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Should Tim Anderson Continue to Lead Off?

by Adam Kaplan

Ever since Tim Anderson started cementing himself as the Sox’ lead-off hitter in the lineup, the idea that he should be the permanent lead-off man seemed to cement itself into the mindset of much of the fanbase. TA is “the straw that stirs the drink,” as they like to say. Anderson is the fuse at the top of the lineup that sparks the offensive explosion below him. This idea that TA needs to lead off has become institutionalized, and an idea I firmly believed in as well.

However, we have now seen smarter teams like the Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers find success in the playoffs while handling their lineup in a more non-traditional manner. It starts to create cracks in the argument. The Braves consistently led off Jorge Soler in the playoffs and he just won the World Series MVP. The Dodgers consistently led off Mookie Betts in the playoffs. Soler is a traditional slugger who would normally bat third, fourth, or fifth in a lineup. Betts is one of the best players in all of baseball, so he most certainly would not traditionally lead off. So why should the White Sox continue to conform to tradition when determining their lead-off hitter?

Before I get into a deeper discussion about who should lead off for the Sox going forward, I think it’s best to lay a foundation for what we want out of a lead-off hitter. For the longest time, it was solely a speedster. Think Scott Podsednik from the 2005 White Sox or Willie Mays Hayes from the film Major League. Their job is to slap a single and immediately steal second.

Then, the Moneyball revolution came. Billy Beane and the A’s, thanks to their on-field success and documentation in Michael Lewis’ 2003 New York Times bestseller, stressed the importance of getting on-base and not getting caught stealing. In 2005, we see Scotty Pods’ batting average of .290 and his 59 stolen bases and in 2021, we see his .351 OBP and his 72% stealing percentage. It wasn’t just that you could steal a bag, it’s whether you could steal efficiently.

We now know the high importance placed on outs, so it’s important not to give one away by getting caught stealing. As such, we’ve now seen a drastic decline in stolen bases altogether. In 2001, Ichiro Suzuki lead the league with 56 stolen bases, and everyone in the top ten back then swiped at least 30 bags. In 2021, Starling Marte (ironically playing half the year for the Oakland A’s) led the league with 47 stolen bases, and only 6 of the players in the top ten stole 30 or more.

Despite the decrease in stolen bases from the lead-off position, speed is still pretty important at the top of the order – it’s just defined differently. It’s not always about whether you can steal a bag, but other factors like how fast can you move from first base to third base or how quickly can you turn a single for most batters into a double? This is represented by Fangraphs’ BsR statistic and it’s their base running component when calculating WAR.

Outside of speed, a major factor teams now look for when determining a lead-off hitter is how well they get on base. As previously mentioned, this was one of the major takeaways from Moneyball: have the lead-off man get on base and then use his speed to eventually come home thanks to the batters behind him. The better you are at getting on base, the more likely you are to come home.

Lastly, the traditional lead-off hitter doesn’t hit for power. This philosophy is derived from the notion that if you can get on base well, but don’t hit for power well, you can remain at the top of the lineup and let other power hitters knock you in. However, we’ll come back to this discussion later.

Now that we have a foundation from what we want out of a lead-off hitter, we should ask ourselves if Tim Anderson fits the bill. The first aspect discussed is speed, and TA is fast. Not only did Tim Anderson lead the 2021 White Sox in stolen bases with 18, but he also led the team in BsR – and it wasn’t close.

Tim Anderson is also incredibly smart on the basepaths in general as seen by this heads up play to allow Billy Hamilton to score:

Additionally, Tim Anderson doesn’t have that much power. We all know he does have the ability to hit home runs…

but he is not the traditional slugger the way José Abreu or Eloy Jiménez is. TA ended the year 7th on the team in SLG.

But while Anderson may have the power/speed profile to be a lead-off man, he is not that good at getting on base, which is probably the single most important aspect needed to be a lead-off man. Ultimately, TA landed just a tick above Adam Engel and Leury Garcia in terms of OBP for the year.

However, the OBP argument can work a bit in Anderson’s favor when you recognize how dominant he’s been in the playoffs – and frankly in every big moment. All that matters is how you perform in the playoffs, and TA has been nothing short of brilliant. In 7 games, 3 against Oakland in 2020 and 4 against Houston in 2021, Tim Anderson has 16 hits. When you take out his two starts against Lance McCullers, he’s been even better.

So if you take TA’s power/speed profile combined with his high on-base percentage in the playoffs thanks to his ability to hit the ball, Anderson makes for a pretty darn good lead-off hitter after all. Further, Anderson was actually a little bit better overall than the average league-wide lead-off batter.

SIDENOTE: I am going to be citing Jay more to help back up my arguments, so I specifically wanted to shout him out now. If you’re on Twitter and you’re not following Jay, you’re doing yourself a disservice. He’s an excellent follow and super smart.

The issue though with Tim Anderson (when it comes to him being a lead-off hitter) is how he gets on base. Anderson refuses to walk; it’s basically all hits.

Inherently, I don’t care how a player gets on base as long as they get on base, but TA’s consistent ability to hit the ball and not walk makes for a compelling argument against him being a lead-off hitter. If the bases are empty, a single is just as valuable as a walk. However, if the bases are not empty, then a single is more valuable than a walk because it has the ability to move a runner over in a way that a walk cannot do. That means Tim Anderson hitting the ball, even singles, is more valuable to the team with runners on base. However, with Anderson leading off, he’s less likely to hit with a runner on base than every other batter because he guarantees himself at least one inning where he bats without someone in front of him.

In order to maximize TA’s talents and abilities, he should not bat leadoff. He should bat lower in the order. Let runners get on base ahead of him so he can either hit them in or move them over and allow another batter after him to drive them (and him) in. However, if Tim Anderson is not going to bat leadoff, then who should?

To me, the obvious answer to lead off is Yoán Moncada. He gets on base at an elite clip (.375 OBP in 2021, good for 10th in MLB among all qualified hitters) and appears to have very little power (.412 SLG with only 14 HRs in 2021). His BsR could probably be better (see chart above), but at least it was positive this past season. I am not going to argue about how well Moncada played last year, but I do want him in a place in the lineup that maximizes his skills. If Tim Anderson isn’t going to lead off, then Yoán Moncada seems like the obvious, no-brainer answer to me.

However, this analysis from Jay Cuda got my attention:

It is not a great beat for Yoán Moncada that he is dead last among these players. If Moncada bats first, he’s going to be in a whole lot of instances where he leads off an inning and if the Sox are going to score that few runs when he does so, then it’s not a great idea to have him lead off.

To play Devil’s Advocate, Moncada did spend a whole lot of time batting 6th and 2nd, behind TA, in 2021. If Moncada bats low in the order, the main reason the runs per inning would be so low is that the batters in the lineup after him are less talented players, and that wouldn’t be his fault his teammates aren’t good enough to drive him in. Further, if at least Moncada batted first and TA batted second, the “Desastre Personal” singer might score more runs with Anderson, Luis Robert, and José Abreu hitting behind him.

Jay’s analysis above backs up the argument that Tim Anderson should probably stop leading off games, because he obviously had ample opportunities to lead off an inning, and the Sox didn’t do a great job scoring runs, on average, in those instances. So if TA is not going to be the lead-off man and if the next logical choice Yoán Moncada isn’t going to either, then who should?

Per Jay’s tweet above, the person who should lead off games for the Chicago White Sox is Yasmani Grandal. Because Yaz has pretty good power, it makes sense why he batted clean-up consistently throughout the playoffs. However, ultimately Grandal is so elite at getting on base, that he should be the Sox’ new lead-off man. This would certainly be unconventional because the man has lots of power, but is very, very slow. But it would also be a smart decision to make.

As I mentioned at the top of this post, we saw in the playoffs how managers used non-traditional players to lead off games. The Braves did it with Soler, the Dodgers do it with Betts, and the Boston Red Sox did it with Kyle Schwarber. All of these players would traditionally bat in the heart of the lineup (and Soler and Schwarber did so for the Royals and Nationals, respectively). The Red Sox and Dodgers made it to their respective Championship Series and the Braves won the whole she-bang. If smarter teams that are finding success aren’t conforming to traditional baseball norms, why should the White Sox?

It might be jarring to see Yasmani Grandal lead off games, but you’ll get used to it- especially if it leads to scoring more runs. The 2021 White Sox scored the most runs per inning when Grandal led off an inning, so let him lead off more innings.

Jay Cuda did a cursory analysis by simulating games using 2021 statistics and career statistics to determine optimal batting lineups. Below are his results:

A good portion of Jay’s results back up the argument that it would be a good idea to have Yasmani Grandal be the Sox’ new lead-off man. Among players with at least 375 plate appearances in 2021, Yaz was 3rd in the league in OBP, behind only Bryce Harper and Juan Soto. When you’re that elite at getting on base, it’s not the worst idea to lead off for your team.

Now Jay’s model does show Yoán Moncada would also be a good lead-off hitter along with Grandal. Despite the poor amount of runs scored per inning in 2021 when Moncada led it off, it’s not a bad idea to have him bat first over a long season in front of a fully healthy lineup. But that doesn’t get the adrenaline flowing quite like arguing Yasmani Grandal should be the Pale Hose’s new lead off man.

One fact remains clear, Tim Anderson should not be the White Sox’s lead-off hitter. Jay’s model clearly shows the Sox are not as good when TA bats first. Admittedly, this model doesn’t take into account the next level Anderson reaches when he enters the playoffs. Regardless, drop TA in the order to best maximize his skill set.

Let me make it clear, the aforementioned in no way is meant to denigrate TA. Tim Anderson gets nothing but love and respect from me, and I hope he reaches the point where the Sox retire #7 in his honor. I just think we need to have an honest discussion with ourselves as fans about where we’d like to see Tim Anderson bat in the lineup. I hope this article sparks that debate.

Featured Photo: Chicago White Sox @whitesox) / Twitter

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