On Friday afternoon, the Braves released their lineup card for their series opener against the Orioles and as usual, a lot of attention focused on what the leadoff spot would look like. Sure enough, Brian Snitker had apparently grown weary of batting Ozzie Albies in the leadoff spot and with Ronald Acuña Jr. currently rehabbing in Gwinnett, that left Ender Inciarte as the “only” choice to hit at the top of the order and sure enough, there he is at the top of the order.
While it’s clear that the main reason why Inciarte is up there is because of his speed and aggressiveness on the basepaths, it does not take a sabermetrician to see that he does not really fit the profile of a leadoff hitter. Ideally, you want the guys at the top of the order to be able to consistently get on base. Going into Friday’s action, Inciarte’s OBP was sitting at .309, his wOBA was at .292 and just for kicks, he was sporting a wRC+ of 81. Ender is a fine ballplayer but a leadoff hitter, he is not.
The same could be said for Ozzie Albies and that’s simply because he’s not taking walks. Ender’s career walk rate is slightly above six percent and this year it’s slightly up above seven percent. Ozzie’s walk rate for this season is barely above 5 percent. Again, Ozzie is extremely fast and it’s a joy to watch him tear up the basepaths but he’d be better served hitting basically anywhere but the leadoff spot.
Having Albies and Inciarte leadoff has actually been a self-inflicted wound to the Braves offense, as explained at the end of the tweet below:
That being said Ender has been good getting on base tonight. Coming into the game #Braves lead off hitters have a league worst .279 OBP.— Nubyjas Wilborn (@nwilborn19) June 23, 2018
It may be unfair to compare the Braves’ options at leadoff to the golden standard of offense that is the Houston Astros lineup but I’m going to do it anyway. Look at George Springer — he gets on base with an OBP in the mid .350s, he can also hit for power (as evidenced by his 15 dingers and his Isolated Power floating slightly above .200) and he’s got enough speed to where he can at least make things interesting on a “routine” groundball. He’s basically all that you could want out of a leadoff hitter in this current era and he’s a big reason why the Astros lineup is so good.
That brings me to the Braves solution, which should be obvious. When he’s healthy, Ronald Acuña Jr. should be at the top of the lineup. It’s a blessing to have a player who you could put anywhere in the lineup but right now, he’d be best suited at the top. He can get on base regularly (.326 OBP), he can deliver at the plate when he does make contact (111 wRC+) and once he’s on base, he’s got the speed to cause havoc. According to Baseball Savant’s Sprint Speed Leaderboard, Acuña’s sprint speed is at 29.8 feet per second. To put that in comparison, Byron Buxton is currently baseball’s speed king with a 30.5 ft/sec sprint speed and Dansby Swanson is a shade behind Acuña at 29.3 and Ozzie is at 29.0. He’s got the tools to hit anywhere but right now, it’s painfully clear that he’s the guy who should be at the top of the order.
However, there are going to be times where Acuña’s not available (as we’ve experienced for the vast majority of June) so who would be the ideal leadoff hitter in his absence? It would be none other than the current “cleanup” hitter, Nick Markakis. Now, Markakis is not going to give you too much speed at all but what he is going to do is get on base. He’s currently having a lovely year at the plate, as evidenced by that beautiful OBP of his, which is floating around in the .390s at the moment. He definitely shouldn’t be the leadoff guy when Acuña is available but he’s be more than capable of being a great table-setter for the rest of the lineup if it had to come to it.
Another candidate would be Johan Camargo and he’s similar to Markakis in that while you are not going to get a speed demon at that spot, you are going to get someone who can consistently get on base. While his batting average isn’t exactly impressive, he makes up for that with a walk rate that is floating around 14 percent which contributes to his solid OBP. Plus, he has the potential to break that magical .200 number when it comes to ISO, which means that he’s bopping it when he does put the ball in play. Again, it wouldn’t be ideal to have him at the top regularly but with that type of on-base production, it wouldn’t be horrible to have him up top.
So in my view, there are three viable options that the Braves have when it comes to their leadoff situation: Acuña and then either Markakis or Camargo if Acuña can’t go. While the Braves are still doing just fine with Snitker choosing between either Albies, Inciarte or even Dansby Swanson at the top of the lineup, it’s still clear that things could be optimized so that this offense could really begin to spread its wings and soar.
With all of this being said, it’s still highly unlikely that we’ll see this happen. Here’s what Brian Snitker recently had to say when it came to the leadoff spot:
Brian Snitker: "I personally think we're at our best if (Inciarte's) leading off and doing what he's capable of doing." #Braves— Gabe Burns (@GabeBurnsAJC) June 24, 2018
#Braves’ Acuna will likely bat somewhere in middle part of order when he returns, not at the top. Snitker likes what he’s getting from top two now.— David O'Brien (@DOBrienAJC) June 25, 2018
Welp. I guess we’ll just have to continue being patient.