Written by Adam Corsair (@ACorsair21)
With the probable absence of Devon Travis for the start of the season (or... maybe not?), the Blue Jays find themselves without not only their starting second baseman, but their lead-off hitter as well. This, obviously, leaves a pretty essential hole for the Jays in terms of how they will set up the batting order. Ideally, the job of the lead-off hitter is to get on base while also possessing speed to steal bags and/or to subsequently score runs from the hitters that possess more power that immediately follow in the order (yes, we know). Given that there's 6 out of the 9 hitters that have everyday jobs for the team (as of this writing), the Jays options are fairly limited. Specifically, the Jays can choose one of Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki, Russell Martin, Kevin Pillar, Kendrys Morales, or José Bautista to man the lead-off position, as Justin Smoak, Steve Pearce, Melvin Upton Jr., Ryan Goins, Darwin Barney, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and Ezequiel Carerra are either platooning or are acting as bench players. Not to mention the latter set of players don't really possess much speed, save for Carerra and maybe Barney. But again, both will likely be in a situation where they don't play everyday. Therefore, a more solid and reliable hitter should be considered from the former set of players to lead-off. When looking at this set, only three players jump out at me to even be considered for a potential lead-off spot: Donaldson, Pillar, and Bautista. Even then, it's not entirely pretty.
Thus, I will break down which of these players would be best for the Jays to consider as their lead-off hitter. I'm sure just by looking at this short list, it should be fairly obvious to conclude who I find to be best suited for the spot. But for the sake of content (I do it for you guys!), getting deep in the minutia is beneficial. Real quick, any reference to a player's stats come from fangraphs.com.
Here we go.
Kevin Pillar - Pillar was named the lead-off hitter in the beginning of last year's season, and it was a short-lived experiment. Encouraged on the airwaves by Buck Martinez, Pillar seemed to be the best option to lead-off for the Jays since they were facing a similar issue with Devon Travis and his availability to start the season. I wouldn't call this suggestion that irrational, based on his 2015 numbers which showed potential for him to be at least serviceable until Travis could get healthy. To boot, in 2015 Pillar played 159 games, with 628 plate appearances, 163 hits, a line of .267/.314/.399, with and OPS of .713, and leading the team in steals with 25 bags. His strikeout rate was above average as well, sitting at 13.5%. The one huge bruise for Pillar was his walk rate. Again, the main job of a team's lead-off hitter is to get on base, whether by hitting the ball or walking. Just get on base. In 2015, Pillar only walked a mere 28 times, giving him a walk rate of 4.45%, which is... really bad. But given that the meat of the order would follow (Donaldson, Bautista, and Encarnacion), and tacking on another year of experience, the hope was that the walk rate would climb, while the strikeout rate would, at worst, stay about the same. Only problem was, during that time Pillar never led-off, with the three spot being the highest he batted in late September of 2015. You can see why this experiment would be short-lived.
Diving right into 2016, Pillar only saw 21 games at the lead-off spot, which (I think) says more about the lack of production he had than an adjustment to the spot. In just 21 games, Pillar had 92 plate appearances, with a line of .198/.231/.198, an OPS of .429, a strikeout rate of 15.2%, a walk rate of 1.09%, 3 stolen bases, and 6 runs. Granted, these lead-off appearances weren't 100% consecutive, as the plug was pulled after just 12 games. Yet, the Jays did give it another go in early-May, but this time it only lasted 9 games, at which point it was shelved completely. So, based on these numbers, I don't really see a need to revisit this.
Pillar's position in the batting order has been best served at the seven or eight spot, where most of his production has been realized. Last season, he appeared at either spot in the lineup a total of 83 games, and the numbers were a bit more encouraging. With 398 at bats, and 331 plate appearances, Pillar had a line of .216/.253/.294, with an OPS of .547, a strikeout rate of 14.2%, a walk rate of 5.4%, 7 stolen bags, and 33 runs. Of course you'd want that walk rate to climb much higher, but it's hard to argue that, based on the numbers alone, he's better suited late in the order than at the top of it. Now, again, I get that the sample size for him at the lead-off spot is considerably small, but bearing in mind the importance of the spot in the batting order, it's completely understandable for Gibby to give Pillar a short leash, as he did. I'm all about the "if it ain't broke!" approach, and while Pillar isn't stellar at the seven or eight spot in the lineup, he's certainly not awful either. Thus, it's safer to keep him where he is.
I also don't want to discount the notion that Pillar has been leading-off a good chunk of games in Spring Training this year, and has been hitting quite well, too. However, and call me crazy, I don't really put that much stock in Spring Training production and find it hasty to say the Jays have an adequate lead-off hitter in Pillar based on his numbers this spring, alone. Now, I will concede that, despite his numbers being much more favorable at the end of the order, if his approach at the lead-off spot has improved to Gibby's satisfaction, then I won't argue if Pillar is sort of a "place holder" at the lead-off spot until Travis returns. I mean, who doesn't like a little bit of tension/anxiety/excitement.... right? Ugh...
Anyway, moving on.
Josh Donaldson - I'm really only including him because out of that original set of players, he's one of the three best options; albeit the worst of the three. That's a poor choice of words. I say "worst" as, not a reflection of his ability (c'mon now), but more of a reflection of where he's most valued in the batting order. Having Donaldson bat lead-off would leave an even bigger hole at the number two or three spots in the lineup, which is a bit harder to mitigate (it's still a bit unclear which of those two spots he'll be taking). But, for argument's sake...
Donaldson has only been seen in the lead-off spot of the batting order in 7 games throughout his tenure as a Jay. This wasn't a result of throwing shit against the wall, but rather - like Travis - the more natural lead-off hitter at the time, José Reyes, was dealing with a hamstring injury, leading to a visit to the DL. During that extremely small sample size to which I can't believe I'm even breaking it down, Donaldson had 32 plate appearances, a line of .276/.313/.586, with an OPS of .899, a strikeout rate of 31.3%, a walk rate of 6.25%, scoring 6 runs, with two bombs. The slugging percentage alone should indicate why it'd be a very bad idea to have Donaldson bat lead-off. Again, yes the sample size is ridiculously low, but I'm willing to bet this is because Gibbons realizes how bad of an idea this would be and did this mostly out of necessity.
The vast majority of Donaldson's MVP-calibre production for the Jays in 2015 occurred at the two spot in the lineup. In 2015 at the two spot, exclusively, Donaldson had 537 at bats, with a line of .304/.382/.588, an OPS of .970, 163 hits, a strikeout rate of 17.6%, a walk rate of 12.5%, scoring 108 runs, 113 RBI's, and 38 bombs. Again, the reason I emphasize 2015 so much for Donaldson is because it is the only time he had appeared in the lead-off spot, not only for the Jays, but for the first time in his major league career. I could get into his production at the two spot for 2016, but I don't think it's really necessary as (hopefully) our recent memories aren't that cloudy.
Basically, no. Do NOT screw with Donaldson and where he is in the batting order. Leave him be, folks.
José Bautista - Which brings me to Joey Bats. Out of the three options I've given, Bautista has the most experience batting at the lead-off spot with 185 plate appearances in 2016, along with some visits previously in his major league career with the Royals, Pirates, and his early years with the Jays. This, of course, was before he came into his own and had his breakout season in 2010, but still - experience is experience. While we're on the topic of 2010 - prior to this past season, Bautista hadn't led-off since that breakout year. Given the six year gap, perhaps it's best to focus on his production as a lead-off hitter from last season than it would be to compile his career numbers at the spot. Thus, in 2016 at the lead-off spot, his line was .239/.341/.459, with an OPS of .800, a strikeout rate of about 21%, a walk rate of about 14%, scoring 29 runs, and hitting 9 dingers. Sure, in a perfect world, you'd like that strikeout rate to be a little bit lower. Yet, it's not anything to cringe over, as it stands about average. Even with that, the overall picture is pretty good!
Now, much like Donaldson, the lead-off spot isn't where Bautista thrives, as he is best served at the three spot in the lineup. However, given how the Jays options are fairly limited, Bautista seems to make the most sense for the job. This, of course, is assuming that he'd be the everyday lead-off hitter during Travis' absence; which I don't think will be the case. Although I consider Bautista to be an everyday player (he is), it does not necessitate that he'd be the everyday lead-off hitter while Travis recovers. When we consider that other set of players I listed way earlier - especially those that will be platooning - it opens up a whole new set of options that could best serve the Jays. For instance, if Ezequiel Carrera were to edge the gap over Melvin Upton Jr. and see a large amount of time in left field, it's not too crazy to consider that he'd be a better option to lead-off than Bautista. The caveat, of course, is if he wins the left field job and if Upton is relegated to more of a bench role. Such situations are still up in the air and we're still left speculating. Right now, we're led to believe that the left field duties will be split between Upton and Carrera, with the narrative being Upton has the slight edge (at least, that's how I read it). So perhaps a way to mitigate this would be to have Carrera lead-off during the games which he is playing, while having Bautista lead-off during the games Carrera is not. It definitely isn't the ideal situation, and it will (hopefully) be something we can put behind us once Travis returns.
Speaking of which, this entire analysis may have been all for nothing, as Sportsnet's Arden Zwelling tweeted this good news -
Change of plans! Donaldson will play tomorrow in Clearwater in the same minor league game as Devon Travis. Neither will run the bases.— Arden Zwelling (@ArdenZwelling) March 13, 2017
This, obviously, changes the scope of things for the Blue Jays on a whole bunch of levels, most of which are positive changes. If this entire "who hits lead-off?" conundrum can be completely avoided, and the Jays can start the season with a healthy Devon Travis, then the order is pretty much set. If I had to guess, it'd look something like -
I'll take that, all day. However, I'm still a bit skeptical when it comes to Travis' availability to start the season. In Zwelling's article (I linked it in the first sentence of this piece), he mentions that Travis' progress has been slow, as would be expected when dealing with a bone bruise in one's knee. However, Zwelling does suggest that Jays are paying very close attention to Travis' healing process, evaluating him on a daily basis and measuring every inch of progress he can exhibit. Given the precautions, it's still pretty likely Travis will start the year on the disabled list. However, since the league will now allow players to be placed on a 10-Day DL stint, the amount of time Travis may miss could be fewer than what we originally feared. If Travis is only required to be on the DL for 10 days, the Jays would only be facing this lead-off crisis for a very short period of time, relative to the entire season.
With Travis playing in an exhibition game today, albeit only DH'ing without running, it will be a good test to see how his body reacts. If he can get through the rest of Spring Training without any sort of set backs, then perhaps a 10 day visit to the DL would be the worst case scenario. That being said, things look to be getting brighter for the Jays.
Unless your name is Ryan Goins.
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