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  • Who do the Numbers Endorse as Twins' New Leadoff Hitter?

    Greggory Masterson

    #1 may surprise you.

    Image courtesy of © Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

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    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?

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    This old man is bound to have nightmares now.  As Gallo's most outspoken critic this would force me to wait for the second inning before tuning in.  Give me Julien, let him be the next Arraez.  I am also of the opinion that both Polanco and Kepler should have been traded when they had peak value and I am not sure that changing the shift is going to be that much better for either of them.  I think Buxton, Correa, Miranda are locked in to the 2 - 4 positions.  Kiriloff 5th..  

    So in answer to your question, without Julien I have no idea who will lead off.


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    He's just not and the numbers don't suggest it either.

    Twice in Gallo's career he has put up numbers remotely acceptable for a leadoff hitter. In 70 games in 2019, he had a .389 OBP. In 95 games with the Rangers in 2021 before being traded to the Yankees, he had a .379 OBP in 95 games.

    Both of those outputs are elite. However, they are each half a season of production. In 2017 his OBP was around average at .333. Every other season he's barely eclipsing .300 OBP and last year he put up a whopping .280 OBP.

    The leadoff hitter should be someone who gets on base at an above average rate and is ideally one of your best hitters. Joey Gallo currently meets neither of those criteria. Seeing 4 pitches to start the game and striking out accomplishes nothing.

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    I actually wouldn't mind Gallo in the leadoff spot...for reasons mentioned in the article, and for the fact that pitchers aren't as sharp 1st inning and tend to throw more strikes. He would probably end up with at least 10 leadoff HRs.

    That being said, Rocco can pull names out of a hat for 1-5 each game and it wouldn't make much of a difference. 

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    Can Spring Training be useful in answering this question? I want Gordon to start in LF, but the Twins may go with Gallo and Kepler unless Kirilloff is not ready. If Kirilloff is not ready, there is an opportunity for a player to make a big impression before the season starts. If Julien can be that player, and he is somewhat of a long shot because the Twins seem to look towards their veterans, then a line drive machine with power who draws walks and can run could look mighty fine in the leadoff spot. Make someone earn a spot.

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    I have to admit, I laughed and laughed when I saw this.  More because of the expected responses than the seeing Gallo at the top.  My first thought was how would Jim Thome look batting leadoff.  Classic...

    I agree that OBP and pitches seen are important in a leadoff hitter, there is more to it than that.  Statistics show that for every slot you move down the order, you lose about 20 PA over the course of the year.  I subscribe to the theory you put your best hitter up there. The top of the lineup should go:

    1) Buxton
    2) Correa
    3) Polanco

    Followed up probably by Miranda, then it is fairly interchangeable.

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    Who do I WANT to bat leadoff? That would be Julien almost literally replacing Arraez on the roster as a utility player and DH. While he fits best at 2B...and played there exclusively in 2022 when not as a DH...he has some experience at 1B and LF. While he'll never hit like Arraez, or SO at such an insanely low level, he will walk more and provides more power and speed. His ability to walk as much as he does tells me he can thrive early without being close to reaching his ceiling at the ML level. He beat up on AA ball and destroyed the AFL. But even with a strong ST, he probably won't be pushed that quickly. Also, unless Kepler is moved, or someone is hurt, I don't see room to begin the season with the Twins.

    What makes the most SENSE? Various combinations depending on the daily lineup and matchups. Buck is just not the leadoff hitter type everyone thought he would be when drafted. He's a dangerous power plant who should be hitting with runners OB, anywhere from 1-4 probably. Polanco could probably do the job quite well. But he's also been such a quality run producer where he's been at that I think it would be a mistake to place him there.

    IMO, that means a LH combination of Gordon and Larnach, with a splash of Gallo. You have to remember that if Gallo DOES revert back to his very recent Texas self, he's pretty good at OB and being a dangerous power option in that spot. And one out doesn't have to kill an inning he leads off. And...get ready for it...IF Kepler isn't moved, and IF he suddenly finds the ability to drive the ball again instead of soft contact, and with the changes in the shift helping him even a little, he's not a K machine, will take some walks, runs the bases well, and Rocco has used him there previously.

    From the RH side, I see Farmer and the catcher of the day, especially Jeffers, who rakes against LHP. Remember, the Twins used to play Garver a lot in the #1 spot.

    Getting OB at a decent clip is important. But the #1 hitter isn't guaranteed to actually lead off an inning but once a game. So what you're looking for is someone who can provide a "spark" in that spot between getting OB, advancing runners ANY WAY POSSIBLE, and knocking in runners on base ahead of you from the bottom of the order, or helping perpetuate an inning, which is much the same as advancing the runners.

    And that's why it isn't so crazy to play matchups until SOMEONE comes along to grab that #1 spot. For all the "absurdity" that someone like Gallo could be considered, his GOOD YEARS still has a low BA and high K rate, but he also has great power to produce and high BB numbers to give him a good OB%. Imagine him in that spot with a runner OB and he cranks a HR. Imagine he walks instead and now the likes of Buxton, Correa, Polanco, Miranda are up. Now, of course, he might whiff or hit a lazy fly ball. But isn't that true of anyone/everyone most of the time?

    I don't WANT Kepler at #1 unless he turns himself around. I'm not advocating Gallo in that spot, but I'd like him, or even Larnach, RIGHT NOW, over the Kepler from the past 2 seasons. I WANT someone like Julien or possibly Martin...who I don't think is as close to being READY...to provide all "all encompassing" offensive game for that spot.

    But as of RIGHT NOW, I say NO-ONE takes that spot and it will be a moving and matchup position. And that makes the most sense to me.

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    Julien and Lewis look like they both could do it if they perform well enough when they reach the majors. I’d be fine with Gallo if he’s more of the 2019/early 2021 Gallo, if not then put him at the lower end of the lineup. Polanco and Buxton both could get some reps in and see if they stick. Correa is a big no.

    I do like one external option that still fits perfectly into this lineup: Mark Canha. The Twins should swap good defense for a high-OBP Righty bat, who could easily be the leadoff hitter of 2023.

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    This is going to be a light hitting team and boring to watch at the plate. Just too many ifs for there to be confidence in this lineup.

    The notion that Gallo would be considered our lead off batter is just so laughable. But there has to be virtually no confidence that he can be a run producer later in the lineup, so who knows. My vote is Gordon or Buxton. 

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    20 minutes ago, Nashvilletwin said:

    This is going to be a light hitting team and boring to watch at the plate. Just too many ifs for there to be confidence in this lineup.

    The notion that Gallo would be considered our lead off batter is just so laughable. But there has to be virtually no confidence that he can be a run producer later in the lineup, so who knows. My vote is Gordon or Buxton. 

    Couldn't agree more with your first paragraph. This team is going to struggle to score runs. Too much lack of contact bats. 

    That's why I don't understand the concentration on the pitching. Our pitching is serviceable, we need a big time right handed bat, maybe two.

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    14 minutes ago, Hubie29 said:

    Couldn't agree more with your first paragraph. This team is going to struggle to score runs. Too much lack of contact bats. 

    That's why I don't understand the concentration on the pitching. Our pitching is serviceable, we need a big time right handed bat, maybe two.

    And so much has to go right, right? Buxton has to play and produce, Gallo needs a rebound year, Polanco needs a rebound year, Kiriloff has to be healthy and produce, Miranda’s production is not set in stone, etc. etc.  And we pretty much know the best we can expect from Kepler, Farmer, Vasquez, and Taylor - and that is unexciting (although all are very solid defenders). 

    We got rid of two of our three best hitters (not counting Buxton if he only plays half the games) and replaced them with meh, at best.

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    5 hours ago, tarheeltwinsfan said:

    At least if Gallo batted lead-off, he would not kill a first inning rally with a strike out. 

    Well said , and also mikelink45 says he will wait until the second inning to tune in which should work  ...

    A strike out leading off the game will not spark anything day after day ...

    Could Gordon be an option  , what he showed last year he might be even better this year with more confidence  ....

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    Polanco or Buxton or Gordon (probably ranked in that order).

    I trust Correa's ability and experience to adjust his hitting approach to the game situation the most so I'd like to see him 2-3.  

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    Gallo leadoff? LOL! As cHawk said, if analytics says Gallo should be the leadoff guy then this team is in serious trouble. Especially since Rocco lives and dies by them. Other than to get the biggest hole in the lineup out of the way there is no common sense person alive that would put their worst hitter first. here he comes..... Mr. No Common Sense Rocco!

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    Buxton & Gallo strikeout too much for me to have them leadoff games and the Twins don’t run enough to be too concerned with BSR, IMO.

    I like Correa for the job. He has only 16 PA in the leadoff spot, but good numbers when leading off an inning. Buxton in the two followed by Miranda then Gallo…most nights.

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