When it comes to leadoff hitters the ideal skill set combines being very fast with being very good at getting on base. Some of the best of all time include Rickey Henderson, Tim Raines, Paul Molitor, Kenny Lofton, and Craig Biggio.
Finding someone who combines those two skills is often difficult and for much of baseball history when managers were forced to choose a leadoff hitter based upon speed or on-base skills they typically went with the fast guy. However, in recent years that’s started to change as teams sacrifice speed atop the order to find someone who can avoid outs and get on base for the big boppers.
Which brings us to Cleveland, where manager Terry Francona is giving serious consideration to shifting one of the Indians’ big boppers, switch-hitter Carlos Santana, into the leadoff spot. Here’s what he told Paul Hoynes of the Cleveland Plain Dealer:
The one thing I’ve thought about is Santana leading off. It’s only a thought. Because of his skill set, I think he’d be one of the best leadoff hitters in the game. I know it’s a little unique. Maybe out of the box, and you’ve got to have somebody who can hit cleanup. I don’t know if I’d do it or not. But it’s something I’ve thought about.
Santana is a slow catcher turned first baseman/designated hitter with 25-homer power and a lifetime .245 batting average. Last season he was the team’s primary cleanup hitter and led the Indians in home runs and RBIs. None of which screams leadoff man, obviously.
On the other hand he’s also one of the most patient hitters in baseball, topping 100 walks in each of the past two seasons and drawing at least 90 walks every year since 2011. Santana has a career on-base percentage of .365, including an OBP above .350 in all six of his MLB seasons. Last season across baseball 38 different hitters started in the leadoff spot at least 50 times and fewer than half of them had an OBP above .350.
Santana won’t steal many bases and won’t go first-to-third or second-to-home as quickly or as often as faster leadoff options, but he’ll be standing on a base after having avoided making an out more often than most of them. Some of his home runs will be wasted with the bases empty, but Santana also grounded into 20 double plays last year and coming to the plate with the bases empty at least once per game will reduce that total as well.
And that’s what has Francona considering the unconventional move as spring training gets underway and the manager has potential batting orders dancing through his head. If you want someone to work long counts, put stress on the pitcher, avoid outs, and get on base you aren’t going to find many hitters better than Carlos Santana. And leadoff homers are fun, too.