For decades and decades, everyone in baseball pretty much agreed what a leadoff hitter looked like. He was a small, skinny guy who probably played the second base, shortstop or centerfield and was known for his blinding speed and willingness to steal a base.
Then over the course of the past decade or so, the world learned the importance of on-base percentage, particularly at the top of a lineup, and teams’ priorities in the leadoff spot shifted. Suddenly it was ok to have a less-than-fleet player batting first, as long as he could draw a walk and wasn’t needed in the middle of the order.
Now, the definition of a leadoff hitter seems to be expanding again, amid an industry-wide rethinking of traditional lineup archetypes. New Yankees manager Aaron Boone slotted slugger Aaron Judge into the top spot Friday in an exhibition against the Red Sox and has reportedly discussed with Judge the possibility of him batting leadoff against left-handed pitchers during the regular season. Meanwhile, new Nationals skipper Dave Martinez has mused on the idea of batting Bryce Harper leadoff to get the star extra at-bats.
It remains to be seen whether either Harper or Judge will actually hit first in a game that matters, but the very fact their teams are having this conversation shows how much thinking on lineup construction has changed. A few years ago it was radical to bat your best hitter second, despite extensive research explaining why that was the most sensible construction. Now Judge, Harper, Joey Votto, Giancarlo Stanton and others have all spent time in that spot, and the industry is on to the next thing.
The argument for batting your best hitter first is fairly straightforward: If he bats first, he bats more often. The game can never end with him having come up one fewer time than that lightweight slap-hitter ahead of him. That was essentially how Martinez explained his interest in having Harper hit leadoff. Via ESPN:
“What if he got up there five times in one game?” Martinez said of Harper. “You look at all those things. When you feel like you’re going to have a low-scoring game, why not have one of your better hitters have a chance? All of a sudden you’re in the ninth inning and you have one of your best hitters on deck that doesn’t get up. I always think about that.”
It seems inevitable that as time goes, the traditional conceptions of what a hitter in each lineup slot looks like will fade away, until every team simply bats its hitters where it feels like or where its stat-heads say. Because if Aaron Judge and Bryce Harper can bat first, clearly anyone can.