The typical leadoff hitter can usually run. He has a high on base percentage, good average and takes his walks. The leadoff hitter can handle the bat by bunting, good hit and run guy and doesn’t strike out a lot. He can create havoc on the bases when necessary.
That’s the traditional approach taken to lead-off hitting. Although he is only guaranteed to lead-off an inning once, he typically will come up less often than most positions with runners on base. So his job has been seen less about driving runners in, than getting on base, in order to be driven in himself, by those in the #2 through #4 spots. However, it’s a philosophy which has been changing in recent years. Leadoff hitters will simply get more plate appearances over the course of a season: in 2022, the #1 spot came up 736 times for Arizona, a whopping 145 times more than the #9 spot. So, there’s an argument that you want a better hitter there, simply to take advantage of those additional opportunities.
For example, last season, the Astros used Jose Altuve as their regular lead-off hitter, even though he his 28 home-runs, and his .921 OPS was second on the team behind Yordan Alvarez. Although, 18 stolen bases and a .390 on-base percentage for Altuve, also fit the prototype of the more traditional lead-off man. So there is no fixed concept here, and it’s an interesting topic for discussion: what elements make up an ideal lead-off hitter, and how do you weight these components? I’m interested to hear people’s thought in the comments, since there seems to be no “right” answer. However, we’re here to look at the historical record, at least initially.
Certainly, Torey Lovullo has historically liked to mix and match things up there. During his seasons with Arizona, no man has reached even 81 starts a season batting leadoff. The last to do so was Jean Segura in 2016. The 2022 D-backs used 11 different players there, with Daulton Varsho’s 62 games leading the way. A lot of those need to be replaced: between Varsho, Cooper Hummel (16 games), Jordan Luplow (11) and Stone Garrett (6), that’s 95 leadoff games by players who won’t be on the 2023 roster. Of those remaining, Josh Rojas (45) saw most action, though I suspect we may see Corbin Carroll seeing a good deal of action there, perhaps more so after the first month, so he gets to establish himself properly.
But let’s get back to the past. Amusingly, our “greatest” lead-off hitter is Mark Grace, who doubled in his only PA at the position here. It came off John Smoltz, driving in the tying run in the bottom of the ninth, in a May 2003 contest. Grace had come in as part of a slew of changes in the top of the inning, which also led to Robby Hammock playing third-base. I’m going to draw an entirely arbitrary cut-off line at 100 plate-appearances, and see what we get. There are limitations. Sadly, Baseball Reference doesn’t have sOPS+ or tOPS+ for this split, which would compare a player’s production to the player’s or MLB’s OPS+ respectively, That’d let us see who “over-performs” at the top of the order. So this is straight OPS.
Top OPS for D-backs leadoff hitters
I was surprised to see Ketel Marte at the top of this table. Over his time here, he has most often hit #2 (1,148 PA, more than twice as many as anywhere else). But his 59 starts leading off seem to have gone swimmingly well. A .945 OPS in the #1 spot, is 14.4% batter than the .826 OPS he has produced for Arizona as a whole. He not only leads the list of qualifying players by OPS, he wins the sabermetric triple crown, being top for batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. I can’t speak to whether or not he takes more pitches - another generally accepted trait of a lead-off man - as that data isn’t available. But the only negative would appear to be Marte being static on the base-paths, with just 4 SB.
If you want someone with a little more pep, Segura might be your man, stealing 33 bases in 43 attempts. to go along with his second-ranked OBP of .369. It certainly makes sense why Torey stuck with him in that position, to a degree not even approached since. Segura did certainly benefit from a BABIP of .353 there. A factor there were his 33 infield hits, easlly most on the team that year (the second-most being 18), and indeed, trailing only the Phillies’ César Hernández (36) in the majors that year. Though Segura only had two actual bunt hits for the season, and his sprint speed that season was merely decent, rather than spectacular: he ranked 7th out of 17 on the D-backs.
Perhaps as interesting as those listed above, are the names not present, including the number one and two in terms of lead-off plate-appearances: Tony Womack and Craig Counsell, who had 2,312 and 1,751 PA there respectively. Womack certainly fits the “active on the base-paths” part of the criteria. His 163 SB there are a hundred and ten more than anyone else, and more than numbers #2-5 combined. The problem is, as the old adage goes, you can’t steal first-base. Womack’s on-base percentage was just .317, ranking him 23rd of the 32 qualifying Diamondbacks hitters. And he played in a more OBP-friendly time. In 2000, for example, the NL average was .342, compared to a mere .314 last season.
Counsell did better there, his .352 ranking 9th in franchise history (and if you’re NOT thinking of his unique batting stance, you’re a better man than I!). But a stolen-base success rate of 65.8% is problematic; likely more a negative than a boon,. 3rd and 4th in terms of time at lead-off are Chris Young and Steven Drew, who combined for over 2,000 PA there between 2006 and 2012. They had the pop, ranking first and second for home-runs out of the #1 spot, with 43 and 27 respectively. Young had the wheels, with 42 SB in 52 attempts. However, like Womack, he didn’t get on base enough, with a similarly below-average OBP for the time of .314.
I don’t think there’s really a “right” answer here, but have a poll anyway. Other topics dor discussion include, what makes a good lead-off hitter, and who you think should play there for the team in the upcoming season.
Who was the best D-backs leadoff hitter?
Someone else (answer in comments)