Ever since the Tigers parted with Leonys Martin at the 2018 trade deadline, they have not had a traditional leadoff hitter. That is, until they signed second baseman Josh Harrison on February 23, right before their first spring training game. Before the Harrison signing, it was assumed Jeimer Candelario would be the leadoff hitter for the 2019 Tigers, a role he served in the final two months of 2018. In this experiment, Candelario hit .224/.314/.354 with 30 runs scored, one steal, and a 10.5 percent walk rate in 220 plate appearances.
Harrison has spent the plurality of his playing time batting leadoff (1191 out of 3012 career plate appearances), producing a .296/.332/.436 batting line with 157 runs scored, 26 steals, and a 4.1 percent walk rate. However, those numbers were down in 2018 as he hit .250/.293/.363 overall while missing time with several injuries, including a fractured hand and a hamstring strain.
According to an article by Adam Berry of MLB.com back in 2016, Harrison has stated that he feels the most comfortable leading off, as his mentality changes from being an aggressive hitter to a more relaxed hitter.
“I would say that’s where I’m most comfortable,” Harrison said. “I’m an aggressive hitter, but being up there, it slows me down sometimes.” And that, Hurdle said, is when Harrison is at his best -- when he’s managing his at-bats, not falling into “quick-fire mode” and swinging too freely.
However, looking at his career splits, he does not perform any better batting leadoff than in other batting order positions that he has spent significant playing time.
Career splits by batting order position
Compare Harrison’s leadoff numbers to those batting seventh; he has managed identical walk rates (4.1 percent), a four point difference in batting average (.296 to .292), and a two point difference in on-base percentage (.332 to .334). Harrison even has a slightly higher walk rate batting second (4.6 percent) despite his more “quick-fire” approach.
Harrison had a breakout year in 2014, batting .315/.347/.490 with 13 home runs and a 137 wRC+. He has never come close to that performance since, and now that he is over the age of 30, it is unlikely he will ever duplicate it in the future. Below is his most recent performance batting first.
Batting first over the last three years
In 2017, Harrison had a higher than expected walk rate batting leadoff (4.7 percent), but his hit rate was down, producing a below average on-base percentage (.295). According to FanGraphs’ Depth Chart predictions (which combined Steamer and ZiPS projections), Harrison is projected to have a .310 on-base percentage and a 4.8 percent walk rate for the 2019 season.
If getting on base is the most important job for a leadoff hitter, according to these projections Christin Stewart (10 percent walk rate, .321 on-base percentage) and Candelario (9.8 percent walk rate, .319 on-base percentage) seem to be better candidates. However, Ron Gardenhire is an old-school manager, who generally values experience in these type of situations. Harrison is also one of a few Tigers players who is a stolen base threat (JaCoby Jones and Niko Goodrum being the others).
Another side effect of signing a veteran like Harrison is that it allows Goodrum to be used as a “super sub,” filling in at various positions in the infield and outfield. When the Tigers signed Harrison, his leadership skills were highlighted as opposed to his hitting ability as the Tigers bridge the gap until one of their prospects is ready to take second base full-time (most likely Isaac Parades or Kody Clemens).
Chris McCosky of the Detroit News quoted Ron Gardenhire after the Harrison signing.
“He’s a good get for us,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “He’s a positive person, a leader who has proven himself at this level. He’s another guy who can help improve our situation this year, and maybe beyond. “He helps us not only as a player on the field, but he’s a teacher. If we’re going to have some young players on the field, he can help them, too.”
It is unlikely the Tigers will compete for playoff spot this year, so lineup optimization may not have a huge impact for them in 2019. Taking the old-school approach of experience over rookies, and the teaching and mentoring the young players not only fits with Ron Gardenhire, but also fits with where the Tigers are in their rebuild. In this case, having Josh Harrison as the lead-off hitter for 2019 makes the most logical choice.