April 7, 2012; Cleveland, OH, USA: Cleveland Indians right fielder Shin-Soo Choo (17) before the game against the Toronto Blue Jays at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: Eric P. Mull-USPRESSWIRE
Once upon a time, Michael Brantley was the leadoff hitter for the Indians. And once upon a time Johnny Damon was leading off. The offense was sputtering,and Shin-Soo Choo was sputtering himself at .236/.362/.330. Then Manny Acta decided to move Choo to the leadoff spot, and he started to hit. And the rest of the offense started to...never mind, but Choo's season did turn around after that.
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So was this a case of correlation being confused with causation, or did the change of batting order really make that much of a difference? In this case, I think the move just happened to coincide with him getting locked in at the plate. And Choo himself doesn't put much stock in that theory:
Despite his success in the leadoff spot, Choo continues to say he hasn't done anything differently. No matter where he's hitting in the lineup, he's has the same approach at the plate.
"I just play like me," he said. "I don't think too much. I just see the ball and swing. Good things have been happening for me."
The leadoff spot has had a special place in baseball discussions down through the years. The leadoff hitter is supposed to be the guy that starts the offense, but often the only time the leadoff hitter actually leads off is in the first inning. His traditional value is actually batting in front of the run producers, not the actual numerical spot in the order. And of course you want that cluster of good players batting in the same inning as many times as possible, and that's partly why Choo was moved up in the order. If one player in your order is going to get 5 at-bats in a game, you want it to be your best hitter. Whenever I see a light-hitting middle infielder hitting second in front of three mashers, I wonder how many times that team got burned when light-hitting middle infielder made the last out in the ninth inning.
The other consideration in moving Choo to leadoff was utilizing the team's two switch-hitters so that opposing managers wouldn't be able to use a LOOGY for a span of three (or more) batters at the top of the lineup without having to face a right-handed hitter. Now Carlos Santana blew up that plan when he went into an extended slump, but the way he's hitting, it's a matter of time before he and Michael Brantley switch places. Both Choo and Kipnis have considerable splits, and putting Asdrubal Cabrera (who hits equally well against left- and right-handed pitching) between them at least will make a manager decide whether he trusts his left-handed specialist to get a good right-handed hitter out.
So has the move of Choo to the leadoff spot made a difference in the overall offensive production? If you assume that Choo would have got going even without the move, then not really. The team's OPS in the first three months of the season stayed relatively flat, though they have hit better in July: