We’re in the home stretch of spring training with Opening Day now less than two weeks away. The questions are becoming more focused by the day as the Royals prepare to begin their run to getting back to the postseason. That questions still exist at this point in the spring isn’t a bad thing, and it’s worth noting that Ned Yost often makes some decisions late in the spring that end up working quite well. For example, in 2011, he inserted Alex Gordon into the third spot in the lineup in the last week of spring. He ended up hitting there and leadoff all season and was wildly successful. In 2015, Mike Moustakas was put in the second spot late in the spring and we all know how that turned out.
Before we get to this week’s question, let’s look at what we’ve viewed in the past few weeks:
And now, on to today’s question.
Who Hits Leadoff?
In general, lineup construction isn’t all that important. I know that seems like a weird way to start this off, but it’s true. Using the always fun lineup analysis on Baseball Musings with the PECOTA projections for the Royals, it lists the best Royals lineup as follows:
That lineup is projected to average 4.472 runs per game or 724 runs in a season.
The worst lineup from that group of nine?
That lineup is projected to average 4.199 runs per game or 680 runs in a season. Using the construct that roughly 10 runs is a win, that lineup is about four games worse over the course of a season if both were used every day. So it’s not nothing, but those are also the extremes.
Now that we have that out of the way, the Royals still need a leadoff hitter and using the PECOTA projections and lineup analysis tools don’t tell quite enough of the story to find the right answer.
You might recall that I wrote about this very spot in the lineup after the Royals traded Wade Davis to the Cubs for Soler. I advocated in that article that hitting Soler in the leadoff spot made a lot of sense. As a quick recap, he’s a guy who doesn’t swing at pitches out of the zone and he can crush a fastball. While leadoff hitters don’t get fastballs all game, they often get a first pitch one and it’s often a strike. We all remember Escobar’s ambush approach. Soler could be fun, but his spring has left more questions than answers, so I think that far-fetched idea is even more unlikely now than it was then. And it was really unlikely then.
After running with Escobar at the top of the order for much of 2015 and a good portion of 2016, it does seem like the Royals are ready to move on from that experiment that did produce a World Series champion but was never right. Who are the candidates?
We’re already back to the beginning of this article, talking about Gordon in the leadoff spot in 2011. He hit just .220/.312/.380 last season. If you’re new to baseball, that’s not very good. But that said, he had a .377 OBP just a year prior and has a .352 OBP since the start of the 2011 season. Yes, Gordon will strike out, but he will also work a walk. He also doesn’t chase that often, posting swing percentages outside the zone consistently under 30 percent throughout his career. In his career, he’s hit leadoff in 316 games and posted a .352 OBP from that spot, identical to the mark of the last six years.
Everything that’s enticing about Soler in the leadoff spot is the same about Gordon. He can start the game off with an extra base hit easily. He’ll work the pitcher. He can move a little bit on the bases while not being a traditional leadoff type. But the difference is that he’s done it before and he’s done it successfully. While I love the idea of Soler at the top, Gordon leading off is my favorite option.
I’ve written about Mondesi a few times this spring because he’s had a great camp. He fits the mold of the traditional leadoff hitter in that he’s a middle infielder with game changing speed. The problem is that he’s still incredibly raw and I’m skeptical that he’s actually ready to produce in the big leagues at this point. The power from the left side is very real, but his issues with pitch recognition, plate discipline and contact that we saw in his 2016 debut still haunt me. If he’s the player we saw in 2016 or even within shouting distance of that, Mondesi at the top could cost the Royals wins. If he truly has developed into a big league hitter, then he wouldn’t be the worst option, but man, it’s tough to think that’s the case after a handful of spring at bats.
If Mondesi doesn’t win the second base job out of camp, Merrifield has a legitimate reason to believe he should. He hit .283/.323/.392 last year in 332 plate appearances, which isn’t great, but would be a big improvement over the .256/.296/.333 line Royals leadoff hitters posted last year. He also performed well in that spot last year with a .299/.342/.430 line as the leadoff hitter in 114 plate appearances. What Merrifield doesn’t do is work the count well and he showed he was prone to chasing out of the zone with a swing percentage of nearly 35 percent last year.
In Merrifield, he’s sort of a rich man’s Escobar in terms of a leadoff hitter. He’ll make a fair amount of contact and he can run a little, but he isn’t going to give a ton else. If he can produce a good enough BABIP to keep his average up, he’ll work in that spot, but that’s nothing that can be guaranteed.
If Mondesi doesn’t win the second base job out of camp, Colon has a legitimate reason to believe he should. While his 2016 line wasn’t especially good, he played solid defense at second base and came to camp actually in the best shape of his life. Royals officials keep talking about how much better he looks and how much better he’s moving, so I think he has a real shot. He’s been hot of late and was hitting .333/.368/.500 in Cactus League play through Sunday’s games. He’s shown patience in his career, which is made even more impressive by his part-time role. It’s tough to take pitches when you don’t know when the next time you’ll get to the plate is, and he does it.
There’s very little power to speak of, but if Colon can find a way to hit .270-.280, his patience could allow him to OBP somewhere around .330 and with enough extra base power to get a few doubles and triples, he could be a very serviceable option at the top. He’s not ideal, but he’s probably the closest thing to prototypical of any of the candidates since he’s now moving better than he has in the past.
This is me putting this in here because I think it’s interesting that Yost has said he doesn’t know who will hit first or second. I feel like Moose is a no-brainer for the second spot in Ned’s mind, which means if he’s not sure about hitting him second, maybe he might want to hit him first. Moose sees a lot of pitches (4.04 per plate appearance since the start of 2014) and he seemed to take a big step forward with contact rate and plate discipline last season before the injury. He’s atypical like Gordon or Soler, but it could be an interesting experiment to put him at the top.
Look, we know what he will do at the top of the order. Old habits die hard, but hopefully this habit is long dead for Ned.
My gut at this moment is the Royals end up leading off with Gordon and then following him with Moose, Cain and Hosmer before the rest of the lineup falls into place. There will be discussion about whether or not Yost would have three lefties in the first four spots and while I think that’s a valid question, I also think he sees those particular lefties as less susceptible to platoon issues, right or wrong. That said, handedness could give Colon, Merrifield, Mondesi or, gulp, Escobar an opening to take that top spot and run with it. We’ll know more in just a couple weeks.