Let me just get this out of the way. It’s not Kevin Kiermaier.
It’s also not Mallex Smith.
It’s not even the newly acquired Carlos Gomez.
But shouldn’t a fast guy bat leadoff to put pressure on the defense? Not necessarily.
Speed is valuable, and players with speed are also valuable, but speed itself isn’t any more valuable at the top than it is anywhere else.
The man at the top should be the type of player who doesn’t just put pressure on the defense, but rather, puts pressure on the pitcher.
So what kind of player is this? In today’s game, the ideal leadoff hitter is someone who gets on base. A lot. Men who get one base a lot, touch home plate a lot, that’s just logic. This player should also have some power. The ability for a top of the order hitter to get extra base hits will help his team score runs more efficiently, and will eliminate the need for him to need to attempt to steal bases, as well as eliminate the need for the most useless play in baseball, the sacrifice bunt. In other words, a leadoff hitter should not only get on base, but stay on base.
Now, what if I told you that someone like this was already on the Rays? That he’s been under their noses all along? If you’re not sitting down, you ought to be.
The answer? Brad MIller.
Since Brad Miller joined the Rays before the 2016 season, he’s been quite an enigma. He got off to one of the worst starts I can remember, slashing .185/.254/.354. Then, he broke out to have possibly baseball’s quietest 30 home run season, finishing the season with a .482 slugging percentage. In other words, he’s got the power.
But it’s what he did in 2017 that has me convinced that he’s our best option for the top of the order. I know what you’re thinking, how could a guy who hit .201 bat leadoff?
Well, it’s a two part answer. The broader answer is that his batting average doesn’t matter, but that’s a different argument altogether. The more specific answer? Two words: walk rate.
In 2017, Brad MIller had a walk rate of 15.5%. Had he not spent some time on the disabled list, that would have been good for 5th in baseball, tied with Edwin Encarnacion, one of the most prolific power hitters of the last decade. While his 30 home run season in ’16 may have been flukey, his ability to draw walks actually dates back to August of that year. And, contrary to stats like home runs or RBIs, the ability to control the strike zone has been proven a more repeatable skill. This is why On-Base Percentage is one of the most valued statistics in baseball. Even with his putrid batting average, because of his walk rate, Miller was still able to post a .327 OBP in ’17, beating out Evan Longoria and Corey Dickerson.
In 2018 though, I expect it to be much higher. I will warn you, though, this next part does involve math.
Let’s just say that Brad Miller matches his career batting average and slugging at .238 and .409, respectively. If Miller were to reach the plate 600 times having a healthy season, a .238 avg would give him 144 hits. A 15.5% walk rate would give him 93 walks. That alone would have been good for a 7th place finish in baseball last year, one behind Paul Goldschmidt and Mike Trout and two ahead of Anthony Rizzo. Not to mention, Brad Miller was leading the American League in walks before he went on the disabled list.
144 hits + 93 walks (not even going to include the occasional HBP or errors) = 237 times reached base
237 / 600 plate appearances = a .395 OBP, good for 13th in baseball in 2017
Simply put, Miller has the chance to get on base at a higher clip than any Ray in recent memory. Being that this year’s Rays team will project to be more of a high contact team than the high home run, high strikeout teams that have taken over the game, It may be the perfect fit. Brad Miller will get on base, and the hitters behind him will hit. He may not be the prototypical leadoff hitter, except for the fact that he actually is.