the eighth and ninth place hitters in the AL over the last 10 years.

From 2009 to 2010, OBP dropped across the board. AL No. 8 hitters dropped from .317 to .305 (-.012); AL No. 9 hitters dropped from .305 to .295 (-.010). However, we also observe that overall AL OBP dropped from .335 to .327 (- .008)

Given that the average AL hitter saw his OBP decline by .008, we see that AL eight and nine hitters posted an OBP only slightly lower than expected. This may account for some of the drop-off in leadoff hitter RBIs, but only a small portion at best.

3. Injuries
2010 saw significant injuries to some big name AL leadoff hitters, such as Brian Roberts and Jacoby Ellsbury. We could even throw Grady Sizemore in the mix, although none of his 128 ABs in 2010 was from the leadoff spot.

Let’s account for these injuries by estimating the RBI production of these players had they stayed healthy.

In 2010 Baltimore leadoff hitters combined for 46 RBIs. Meanwhile, Roberts has averaged about 64 RBIs over the last 3 years. Had Roberts been healthy, we can estimate he would have had 64 RBIs. Let’s add the difference (18 RBIs) to the data. In his best year (2009), Ellsbury connected for 60 RBIs in 154 games (on pace for 63). Meanwhile, Boston leadoff men knocked home 57 in 2010. Let’s add 6 RBIs to the data While we’re at it, let’s throw Grady a bone and double Cleveland’s 2010 leadoff man RBI total from 42 to 84.

What happens when we add an extra 66 RBIs (18 + 6 + 42) to the data? The average AL leadoff man RBI number increases from 54 to 59, which is still easily the lowest total in the last 10+ years.

4. Evolution of the game
So far we have seen that a variety of factors contribute slightly to the leadoff RBI drop-off. However, the most significant factor may actually be the evolution of the game. It is no secret that homerun totals are down. Managers are emphasizing speed and athleticism more, especially from the leadoff spot.

These days, we see players like Denard Span, Elvis Andrus, Ellsbury and Jackson occupying the leadoff role. Leadoff men who hit 20+ HR and 75+ RBI are becoming rare. Not long ago we had guys like Ian Kinsler and Sizemore hitting leadoff, but managers are reconstructing lineups to get these bats in the meat of the order. The NL still boasts guys like Brandon Phillips and Rickie Weeks, but would any of us be shocked to see them hit lower in the order in 2011?

So what does this mean for your fantasy team?

Leadoff batters are providing less value. Scoring 100+ runs is great, but when a player contributes just five HR and 55 RBI, he better be swiping bags left and right to make up the value. Furthermore, I was surprised to learn that of the 17 players who scored 100+ runs last season, only three were everyday leadoff hitters: Weeks, Derek Jeter, and Jackson. You don’t need leadoff hitters to be competitive in the runs scored category.

Speed has become more available. Every year there are players un-drafted in most fantasy leagues who post great SB and respectable supporting stats. The 2010 crop was no exception (Jose Tabata, Coco Crisp, Angel Pagan, Cliff Pennington, and Will Venable, to name a few). Given the growing emphasis Major League managers are placing on having speed and athleticism in the lineup, we are likely to see more of the same in 2011. You don’t need leadoff hitters to be competitive in the stolen bases category.

Leadoff hitters will certainly offer some value in 2011, but think twice before dropping $10 or a 10th round pick to grab Span or Jackson.

*All data courtesy of ESPN.com and MLB.com.

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