Since May 16, Kevin Pillar is batting just .161 / .217 / .259 (.476 OPS). His early season success has evaporated and he’s turned into almost the exact same hitter he’s been throughout his career. For the season, his on base percentage now sits at .305, which falls almost perfectly in line with his career OBP of .304.
At some point, the Blue Jays have to concede that an OBP like that doesn’t deserve to be batting at the top of the lineup. This isn’t to say Pillar’s early hot start isn’t appreciated or that the team didn’t need him getting a bunch of at bats in April when he was scorching the ball and the rest of the team was struggling, but we’ve long since reached the point where Gibby needs to get creative with options.
So if Pillar isn’t batting leadoff, who goes in that spot? It’s a problem that’s plagued the Jays for a few years now, but there’s a legitimate, if unconventional solution: Russell Martin.
Batting a catcher leadoff sounds ridiculous, but the single most important thing a leadoff man can do is get on base, and nobody has been better at getting on base for the Blue Jays in 2017 than Russell Martin (with the obvious exception of Josh Donaldson). Martin’s also been an on base machine for years, with his .374 OBP in 2017 only outpacing his career OBP of .351 by 23 points. There’s absolutely no question that Martin batting leadoff is going to lead to more Josh Donaldson and Jose Bautista plate appearances with men on base.
What’s even more important though is how Martin gets on base. He walks a ton (17.2 percent this season) - And while that may be inflated some because of the easier outs who’ve batted behind him, his career walk rate of 11.7 percent is exactly the type of number you’re looking for in a leadoff man.
Walks are most valuable when there’s nobody out, and Martin’s high walk rate is going to be most useful if you ensure that he’s going to come to the plate in that situation to start every game. If you look at the run expectancy table, you can expect 0.86 runs to score in an inning when there’s a man on first and nobody out, 0.51 runs to score in an inning when there’s a man on first and one out, and 0.22 runs to score in an inning when there’s a man on first and two outs.
In a random plate appearance, a walk tends to be worth about a half a run. So if you bat Martin leadoff every game, you’ve now made basically a quarter of his walks worth 0.86 runs, which seems like a good idea considering how often he draws them.
Once there’s men in scoring position, you obviously need hits to drive them in (unless of course the bases are loaded), but walks get rallies started, especially when there’s big bats coming up behind them. Martin’s .221 batting average matters when he comes up with men on base in front of him, and this is part of the reason why he’s eleventh on the team in RBI. However, if you put him at the top of the lineup, you put him in the place where OBP matters the most, which makes sense because that’s his best offensive skill.
In addition to this, Martin hits more than his fair share of ground balls when he does put the ball in play. (He has a 1.02 Ground Ball / Fly Ball ratio compared to the MLB average of 0.81.) In other words, when Martin comes up with a man on first, he’s a big double play candidate. Batting him first guarantees he can’t hit into a double play during his first plate appearance of every game, which again, maximizes his value.
At the same time, you get the benefit of moving Kevin Pillar, a player who’s not as likely to hit into double plays, moving down in the order where you’re more likely to come up with men on base. That’s the situation where you want the ball in play without the risk of making two outs on one swing, and that’s exactly what Pillar provides.
The old school of thought is going to say you don’t bat the catcher leadoff because he’s slow, but on this team that doesn’t matter because ...
A) Martin’s on base skill is so much better than Pillar’s that it blows this point out of the water.
B) This team lives and dies by the home run so much that having a man on first at all when the ball goes out is more important than that man being able to swipe second or go first to third. (Everybody on base is in scoring position when the ball’s likely to fly out of the yard.)
C) Martin actually runs pretty well for a catcher. He’d beat half the regulars in this lineup if he challenged them to a foot race, so you’re not giving up much by hiving him bat high in the order.
Right now, I think the top four hitters should be ...
1) Russell Martin
2) Josh Donaldson
3) Jose Bautista
4) Justin Smoak (He’e really earned this bump, but that’s another article)
..... And then bat them however you want behind this.
Let’s see what the fans think.
Who should be batting leadoff for the Blue Jays?
This poll is closed
Somebody else (Tell us in the comments)