Justin Upton should be the Arizona Diamondbacks leadoff man
You know that maxim that you were inundated with as a child -- "Don't judge a book by its cover"? The sentiment of the statement is benevolent but, as a society, we've all but abandoned its application.
I, for example, frequently hear that I don't look like a sports fan -- if there is such a look. Maybe I don't wear enough athletic apparel, maybe I should be drinking more crappy light mainstream lagers, or maybe I should grow a goatee.
I don't know how to acquire that image but, as things stand, my appearance seems to give no credence to the truth that I have an addiction to sports. (In fact, a couple of weeks ago, I was called a "closet jock.")
Appearance is just a poor basis for drawing conclusions. Based on appearance, Nate Robinson shouldn't be able to dunk a basketball. And Rory McIlroy shouldn't be able to drive a golf ball 310 yards. Paul Goldschmidt shouldn't be leading the Diamondbacks in stolen bases. And Mike Zagurski shouldn't be a professional athlete... In any sport other than curling or archery.
That's why the following statement is going to be repugnant to your prejudicial self.
Justin Upton should be batting leadoff for the Arizona Diamondbacks.
(Before we dive into the proof, let me give credit to shoewizard at azsnakepit.com for being the first to write about this.)
Also, before you deem this idea absurd or asinine, here's what Upton himself had to say about the suggestion when we talked about it on Monday:
"I haven't really thought about it. I mean, I know I could bat leadoff -- I've always just been a middle-of-the-order guy. But I'd be open to it..."
(After sharing my logic with him.)
(Joking) "Maybe if I was batting leadoff, I'd be hitting .340. (Laughs). No, you've definitely got a solid story... Sounds like there's some pretty good evidence there... I'd definitely (bat leadoff)."
Upton hasn't batted leadoff since his freshman year in high school, so it's hard to determine just how well he'd do as a table setter. But we can gather a bit of an estimate on how he'd fare, based on how he has done when leading off an inning this year.
Justin Upton, when leading off an inning
Obviously, those numbers don't directly correlate with Upton's potential production from the leadoff spot. And 78 plate appearances is a miniscule sample size. However, just for fun, if Upton were to carry his .372 on-base percentage to the leadoff role, only three leadoff hitters would get on base at a higher rate -- Mike Trout (.401), Dexter Fowler (.390), and Austin Jackson (.383). That's pretty good company. Alex Gordon (.367), Shin-Soo Choo (.366), and Derek Jeter (.364) are the next best leadoff hitters in OBP rank.
We've already looked at Upton's on-base percentage when leading off an inning -- a strong .372. His actual OBP this year is a strong .361, which is second only to Miguel Montero among current Diamondbacks. Upton also has the second-most walks on the team, again next to Montero, with 51, and no one else is even close to that mark.
And no matter what baseball heresy you've confessed, the ability to get on base is the premier quality of a leadoff hitter -- not speed and certainly not batting average. Getting on base for Aaron Hill, Jason Kubel, Paul Goldschmidt, Miguel Montero and company is the quintessential task of a Diamondback leadoff hitter. Upton has proven that he can do just that while filling a couple of roles -- three-hole hitter and five-hole hitter -- that don't exactly yield themselves to a get-on-base approach. Rather, Upton's task all season has been to drive in runs -- a make-contact approach -- undoubtedly prompting him to swing more than he probably would as a leadoff hitter.
Not only does Upton lead his team in runs scored, having scored at least 12 more than everyone other Diamondback, but only five other National League hitters have scored more runs than the Diamondbacks right fielder -- and they're all household names.
NL runs leaders
It's logical to assume that Upton's number of runs would go up as his number of plate appearances went up, as they would if he batted leadoff for the Diamondbacks. Approximately 17% of Upton's plate appearances result in a scored run, which is a higher rate than all but two NL players.
NL runs per plate appearance leaders (minimum of 350 plate appearances)
A key objective for every leadoff hitter is to take a lot of pitches. This helps his teammates to survey the range of the opposing pitcher's pitches which, in effect, drives up that pitcher's pitch count. A solid grasp on the strike zone is, thus, a necessity for leadoff hitters.
Upton has that grasp.
Only eight NL hitters swing at less out-of-zone pitches than Upton, who whacks at a measly 25.8% of such pitches. Upton leads the Diamondbacks in that category, with Jason Kubel's 27.8% out-of-zone swing rate ranking second on the team.
First of all, speed is an overrated attribute for leadoff hitters. But if you happen to be a Bill James-hating, sac-bunt-loving, old school baseball type who still overvalues speed in leadoff hitters, know this: Upton is your best top-of-the-order option. Along with Goldschmidt and Parra, he leads the team in stolen bases with 13.
He may not be a burner, per se, but his speed is clearly adequate. To give you some hard evidence, NL leadoff hitters are averaging a stolen base in 3.5% of their plate appearances; Upton is averaging a stolen base in 2.7% of his plate appearances -- a rate that would surely go up if he were batting leadoff.
For whatever reason, Upton's power statistics are significantly down this year. He is currently on pace to finish the season with 14 home runs -- one fewer than he hit in 2008, which was his first full season in the big leagues.
If you were judging Upton by his proverbial "cover" -- his physique, middle-of-the-order residence, or past numbers -- you would never bat him leadoff. But if you'd look close enough at his numbers, you'd realize that he isn't the power hitter you imagine him to be, at least not this season. The "he has too much power to hit leadoff" argument doesn't work for Upton of 2012. In fact, eight leadoff hitters (Shin Soo Choo, Zack Cozart, Dexter Fowler, Austin Jackson, Derek Jeter, Ian Kinsler, and Mike Trout) have more home runs than Upton this season.
Upton is hitting more line drives and ground balls than ever, with rates of 22% and 45.8%, respectively. Now, let's survey the corresponding rates of three of the game's better leadoff hitters.
• Mike Trout - 23.9% line drive rate / 43.3% ground ball rate
• Michael Bourn - 21.9% line drive rate / 53.1 ground ball rate
• Derek Jeter - 21.0% line drive rate / 64.8% ground ball rate
Let's be real -- chances are Justin Upton will never bat leadoff in his career. His size and perceived tools -- his "cover," if you will -- predestined him to be a middle-of-the-order guy. But if you open up the Justin Upton stat book this year, you'll find a different character.