Follow the leader
Then, on Monday, the D-backs offense broke out again, scoring nine runs on 16 hits against the Phillies. While every D-backs hitter seemed to have a good night at the plate -- even spot starter Wade Miley, who was 1-for-2 with a beautiful sacrifice bunt -- in the D-backs' dominant 9-5 win, Justin Upton might have been the biggest story, as he notched his first home run and RBI of the season.
But, when asked about the team's scoring success after Monday's game, Upton didn't claim much of the credit. He, instead, pointed to the top of the order, where Parra made a key contribution for the second consecutive game.
"Hitting can be contagious, you know," Upton said. "[Gerardo] started it off and Aaron swung the bat and it kind of just trickled downhill from there. That's how lineups roll... If you can get things started, you can get something going good."
Not surprisingly, Upton is exactly right.
In the D-backs' nine wins this season, their leadoff hitters have played an integral part, hitting .300, scoring seven runs with two stolen bases.
Conversely, in the D-backs' eight losses, their leadoff hitters are hitting .125, scoring just three runs, while walking twice with one stolen base.
Manager Kirk Gibson has been fairly unsettled with his leadoff spot this season. In fact, struggling, lowly Royals, lowly Royals have used as many leadoff hitters (four) as the D-backs this season. And it doesn't look like the spot is going to be secured by any one player any time soon.
In a moment, we'll take a look at the D-backs' leadoff candidates but, before we do, let's first review the role of a team's leadoff hitter, as it's defined by tradition and as it's defined by new school sabermetrics nuts.
Traditionally, the prototypical leadoff hitter is seen as a Rickey Henderson type -- someone who equally possesses two primary qualities: on-base percentage and speed. This leadoff hitter is typically the best baserunner and base stealer on a team's roster, meaning speed is integral to the role.
Newer, sabermetric-based strategies, however, call for a leadoff hitter who is, more than anything else, able to reach base. Specifically, such a strategy would identify this type of hitter as one of the best three hitters on a team's roster and someone who draws a lot of walks. Speed is merely a bonus in this kind of strategy, prioritized well behind on-base percentage, walks, and overall hitting ability.
Now that we've established the great value of the leadoff hitter in the D-backs lineups, let's survey the team's options for the spot.
Willie Bloomquist 10 G, .233 AVG, .250 OBP, 6 runs, 1 BB, 2 SB
Bloomquist got off to a supersonic start from the leadoff spot this season, batting 8-for-22 (.364 AVG) with a .391 on-base percentage, two stolen bases, two doubles, and a triple. The Opening Day shortstop also scored a run in each of his first five games. But it's been all downhill from there, as he's currently in a 2-for-21 (.095 AVG) slump in his last five games from the leadoff spot, scoring just one run in those games without walking or stealing a base. His on-base percentage is down to .250 and he hasn't played in either of the D-backs' last two games.
Bloomquist has a career .317 on-base percentage and he was the D-backs leadoff man more than anyone else last season. In the 75 games that he hit leadoff for the D-backs, he had a .270 batting average and a .320 on-base percentage, scoring runs in more than half of those games. The D-backs won 46 of the 75 games that Bloomquist led off.
Ryan Roberts 3 G, .286 AVG, .333 OBP, 2 runs, 1 BB
Already in this young baseball season, Roberts has batted in more than half of the D-backs' batting order spots -- batting first, fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth. From the leadoff spot, Roberts has been quite effective for the D- backs, reaching base in five of his 15 plate appearances while scoring a run in two of the three games he's led off.
Last year, Gibson put Roberts at the top of the order for a career-high 38 games. The third baseman logged a .209 batting average and .298 on-base percentage from the leadoff spot in 2011, stealing two bases and scoring 26 runs. But, perhaps his best quality as a leadoff hitter last year was his ability to draw a walk. Roberts averaged a walk every other game for the D-backs last season, allowing his teammates to see much of each opposing pitcher's repertoire, while driving up his pitch count.
Gerardo Parra 2 G, .375 AVG, .375 OBP, 3 runs, 1 SB
Parra -- "the fourth outfielder" -- has been the most recent top-of-the- order catalyst for the D-backs, helping the team to score 15 runs in the last two games. On Sunday, the 24-year-old Venezuelan hit the first grand slam for a D-backs leadoff hitter since Kelly Johnson hit one against the Cardinals on July 8 last year. And on Monday, he started the D- backs' first inning hit parade, which lasted through all nine spots of the batting order. In a small sample, and against two not-so-experienced pitchers, Parra has proved himself effective at the top of the order.
"[Gerardo] is a developing player," Gibson said of Parra in a recent press conference. "He gets overly aggressive, so... you know, when you're a leadoff hitter, you've got to be more patient." And according to Gibson, that -- patience -- was something that Parra had been working on. He went on, "Could [Parra] develop into a guy that could be up there a lot? Well, that's one of the things we look at. He could be."
Parra is significantly less experienced at batting leadoff than the aforementioned two, as he spent most of his time at the bottom of the D-backs batting order last year, starting only seven games as the team's leadoff hitter.
Young hasn't led off for the D-backs yet this season, but he did bat in the leadoff spot 20 times last year for the club, tallying a .298 on-base percentage while scoring 12 runs and stealing three bases. Despite this season and last season, Young has spent the majority of his five-year career batting leadoff. In his career, he has a .247 batting average and .320 on-base percentage with 141 runs scored and 41 stolen bases in 227 games from the leadoff spot.
Many would point to Young's power numbers from earlier in the season as a reason to keep him lower in the D-backs' batting order. But with a .410 batting average and a .500 on-base percentage with six walks and two stolen bases, Young may be a viable leadoff candidate when he returns from injury. It's quite possible that the centerfielder's power will be effected by his right shoulder contusion and minor ligament tear, which may make him more useful at the top of the order, as a see-a-lot-of-pitches, get-on-base- a-lot, score-a-lot-of-runs guy.
(I left out AJ Pollock from this discussion, as he's likely to be headed back to Reno upon Young's return. The young outfielder has failed to reach base in his seven at- bats from the leadoff spot this season.)
Take your pick. Who do you like at the top? Whoever it is, the importance of a dependable leadoff man to this D-backs team cannot be understated, whether you ask statisticians or Justin Upton himself.