Since early in the 2016 season, Charlie Blackmon and DJ LeMahieu have been mainstays at the top of the Colorado Rockies’ lineup. For Blackmon, all 168 of his starts have come in the leadoff spot. LeMahieu has moved around a bit more but has primarily hit second, with 134 of 176 starts coming from that spot in the batting order, including all 32 so far in 2017. This clearly has worked for them. Blackmon sports a 130 wRC+ during this time frame with LeMahieu not far behind at 119. But it still might not be the optimal way to deploy them. They should switch places.
The answer to the question, “who gets on base more?” is a good way to determine who should hit leadoff. The goal of the leadoff hitter is to get on base to set the table for the 2-5 hitters, who theoretically are four of your top five hitters (with the leadoff man being the fifth). Since the beginning of 2016, LeMahieu has had better on-base skills, with a .404 on-base percentage to Blackmon’s .376. This is a simple way to view it, but it it is only one of many reasons the move makes sense.
In addition to the on-base percentage advantage, LeMahieu’s walk and strikeout rates of 10.4 and 12.8 percent, respectively, also beat Blackmon’s 6.6 and 16.4 percent rates. Taking walks and putting the ball in play are two more desirable traits of a leadoff hitter, who will take more of his plate appearances with the bases empty than any other hitter in the lineup (he’s the only hitter guaranteed at least one of these per game). With the bases empty, a walk is identical to a single (whereas with runners on base, someone could advance two bases on a single), and any ball in play at the very least presents the opportunity for a defensive error without the risk of hitting into a double play.
Speaking of double plays, in 2016, LeMahieu hit into a double play on 16.96 percent of his double play opportunities (defined as any plate appearance with fewer than two outs and runners on first, first and second, or the bases loaded). This was the 13th highest rate of 146 qualified hitters and the highest of any Rockies hitter. Blackmon, on the other hand, hit into a double play in just 2.6 percent of his double play opportunities, third lowest among qualified hitters and the lowest of any Rockies hitter. This makes sense given LeMahieu’s high ground ball rate compared to Blackmon (52.2 percent to 36.3 percent) in addition to Blackmon hitting left-handed and having better speed.
It’s a real rally killer when the leadoff man reaches, only to be eliminated by a double play a batter later. Swapping these two would help to eliminate this and give the power hitters in the middle of the order more opportunities to hit with runners on base. In fact, Blackmon should probably be one of those power hitters trying to drive in the leadoff man.
Blackmon has hit 37 home runs and has 91 total extra base hits since the 2016 season began (LeMahieu has 12 and 59). That’s a great number! Unfortunately, 30 of those home runs and 67 of the extra base hits have come with the bases empty. All extra base hits are good, but extra base hits with the bases empty are the least good. Circling around to what we were talking about before with the double plays, it’s wise for a team to try to get as many people on base as possible in front of its best power hitters to maximize the damage those power hitters can do. Blackmon leads the club in wRC+ and is third in isolated power since the beginning of 2016. What better way to get him to the plate with runners on base than to put him right behind LeMahieu, the club leader in on-base percentage?
The Rockies have gotten off to a strong start in spite of a lineup that entered play on Wednesday 21st (not counting pitchers) in wRC+. That number will likely improve as the season wears on, but the Rockies also have an opportunity to score more runs by making one minor change to maximize the production of two of their best hitters.