Tigers' Granderson redefining leadoff role

Jeff Passan
Yahoo! Sports

He doesn't get the hubbub. The way Curtis Granderson figures, leadoff hitters actually lead off only once a game, so all of the attention they garner – it's them and cleanup hitters with the recognizable nicknames, after all – isn't necessarily warranted.

Perhaps it was the romantic notion of the leadoff hitter: the scrapper who fouls off pitches and gets on base and dashes from first to third and manufactures runs, intangibles idealized. That player, of course, is a relic in the steroid and sabermetric eras, generally inefficient, and the prototype has evolved into Leadoff 2.0, the type of player Granderson and others across the game embody.

They can run, yes, but they also hit for serious power, enough that they'd fit just fine in the No. 3 hole, the lineup's true glamour spot. And some of them have moved there, only to end up back at leadoff, because the luxury of such players hitting first has proved a narcotic to managers, something that no matter how much they try to wean themselves off it, the pangs are too strong.

Most extra-base hits, leadoff hitter, 2000s
Player Year XBH
Grady Sizemore 2006 92
Alfonso Soriano 2002 89
Curtis Granderson 2007 81
Jimmy Rollins 2007 80
Alfonso Soriano 2006 79
Jimmy Rollins 2006 78
Alfonso Soriano 2007 77
Alfonso Soriano 2003 75
Darin Erstad 2000 70
Gary Matthews Jr. 2006 69
Craig Biggio 2004 69
Shannon Stewart 2000 69
Hanley Ramirez 2007 68
Brian Roberts 2005 68
Johnny Damon 2000 68

"I need to set the tone, and that can be done a number of ways," said Granderson, the 27-year-old Detroit Tigers center fielder. "You could have your old-school taking pitches so you get the pitch count up and let the hitters behind you see everything the pitcher has. But if you're a guy who can drive the baseball, you're going to be aggressive and set the tone by either getting on base, getting an extra-base hit or, possibly, starting the game off 1-0."

Granderson more or less described himself, and last season he finished fifth in the American League in slugging percentage. His divisional and positional peer, Cleveland's Grady Sizemore, socked 92 extra-base hits the year before.

Philadelphia's Jimmy Rollins won the National League MVP from the leadoff spot last season, though his numbers paled compared to Florida's Hanley Ramirez, still only 24. The Mets' Jose Reyes, the speediest of all leadoff hitters, packs good pop, and Arizona's Chris Young hit 32 home runs and fell three stolen bases shy of being the majors' first 30-30 rookie. And we can't forget the leadoff hitter who best epitomizes the power surge – and the most misplaced – Alfonso Soriano, who must be telekinetic with his ability to convince manager after manager that keeping him hitting first is a stroke of brilliance.

All seven players share one characteristic in addition to hitting dynamism, and that's foot speed, which remains a prevailing factor behind batting first – though not the only, as Kevin Youkilis (95 games in 2006) and Paul Lo Duca (44 in 2001) can attest. It's managers' last gasp at the classic leadoff hitter instead of one who resembles Rickey Henderson, baseball's greatest power-and-speed combination at the top of the lineup since Ty Cobb.

"It used to be getting the small guy up there with a small strike zone to make the pitcher uncomfortable," Granderson said, rattling off heights – Reyes at 6-foot, him and Soriano 6-1, Sizemore and Young 6-2, Ramirez 6-3, all gargantuan save for Rollins, who, at 5-8 (in spikes), suffers no Napoleon complex.

"Things have changed. It's a challenge. And I love it."

Granderson didn't envision himself a leadoff hitter. Throughout the minor leagues, he hit second. Then, in 2005, the Tigers tinkered with Granderson leading off and knew they hit jackpot: 30-homer power and 30-steal speed with plenty of room to improve, if he can cut down on his strikeouts.

"We don't really have a prototype leadoff guy, and I'm not really sure he's that type," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "But he's good."

Leyland understands the value of Granderson hitting leadoff because in his first season managing he had a similar hitter at No. 1. Spindly, left-hander, good power, very good speed.

Now, Barry Bonds is baseball's home run king.

"I had Bonds hit a lot of leadoff home runs," Leyland said.

Eventually, Leyland understood the power played better with Bonds in the No. 3 and No. 4 spots, so he moved down. Cleveland tried that with Sizemore last year, cognizant that between 1963 and 1994, no one had 92 extra-base hits in a season. The experiment at No. 3 lasted eight games. The Marlins have been hitting Ramirez in the third hole for the last two weeks after trying him there for more than a month last season, and his OPS drops 140 points from when he hits leadoff. The biggest surprise this season, Pittsburgh's Nate McLouth, has slid down from the leadoff spot, where he hit seven home runs, to the No. 2 hole, where he added five more, to third, where he still is looking for his first.

For now, Granderson will stay in Detroit's leadoff spot, as much a product of the firepower behind him – Miguel Cabrera and Magglio Ordoñez and Carlos Guillen and whatever's left of Gary Sheffield – as his own inconsistency this season. After missing the season's first three weeks because of a fractured middle finger, he returned with five home runs in his first 11 games. Granderson snapped a 12-game drought with another home run Tuesday, and though his .244 batting average is unsightly, his .511 slugging percentage more than makes up for it.

"I think he's a guy who can go down in the lineup at some point in his career," Leyland said. "But he's still in the process of learning how to knock in runs, and he's really the one true piece of speed we have."

So every game, Granderson trots into the batter's box first for the Tigers, his job multifold. He needs to be the nag, the pest, the one who makes people uncomfortable, who grinds out at-bats to the tune of 4.37 pitches per, second best in the AL. And he needs to hit for power along the way, the 20-20-20-20 season last year – 20-plus doubles, triples, home runs and stolen bases – setting a mighty standard.

No one said being Leadoff 2.0 is easy. Which is just how Granderson likes it.