Braves Leadoff Hitting

Hello Tomahawk Take readers! I am Julien Benjamin, the newest blogger to the site. I use a sabermetric approach to analyze the game, and I hope to help readers to get a better understanding of these metrics. I will try to not beat you guys over the head with these new-age stats, but do know that I use them heavily. Now, let’s talk about Simmons.

Those of you that have watched the games (all, I hope!) probably by now have noticed that the team’s leadoff hitter, when not Jordan Schafer, has struggled mightily to get on base. For a while, B.J. Upton was the culprit. The rest of the time, however, it was Andrelton Simmons. If we take a look at the team’s on-base percentage (OBP) from the leadoff spot, we see a .243/.302/.368/.670 batting line. Much of this is due to Simmons, who has batted leadoff in 44 of the Braves 81 games (54%). His overall batting line is pretty terrible, .240/.276/.332/.609, but when he bats leadoff it’s even worse; .218/.250/.311/.561. Compared to the production that the team got from Bourn at the leadoff spot, this is pretty pathetic.

Why is Simmons struggling at leadoff? We don’t really know for sure (we most likely never will), but from watching him play, we can make some reasonable assumptions. First, there is the fact that he was rushed up from AA to rescue us from Pastornicky’s glove. He wasn’t brought up here to be a hitter. He shocked some people with his results last year, but that was likely “inflated” because pitchers didn’t have a scouting report on him. Now they do, and he hasn’t yet adjusted. Second, his approach at the plate leaves much to be desired. Quite often, he is swinging at the first pitch he sees, regardless of the situation. As noted here in Jordan’s post, he sees under 3.5 pitches per AB. As he continues to do this, pitchers will continue to exploit him by throwing to his weak zones; offspeed pitches in the lower third of the plate, and fastballs away, since they know that he will readily swing. Third, his swing itself could be the issue. As shown by his slugging percentage, he’s not really making consistent hard contact, and is struggling to put the ball in play for hits regularly.

Below, I have included (from Fangraphs) Simmons’ plate discipline profile, in addition to this year’s NL plate discipline profile.

 

 

There are some slight difference in his swing percentages across the two stats, but that isn’t an issue; they are calculated differently, which I won’t get into here. What we need to do is compare his stats vs. the stats of all NL players. When doing so, we see that his swing percentage, especially his in zone and out of the zone swing percentages are pretty near league normal. So is his contact rate. So what is the issue? Since his plate discipline stats look pretty normal, his swing must be the issue. Let’s take a look at his batted ball profile.

This is what shows what Simmon’s problem is. He pops out way too much, over double the rate of the average NL hitter. He also hits fewer line drives. His reduced line drive rate, along with an increased fly ball rate, and overly high infield fly ball rate all lead to a lower expected batting average for Simmons, which has been the case to this point. He is hitting under too many pitches, at times because he’s trying to be a slugger, and at other times it’s because he was plain outmatched. Add in the fact that he rarely walks, and voila, we end up with a .243/.302/.368/.670 hitter.
Now, I don’t believe that Simmons will remain a bad hitter for his career, though there are some signs that point this way. I believe that with a slight modification to his approach, he can become a bigger threat at the plate. What do we do in the meantime? First, we put Simmons 8th in the order, allow him to develop his bat. He’d only played 44 games in the “advanced minors”, and 1 full year of minor league ball (Lynchburg in 2011), so he never got exposed to the better pitching of AA and AAA. Forcing him to hit 8th may cause him to learn a little patience as there will be times that he will effectively be pitched around in favor of the pitcher.

What do we do with the leadoff spot, then? First, we would need to find someone who is at least an average baserunner, and that has good plate discipline. This would include Jason Heyward, BJ Upton, Justin Upton, Dan Uggla, Tyler Pastornicky, and Jordan Schafer. Schafer will need to be moved off of this list, since all three of our OF are heating up. He won’t, or at least shouldn’t, get enough plate appearances to factor into this decision. Justin is our #3-4 hitter, so it won’t be him either. What we’ve got left is Heyward, Upton, Uggla, and Pastornicky.

Being realistic, I doubt Pastornicky will figure into the decision much, as I don’t see him stealing too many starts from Uggla as Dan is starting to heat up at the plate. If he did, however, he’d be the best choice for leadoff in my opinion. He makes good contact, despite the fact that he doesn’t walk a lot. He also works counts, which is a big plus from a leadoff hitter. The ability to see 5, 6, even 8 pitches in just 1 at-bat is huge, especially  the player who is getting the most at-bats.

Realistically, the two options for leadoff are BJ Upton and Jason Heyward. Both guys had rough starts to the year, but at the moment are currently in hot stretches which they started in June. They have track records of success, and so we should be willing to trust that they will hit enough to be worth using as leadoff men. For the season, both Jason and BJ walk in over 10% of their plate appearances, compared to Simmon’s 5%. Their OBPs are also over .300 now, and steadily rising. The lineup construction would get Simmons hitting 8th, which is where he was last year, and was comfortable down there. He’s still a young bat with good potential, the Braves need to let him come along at his own pace.

In Jeff’s blog last week, he posted a poll on who you guys would like to see bat leadoff- the majority answer was Schafer. However, since he likely won’t be a starter, I’ll re-do the poll, and also include a few sample lineups. Feel free to vote!

 

Who Should Bat Leadoff?

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Lineup Construction

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