By: Dan Grant
The stereotype of the prototypical lead-off hitter is one that I can remember swearing by when I was a young baseball fan. It likely had something to do with the Blue Jays teams that I grew up watching. In the early 1990’s, speedy Toronto center fielder Devon White was entrenched in the position. Then the team trotted out aging slap-hitter Otis Nixon for a couple years, until the blazing-fast Shannon Stewart emerged around the turn of the century. All the while, my dad regaled me with tales of the 1980’s Blue Jays offense, when Lloyd ‘Shaker’ Moseby patrolled center field, stole bases and generally wreaked havoc at the top of the Toronto batting order. And of course, in the latter part of 1993, Jays fans were treated to a taste of the ultimate lead-off hitter, Rickey Henderson.
All of these players were fun to watch in their own way, and likely gave me an unrealistic expectation for what an ideal lead-off hitter looked like. As the sabermetric revolution assaulted the sensibilities of old-school baseball thinking during the early and mid 2000’s, we as fans were forced to reconsider the traditional view, which was that a lead-off hitter needed to be a light-hitting speedster, someone that could steal bases and score from first on an extra base hit. While players of that ilk can undoubtedly be successful in the lead-off spot, there is no hard and fast rule that says this is the only type of player that can lead off.
Over the course of a full-season, assuming consistency and health, your lead-off hitter gets more plate appearances than anyone else in the lineup. They’re (obviously) guaranteed to get to the plate in the first inning, but after that, they’re just another bat in the order. They don’t ‘lead-off’ again, after that first time. So pinning them down as requiring a particular skill set is silly.
Instead of a traditional speedster, fans have learned that it’s OK if the guy is just solidly mobile, and more importantly, a heady base-runner. Instead of a light hitter, we learned that’s it’s better if the guy has at least some pop in his bat, to make things easier for the supposed boppers behind him in the order. Most importantly, we learned that you want someone who makes good contact, sees a lot of pitches and gets on base at a high clip, whether that’s via a base hit or a walk.
Except that a lot of fans didn’t learn those things, which is why there has been some lament in regards to the Blue Jays trade of outfielder Ben Revere for relief pitcher Drew Storen.
Let me begin by saying this: I like Ben Revere. I think he’s a solid addition to a batting order. He’s a solid hitter and seems like a genuinely nice guy. He was a big part of Toronto’s run to the playoffs and I can’t blame fans for growing attached to him, particularly given how well he hit in late August and September, once moving into the lead-off spot in the Blue Jays order.
Here’s the thing, though: Ben Revere was not an essential member of this Toronto ball club in the short or long term. He was a nice piece last year, a good mid-season addition who thrived in his role, but he is not a solution for this club in left field or at the top of the order. If you have trouble believing that or outright disagree with me, fine. But please consider the following four pieces of information.
Ben Revere is Easily Replaceable
It’s already happened! While Toronto might be shopping for other pieces and could, in theory, add a left fielder, they already have Dalton Pompey, Michael Saunders and Ezequiel Carrera in place, with Anthony Alford rapidly rising through the system. Yes, Saunders has a litany of injury concerns and yes, Pompey lost his job quickly last season, but both are extremely talented players. But if you combine the two, whether it be in a platoon or because of injuries, you instantaneously come out with a more valuable player than Ben Revere.
Don’t believe it? Last year between Toronto and Philadelphia, Ben Revere hit .306/.342/.377 (BA, OBP, SLG) over 152 games. Combined with defensive and base running metrics, that meant he was worth a total of 2.6 WAR over the full season, certainly nothing to sneeze at. Michael Saunders, who played just 78 games for Seattle in 2014, was worth 2.4 WAR in those games alone. Dalton Pompey, who split last year between Double A New Hampshire and Triple A Buffalo, hit a combined .307/.383/.421. He has the ability to hit for more power and get on base at a far higher clip. He’s still just 23 years old.
If you have those two guys combining with the serviceable Carrera to play your 162 games in left field in 2016, your team is better than if you have 162 games of Ben Revere. It just is.
Ben Revere is Not Who You Think He is
Some are likely scoffing at the last paragraph and saying ‘OK, so for a team that has so much staked on this season, you’re going to rely on an unproven rookie and a guy who’s made of glass? And which one of them hits lead-off? It’s about fit, not just numbers!’
Fair enough. But if you’re a Jays fan who watched Revere down the stretch, you got a false idea of who the man is. Ben Revere is not the guy you want leading off for your baseball team.
The Revere who played for Toronto hit .319/.354/.381, all of which would easily be career highs if he posted them over a full season. While it’s possible he may have just improved, that’s unlikely given the fact that he’s about to turn 28 years old and has been the majors for five full seasons. His career line is .295/.328/.348 and he would likely regress back to those levels. But even if he somehow does manage to become a guy who hits above .310 on a regular basis, the bottom line is that he’s extremely one dimensional at the plate. He rarely walks, posting only 32 in 634 plate appearances last season. He led the National League with 184 hits in 2014, but unlike other ‘prototypical’ lead-off hitters, he did it without adding any power whatsoever. It’s OK if you trade a bit of power for speed at the top of the order but of Revere’s 736 career hits, only 98 have gone for extra bases. That’s only 13%, an extremely low number. Of 141 qualified players in 2015, Revere ranked 119th in slugging percentage. If you look at the list, he’s surrounded by injured players, glove-men and fourth outfielders.
Does that sound like the guy in your line-up you want to give the most at-bats to? I didn’t think so.
‘Alright, Dan’ you concede, intelligently. ‘Maybe he shouldn’t be hitting leadoff. But his value isn’t just with his bat. He’s a solid outfielder!’
Well, that’s actually not true. In 2015, he posted a -1 in Defensive Runs Saved, ranking 37th out of 60 qualified outfielders. In 2014 he was a -18, ranking 57th of 60. He uses his speed to make up for the fact that he consistently takes poor routes to flyballs, which can be illustrated by his UZR rating of -10.9 over the past two seasons, ranking him 47th out of 57 qualified outfielders during the time period. Not only is he not solid, he’s actually not very good at all.
Ben Revere is About to Get Really Expensive
An overqualified nine-hole hitter is Ben Revere’s true destiny. His value is tied to his ability to make contact, which pairs beautifully with his speed. He’s posted 176 steals so far in the big leagues, or about 35 per season. He also does so with nearly an 80% success rate, which is very strong. For that, combined with his poor fielding and light hitting, he’s going to make 6.7 million dollars this season, which would have ranked eighth on the Blue Jays.
Many detractors have cited the fact that the Jays had the ability to control Revere for the 2017 season as a negative aspect of the trade, given that Drew Storen is a free agent following 2016. But Revere is heading into his final year of arbitration, and he’d likely receive a raise to roughly 9 or 10 million per season for 2017. With Pompey on the books at a pre-arbitration cost of around $500,000 and the need to re-sign Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista a much higher priority, it’s unlikely the Jays would have tendered Revere a contract at that number, meaning he would likely have become an unrestricted free agent anyway. The second year, thusly, becomes a moot point.
Our final piece of info?
Drew Storen is a Low Risk, No-Brainer
When you consider all this information about Revere, you also have to consider what the Jays got in return. The arguments here are much shorter. Drew Storen is a hard throwing reliever that will immediately improve the back-end of Toronto’s bullpen. He was one of the best relievers in baseball in 2014 and the first half of 2015, struggling only after the Nationals jerked him around by acquiring world-class dickhead Jonathan Papelbon to replace him as closer.
Storen addressed those concerns in a recent interview with the Washington Post:
“It’s easy to draw a conclusion to think there was some anger or whatnot from [the Papelbon trade],” he said during an earlier conference call with Toronto reporters. “It was far from that. For me, I think it was just a workload situation. You go in to close, and you know when you’re going to throw and you’re not getting up and sitting down as much. Going into the setup role, we were playing entire games in more or less must-win games. I was up quite a bit. I was throwing a lot. When you’re throwing late in the game, your room for error is very small. Your velocity might be the same but the ball might not cut as much, sink as much, or you’re going to miss the location by an inch. I think for me that was the biggest thing.”
When asked if he cared about setting up or closing in Toronto, he responded:
“It’s something for me that’s not all that important,” Storen said. “I’ve dealt with [role uncertainty] before. No matter what, any of those last nine outs are important. Whatever they want me to do, I’m just going to go out there and do my job. I’m excited to join the team and join the guys and really work towards a championship.”
All good things! The bottom line is that Storen has the potential to be great. His presence also creates a snowball effect, giving the Jays the flexibility to move Aaron Sanchez back to the starting rotation, where he would provide infinitely more value to the club than if he continues in a set-up role. It hasn’t yet been said who will close, but if the club wanted to hand the 9th inning to Storen and use Roberto Osuna as a high leverage reliever with the ability to pitch more than one inning, this would bode well for Osuna’s future development, If the Jays think of him as a starter in the long term. Or if Osuna is closing and Storen setting him up, that works too. Pair the two of them with lefty-killer Brett Cecil, and the Blue Jays bullpen, a weakness at the beginning of 2015, is looking infinitely better than it did a year ago.
With Washington kicking in the difference in cash between Storen’s projected 8.8 million dollar contract and Revere’s salary this year, and Storen coming off the books immediately if things don’t work, this move is low-risk, high-reward for Toronto and is the epitome of a ‘win-now’ transaction, with Toronto trading from a position of depth to address a weakness. Whether results bear out or not, the reasoning behind the move is unassailable. I wish Revere all the best in Washington, but it definitely looks like Toronto got the best of this deal. For me, this is a huge tick in the positive column for the new Shapiro/Atkins front office, right when they needed one most.