Everything starts in the beginning, and by everything, I’m including baseball games.
When filling out a lineup, a manager attempts to tell a story, a hopeful one at that. The archetypal lead off man, the hitter who digs his cleats into the batter’s box first, exhibits speed, agility, baseball intelligence, patience, and tenacity.
Take, for example, late great Philadelphia Phillie Richie Ashburn. Ashburn played for 15 seasons, 12 of them in Philadelphia, and batted lead off almost his entire career. Ashburn showcased all of the necessary attributes of a good table setter. He had a career .308 batting average, .396 on base percentage, 12.3 career walk percentage, averaged 88 runs scored per season, and ended his career with 234 stolen bases. Ashburn rightfully deserves to have the most popular section of Citizens Bank Park named after him.
Speaking of Phillies lead off hitters, since August 2001, Jimmy Rollins has occupied the #1 spot in the Phillies batting order. Rollins’ lead off hitting resume shines, but not as bright as his Whiteness. Rollins sports a career .270 batting average, .328 OBP, 7.6 BB percentage, an average of 98 runs scored per season, and over 400 career stolen bases. As a switch hitter, Rollins provided often needed and highly valued versatility at the top of the lineup, while added a dash of power, something that Ashburn never did. Still, lead off hitters need to do whatever it takes to reach base safely, force opposing pitchers to labor, use their speed and acuity to scamper along the bases in order to score as many runs as possible
Now, back to the present day. This off-season, General Manager Ruben Amaro made a change. Needing a center fielder, Amaro acquired on from the Minnesota Twins in exchange for pitchers Vance Worley and Trevor May. Enter Ben Revere, a young (24 years old), speedy, left-handed outfielder with 2 seasons worth of MLB playing time under his belt. Revere satisfied a number of holes the Phillies needed filled, including incredible range in the outfield, a penchant for stealing bases, and youth.
Following the Phillies’ acquisition of Revere, a number of questions begin floating around concerning the top of the Phillies batting order. Would it be the veteran Jimmy Rollins, or the newcomer Ben Revere? Since coming up from the minors, Revere had batted 1st in the batting order in 128 games, or 48% of the time, showing that he has experience as the table setter, and that Twins manager Ron Gardenhire trusted the young outfielder to bat in the position of the batting order that is most likely to accrue the largest number of plate appearances in any given game.
So, after Revere hit lead off in almost every Spring Training game in which he appeared, Charlie Manuel made the decision to hit Revere lead off to start the season. This gave Manuel the ability to move Jimmy Rollins around the order where his combination of speed and power could help the team the most. Revere has hit lead off in every game the Phillies have played this season, but hasn’t put up the numbers the team foresaw when trusting him with the responsibility of the top spot in the order. Thus far Revere has posted a sub .300 on base percentage, only one multi-hit game, 4 total runs scored, and 4 stolen bases.
So, what’s wrong; why isn’t the Phillies new lead off hitter performing as expected? First of all, 8 games is a very small sample size, so in no way am I saying that any of Revere’s stats are predictive for the rest of the season, nor do any of those same statistics indicate anything more than a slow start. On the other hand, if we look at Revere’s splits for the season, he actually looks more favorable. Revere has had 30 plate appearances against right-handed pitching and 7 against lefties in 2013. Against righties, Revere has a respectable .286 batting average and a .333 on base percentage, but against lefties he’s hitless, and has yet to even draw a walk.
Revere is a left-handed hitter, so it’s reasonable to expect his numbers to be better when facing right-handed pitching, but is this pattern indicative of an issue? In order to get to the bottom of this, let’s take a look at how Revere has fared against lefties in his career to date.
|vs. LHP||vs. RHP|
As you can see, Revere seems to fair just as well at the plate against lefties as he does righties. The only significant difference being that Revere must see right-handed pitching a bit better than southpaws due to his elevated walk rate against righties. What allows Revere to be successful against lefties and righties stems from his quick hands and risks allowing Revere to make an incredible amount of contact. This fact is backed up by the stats. Revere sports a 92% career contact percent, which in comparison to Jimmy Rollins’ career contact percentage of 87% means that we can expect more balls in play and fewer strikeouts from the top spot in the order. Revere has a higher propensity to slap hits the other way against lefties, while spraying the ball to all fields against righties, a sign that he often picks up pitches later in the zone.
At 3.54 pitches seen per plate appearance, Revere ranks 65th in the National League in that category, a number he must improve upon. Patience and selectivity at the plate from the lead off hitter allows the sluggers hitting behind Revere gain more information about the pitcher on the mound, generally leading to more successful at bats.
In his career, Revere has hit well against some of the games better left-handed pitchers, including Jon Lest and Tony Sipp as well as some of the game’s lesser lefties like Tim Collins, Jason Vargas, and Tim Collins. He hasn’t faired well against lefties like Bruce Chen and Mark Buehrle pitches who have little to offer in the velocity department but rely on breaking balls, control, and deception to get outs. in 2013 Revere has put 6 balls in play against lefties, all of which have gone for outs. He’s faced 5 left-handed pitchers, Paul Maholm, Tim Collins, Luis Avilan, Josh Edgin, and Scott Rice. Edgin, Avilan, and Collins all top out around 93 mph on their four-seam fastball, while Rice and Maholm barely touch 90. All 4 throw a breaking ball that come sin much slower than their respective fastballs, and more than one of these lefties throws sinking fastballs.
Combine all that information and we get a sense that when facing lefties, Revere doesn’t perform as well with slower pitches with more depth, break, and movement attached. His quick hands at the plate often get the better of him against southpaws, diving through the hitting zone too quickly leading to a greater propensity to hit the top of the ball, resulting in ground ball outs. Revere’s numbers against lefties should return closer to his career numbers, but given the Phillies need to optimize every bit of their lineup in order to win games, Charlie Manuel should consider letting Rollins bat lead off when facing lefties that don’t rely on fastballs.
Revere is a young, but worthy candidate at the lead off spot. He doesn’t have as high an OBP or batting average as Whitey, but his numbers are an improvement over his predecessor, Jimmy Rollins. Still, the Phillies hitting success hangs sharply on the productivity of Ben Revere, and given his talent, Revere needs to get on base at a more consistent clip, especially against southpaws. While I’m in no way saying that if Revere resolves his early season struggles at the plate that all the Phillies issues will magically disappear, but by setting the table properly, the Phillies will be on their way to winning more games.