Though spring training is just getting underway, new manager Ron Gardenhire is already giving thought to how his Opening Day lineup might take shape. The 2018 Detroit Tigers will lack reliable sluggers like Ian Kinsler, Justin Upton, and J.D. Martinez, who consistently found themselves in the top half of the batting order.
In their place will be a combination of familiar faces with question marks, and newer bodies with somewhat limited upsides. Gardenhire has the unenviable task of making the most of this bunch. While the bar is lower this season than in recent years, there is still no place for suboptimal decision making, which makes some of his early comments a bit concerning.
The Athletic’s Katie Strang recently spoke to Gardenhire about his upcoming decisions, and he apparently has a favorite to take the leadoff spot from the get-go:
Already, one newcomer is gaining traction as a possibility in the leadoff spot, as Gardenhire confirmed in a recent media session that he could “absolutely” see newly-acquired outfielder Leonys Martin as a fit atop the order, especially considering his speed.
Gardenhire continued, citing Martin’s ability on the basepaths as a strong case to put him atop the lineup. The evidence for this reasoning is certainly there. Setting aside 2017 when Martin played in less than 50 games, he accumulated 21.7 BsR (FanGraphs’ statistic encompassing all activity on the basepaths) from 2013-2016, which ranked ninth in the MLB. His 105 steals during this time frame ranked 12th out of 1239 players.
Given these numbers, it might be tempting to jump aboard this train and pencil Martin into the No. 1 spot in the lineup. However, to be a threat on the basepaths one must first get on base, which has been no easy feat for him.
Martin enters 2018 with a .300 career OBP, and his .232 OBP last season would have ranked last in baseball had he accumulated enough at bats. He had one season with double-digit homers, but essentially he is limited to singles. Below is a comparison of Martin’s career stat line compared to the average of all leadoff hitters last season.
Clearly Martin has an advantage in just one area: base running. The table above prorates his BsR metric to a full season, but even a down year for Martin would put him ahead of the average leadoff man. Nevertheless, he would easily be one of the worst batters at the spot if he does indeed win the job.
Perhaps the reason Gardenhire likes Martin is because of a lack of solid competition on the Tigers roster. There are not many players that instantly jump out as strong candidates to lead off instead.
In the lineups on both Saturday and Sunday, Martin was indeed leading off, followed by Jose Iglesias. Like Martin, Iglesias is a speedy player who seems like a traditional leadoff batter. However, he has been even worse at getting on base than Martin, sporting a .288 OBP last season.
On paper, there is really only one logical choice to sit atop the batting order for the Tigers. Mikie Mahtook hit .276/.330/.457 in Detroit last season with a decent 3.2 BsR. His 107 wRC+ is above average for a leadoff hitter, and he gets on base enough to benefit the rest of the sluggers behind him. He may not rack up as many steals as a player like Martin, but he more than makes up for it at the plate.
With a big spring, Mahtook will earn himself a place in the leadoff conversation and may even win the job outright. It is just unfortunate that the early nod favors Martin, a player who is objectively worse in almost every key offensive area. In a spring with not much excitement for the Detroit Tigers, this is one battle to watch.