To Address or not to Address – the Lead-off Spot


Despite scoring 787 runs in 2011 which was good enough for fourth-highest in all of baseball, the Tigers have a glaring weakness in their line-up.  You guessed it – it’s the guy who starts things off.

Austin Jackson’s performance in center-field this year was awfully solid, as he made a serious run at his first gold glove.  He appears to bring a positive attitude to the clubhouse every day, and in a sick way I’m even impressed how much chewing tobacco he can consume in a single game.  Heck, he can even smack the occasional clutch hit.  That being said, he isn’t a lead-off hitter.  Not yet anyway.

I had a brief chat with ESPN insider Keith Law on the topic via e-mail, and he expressed some concern on the Tigers situation with Jackson.

“I don’t care about Jackson’s strikeouts but you can’t hit a .317 OBP leading off.  That spot gets more PA over the course of the season than any other spot in your lineup, so they’re just giving away extra outs.  Plus it’s fewer men on base for Cabrera.”

He then went on to give his opinion on Leyland’s lineups, and let’s just say…he would of done things differently.

You don’t need a degree from Harvard like Mr. Law does to see his point is valid.  If you take a look at the hitters who batted lead-off in the American League on the final day of the regular season, you will see Jackson’s OBP is one of the lowest.  A couple of part-time players Jarrod Dyson and Mike McCoy had lower OBPs.  Coco Crisp and Ichiro did as well, but it’s also worth mentioning each of those guys swiped at least 40 bags while playing for losing teams.

Now have a look at the OBPs of guys who led off for the AL playoff teams:

Derek Jeter –  .355
Desmond Jennings – .356
Ian Kinsler – .355

In the case of the Rangers, Ian Kinsler’s consistent presence on the base-paths was indeed a major reason why the Texas offense was that much more powerful than Detroit’s in October.  Quibbling over an offense that finished fourth in the majors is to an extent tedious, but as you can see, the Tigers have a spot here that clearly see an improvement.

Now during the regular season, there wasn’t a whole lot they could do about it.  I was always entertained listening to 97.1 this year, hearing the countless callers who were complaining about Jackson in the lead-off spot.  “Jackson shouldn’t hit lead-off.”

Mike Valenti or Terry Foster would respond, “Well who do you want to lead off?”

Andy Dirks.” No.

Alex Avila.”  No.

Will Rhymes.”  NOOOOOOOO!

Well there is no time like the present to straighten this out.  We saw our first bit of snow here in Michigan earlier today, which means it’s “hot stove” time – time for players to trade places for the hopeful improvement of the home team.

I asked Michigan native Jon Paul Morosi of Fox Sports his opinion on the matter a couple days ago.  I said it seems like the ideal situation would be to find a second basemen who could handle the lead-off role.  The highly agreeable Morosi concurred.  I could almost see him nodding his head as I read his response.

“You’re right on….but there aren’t many of them out there.  Might have to get creative – see if the Mariners will eat basically all of the money to move Figgins.”

Not a bad idea.  Chone Figgins found a tough time in 2011 seeing the field, and posted the crummiest numbers of his career hitting .188/.241/.243.  But let’s be fair – he was battling a hip issue much of the year, and his career numbers look far better than where they were at this season.  For his career, the 33-year-old is hitting .280/.352/.368.  On average he will also steal 46 bases a year for you as well.  But Morosi also went on to say there are a lot of possibilities out there – just not FA second baseman I’m assuming.

If the Tigers don’t find an upgrade for the lead-off spot, it isn’t necessarily the end of the world.  Austin Jackson’s 2011 OBP was no doubt marred by a pathetic April where he posted a brutal .252.  Also keep in mind Jackson’s OBP for his 2010 rookie campaign was a respectable .345, a number much closer to this year’s AL playoff teams’ lead-off spots.

But if the Tigers can find a guy who has built a track record for clogging the base paths and avoiding strikeouts, it might be a wise idea to follow up on it.  Otherwise, they are essentially saying good-bye to a bucket-full of runs when V-Mart and Miguel Cabrera are hitting rocket-shots into the outfield.