December 1, 2023

Healthy Choice

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Who do the Numbers Endorse as Twins’ New Leadoff Hitter? – Twins

Last Friday, the Twins finally bit the bullet and shipped Luis Arráez off to Miami in return for Pablo Lopez and two exciting prospects. It’s a sensible move, but the Twins will need to replace Arráez’s production on the field after his 3.2 fWAR 2022 season.

Alex Kirilloff appears to be the heir apparent at first base, which was likely to be Arráez’s primary position in the field, with Joey Gallo, Kyle Farmer, Jose Miranda, and Edouard Julien

in line to get time at the spot as well. The team shouldn’t struggle to fill the designated hitter spot, either, with the number of players that would benefit from half-days at DH. 

However, there is a role that Arráez filled with no clear replacement—leadoff hitter. It’s the biggest question right now about the Twins lineup, and Ted Schwerzler has already mentioned a couple of top candidates. But let’s crunch some numbers and see if any new cream rises to the top (of the lineup).

There is some debate about how much having a stereotypical leadoff hitter matters to team performance, with some adamant that having someone at the top of the lineup who gets on base consistently leads to more runs. Others believe that the sequencing doesn’t necessarily matter and that the top players should hit as many times as possible over the course of the season, no matter the style.

I’m not here to settle that argument, though it makes good reading from analysts wiser than myself. Instead, I want to look at the current roster to see which players fit the mold best.

The common idea of a prototypical leadoff hitter is a player who gets on base, can run the bases, and, as Patrick Reusse asserts, sees a lot of pitches. There probably isn’t a player who checks all those boxes on the current squad. Luis probably didn’t either, given that his footspeed leaves a lot to be desired, although he is a good baserunner. I was interested, though, in seeing which players might be the best fit, based on those criteria.

I looked at every hitter projected to make the team out of Spring Training based on Fangraph’s Roster Resource. I then compiled select stats from A) 2021-2022 and A) Steamer projections for each player. The players were ranked 1-13 based on their OBP, Fangraphs baserunning runs per 550 plate appearances, and average pitches per plate appearance (there aren’t projections for P/PA, so I used career averages for the projections). These three stats measure the player’s ability to get on base, run the bases, and see many pitches.

Let’s see who fits the bill. Unsurprisingly, among the top four in both past performance and 2023 projections were the three players widely believed to be the Twins’ best hitters. The other may surprise some people.

#4 Byron Buxton (4th Past, t-4th Projection)
Past Rankings: 3rd OBP (.327), 1st BsR (7.5), 8th P/PA (3.84)
2023 Projections: 8th OBP (.304), 1st BsR (1.2), 8th P/PA (3.78)

Buxton’s elite speed very much buoys his score on this exercise. As a free-swinger, he doesn’t see a lot of pitches, and his OBP is dependent on his average with his lack of walks. If he hits for an average over .300, as he did in 2021, he’ll be on base a good amount. The team will probably slot him in a more stereotypical power spot, given his ability to hit for extra bases. Nonetheless, he may get some run at the top of the order, as he has in past years.

#3 Carlos Correa (3rd Past, 3rd Projection)
Past Rankings: 1st OBP (.366), 8th BsR (-3.0), 2nd P/PA (4.08)
2023 Projections: 1st OBP (.351), 12th BsR (-0.9), 2nd P/PA (4.05)

Almost the polar opposite of Buxton, Correa’s scores are weighed down by his lack of baserunning—the only player projected to lose more runs on the basepaths is Christian Vazquez. If it weren’t for those abysmal scores, he easily would have come out on top. He will, like Buxton, probably bat second or third, but it’s not unreasonable to think he may hit leadoff a bit, especially against lefties.

#2 Jorge Polanco (2nd Past, t-1st Projection)
Past Rankings: 2nd OBP (.332), 4th BsR (2.0), 4th P/PA (4.03)
2023 Projections: 2nd OBP (.332), t-4th BsR (0.0), 5th P/PA (3.97)

Polanco is probably the best bet to serve as the leadoff man, and he barely missed the top spot in this exercise. He gets on base, runs well, and turns in good at-bats—so long as his ankle pain doesn’t cause him to pirouette out of the box on a swing. Leaning even further into the stereotype of a leadoff man, he’s also a middle infielder. He probably would have hit cleanup in a lineup with Arráez, but he’s a dependable option to plug in at the top of any order, given his balanced skillset and approach.

#1 Joey Gallo (1st Past, t-1st Projection)
Past Rankings: 5th OBP (.323), 3rd BsR (2.5), 1st P/PA (4.23)
2023 Projections: 6th OBP (.313), t-4th BsR (0.0), 1st P/PA (4.22)

Oh no. The spreadsheets have gone too far.

It doesn’t sound right, but by this definition of a leadoff hitter, Joey Gallo, of all people, is the top option. He leads players in pitches seen by a wide margin. He actually runs the bases well, even with his large frame. He gets on base at a good clip, too—the past performance metric includes his miserable play from the last season and a half. 

It sounds absurd, but we’re only three seasons removed from Rocco running out another unconventional leadoff hitter in Max Kepler . I wouldn’t be shocked to see at least a trial run of Gallo hitting leadoff in 2023. It seems in line with this front office.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Speaking of Kepler, he tied Buxton in this exercise for fourth in the projections, and Trevor Larnach , of all players, landed in fifth in past performance. Another option not included is Edouard Julien, because he has no past performance, and Fangraphs only projects him for 26 plate appearances. Julien, though, gets on base as well as anyone, and if he hits at the Major League level, he’s undoubtedly a leadoff candidate.

Admittedly, the three categories here probably shouldn’t be given equal weight, but it was still a fun exercise, and Gallo falls to third if the weight of OBP is doubled. Who do you want to see batting leadoff in 2023?