One of the several decisions manager Brian Snitker had to make after Ronald Acuña Jr went down with a torn ACL was who was going to lead-off for his lineup. Acuña represented arguably the best lead-off hitter in the game with an elite combination of power, patience, and speed and honestly was the easiest decision Snitker had to make on a daily basis. Bat Acuña first and figure out the rest from there.
Joc Pederson was acquired almost immediately after the injury and was a logical choice to fill that role. Pederson had spent several years as the Dodgers lead-off hitter with his combination of power and patience, a couple of those coming with Alex Anthopoulos working in the front office, so the fit made sense. And as soon as he arrived, that’s exactly what happened. For the two weeks between the start of the second half and the trade deadline, Pederson was slotted at the top of the Braves’ lineup. And he did very well, playing everyday and batting .306/.348/.468 for those two weeks.
The problem was, the team still wasn’t consistently winning or scoring runs. So after a busy trade deadline where Anthopoulos added two more everyday players in Adam Duvall and Jorge Soler, Snitker decided this was the time to change things up and move Ozzie Albies up to the number one spot.
And the team took off. In the 21 games that have been played since then, the Braves are 16-5 and have scored the fifth most runs in the league during that span. It’s tough to argue with the results.
The problem is, the Braves winning and scoring more runs after Albies was moved to leadoff is not the same thing as the Braves winning and scoring more runs because Albies was moved to leadoff. This is a classic example of correlation doesn’t equal causation. Not only are the Braves not scoring more runs because Albies is batting first, really they’re scoring more runs in spite of the fact that Albies is batting first.
Since the move on August 1st, Albies is batting .222/.290/.422 with an 88 wRC+ from the leadoff spot. That’s not helping anyone. If you actually want know why the Braves have the 5th most runs scored in the league in August, it’s because the 2-3-4-5 hitters have a collective 147 wRC+ this month. Jorge Soler, Freddie Freeman, Austin Riley, and Dansby Swanson have been unbelievable. That’s your causation for scoring more runs. Add on top of that terrific pitching and a soft schedule, and that’s your causation for winning more games. But moving Ozzie to lead-off? That’s all correlation.
It’s also not terribly surprising Albies would struggle leading off. His is not an offensive profile you’d ever really target for that spot. He’s always been a low OBP/high SLG-type hitter, which typically work better in run producing spots. Old school managers almost certainly would look Ozzie and peg him as a leadoff guy because he’s small and fast, which is some combination of lazy and stupid. This is not 1988, players have clear offensive profiles we can quantify that tell us the type of players they are and where they fit best. We don’t have to do it by height and weight anymore.
Albies has a history of not really liking leadoff as well, as this is not the first time it’s been tried. In his relatively short time with the Braves, Ozzie has batted in every spot in the lineup, not surprisingly, given his speed. Ironically, it’s in the leadoff spot where Albies has his lowest career OBP (.302) and one of his lowest career walk rates (6%) both below his overall career numbers. Maybe you guys saw Moneyball, maybe you didn’t, but it shouldn’t come as a shock that on-base percentage matters everywhere, but it really matters batting first.
Looking through his other numbers in different spots in the order, it’s not surprising where Ozzie has found the most success. Where he has at least 150 PAs, Albies’ three most productive spots in the lineup have been 2nd, 3rd, and 4th, with 3rd being the best of all. Again, Ozzie has always been a low OBP/high SLG-type hitter so a run producing part of the lineup has always made the most sense for him. Notably, when has been somewhere in the middle of the order, his OBP jumps up to the .340 range on top of having the plus power. He just seems more comfortable being a run producer vs a table-setter.
Of course, you can’t write an article about who shouldn’t be leading off and not at least offer up a viable alternative. If I was king of the world, or at least of the Atlanta Braves, I’d move Pederson back to leadoff and play him everyday. I don’t really understand how he not only lost his lead-off spot, but also lost his everyday job, becoming a platoon player with Guillermo Heredia, all after playing so well since joining the team. I would remedy both of those things and move him back to starting in CF and batting first everyday.
My ideal lineup probably looks something like:
- CF Pederson
- RF Soler
- 1B Freeman
- 3B Riley
- SS Swanson
- 2B Albies
- C d’Arnaud
- LF Duvall
If you’re worried about Pederson vs LHP then ok fine, put Heredia in CF, bat him 8th, and push everyone up a spot. But again, it’s Guillermo Heredia. Just let Joc play. I put Ozzie 6th just because the 2-5 guys are playing so well, I didn’t really want to mess with them. But that’s a strong 1-8 and Ozzie being a switch hitter helps balance out all the right-handed guys after Freeman.
Does lineup construction matter a ton? No, but without Acuña and Soroka for the rest of the year, Atlanta needs to maximize every ounce of value in every aspect of the game. Especially now that the cupcake part of the schedule is over and there are some real teams standing between them and a fourth straight division title.
One way of doing that is putting guys in spots in the lineup that match their offensive profile and skill level. Ozzie is not a leadoff hitter. I know he’s small, I know he’s fast, but he’s not a leadoff hitter. And while Joc Pederson isn’t Ronald Acuña Jr, he’s more than capable of doing that job for a playoff team. So understand correlation vs causation, make the switch, and live with the results.