LONELY AT THE TOP
During the off-season, Royals manager John Wathan took centerfielder Willie Wilson aside and told him that he would have to start getting more walks than the 22 he had last year or he would not be able to hit lead-off anymore. "'You're as fast as ever," Wathan said. "But if you get on base less than 30 percent of the time [Wilson's '88 on-base average was .289] and strike out more than 100 times, you do us no good." A talented leadoff batter may not be as valuable as a 100-RBI man or a 20-game winner, but he plays a major role in determining the character of a team's offense. As Yankee manager Dallas Green puts it, "Whether the guy has speed that disrupts everyone or is standing on second, everything changes for the pitcher when you've got a guy who puts an offense in motion." The Yankees always have a chance because of their No. 1 guy, leftfielder Rickey Henderson, who had 14 steals and an on-base average of .400 through Sunday. And so do the Giants, with centerfielder Brett Butler (.425 OBA), and the Brewers, with third baseman-designated hitter Paul Molitor (.412 OBA). Over the past four years, in fact, Milwaukee has played .568 ball with Molitor in the lineup and .379 without him.
Wondering why Atlanta and Baltimore have been so hot offensively this season? Just look at the stats of their leadoff hitters, Lonnie Smith and Brady Anderson, respectively. According to Stats, Inc. (using the runs-per-game formula, which takes into account all offensive categories), Smith has been the most productive leadoff hitter in the National League this season through April 27. In the American League over the same period, Anderson has been second in production only to Henderson.
Most managers prefer to use a speedster in the No. 1 slot, but the Angels' Doug Rader calls that kind of thinking "ridiculous." A case in point is Houston's Gerald Young, who stole 65 bases last year but through Sunday had only two extra-base hits and a .283 OBA. The White Sox, to cite another example, have been trying to break shortstop Ozzie Guillen into the top of the order, but his OBA has dropped from .294 last year to .277. In contrast, the Angels have been using the productive but poky Brian Downing (.359 OBA), and Boston's leadoff man is Wade Boggs, who stole only two bases last year but hit 45 doubles and led the majors with a .476 OBA.
Henderson, Boggs, Butler and Molitor clearly deserve four-star ratings as leadoff men. So will Raines as soon as he starts running again. Indeed, Expo manager Buck Rodgers chided him last week for trying to steal only twice in the first 20 games. Smith and Anderson also have four-star potential if they can keep the pressure on throughout the season.
On the next level down are the Reds' Barry Larkin (.325 OBA) and the Pirates' Barry Bonds (.318 OBA), who have both gotten off to fair starts, and the Twins' Dan Gladden (.309 OBA) and the Mets' Lenny Dykstra (.456 OBA), who often make up in aggressiveness what they lack in firepower. Philadelphia's Juan Samuel (.267 OBA) has the tools to become one of the best in the game, but first he needs to improve his walk-to-strikeout ratio, which was 39-151 last year.
Next come Young and the Cardinals' Vince Coleman. During spring training Coleman vowed to raise his OBA 50 points, from a mediocre .313 last year; St. Louis manager Whitey Herzog said, "If he does that, it'll be worth 10 to 12 extra wins." Through Sunday, Coleman's OBA was up 57 points, but it may not make that big a difference because the Cards are crippled by pitching injuries. Meanwhile, Wilson has returned to his old impatient ways at the plate after a promising spring, and the Royals have experimented with outfielder Jim Eisenreich in the leadoff spot.
According to Stats, Inc., the teams that have been getting the lowest production from the leadoff spot are, in descending order, the Rangers (using primarily Cecil Espy), Tigers (Kenny Williams and Pat Sheridan), Dodgers (Willie Randolph), Padres (Roberto Alomar), Athletics (Tony Phillips and Luis Polonia), White Sox (Guillen), Astros (Young) and Indians (Oddibe McDowell). Last year, with Julio Franco batting leadoff, Cleveland was sixth in the league in run production. But McDowell, who led the Rangers to the second-worst leadoff numbers in baseball last year, has been a poor replacement. Just think where the Indians might be now if they hadn't let Butler slip away in '87.
THE SUNSHINE STATE
Though the Orioles have all but committed themselves to making LSU ace Ben McDonald the No. 1 pick in the June draft, the first round will probably be dominated by high school players. The Braves, who have the second pick overall, are expected to select 225-pound slugger Earl Cunningham from Lancaster, S.C. But their scouts are also looking at Las Vegas catcher Tyler Houston and Frankston, Texas, outfielder Paul Coleman.