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Ian Kinsler was among the changing dynamic of the MLB leadoff hitter

Kinsler wasn’t the only leadoff hitter swatting a bunch of home runs last year.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Atlanta Braves Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Ian Kinsler had his best season in a Detroit Tigers uniform in 2016. Not only did he win his first career Gold Glove Award, he had a great offensive season as well, hitting .288/.348/.484 with a 123 wRC+. His 28 home runs were the most he has hit since 2011 and ranked third on the Tigers team behind Miguel Cabrera (38) and Justin Upton (31). Even more impressive, Kinsler did it all from the leadoff position.

In fact, Kinsler’s numbers suggest that he should have been hitting in the middle of the order. Well, at least in the traditional sense. Kinsler’s .831 OPS was better than cleanup hitter Victor Martinez (.826), and mid-lineup hitters like Nick Castellanos (.827) and Justin Upton (.775).

Using Baseball Musings’ lineup tool, the most optimized Tigers lineup based on on-base percentage and slugging average in 2016 was:

  1. Cameron Maybin
  2. Miguel Cabrera
  3. Victor Martinez
  4. J.D. Martinez
  5. Ian Kinsler
  6. Justin Upton
  7. Nick Castellanos
  8. James McCann
  9. Jose Iglesias

However, the Tigers were not the only team that used middle of the order production at the top of the lineup in 2016. The Indians used Carlos Santana at the leadoff position for 86 games during 2016, the first time ever that he has led off after primarily batting fourth for most of his career. Another example is Adam Jones of the Baltimore Orioles. After batting mostly in the third or fourth position since 2011, Jones found himself batting leadoff in 108 games for the Orioles. Here is a list of the top production from batters hitting first in the order.

Player Team PA (in the leadoff spot) HR OPS
Charlie Blackmon Colorado Rockies 634 29 .935
Trea Turner Washinton Nationals 308 13 .933
Brian Dozier Minnesota Twins 337 27 .917
Matt Carpenter St. Louis Cardinals 511 20 .913
Mookie Betts Boston Red Sox 516 23 .901
Carlos Santana Cleveland Indians 395 19 .886
Jean Segura Arizona Diamondbacks 677 20 .868
Dextor Fowler Chicago Cubs 546 13 .842
Jonathan Villar Milwaukee Brewers 565 17 .836
Ian Kinsler Detroit Tigers 672 28 .828
George Springer Houston Astros 542 20 .816
Cesar Hernandez Philadelphia Phillies 312 4 .812
Adam Jones Baltimore Orioles 488 24 .791
Ender Inciarte Atlanta Braves 354 2 .790
Zack Cozart Cincinnati Reds 358 15 .781

Overall, leadoff hitters combined for a batting line of .273/.339/.424 during the 2016 season. That .764 league-wide OPS for 2016 was the second-highest figure in MLB history (tied with 1987) dating back to 1913. Only 1929 was higher, when the league-wide OPS for leadoff hitters was .779. The 576 combined home runs from leadoff hitters in 2016 set a new record, 110 more than the 466 home runs from 2008, just after the end of the steroid era. Below shows the increasing number of home runs through the years by leadoff hitters.

Leadoff hitter home runs

Managers also seem to be getting away from stolen bases that are typically associated with the leadoff hitter. Leadoff hitters stole a combined 638 bases during 2016, nine fewer than 2015 and the lowest amount since the 595 bases stolen from the leadoff position in 1975.

As analytics become more and more prominent in the game of baseball, there is a noticeable change in the way managers are organizing their lineups. In a 2009 article published by Beyond the Box Score, they gave a summary of who should be hitting in each batting order position based on The Book.

The Book says OBP is king. The lead-off hitter comes to bat only 36% of the time with a runner on base, versus 44% of the time for the next lowest spot in the lineup, so why waste home runs? The lead-off hitter also comes to the plate the most times per game, so why give away outs? As for speed, stealing bases is most valuable in front of singles hitters, and since the top of the order is going to be full of power hitters, they're not as important. The lead-off hitter is one of the best three hitters on the team, the guy without home run power. Speed is nice, as this batter will have plenty of chances to run the bases with good hitters behind him.

The .764 OPS from the first spot in the lineup was fourth best mark after the traditional 3-4-5 of the middle of the order. This has been consistent over the past few years, but it was just in 2012 when the lead-off spot was also significantly below the sixth spot in the order, .715 OPS to .742.

Batting Order Position OPS
Batting 3rd .827
Batting 4th .799
Batting 5th .769
Batting 1st .764
Batting 2nd .757
Batting 6th .738
Batting 7th .696
Batting 8th .692
Batting 9th (non-pitchers) .687

It will be interesting to see if this trend will continue in 2017. Will more managers be willing to pluck a hitter from the middle of the order and put them in the leadoff spot to get more out of their lineup? In Kinsler’s case, he was already a top of the order hitter that happened to get hot and have a good year (although it would have been easy to move him back to the second spot once Cameron Maybin was healthy). As for moving forward, Maybin is already gone and Kinsler may soon follow, so it will be interesting to see if manager Brad Ausmus tries to replace him with someone that will provide similar production.