By Brent Hubbard – AngelsWin.com Columnist
And tonight, leading off for your Los Angeles Angels will be…
Third baseman Chone Figgins? Left Fielder Chone Figgins? Designated Hitter Bobby Abreu? Shortstop Erick Aybar? Second baseman Howie Kendrick? Infielder Macier Izturis?
Throughout the last decade, there have primarily been two leadoff batters for the Angels, Shortstop David Eckstein and the play anywhere Chone Figgins. Both quickly became fan favorites.
Eckstein was allowed to leave (he was non-tendered in the arbitration process) after four seasons as the Angels leadoff guy and Figgins took over. He lost the job after two seasons, but then grabbed it back and was the primary leadoff man for two more before reaching Free Agency this off-season.
Over the past ten years, the most offensively potent Angels teams seem to have consistent play from the leadoff spot, while the years in which the Angels offense seemed a bit lacking certainly started at the top of the order. This certainly gives credence to Manager Mike Scioscia’s philosophy that the leadoff hitter is the most important hitter in the lineup. Over these ten seasons, the only other Angels players to have had the majority of the starts in the leadoff role during a season were OF/1B Darin Erstad, and OF Reggie Willits. Erstad is no longer with the team, and Willits is a possible non-tender candidate, after hovering around the Mendoza line in the two seasons since he started 77 games in 2007 as the leadoff hitter.
In the year 2000, the Angels set a then-team record for many offensive categories. Home Runs (236), Doubles (333), and SLG % (.472) still remain team records, as does the extra-base hit mark (579). No statistical category led the league that year, but overall, this has to be looked at as one heck of an offensive season.
They were led that year by the greatest single season ever from an Angels’ leadoff hitter, and really one of the greatest seasons in Angels’ history. Darin Erstad’s .949 OPS, .409 OBP, .541 SLG, and .354 BA from the leadoff spot is the gold standard for Angels’ leadoff hitters. No Leadoff hitter has come close to this mark, while his 25 HR and 100 RBI from the leadoff spot may never be equaled.
But that team’s offensive success was derailed by a lack of pitching depth, and ever since the team’s focus has been on the pitching side of the ball. While the Angels have focused on the pitching side of the ball, several teams have been impressive offensively, the one constant with these teams, is an impressive leadoff hitting performance.
In 2001, the team struggled to a 75-87 finish. As a group, the leadoff hitters finished with a .275 BA and a .700 OPS. They managed just 83 runs down 40 from 123 the previous season.
In 2002, David Eckstein’s emergence as the everyday leadoff hitter turned things around, the OPS improved to .745, and the on-base percentage also went up .15 points to .358. There were many one—run games this season, and while this isn’t the best offensive season in Angels history, though they did lead the league in hits. It certainly was their most successful season as they out produced their stats, winning 99 games and the World Series as the American League Wild Card.
For 2003, the entire team returned, but failed to catch lightning in a bottle a second year, and stumbled to a 71 and 91 finish. The most telling offensive stat? A combined .677 OPS and .327 OBP from the leadoff spot, and that includes Figgins .754 and .351 in his first season of regular playing time. They scored just 85 runs from the lead-off spot.
In 2004 the Angels won the AL West for the first time since 1986, and had a pretty successful offensive season carried by new acquisition Vladimir Guerrero and his MVP campaign. The Leadoff spot did okay, but certainly not great, posting a .722 OPS, including a .349 OBP.
2005 was Figgins first year as the primary leadoff man, and he posted a solid if not spectacular season. The numbers were a bit better than the year before, mainly a huge surge in Stolen Bases is the reason. Another AL West title and a ALCS berth was the result.
2006 was a dismal year from the leadoff spot, and the Angels missed the playoffs for the first time since 2003. They posted a solid record, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the A’s. A .688 OPS from the leadoff spot, including a .323 OBP and just a .255 batting average led the Angels to look for a new lead-off man.
2007 featured a new centerfielder and potential leadoff man in Gary Matthews Jr., but it was fellow OF Reggie Willits who garnered the majority of the starts at the leadoff spot, with two spectacular months and two okay months as the primary guy. Willits never duplicated this success, and after a dismal finish to 2006, Figgins regained something he’d lost and finished the season as the regular leadoff hitter. A .761 OPS with 119 runs scored from the top led to another AL West title.
2008 though seemed to provide yet another regression. Figgins On Base Percentage jumped from .359 to .371 but his slugging percentage really took a dive, managing just 14 doubles for the season. He had become mainly a singles hitter, whatever power he had was now down to a minimum. It was a successful season, despite the leadoff struggles. (A .266 BA for the group? Really?)
In 2009 the Angels led the league in hits, and finished second in runs scored. They set a team record for RBI (841) and runs scored at (883). The reason? (or one of them anyway?) Figgins started 158 games from the leadoff spot, posted career highs in OBP and SLG pct, scored 114 runs, and drove in 54 more.
A spreadsheet of the Angels leadoff performances over the past decade is available here
With the successes and failures of the leadoff spot over the past decade fresh in mind, I now wonder who should inherit the leadoff gig. The only Angels whom the club can control whether or not they return next season include failed leadoff experiment Gary Matthews Jr., who even has said he wants a trade, the speedy but little else Reggie Willits, and middle-infielder Macier Izturis.
None of these have started more than 80 games for the Angels as the leadoff hitter, however, so no established leadoff hitting presence awaits his turn.
Izturis would be the best of the three, but even he posted pretty poor numbers in his career as a leadoff guy, hitting .259 with a .699 OPS.
Other internal options include second baseman Howie Kendrick, who many have predicted would win a batting title one day. Kendrick’s positives are an ever-increasing batting average, speed on the base-paths if not Figgins speed, and it seems to me as if he’d perform well if given the opportunity. But ultimately, I think his best spot in the order is in the 2nd or 3rd spots, depending on how his power develops as he gets older. Negatives include his lack of walks, but Scioscia likes an aggressive hitter.
A more likely option is shortstop Erick Aybar, who had success in 2008 as the leadoff man posting a 1.029 OPS in 5 games batting first. In 2009 he was 0-5 in his only leadoff appearance. He certainly seemed to cement his defensive reputation in 2009, though losing the Gold Glove to overrated perennial winner Derek Jeter, and offensively he had career numbers with a .312 BA. Though the majority of the starts last season came as the #9 batter, it remains to be seen how he’d perform as the leadoff hitter on a regular basis.
Finally, I think the #1 candidate for the leadoff spot in 2010 should Figgins not resign is DH/RF Bobby Abreu. Abreu has never led off for the Angels, but he has led off in his career, to the tune of a .930 OPS from the top of the order. Abreu frustrates batters, and has no problem with two strikes as his approach doesn’t change with the count. He walks a lot, but also hits a lot, has a consistent .400 OBP and Home Run or Doubles Power. Abreu, despite his age, has maintained his skill set effectively. I believe that Abreu has the best chance of being the type of leadoff guy the Angels had in the year 2000 in Darin Erstad. Prototypical, No, but he certainly could add an exciting dimension the way Erstad did in 2000.
Figgins is a fan favorite, and certainly had a good run as the Angels lead off man, and I’d welcome him back to the role, though I do think it’s all about the money and length of contract. I think the Angels see his worth, even if he is statistically not as good as his reputation states. Will he stay as effective into his 30’s the way that Abreu has? Or will he decline the way Erstad did? That is the question the front office must ask. I’m a little wary of a 5 or 6 year deal, so if that is what he asks for, the Angels should not agree.
Ultimately, I think Aybar is the logical choice for the future of the leadoff role, but for 2010, and possibly 2011, Bobby Abreu is a better candidate. Aybar needs time to mature into a Major League hitter and I believe he should stay at the #9 spot for next season. He gives the Angels that second leadoff hitter that Rex Hudler is so fond of pointing out. He could move to the #2 spot, but I think Macier Izturis and Howie Kendrick will do fine there in front of Torri Hunter.