Alcides Escobar is not walking through that door.
For years Royals fans have debated whether Esky should lead off, but last year the team finally bumped Alcides down in the lineup and went with Jon Jay and Whit Merrifield to top the lineup. Merrifield would seem to be the favorite to lead off again this year after leading the Majors in hits and stolen bases, but manager Ned Yost is considering some tweaks to the lineup.
Ned said he is debating whether to have Adalberto Mondesi lead off this season and have Whit Merrifield bat second. Ned said he he likes the power, switch-hitting element of Mondesi leading off, as well as Merrifield's bat control/run producing skills in the No. 2 spot.— Jeffrey Flanagan (@FlannyMLB) February 28, 2019
The emergence of Adalberto Mondesi as a threat both at the plate and on the basepaths gives the Royals some interesting options at the top of the lineup. Should it be Merrifield-Mondesi? Or Mondesi-Merrifield? Who should lead off?
Why Whit Merrifield should lead off
If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, right? Last year, the Royals had Merrifield lead off with Mondesi hitting second over the final 23 games. In those games, they scored 4.7 runs-per-game,up significantly from their 3.8 run-per-game pace prior to that. Now that’s a small sample size and a lot of that may simply be from playing guys like Mondesi and Ryan O’Hearn over the stop gap players there before, but the lineup was clicking with Merrifield followed by Mondesi at the top.
Having Merrifield at the top of the lineup could also give Mondesi better pitches to hit. There does seem to be evidence that pitchers will throw more fastballs with a speedy runner at first base, so having the stolen base title-holder at first base could allow Mondesi to see more heaters, which are easier to handle. This could mitigate Adalberto’s weakness, which so far has been pitch recognition.
And putting Whit at leadoff may give more plate appearances to what may their best offensive player. ZIPS projects Merrifield to post a .331 on-base percentage, better than anyone else on the team except Jorge Soler. More plate apperances means more Whit on base, and more Whit on base leads to more runs.
Why Adalberto Mondesi should lead off
This is a rebuilding season, so the Royals should be trying out all sorts of new ideas, including possibly batting Mondesi leadoff. Leading off with Mondesi makes some sense, as he is likely more of a stolen base threat than Merrifield - odd to say when Merrifield led the Majors last year, but if you pro-rate Mondesi’s stolen base total to a full season he laps the crowd.
As Yost suggests, batting Merrifield second could also open up stategic possibilities since Whit is so good at handling the bat. Merrifield does a better job putting the ball in play with a 16.5% strikeout rate last season compared to 26.5% for Mondesi.
“The Book”, a treatise on recommended strategies based on analytics written by Tom Tango, Mitchel Lichtman, and Andy Dolphin, recommends putting your best hitter at #2 to maximize plate appearances, but also allow for RBI opportunities. As Aaron Gleeman at Baseball Prospectus puts it:
The reason that no. 2 is often the choice instead of no. 1 is that batting second allows for more runners on base. It’s kind of a best-of-both-worlds solution relative to the leadoff and cleanup spots, adding more plate appearances but also leaving some RBI chances.
If you believe Whit is the best offensive player (ZIPS projects Merrifield and Mondesi to be about equal offensively overall, although with greater OBA from Whit and more slug from Mondesi), then hitting him second behind Mondesi would provide Whit to both get on-base but also have RBI opportunities when Mondesi is on base. On the other hand, Mondesi projects to have a sub-.300 on-base percentage, so the opportunities for Whit to move him over or get him home may not be there that frqeuently.
Having Mondesi lead off would also give him some more lineup protection with Merrifield hitting behind him rather than, say Alex Gordon or Jorge Soler. On the other hand, there are questions as to whether lineup protection is really a thing.
Ultimately it probably doesn’t matter too much as long as both hitters are at the top of the lineup. The Royals will have two pretty dynamic hitters who can be major threats on the basepaths. Whether or not that will lead to a lot more runs remains to be seen, but at the very least it provides for a more exciting brand of baseball to watch in 2019.
Who should lead off for the Royals?
This poll is closed