COMMENTARY | Before the season started, the leadoff spot was one of the biggest concerns for the Atlanta Braves. Fast forward 21 games into the 2013 season and absolutely nothing has changed. Manager Fredi Gonzalez is still futilely trying to find a way to jam a round peg into a square hole every time he fills out his lineup card. The Braves' hitters simply do not possess the attributes teams look for in a leadoff man. This season, the musical chairs venture at the top of the order is hitting a combined .195 with a .268 on-base percentage.
So what is the answer moving forward? Is there even one to be found?
When the Braves allowed Michael Bourn to use the free agency escape hatch (someone should really try putting a lock on that thing), the general consensus was for Martin Prado to take over at the top of the Atlanta lineup. But opportunity knocked for the Braves when the Arizona Diamondbacks inexplicably felt the need to let Justin Upton wander out of the desert -- I think I can speak for all Atlanta fans when I say that Diamondback's GM Kevin Towers will be on everyone's Christmas card list this December. But even though the Braves made the right move, it still left a large void at the start of their offensive carousel.
Not a problem, Andrelton Simmons will bat leadoff
In 166 at-bats in 2012, Simmons hit .289 and tallied a very respectable .335 OBP. The Braves figured they had a serviceable Plan C and installed Simmons as the new table-setter. So much for that idea; Simmons has hit .133 with a microscopic .182 on-base percentage while in the coveted No. 1 spot this season. Given his ability to hit for contact, Simmons always seemed more like a prototypical two-hole hitter to me. Regardless, his foray into becoming the next Ricky Henderson was a short-lived one.
Fine, "A" didn't work; let's just start moving through the alphabet.
B.J. Upton soon got the nod as Fredi Gonzalez hoped moving him on up would shake him out of his early-season slump. The reviews have been somewhat mixed for the elder Upton in this role. He is batting just .229 at the top of the order; however that is significantly higher than the 1-for-32 mark he has plopped down while hitting everywhere else. With an average of 26 stolen bases per season, Upton does have the requisite speed to justify an extended stay at the top; however contact is a serious issue.
Upton has already been given the sit-down signal from umpires 27 times in the first 21 games. He is also striking out in 25 percent of his at-bats in the leadoff role. Upton has currently slid down to the two-hole in place of the right-fielder with the recently extricated appendix. Jason Heyward will be out until at least May 6, when he is scheduled to come off of the 15-day disabled list. Jordan Schafer will likely get some ABs in the No. 1 spot while he plays the part of Heyward's understudy. While Schafer does have more of the ideal leadoff skills, he is only a short-term solution.
While Dan Uggla is currently on pace to have a higher strikeout total than batting average, he isn't as much of a laughable option as a leadoff hitter as one might expect. Despite the low average, Uggla still manages to regularly get on base thanks to his walk total. Granted, his career .348 on-base percentage does provide an odd juxtaposition when paired with the rest of his stats, but thanks to his 94 walks in 2012, Uggla's OBP was identical to Michael Bourn's last season. It may be crazy to think of installing Uggla at the top of the order, but right now the Braves are in a situation where he literally could not do any worse.
Chris Johnson could be the best option on a team with no other options. His has started 2013 red-hot with a .397 average. Johnson also has the team lead in OBP with a .424 mark. While he isn't going to pilfer any bases (just 10 total in his career), he is someone who makes consistent contact and strikes out considerably less than the other available choices on the roster. While Johnson hasn't hit in the No. 1 spot this season, he is batting .667 (6-for-9) when leading off an inning.
What's the big deal if the Braves don't have a good leadoff hitter?
The problem with the lack of consistent on-base threats at the top of the order should be very apparent by simply glancing at Justin Upton's stat line. Upton is leading the league in home runs and just set the Braves' franchise record for most four-baggers in the month of April when he hit No. 11 against the Colorado Rockies, yet the problem is seen when you shift your eyes one column to the right. Upton only has 16 RBIs, which is an inexcusable number to show for those eleven jacks. So many solo home runs means Atlanta is leaving a lot of potential runs off of the scoreboard by not being able to get on ahead of their power hitters.
The good news is that the Braves have been winning in spite of their lack of production from the top of the order. Still, despite great pitching, and a lot of early-season home runs, the long-term prospects of being able to win a pennant while the first two spots in the order hit a combined .168 is not very likely. Fredi Gonzalez continues to tinker, but nothing has clicked yet. Look for the leadoff spot to be a major concern until further notice.
Anthony Schreiber is a freelance sportswriter based in "Braves Country." He has penned articles for a variety of online publications and magazines.
- Sports & Recreation
- Justin Upton
- Atlanta Braves
- Fredi Gonzalez