Friday, February 26, 2010

By Eric Notti - Contributor

There has been a lot of talk in the media about how much of an impact losing Chone Figgins will be in the 2010 season for the Angels. He has been the Angels primary leadoff hitter for the last 5 years and has done an admirable job at it, improving each year to the point we acknowledge he has been one of the best in Angels history taking on the role. But...

Anyone happen to remember Brian Downing? I ask this because he was far from the prototypical leadoff hitter. He was neither fast nor did he bunt well, in fact he was more of a # 4 hitter in size and on top of it all a converted catcher. So, how well did he perform as a leadoff hitter? If you look at the numbers, surprisingly well, in fact better than Figgins.

Career Leadoff hitter Stats
Downing: 594 games 594 PA .287 avg .375 obp .494 slg .870 ops
Figgins: 643 games 643 PA .263 avg .339 obp .364 slg .703 ops

At first look you have to think this is a misprint, maybe the author has flipped the numbers and made a mistake. Certainly there is no way Figgins numbers would be eclipsed by a bulky weight lifting bespeckled left fielder from the '70s. But like Blanche would say in "Bull Durham," “You can look it up.”

Let’s set Downing aside for the moment and take a look at the future for the Angels. Of the prospects for leadoff, we have four options: Bobby Abreu, Erick Aybar, Maicer Izturis and Howie Kendrick — none of whom really have much time as a leadoff hitter (Abreu has almost exclusively been a No. 2 or 3 hitter his whole career), so those stats are not going to be helpful in choosing a replacement.

Career Leadoff Hitter Stats
Izturis: 45 games 45 PA .238 avg .289 obp .405 slg .694 ops
Abreu: 29 games 29 PA .185 avg .241 obp .222 slg .464 ops
Aybar: 6 games 6 PA .333 avg .333 obp .333 slg .667 ops
Kendrick: 0 games 0 PA .000 avg .000 obp .000 slg .000 ops

If you look at Izturis, who has the most career leadoff at bats, his average and on base percentage is terrible for the task. In his defense and all of the above mentioned players, they really do not have enough career at bats to make a relatively honest evaluation. So the question is, what can we use to determine which would fill the role the best?

Let’s take a stab at it by pulling their stats for leading off an inning. Next to being the first batter of the game, starting an inning fresh is pretty much the same role and that is to get on base and get something going. I’m going start with just last year’s stats to show how most of the starting lineup fares.

Leading Off An Inning 2009 Sorted By Plate Appearances
Morales: 90 games 129 PA .315 avg .341 obp .573 slg .914 ops
Rivera: 100 games 126 PA .252 .avg 317 obp .417 slg .735 ops
Abreu: 94 games 116 PA .272 avg .353 obp .447 slg .800 ops
Hunter: 76 games 109 PA .304 avg .349 obp .500 slg .849 ops
Aybar: 75 games 106 PA .306 avg .358 obp .439 slg .797 ops
Kendrick: 68 games 84 PA .262 .avg 279 obp .381 slg .660 ops
Napoli: 64 games 89 PA .284 avg .348 obp .617 slg .966 ops
Izturis: 60 games 76 PA .380 avg .421 obp .535 slg .956 ops

Ok, discussion over, it’s obvious that Morales should be the leadoff hitter. At least that is the easy way out of this predicament, just go by the highest batting average... wait, who is that guy on the bottom messing up this theory? It’s the Maicer that roared with an astounding .380 average and .956 ops. Maybe we should bat him cleanup?

The problem with raw numbers is that they confuse the situation. If you take a quick glance and not pay attention to who the player actually is then Maicer Izturis is a cleanup hitter but we all know that when it comes to clearing the bases you’d much rather see Morales up to bat with his 30+ home run power than a 5'8" infielder that looks more like Topo Gigio than Babe Herman Ruth.

So let’s filter out the big guns from this group and get down to just the core 4 that should be viewed as leadoff hitters and look at their career stats leading off an inning in comparison to Chone Figgins, whom they need to replace. More of an apples to apples comparison but this time sorted by OPS.

Career Leading Off An Inning
Figgins: 812 games 1432 PA .285 avg .355 obp .381 slg .737 ops
Kendrick: 212 games 292 PA .338 .avg 356 obp .475 slg .892 ops
Abreu: 1150 games 1551 PA .283 avg .368 obp .492 slg .859 ops
Izturis: 294 games 414 PA .280 avg .343 obp .410 slg .753 ops
Aybar: 172 games 234 PA .277 avg .321 obp .382 slg .702 ops

Ok this seems to be a flip flop of who is top and bottom with Kendrick going to the top of the class. Close behind him is the player with the best resume of them all in Abreu but the Angels should be reluctant to even consider him for the role simply because of his age.

Although Bobby managed to steal 30 bases last year, most of them came at the start of the season. He was obviously running out of gas around August and although he will probably split time as DH this year, his 36 year old legs should not be put upon to make things happen like Figgins did.

His patience, bat control and power also better suits him for the 2nd guy in the order to either allow the leadoff hitter to advance by stolen base, protect the runner, or situational hit, something some of the younger guys are just not as adept at. So even though Abreu has been showing passing marks in this test, by his own maturity and accomplishments he disqualifies himself.

So then it comes down to three players to consider for the position. If you look at the Angels roster for next year Figgins departure left the position open to the Angels former top prospect that has been waiting for his chance to flex his muscles at the major league level for quite some time. Brandon Wood should be given every opportunity to present his case for being the Angels permanent 3rd baseman for the next decade.

If the Angels are willing to make the commitment that leaves Izturis to battle for 2nd base with Howie Kendrick. That also means no consistent time for either player and as such they cancel each other out as the preferred choice for leadoff. That would be the same guy going to the plate every game bringing the same game plan and that is to concern himself with getting on base..

Logic would then say that Erick Aybar is the best choice for the role and it has nothing to do with the numbers he has put forth in a leadoff role but the need to place a player there that can develop in that role, very similar to Chone Figgins of 5 years ago.

Taking into account Aybar’s increased plate patience last year raising his on base percentage to .353 and  he has improved his bunting while also being the fastest of the three Angels candidates on the basepaths, you have to think that he would be the odds on favorite to take the job.

One other skill he brings to the job is switch hitting and last year he was very effective from both sides of the plate hitting .305 with a .763 ops left handed and .325 with an .804 ops from the right hand side. In contrast Figgins batted .323 with a .864 ops from the left side but his production fell well of from the right side hitting only .246 with a .630 ops. 

Last year Figgins had a quality contract year, one of his best as the Angels leadoff hitter and his contribution has lead to a multi-year deal with the Mariners. Looking at how he performed and then take into account Erick Aybar is 6 years younger and still a work in progress and you’d have to say the Angels may not be giving away that much at the leadoff spot.

2009 Stats
Figgins: 158 games 729 PA .298 avg .395 obp .393 slg .789 ops
Aybar: 137 games 556 PA .312 avg .353 obp .423 slg .776 ops

There may be a battle for the leadoff role in Spring Training for competition sake but if you look at as Sherlock Holmes would and remove everything that is not a leadoff hitter from the discussion, you end up with the only person that could be the leadoff hitter. In this case it would be Erick Aybar.

Of course, he’s no Brian Downing but then Chone Figgins wasn’t either.
Love to hear what you think!


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