The Lack of a Leadoff Hitter is a Created Problem

The Post-Gazette notebook today has a question as to why Aki Iwamura, current owner of a .169 average and a .275 OBP, is still leading off.  John Russell responded with this quote:

“If he’s going to get out of this, you’d like to get him up there as much as you can,” Russell said. “We have put different guys in the leadoff spot, and Andrew McCutchen can do it, but he’s doing well in the No. 3 spot. We don’t have that typical leadoff guy. When Aki’s doing good things, he fits that role pretty well because he works the count, and he’s starting to swing better now.”

I’ve bolded the part that stood out to me.  The Pirates do have that typical leadoff guy.  His name is Andrew McCutchen.

Last year McCutchen was the leadoff hitter in every game he played.  He responded with a .286/.365/.471 line, and 12 homers in 433 at-bats.  He hit for a .289/.361/.546 line in the first at-bat of the game in 2009.  To put that on-base percentage in perspective, in your typical three game series, McCutchen is guaranteed to lead off at least one game by getting on base.

The Pirates started the year batting McCutchen second, with Iwamura leading off.  For the first week it wasn’t a problem.  Iwamura was taking a ton of pitches, drawing a lot of walks, and even hitting for average.  On April 16th, after 10 games, Iwamura had a .275/.370/.475 line.  Since that time he’s had a .124/.231/.162 line.  Putting that on-base percentage in to perspective, three Pirates pitchers are getting on-base at a higher percentage (Ross Ohlendorf, Jeff Karstens, and Jack Taschner, although granted none of them have a big sample size of plate appearances).

Suddenly McCutchen is batting third, mostly due to the hot streak Andy LaRoche was on up until the last two weeks, in which LaRoche has slumped with a .143/.192/.204 line (prior to the slump, starting on May 8th, LaRoche was hitting for a .325/.407/.463 line).  Russell is also right, McCutchen is doing great batting third.  He’s currently hitting for a .357/.411/.561 line in the number three position.  But that’s no surprise.  McCutchen is the best player on the team.  He’s going to hit no matter where you put him.  He could have success as the number five hitter, but that doesn’t justify him hitting there.

I understand the logic behind having McCutchen batting third.  You want your best hitter getting as many RBI opportunities as possible.  The problem the Pirates have is that there are very few RBI opportunities to be had.

McCutchen has tallied up 108 plate appearances in the number three hole this year.  He has only seen 24 plate appearances with a runner in scoring position.  That’s 22% of the time.  Albert Pujols, for example, has seen a runner in scoring position in 57% of his plate appearances this year as the Cardinals number three hitter.  That says nothing of the talent of either player.  It has to do with the players batting in the first two spots (and is a big reason why I feel citing RBIs is a horrible method of evaluating a hitter).

The Pirates have basically taken Andrew McCutchen from being a leadoff hitter with no outs, to being a leadoff hitter with two outs.  With the prolonged slump of Aki Iwamura, and the recent slump of Andy LaRoche, the whole theory of “bat McCutchen third to get more RBI opportunities” just doesn’t cut it.  If you’ve got a good leadoff hitter, the plan might work.  Without a good leadoff hitter, there’s no point to batting McCutchen third, especially when he can be that leadoff hitter the team so desperately needs.

This isn’t new with the Pirates.  We’ve seen this type of scenario play out far too often.  McCutchen should be the leadoff hitter, but the Pirates don’t have a number three hitter, so McCutchen is put in there.  Solving one problem by creating another isn’t how this should be done.  It’s one thing taking a number six hitter like Ryan Doumit and turning him in to a number four hitter because you don’t have a true clean-up guy.  The number six spot isn’t important.  It’s totally different when you give up your number one hitter just to fill the number three spot in the lineup, and totally pointless since there’s no point in having a good number three hitter with no one on base in front of him.

McCutchen is currently getting on base just over 40% of the time from the number three position, and most of the time he’s doing that with no one on base in front of him.  Even during the time period that LaRoche and Iwamura have both been slumping (starting May 8th), McCutchen is batting for a .323/.408/.452 line.  The Pirates definitely have that typical leadoff guy.  He’s just batting third, where he’s doing everything that is asked of a leadoff man, only most of the time he’s doing it with two outs.

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Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

Pittsburgh Pirates Prospect Watch 5/26/10

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