Power Hitting Leadoff

Jimmy Rollins is a power hitter.   On Saturday he launched his fifth leadoff homer of the year, 22 on his career.  Yet although JRoll has a good chance to become a member of the 30-30 club, he’s certainly no A-Rod.  As we discussed last week he doesn’t even have the best power numbers among NL shortstops.  Still no one is confusing him for Ricky Henderson or Lenny Dykstra either.  JRoll is a hybrid of sorts but also a product of an evolving idea of the leadoff hitter:

The disappearance of the classic leadoff hitter — smallish, pesky players with the patience to make pitchers work, then create havoc once on base — has been gradual, but otherwise entirely predictable given the game’s evolution.

Smaller ballparks have been built over the past decade, with turf fields (where speed is more important) replaced by grass fields. In the weight room, bigger bodies are constructed. The results: stronger players, hitting the ball farther, and being rewarded for their power.

It seems Jimmy Rollins’ power numbers really exploded after his 38-game hitting streak ended early last season.  Before the streak, the big complaint about JRoll was that he would swing at too many pitches, especially the first one, and tend to pop up high fastballs rather than letting them whiz by.  Nonetheless, he categorically refused to chance his approach at the plate.  Now it seems the stubbornness is paying off.  Last season he accumulated career-highs in HR (25), RBI (83), SLG (.478).  Now in 2007 Jimmy is on pace to surpass those records with 32 homers and 102 RBIs, plus he’s already pulling a .294 average with a .538 slugging percentage.

So then how do you judge a leadoff hitter?  Walk Like a Sabermetrician has a great article with various statistical methods.  But I prefer for the moment to just see what would happen if Charlie Manuel moved JRoll in the lineup and let a prototypical leadoff hitter take over the duties – someone like Shane Victorino or Michael Bourn.  In 56 at bats in the three spot, Jimmy has batted a measly .196 wtih zero homers and 7 RBIs.  Perhaps then it could be argued that a source of Jimmy’s power actually comes from batting from the leadoff spot.

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