Aaron Judge, with 62 home runs, batted second most of the season, and also hit leadoff 34 times. Julio Rodriguez, the power-hitting phenom for the Seattle Mariners, batted leadoff 58 times. Mookie Betts, who led the MLB’s best team in home runs, hit leadoff all season. Kyle Schwarber, who led the National League in home runs, hit leadoff 123 times.
If you have spent much time watching baseball, especially at the MLB level, this leadoff trend might seem weird.
Power hitters have generally batted third or fourth in order to maximize the number of RBI opportunities that they get. The leadoff spot used to be reserved for the best base-stealer. Eventually, analytics fixed that mistake, either by convincing managers to put the guy with the highest OPB in the leadoff spot, or just by stripping all of the base-stealers off the roster.
This is different, though. Judge did lead the New York Yankees in on-base percentage, partly because he walked 30 times in September, but Betts finished behind both Freddie Freeman and Trea Turner in OBP, and Schwarber was behind as many as five other Phillies, depending on who was in the lineup. Rodriguez led the Mariners in OBP, but only because he posted a .456 OBP after September 1. Even so, there were three other Mariners within six points of Rodriguez, so if they had wanted to put him in an RBI spot, they would not been giving up much.
So, does this make sense? The undeniable upside is that these teams maximize the times that premier power hitters get to the plate. However, they are inevitably coming to the plate with the bases empty, both because they start the game and because the guys hitting ahead of them are the worst hitters on the team (albeit they are no longer following the pitcher, which might be one reason this is suddenly happening so much). Schwarber drove in 94 runs with his 46 home runs, partly because he hit .218, but … still.
The core issue is whether the Phillies would have scored more runs with someone else leading off, then Schwarber coming up to drive them in. Intuitively, it seems like that would have been the case had J.T. Realmuto led off, because he posted an OPB 19 points higher than Schwarber (and stole 21 bases, to boot). But that assumes that both players would have seen the same pitches and been equally productive hitting in other spots. There are also good reasons not to have your catcher leading off, because of all the equipment issues if nothing else.
Almost as popular as power hitters leading off is having them hit second. Judge, as noted, spent most of the season hitting second, as did Juan Soto and Mike Trout. This tactic kind of splits the difference between getting your slugger more trips to the plate and giving him some RBI chances. Judge and Soto both led their leagues in walks, so they fit the bill for hitting near the top of the order.
But, still, shouldn’t a hitter with Judge’s power hit cleanup? Think how many RBI he might have had with two or three good contact hitters in front of him. Did the Yankees leave some runs on the board doing things the way they did, or did the 30 or so extra at-bats Judge got by coming to the plate earlier in the order make up for that?
I’m old school, so I would probably hit Judge cleanup … but the reality is that it depends. DJ LeMahieu was the only other Yankee with more than 100 at-bats and an on-base percentage above .350, so finding three guys who could reliably get on base ahead of Judge might not be easy. The case for hitting Schwarber leadoff is not nearly as strong but, if the Phillies ride this lineup to the World Series, nobody will second-guess it.