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How Important Is the Leadoff Man?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They come in various sizes, with varying skills, but their obligation is consistent in both the American and National Leagues.

So says St. Louis Cardinal Manager Tony La Russa, who said of the catalytic importance of the leadoff hitter: “They bat in front of the best hitters in the lineup and have a responsibility to set the table.”

Some, of course, can clear it as well as set it.

Rickey Henderson, the best of the last 20 years and maybe ever, did both for La Russa with the Oakland Athletics.

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In less than half a season with St. Louis, La Russa has already used eight leadoff hitters.

“It’s a luxury to have a good one, and Rickey is the best I’ve seen in the 30 years I’ve been watching,” La Russa said.

“It’s one thing for me to say that, another for the statistics to support it. He may not be doing it anymore, but how many leadoff men won a stolen-base title every year and competed for a home run title along with it?”

The statistics also indicate that when a batter leading off any inning gets on, his team scores 83% of the time.

The importance of the player who can do it regularly is obvious.

Said Delino DeShields, now back to leading off for the Dodgers: “To be honest, it requires consistency more than a lot of the other positions. There’s also a lot of pressure that goes along with it.

“Teams don’t [produce] without you--and on some teams it’s magnified more than others. Look around. Most teams that have a great leadoff hitter have a great ballclub.”

DeShields cited the champion A’s with Henderson, Cleveland with Kenny Lofton, Atlanta with Marquis Grissom and once-dynastic Toronto with Devon White.

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In their pursuit of division titles, the Dodgers and Angels have been trying to fill leadoff voids.

Brett Butler, a throwback to the prototype leadoff hitter who could bunt, slash, take a pitch and run, was lost to the Dodgers because of cancer.

Tony Phillips, a Henderson disciple who emerged as a premier leadoff man, was lost to the Angels because of budget.

Said Dodger Vice President Fred Claire: “I place a high degree of importance on the leadoff role. I think that’s substantiated by the fact I traded to reacquire Brett and then re-signed him last winter, when we probably had more alternatives than any other club.”

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Claire alluded to the availability of young outfielders Raul Mondesi, Roger Cedeno, Todd Hollandsworth, Karim Garcia and Billy Ashley, along with possible leadoff hitters DeShields, Chad Fonville, Cedeno and Hollandsworth.

The Dodgers have used Butler, DeShields, Fonville and Cedeno in the leadoff role with bleak results. They are batting a combined .217 with an on-base percentage of .275--at least 100 points below the leadoff norm.

What impact that has had on the rest of a generally struggling offense is difficult to measure, but the Dodgers are next to last in the National League in runs and last in the majors with an on-base percentage of slightly more than .300.

“You can’t put it all on the leadoff man,” Claire said. “Even if Brett was there with an on-base percentage of .400, the overall on-base percentage would be too low. I mean, an on-base percentage of .300 is very poor. I could not have expected it and still don’t believe it will last.”

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Neither is he tempted to trade for a leadoff hitter.

“Who is it, at what price and where would he fit in?” Claire asked, saying that most leadoff hitters play second base, shortstop, center field or, occasionally, left field, positions where the Dodgers do not have an opening.

In the meantime, the fleet DeShields has displayed flashes of leadoff lightning, but generally lacks Butler’s discipline and has yet to recapture his Montreal consistency in Los Angeles.

“I’ve been a leadoff hitter all my career, but it’s a tough role,” he said. “I mean, I’ve struggled with it before, although not quite as much as since I got to L.A.

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“I’m not like a Brett Butler. Me and Brett are two entirely different kinds of players. It just requires a lot of consistency and you have to take your walks. That’s what made Brett so good.”

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The Angels faced a complex decision with Phillips, who scored 119 runs, drew 113 walks, hit 27 homers, drove in 61 runs and had an on-base percentage of .396, the American League’s fourth best.

“It wasn’t that Tony was too expensive,” General Manager Bill Bavasi said. “We never told Tony or his agent he was too expensive. We simply had a limited amount of money and had to prioritize. He’s a hell of a player, but we had to re-sign our pitching.”

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Bavasi referred to Chuck Finley and Jim Abbott. Free agent Randy Velarde was signed as a less-expensive alternative to Phillips at second base, and Tim Wallach and Jack Howell were added as much cheaper alternatives at third.

The Angels have not talked about it publicly, but they did not think they could have tolerated another summer of Phillips’ defense at third and could not afford him at second. There was no other opening.

In addition, Bavasi said he agreed with theorists who say the leadoff role isn’t as important in the American League because the designated hitter adds another bat to the lineup.

There is less emphasis on creating a run in the imaginative style of a Butler, he said, and “once the game starts, there is no guarantee the leadoff man will lead off another inning” and virtually no situation in which he will have to restart the offense after the pitcher bats.

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“I’m not diminishing the importance of a Phillips,” Bavasi said. “You still want a strong hitter in that role to protect the bottom of the order [No. 9-hitting Gary DiSarcina had his best season with Phillips behind him] and, it goes without saying, your first three hitters come to bat more often than the rest. The point is, we had to weigh a lot of considerations in Tony’s case and make a difficult decision.”

Phillips refined his craft while a teammate of Henderson with the A’s.

He adopted the Henderson crouch to reduce his strike zone and learned the value of patience, not being afraid to hit with two strikes.

“Rickey is in a class by himself,” he said. “I wouldn’t flatter myself to suggest I’m now in that class.”

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What Phillips did for the Angels, however, he is now doing for the Chicago White Sox, having replaced Lance Johnson, who led the league in hits but had only a .341 on-base percentage and has never drawn more than 36 walks in a season.

“We needed the catalyst to make things happen. We wouldn’t be where we are without Tony,” General Manager Ron Schueler said.

The White Sox are challenging Cleveland in the American League Central and Frank Thomas, who hits two spots behind Phillips and his .428 on-base percentage, may have 90 runs batted in by the All-Star break.

Other than to say he doesn’t know how the Angels are going to replace his 119 runs and 61 RBIs, Phillips isn’t gloating, but could.

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Chili Davis has publicly bemoaned the absence of Phillips’ spark at the top of the lineup and in the clubhouse. Other Angels say the club misses his intensity.

The Angels have used nine players leading off, primarily Velarde, Rex Hudler and now the impressive Darin Erstad, whose 1996 future in the role is clouded by the inevitable return of injured Jim Edmonds to center field.

The nine are batting a combined .285, with a weak on-base percentage of .339.

Hudler has batted .313 in 115 at-bats in that role, but there’s always the problem of finding a position for him.

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Besides, the animated “Wonder Dog” can last only so long at 35.

“There’s a lot of great leadoff hitters--Rickey Henderson, Tony Phillips and Lenny Dykstra are probably the best--but I’m not one of them,” Hudler said. “I’m not consistent or patient enough. I don’t draw enough walks. I’m a hacker. I have to hit my way on. Lach [Manager Marcel Lachemann] did it right. He rode the flame while it was hot, then got me out of there. Hopefully, I’ll get hot again.”

Hudler recalled that improbable day in St. Louis when he looked at the lineup card, found himself batting cleanup, then had to look a second time.

“ ‘Hud,’ I said to myself, ‘you’re hitting fourth in the major leagues. Act like it’s not a mistake.’ You know, I hit two home runs that day.

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“I mean, I’ve hit in every spot in the lineup and sometimes you just have to pretend that you fit the role. It’s all something of a mind set.”

Butler agreed.

“People said I bunted too much when I first came up,” he said, before beginning radiation treatment this week.

“I reacted by continuing to bunt. You have to accept your limitations and emphasize your strengths. It’s definitely a mind-set. I had to bunt and to steal bases because I didn’t hit for power. I mean, I wouldn’t have lasted 16 years in the big leagues if I hadn’t bunted. People may think you’re giving in to the pitcher, that you’re a wimp, but everybody should know how to bunt.

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“It’s the Richie Ashburn scenario, the old-school leadoff man. Guys like Rickey and Brady Anderson are the new school. They think of themselves as No. 3 hitters, guys who can pop 20 to 25 homers a year, but hit leadoff because of their speed.

“In my opinion, Henderson is probably the best leadoff man ever.”

Anderson, the Baltimore Orioles’ leadoff man, has a career-high 24 homers this season, eight to open the first innings. He also has an excellent on-base percentage of .418. He was tabbed as the next Fred Lynn while in the Boston organization, but the Orioles envisioned him as a slap hitter.

“It never bothered me, being compared to Fred Lynn, because he was one of my heroes growing up,” Anderson said. “It did bother me when people wanted me to be Brett Butler. I couldn’t see it, but I tried it for a while, thinking they might be right. I finally had to go back to doing what I do best, hitting the ball hard, no matter where I was in the lineup.”

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Henderson, in the meantime, has had a difficult time adjusting to National League pitching and the strike zone. His batting average with the San Diego Padres is .223, but his on-base percentage is .419 because of 64 walks.

He holds the major league record for stolen bases in a career and season, is the only active player with more than 200 home runs and an on-base percentage of more than .400, led the majors again last year by drawing an average of 4.36 pitches per plate appearance, has never drawn fewer than 72 walks in a season and has led off his team’s attack with a major league-record 68 first-inning homers.

“I’ve always thought of myself as something of a guinea pig,” Henderson said.

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“I go up in the first inning to see what the pitcher has that day, to set a tone, maybe to give everybody else something to pick up on. You have to be willing to take pitches, but also to be ready to hit the one pitch in your zone.”

And, of course, what has distinguished Henderson, aside from power, is his ability to turn a walk into a double. But Henderson insists his only goal is to score 100 runs a season, which he has done nine times but not since 1991.

“The only purpose for a steal is to set up a run,” he said. “There have been very few times I’ve stolen a base just to steal. It has to do with the situation in the game, but if it doesn’t lead to a run, it don’t mean nothing to nobody.”

Force feeding in an expansion-diluted era has brought potential leadoff hitters to the big leagues without the ability--or, sometimes, willingness--to do the fundamental things required of that role: patiently take pitches, walk, build an on-base percentage, bunt, steal when dictated. Recent drafts have also produced few players with eye-popping speed, which is one reason a leadoff man like Lofton is so valuable, Schueler said.

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And in an offensive era when players are taking home runs to the bank, leadoff men are getting bigger, stronger and more reluctant to emphasize those once-required tools. Hall of Fame leadoff man and center fielder Ashburn said recently that Butler was probably the last of a breed.

La Russa might agree. Once blessed with Henderson, he has gone through a third of his roster in the quest for a consistent leadoff hitter. This week, he began using a cleanup hitter, Ron Gant, in that role, primarily to get Gant, just off the disabled list, some extra at-bats.

“He may not be the classic leadoff man, but I guarantee he’ll get the attention of the opposing pitcher leading off a game,” La Russa said.

As the first order of business, of course, that’s an important aspect.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

LEADOFF LEDGER

ALL TOTALS ARE THROUGH GAMES OF SUNDAY, JUNE 16

Leadoff numbers for the National League teams with the best record:

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ATLANTA BRAVES

Leadoff batters

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AVG OB% AB R H SB BB SO .289 .330 294 48 85 12 18 33

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Any batter leading off an inning

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AVG OB% AB R H SB BB SO .286 .329 602 112 172 23 38 103

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MONTREAL EXPOS

Leadoff batters

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AVG OB% AB R H SB BB SO .323 .358 300 54 97 16 11 33

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Any batter leading off an inning

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AVG OB% AB R H SB BB SO .274 .324 587 142 161 25 37 97

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SAN DIEGO PADRES

Leadoff batters

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AVG OB% AB R H SB BB SO .233 .399 257 57 60 22 67 51

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Any batter leading off an inning

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AVG OB% AB R H SB BB SO .239 .314 589 83 141 28 61 107

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DODGERS

Leadoff batters

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AVG OB% AB R H SB BB SO .217 .272 286 38 62 18 23 53

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Any batter leading off an inning

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AVG OB% AB R H SB BB SO .248 .300 592 102 147 27 43 130

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The three worst teams in the NL

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CINCINNATI REDS

Leadoff batters

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AVG OB% AB R H SB BB SO .204 .301 245 26 50 20 34 58

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Any batter leading off an inning

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AVG OB% AB R H SB BB SO .263 .330 517 71 136 35 52 101

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NEW YORK METS

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Leadoff batters

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AVG OB% AB R H SB BB SO .316 .344 294 51 93 19 13 22

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Any batter leading off an inning

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AVG OB% AB R H SB BB SO .277 .314 591 92 164 23 30 92

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PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES

Leadoff batters

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AVG OB% AB R H SB BB SO .249 .339 277 35 69 9 36 55

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Any batter leading off an inning

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AVG OB% AB R H SB BB SO .236 .299 576 73 136 31 46 129

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The three best teams in the AL

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CLEVELAND INDIANS

Leadoff batters

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AVG OB% AB R H SB BB SO .305 .378 285 53 87 35 36 38

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Any batter leading off an inning

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AVG OB% AB R H SB BB SO .285 .354 564 151 161 44 55 68

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CHICAGO WHITE SOX

Leadoff batters

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AVG OB% AB R H SB BB SO .311 .419 270 60 84 6 52 65

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Any batter leading off an inning

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AVG OB% AB R H SB BB SO .248 .334 556 134 138 13 68 97

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TEXAS RANGERS

Leadoff batters

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AVG OB% AB R H SB BB SO .217 .272 286 38 62 18 23 53

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*--*

Any batter leading off an inning

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AVG OB% AB R H SB BB SO .248 .300 592 102 147 27 43 130

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The three worst teams in the AL

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DETROIT TIGERS

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Leadoff batters

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AVG OB% AB R H SB BB SO .237 .324 274 36 65 8 36 58

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Any batter leading off an inning

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AVG OB% AB R H SB BB SO .244 .314 585 82 143 17 55 113

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TORONTO BLUE JAYS

Leadoff batters

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AVG OB% AB R H SB BB SO .245 .348 278 48 68 15 42 48

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AVG OB% AB R H SB BB SO .261 .328 590 101 154 23 51 98

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KANSAS CITY ROYALS

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Leadoff batters

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AVG OB% AB R H SB BB SO .252 .290 310 30 78 6 18 37

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Any batter leading off an inning

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AVG OB% AB R H SB BB SO .238 .293 601 83 143 35 47 105

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A look at the Angels

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ANGELS

Leadoff batters

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AVG OB% AB R H SB BB SO .285 .339 291 54 83 5 20 64

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Any batter leading off an inning

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AVG OB% AB R H SB BB SO .287 .344 581 98 167 9 47 95

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Researched by HOUSTON MITCHELL / Los Angeles Times

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Staff writer Bob Nightengale contributed to this story.


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