Everyone knows that Michael Brantley will be the Cleveland Indians’ leadoff hitter in 2012. He started a majority of the Tribe’s games last year. He fits the stereotypical leadoff man’s profile: fast, good contact hitter, not too much power. And, most importantly, manager Manny Acta has already said that he’ll be writing Brantley’s name in at the top of the order on Opening Day.
But while Brantley is all but sure to hit out of the No. 1 spot this season, it might not be the best decision.
Tradition aside, the most important skill for a leadoff hitter to have is the ability to get on base. Contact ability is obviously part of that and speed is a nice plus, but a batter who has a chance to make the first out at least once in every game and (presumably) sets the table for his team’s best hitters needs to be good at reaching first safely. Period.
In that respect, Brantley leaves something to be desired. His .318 OBP last year was exactly the league average, adjusted for Progressive Field. He’s not a liability at the plate and neither his .266 average nor his 6.9 percent walk rate are necessarily problems, but his skill set is such that he is in no way exceptional at getting on base.
Will he improve in 2012? Probably. Bill James sees Brantley getting on base at a .332 clip; ZIPS projects him to have a .330 OBP, and even the pessimistic Marcel has him getting on base over 32 percent of the time. But those projections are based on the assumption that Brantley’s walk rate will increase to a career high. It stands to reason that a hitter with three years of MLB experience would take more free passes in his age-25 season, but given that his walk rate has sat between 6.6 percent and 6.9 percent for three seasons now, we shouldn’t count on Brantley meeting James’ projection of walking in 8.6 percent of his plate appearances this year.
Nor does Brantley offer much in terms of power. His .118 ISO in 2011 was the highest of his career, and he slugged just .377 in the minors; every major projection system sees his power declining in 2012. A player who gets on base at a league-average rate and probably won’t slug .400 doesn’t seem like a very good fit for a leadoff role.
Finally, there’s the fact that Brantley hasn’t done very well when starting off the game. He hit just .224/.280/.303 in the Tribe’s first at-bat of the game last year—much worse than his .266/.318/.384 overall triple-slash. It’s a small sample size and it isn’t necessarily meaningful, but it might suggest that Brantley isn’t fully comfortable being the first batter out of the dugout.
There’s no clear choice to lead off in place of Brantley, but there’s almost certainly a better candidate somewhere on the team. Shin-Soo Choo could be an intriguing option, and given his great plate discipline and good speed he’d be a better fit than most people probably realize. Carlos Santana or Travis Hafner would be unorthodox leadoff men and their power probably makes them more valuable lower in the order, but they’d both be good table-setters thanks to their plus plate discipline. Another possible solution could be Casey Kotchman—even with the regression he’s in for, he should at least be able to get on base at a solid clip.
Batting order isn’t that important, and if Brantley is able to show some real growth he could be a solid choice to be the first out of the dugout. But as of now, it’s hard to envision a scenario in which starting off with him is the Tribe’s best option.