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Earlier today, Terry Collins all but inserted interim-2nd baseman Jordany Valdespin as the leadoff man on Opening Day. Collins, citing Valdespin’s scorching hot start and increased plate discipline this spring, made a decision that is going to negatively influence the team’s performance until Daniel Murphy returns. The decision to make Valdespin the leadoff man is one based on a small sample size and should be reevaluated. From a traditional standpoint, there are several categories that people examine for an ideal leadoff hitter:
- Speed: Leadoff men ideally have speed as a compliment to their skill set. In helping to either go from first-to-third or steal a base, this is a very traditional category.
- Gap Power: It’s rare for leadoff men to possess both power and speed, so ideally a hitter will produce power that will be conducive to doubles and triples rather than home runs. This is also ideal to get into scoring
- Ability to Work a Count: Taking a lot of pitches, tiring out a pitcher, and therefore helping those behind him who have the opportunity to see what the starter is featuring that night.
- “Explosiveness”: This is the category that is more so a character trait than any quantifiable statistic. “Explosiveness” may refer to a gritty style of play, how a player slides into a base, their charisma, and similar attributes.
Beyond the traditional measures of a leadoff hitter, the following have become increasingly important as advanced statistics and technologies have become available:
- On-Base Percentage (OBP): Perhaps made most famous by Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, OBP measures how often a player reaches base beyond the traditional batting average. While Juan Pierre may have hit .279 in 2011, he reached base at a .329 clip. Meanwhile, Ruben Tejada hit a fairly comparable .284 but reached base at a much higher .360 rate. This is one of the reasons why Tejada was a more valuable player than Pierre in 2011.
- Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA): Similar to OBP, wOBA is a statistic that better helps to measure how much more valuable a player’s offensive contributions are to their club. While OBP only measures how often a player reaches base, wOBA measures how valuable a player is when counted toward run value. According to FanGraphs, the statistic varies by year, with .400 being excellent, .320 being average, and .290 being awful.
- Weighted Runs-Created+ (wRC+): An offensive statistic similar to OPS+, but much more accurate. wRC+ helps to measure how many runs a given player created with 100 being league average, and anything above or below directly corresponding in their respective direction. An excellent season is deemed such at 120, and to put that into historical context Ricky Henderson’s 1985 season earned him a 160 wRC+.
While there are many more statistics that can help to quantify how valuable a player is, they’re not imperative to the forthcoming argument. Without further adieu, I’m glad to present my definition of the Jose Reyes Effect.
The Jose Reyes Effect: From 2003-2011, the New York Mets were spoiled with a charismatic, dynamic, and energetic shortstop in Jose Reyes. Previously, the club had struggled to fill the leadoff spot, and upon his departure to Miami in 2012 the club faced a familiar void. In one season without Jose Reyes, the Mets have attempted to implement fellow Reyes’ successor, Ruben Tejada, into the role without much luck. The Jose Reyes effect isn’t about Jose Reyes, Ruben Tejada, or Jordany Valdespin. Rather, it’s about the organization and fan base trying to find a player in the mold of Jose Reyes to fill into the spot.
One can’t help but see the similarities between Jose Reyes and Jordany Valdespin. Aside from them being close friends outside of baseball, the two Dominicans have much in common. They’re both the “explosive” type of player that fans love-They beam charisma, energy, and exude confidence all while maintaining a youthful innocence-serving as the antithesis of the crosstown rival Yankees. Speed is a big part of their game (although Reyes is a much more successful base stealer), and they’ll both have the occasional mental lapse on the base paths or in the field.
When it comes to finding the ideal leadoff hitter, only Jose Reyes has proven that he can be successful in such a role. Many would argue that Reyes actually isn’t the ideal leadoff hitter, but when comparing Reyes and Valdespin the only clear choice is Reyes. Valdespin simply doesn’t have the track record to support a full-time role as the club’s leadoff hitter.
Using Valdespin’s most reliable sample size (his six minor league seasons), he has posted a .283/.330/.427 line through 1,575 ABs. When comparing that to other player’s lines, Mike Baxter, Marlon Byrd, Collin Cowgill, Daniel Murphy, and Ruben Tejada would all get on-base at a higher rate than Valdespin. In 46 ABs this spring, Valdespin has only accumulated one walk (that being when he was hit by a pitch). To justify leaving Valdespin in the leadoff spot for a prolonged period of time, he would need to his nearly 50 points higher than his career average.
If one wants to examine stolen bases, things get even cloudier. Valdespin has 94 minor league stolen bases to go along with 50 failed attempts. That’s good for a 61% success rate, a number that would need to increase at least 14% to justify Valdespin attempting to run as much as he does. His failure to steal at a high rate has cost his team more runs than it has aided.
The Mets need to break the Jose Reyes effect and choose the most logical leadoff hitter to begin the 2013 campaign rather than the one who is going to be the most similar to Jose Reyes. If the season were to start today, the best option would be for Collin Cowgill to have have possession of the spot. Cowgill has impressed this spring, but disregarding spring statistics he still makes more sense. Through five minor league seasons, Cowgill owns a .291/.371/.470 line. He’s 80-for-99 in stolen base attempts (80.8% success rate), a positive influence on the bases.
Cowgill and Valdespin both have similar sample sizes in the major leagues as well. In 191 official ABs Valdespin owns a .241/.286/.424 line while Cowgill owns a .255/.319/.311 line in 196 ABs. Cowgill’s line is not similar to Valdespin’s line in that his service time came as part of two different organizations (the Arizona Diamondbacks and Oakland Athletics) over two years as opposed to one team with one year. For their careers, Cowgill owns a slightly higher wOBA (.304) than Valdespin (.299), although Valdespin has a higher wRC+ due to his pinch hitting success.
The New York Mets are a team in a state of flux heading into Opening Day. Injuries aside, the club has faced many issues with outfield depth and putting together their roster. The Jose Reyes Effect is one that will be played out over the course of not only this season, but until the Mets can find a legitimate leadoff hitter that can secure the position for the long term. While Collin Cowgill may not be the answer for the next decade, he’s the player most conducive to the Mets success in 2013 in the role.
Photo Credit: Michael Baron