Starting a few days ago I noticed rumblings throughout Pirates Social Media about making a change at the leadoff spot in Pittsburgh’s lineup; and to be totally honest I was so preoccupied with Ke’Bryan Hayes’ absence in the number two spot, as well as having Erik Gonzalez bat cleanup, that I hadn’t really given it much thought.
For as long as Adam Frazier has put on a Pirates uniform there have been detractors concerning his abilities, both in the field and at the plate. Over the past two years, after being a Gold Glove Finalist, some of these apprehension have been put to rest; even though if you look at the numbers, he is having his worst defensive year by far in recent memory. In 2019 Frazier was 14 OAA (Outs Above Average) according to Statcast, and then in 2020 he was at 7 OAA; but now he is at -2 OAA, and many are focused on his spot in the batting order. Although, if you look deeper into the numbers he has been performing better overall in the number one spot this year; just not when it comes to leading off the game.
Throughout the annals of Major League Baseball, the lead off spot has been held in high regards. Maybe not as much as the clean up hitter, who gets the glory of bringing in all those who come before him with monstrous blasts, but at times they have become near equals; with the likes of Rickey Henderson, Tim Raines, Ichiro Suzuki and Craig Biggio, or Lou Brock and Pete Rose for some of the more seasoned baseball fans. These players set the tone for their teams, as they got on base at record rates, got themselves into scoring positions by swiping bags, or hit homers to give their ball club the early advantage.
One of these legends Adam Frazier obviously is not, and it is truthfully a completely unfair comparison or expectation. Still, for the most part he has been the best option the Pirates have had for at least the last couple of years; outside the stellar rookie performance of Kevin Newman. That year Newman hit .382 in the leadoff spot overall and slashed .296/.324/.507 with three homers and a 119 sOPS+ relative to every other lead off hitter in the league to start the game, while Frazier posted a 101 sOPS+; mostly due to his 5 home runs in only two more at bats.
Now of course it goes without saying that the 2020 was an odd year, where most of the Pirates experienced downturns in their production; nevertheless Frazier still found success to the tune of a 130 sOPS+. Of course he only had a 68 sOPS+ altogether, so obviously everything wasn’t great. However, Newman completely fell off a cliff with a -100 OPS+.
Flash forward to the present, where Frazier is batting .300, but is surprisingly at the league average for sOPS+ of 100 when batting first, and an abysmal 1 sOPS+ as the first batter of the game for the Pirates, which could be the reason for fans questioning whether or not he should stay in that spot. Yet, with all of the injuries that the Pirates are dealing with, the lack of production from players like Newman and the inexperience from other options, I am not sure there is an immediate answer to these concerns.
The name I have seen most often to take over the leadoff spot is recently acquired Ka’ai Tom, who has shown patience at the plate thus far in his Pirates career. In 22 at bats-extremely small sample size-Tom has a 36.4% walk rate, a .424 OBP and a 113 OPS+.
It is hard to believe that these numbers are sustainable, but it might not be out of the question to catch lightning in a bottle to provide some energy by mixing things up. That is unless Derek Shelton is looking for stability in the lineup, with only Frazier, Newman and Stallings left from Opening Day; hopefully to be rejoined by Bryan Reynolds, as well as Ke’Bryan Hayes and Colin Moran from the IL very shortly.
No matter what Shelton decides to do, it is undeniable that this roster, as it is currently constructed, is not built to maintain the success they experienced against the Cubs on Sunday afternoon; and that they need the aforementioned guys to return in order to competitive day in and day out, but more importantly, to continue to build toward the future.