We've been talking quite a bit lately about how much better the White Sox lineup will be in 2020 in comparison with last year. I think this team has the opportunity to be really fun offensively, hit a lot of dingers, and score a lot of runs. They've addressed some major areas of need, including adding more home runs, improving their walk rate (still won't be great), and having more balance from the left side. I recently touched on this season being a true test of Ricky Renteria and one area in particular that I expect there to still be some debate is, who will be leading off for this team?
This team really doesn't have a solid leadoff option. The candidates range from fast guys who are allergic to working counts and drawing walks, guys who draw walks but probably would struggle to beat me in a foot race, and guys who have never had a plate appearance in the Major Leagues. So needless to say, the prototypical leadoff man isn't currently on this roster. Now, we've seen the face of the modern era leadoff hitter change in recent years. It's no longer your father's leadoff hitter that is a fast-running, slappy middle infielder that is supposed to steal a lot of bases. We're smarter about the game, as a whole, and understand that the job of the player occupying the top spot in the batting order is to...get on base and not make outs. So with this in mind, let's take a look at Ricky's options for 2020.
Tim Anderson and Leury Garcia represent two internal options to pencil in at the top of the order. If it were my lineup card, these two would NEVER appear at the top of the lineup. The table below displays the key metrics for a player occupying the top spot in the batting order, and I threw in SB% for you old-timers. I've highlighted the career numbers with their 2019 numbers in parentheses for comparison purposes:
As you can see, these two players simply don't get on base enough to be entrusted with hitting at the top of the lineup. Anderson's career-high .353 OBP is buoyed by a, wait for it, unsustainable .399 BABIP in 2019. All things considered, these two really should not be occupying the leadoff spot.
Highly touted prospects Luis Robert, fresh off the new contract, and Nick Madrigal represent two young options to start the batting order. The two could very well be viable options in the not too distant future, however, I'm not sure that putting a rookie getting his first taste of the best pitching the planet has to offer in that spot is the best idea to guarantee immediate and future success. For Robert and Madrigal, 2019 represented the first full, complete minor league season for both (although for differing reasons). Here's how the two measured up in the key metrics:
Robert is a relatively free swinger and doesn't take many pitches in the strike zone. This will ultimately allow him to do significant damage in the power department. Madrigal actually saw an uptick in his BB% at each of his three minor league stops in 2019. His ability to put the bat on the ball consistently will probably ensure he is the leadoff man of the future at some point.
Outside The Box
There's a player on the roster that meets the key criteria for a successful leadoff hitter, but it's very unconventional. I don't think the Sox or Ricky are forward-thinking enough to utilize this approach until Madrigal or a better option is ready to assume the top spot in the order.
As you can see, Yasmani Grandal has well-above-average plate discipline leading to BB% and OBP that would be ideal for the top spot in the lineup. However, Grandal is a catcher and one that is not particularly fleet of foot (don't look at his Statcast data for Sprint Speed). I see less than a zero percent chance that Ricky would utilize Grandal in the leadoff role, however, absent a better option I think it would be the best approach for this team right now. Where Anderson profiles best, and where Madrigal will likely slot in once he is promoted, is at the bottom of the order. The Sox will have speed and the ability to take extra bases filling out the bottom third of the lineup. Grandal's patience and ability to do damage when he puts the bat on the ball will represent a major problem for opposing pitchers. Additionally, having Grandal on base at the top of the order will help the mashers, Yoan Moncada, Jose Abreu, Eloy Jimenez, and Edwin Encarnacion (that's nice to type), see a lot of hittable fastballs.
I know you think it's crazy to have a slow running catcher hitting leadoff, but think about this. Wade Boggs occupied the leadoff spot more than any other lineup spot during his career. He had a .415 OBP and 13.1% BB rate, and nobody would ever confuse him for a fleet of foot guy at the top of the lineup. I know Grandal isn't the pure hitter Boggs was (and he hasn't had an episode of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia dedicated to him), but he was extremely effective as a leadoff man. In more recent years, the Indians have utilized Carlos Santana (a former catcher) in the leadoff spot at times. Santana has a career .367 OBP and 15.4% BB%. That's a pretty good comp for Grandal in my view.
Until Madrigal is ready to assume the spot at the top of the lineup, I think Grandal makes sense for the Sox. He would add high on-base skills from both sides of the plate and have plenty of RBI opportunities to drive in both Madrigal and Anderson at the bottom of the order. Additionally, he will help make the middle of the order mashers better by being on base consistently. Like I said, I see no way the Sox actually do this, but I think it makes all the sense in the world given the lack of better alternatives currently.