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Let’s build a leadoff hitter

The Twins don’t have a clear-cut leadoff hitter on their roster, so it appears they may need to Frankenstein one by platooning for the 2019 season.

Minnesota Twins v Detroit Tigers Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

As the calendar has turned to 2019, the Twins organization is looking towards a new strategy for its offense. After high-OBP hitters Joe Mauer and Robbie Grossman left the team due to retirement and not receiving a contract, respectively, Derek Falvey and Thad Levine chose to target multiple sluggers to fill out the roster. First baseman C.J. Cron was claimed off waivers from Tampa Bay, while second baseman Jonathan Schoop and designated hitter Nelson Cruz were given one-year contracts. All three have at least one 30-home run season in their careers but Cruz is the only one to have shown any semblance of patience at the plate in his career. Thus, getting on base may be a problem for this team.

Last season, MLB hitters drew a walk in 8.5% of their plate appearances which resulted in a .318 OBP. Looking at the Twins roster, I’m guessing there might be a platoon at catcher between Jason Castro and Mitch Garver and also in right field between Max Kepler and ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ (Cruz? But he’s played just 9 OF games the last two seasons). Among the expected regulars for the 2019 season, only Garver, Jorge Polanco, Miguel Sano, and Cruz have a career OBP over the 2018 league OBP of .318.

Of those players, Sano and Cruz are destined for the middle of the lineup due to their slugging nature, so they’re out. That leaves Garver and Polanco, but Garver would most likely start during day games at the end of a series and when a lefthanded pitcher is on the mound. However, the platoon works out perfectly as the switch-hitting Polanco has performed better against righthanded hitters in his career (.278/.346/.424, 106 wRC+).

There are some issues, though. On Garver’s end, he’s hit just .229/.305/.347 (73 wRC+) in 131 plate appearances against lefties, but there might be good news as I’m assuming he’s performed better against them in the minors, though I’m not sure where to get that data. The second problem is that Garver is likely a below-average baserunner, both due to the fact that Statcast has his foot speed at 26.4 ft/sec (they claim the league average is 27 ft/sec) and because FanGraphs rates him as below-average on the bases in his short career (look at the BsR column, FanGraphs’ all-encompassing baserunning statistic). Therefore, though Garver is a bat-first catcher, he’s probably not an ideal leadoff man.

Unfortunately, finding a leadoff man against LHP will be tricky and it depends on how creative you’re willing to be. With Kepler struggling immensely against southpaws thus far (.202/.273/.332, 61 wRC+), he’s either going to sit or should be buried at the bottom of the batting order. Having him ride the bench would open up a spot for Tyler Austin, who has limited major league experience in right field. We remember Jacque Jones as a leadoff hitter, but Austin would be even stranger. With more power than Jones, Austin also belongs in the heart of the lineup, but the middle would already be populated by Cruz, Cron, Sano, and Schoop. Austin is a career .272/.345/.592 hitter (145 wRC+) against lefties in his career, so he’d get on a base a ton, but would also give the Twins many early 1-0 leads. FanGraphs doesn’t think his baserunning is anything special, but now it’s time to get weird. Austin was measured as having an average top speed of 27.2 ft/sec, or roughly league average. Hey, no wonder the Yankees thought he could patrol that short right field porch at Yankee Stadium.

There’s also the hope that Byron Buxton will eventually become the everyday leadoff hitter. He hasn’t shown much offensively outside of 2017 and part of 2016 but one hot streak at the dish could set him up as the #1 hitter in the lineup on a daily basis. With his speed and ability to wreak havoc on the bases, he’s just needed to be a better hitter in order to be more than Billy Hamilton 2.0. Even if he was strictly the leadoff hitter against lefties, Buxton has walked in 9.3% of his plate appearances against southpaws. His .299 OBP against them is atrocious, but that’s because his batting average is the culprit. Going a little deeper, it’s actually his 31% strikeout rate (major league average was around 22% last year). If he could cut down the strikeouts and in turn hit around .250, we might be seeing him lead off ballgames by the time July rolls around.

Finally, I’m going to circle back to this lineup against righthanders because there’s one other intriguing player I haven’t suggested yet. Though Kepler has been horrendous against lefties in his career, he’s been perfectly adequate against righties (.245/.328/.448, 106 wRC+). That batting average is low but with a 10.7% walk rate, Kepler is like Buxton in that his numbers are a little low due to a poor batting average. Unlike Buxton, however, it’s not due to a poor strikeout rate (16.3% vs. RHP). Rather, he has a .258 BABIP against righties in his career, significantly lower than the league average that consistently hangs around .300. I feel Kepler would make more sense as a leadoff hitter than Polanco, especially after factoring in that Kepler has been the better baserunner in his career than Polanco.

In summary, this is a tough nut to crack. The solution is easy against righthanded pitchers in that the Twins should choose between Kepler or Polanco, but it’s not so clear against lefties. They could keep a consistent leadoff hitter with Polanco in spite of his relative struggles, or they could think outside the box with Austin. Or they could blow everyone’s minds and start every single game with our new favorite player, Willians Astudillo.