Ever since I saw Max Kepler leading off on opening day, I have been thinking about this question. Over the course of Kepler’s 1638 plate appearances coming into this season, he had hit everywhere in the lineup except 1st. In this article I am simply looking to assess the Twins’ leadoff options.
Max Kepler: Kepler is not a prototypical leadoff hitter. Last year he hit just .224, but was able to maintain a .319 OBP. Obviously, you want your leadoff hitter to be one of your highest OBP guys and with his hefty contract extension this offseason, the Twins seem to believe he can develop into that guy. Last year, he was just 7th out of 10 qualified Twins hitters in OBP last year. Grossman, Mauer, Polanco, Escobar, Garver, and Rosario were ahead of Kepler. Dozier, Adrianza, and Morrison were all behind him. Teams also want the leadoff hitter to work the count, and that is something that Kepler is very good at. However, if you are working the count, that means you are going to have to hit in a lot of counts with 2 strikes. Last year, Kepler hit .118 with 2 strikes, while the league average was .173. If Kepler can’t figure out how to get hits at a consistent rate (especially with 2 strikes), he appears to be more of a 5 or 6 hitter than a leadoff guy.
Byron Buxton: If anyone on the Twins is built like a typical leadoff hitter, it’s Buxton. Buxton’s spring training stats provide hope that he can finally find some consistency at the plate (as long as he stops hurting himself). He may not walk as much as you’d like from a top OBP spot, but he clearly has the speed. Billy Hamilton is another player with elite speed, but his inability to get on base has kept him near the bottom of the lineup in recent years. Buxton was always projected to be a better hitter than Hamilton, and clearly has room to gain power as well.
Jorge Polanco: Over Polanco’s suspension shortened 2018 season he hit for a .288 average and .345 OBP. He clearly passes Kepler in both categories and has similar speed. While teams traditionally put their best hitter third in the order, teams have started putting their best all around hitter second (see Mike Trout and Christian Yelich). Polanco has been the Twins' best hitter this season and I would prefer that he stays in the #2 spot.
Marwin Gonzalez: Gonzalez didn’t hit well in spring training (.115 AVG) and had a down year last season (.247 AVG .324 OBP and 16 HR) but those numbers are quite similar to Kepler’s. However, if Gonzalez is able to find his 2017 form he could be a great lead off option. In the Astros’ World Series winning season, Gonzalez hit .303 and got on base at a .377 clip (he also added 23HR). He hasn't hit well so far this season, but if he can find his bat, he remains a leadoff possibility.
Willians Astudillo: You had to have known this was coming… Conventional wisdom says that you want a lead off hitter who can work the count. Do you know what’s better than working the count, sending Astudillo up there to rip a double and the first pitch and rattle the pitcher to his core. Clearly, nobody knows what to do with Astudillo, as he hit 3rd on consecutive nights in NY, but is sitting on the bench to start the Twins' two game series against the Tigers.
Overall, I’m just not sold on Kepler being a leadoff hitter, but frankly, the Twins don’t have many options. Buxton seems like the most logical choice and if he keeps hitting well, I think we’ll see him in the top spot before the end of May.