In 2018, the Pittsburgh Pirates had an opportunity to score more runs. However, they chose to go down a more conventional route, which prevented them from scoring more runs.
In the movie Moneyball, Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane stated “He gets on base a lot. Do I care if it’s a walk or a hit?” This is the motto every single manager needs to live by when deciding who to put in the lead off spot. The leado ff hitter has one job: get on base. It doesn’t matter how they get on. It doesn’t matter if they’re slow or fast. It doesn’t matter what position they play. All they need to do is get on base to set up the table for the rest of the line-up. Clearly, the 2018 Pittsburgh Pirates did not go with this motto, and they paid the price by not batting catcher Francisco Cervelli lead off.
During the season, the Pittsburgh Pirates mainly used two players out of the lead off spot: Josh Harrison and Adam Frazier. Harrison only played 97 games that year, and produced a .297 on base percentage. Out of the lead off spot, it rose slightly to just .304.
When Harrison was hurt, Fraizer was the primary lead off hitter for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He too produced an improved, but still mediocre for a lead off hitter, on base percentage of .342, with a sub-par .316 on base percentage out of the lead off spot.
However, the Pirates had someone who had a much better on base percentage. One that would have ranked top 15 in the MLB had he played enough to qualify. That player was the aforementioned Cervelli.
Cervelli hit .259/.378/.431 with 12 home runs in 404 plate appearances. The veteran catcher was one of the best at his position with the bat. Among all catchers with at least 300 plate appearances, Cervelli’s 124 wRC+ ranked 4th, sitting directly behind Yasmani Grandal (125), JT Realmuto (126) and Wilson Ramos (132). His bat shouldn’t have played good enough to be in the middle of the order, but was still very productive.
Cervelli did one thing really, really well: get on base. His .378 on base percentage ranked 18th among all MLB batters with at least 400 plate appearances (not qualifying but still a fair amount of PAs). The MLB average on base percentage was .318. Cervelli also posted a strong walk rate of 12.6%, which was roughly 5% above the league’s average. Cervelli was an on base machine, but where did he bat in the line up? Most of his plate appearances came out of the middle of the order. 80.4% of all of his plate appearances came out of the 4-5-6 spots in the line up.
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The high OBP was not an outlier, either. Cervelli had a .365 OBP in the three seasons prior. In both 2015 and 2016, it went into the low .370s. A catcher isn’t usually the lead off hitter, but it should not have mattered here. Cervelli was deserving of batting lead off for the 2018 Pittsburgh Pirates, and there wasn’t anyone more worthy to start off the game than him.
I partially get why they did it through. Cervelli was great in the clutch. With runners in scoring position (RISP), Cervelli hit for an outstanding .302/.383/.563, and 149 wRC+. With runners on base in general, Cervelli hit .294/.384/.525 with a 144 wRC+.
But this is not, and should not be an excuse for the Pirates to bat Cervelli in the middle of the order. They had plenty of other batters who were great with men on and/or with RISP. Josh Bell hit .276/.370/.448 with a 128 wRC+ with RISP and .279/.377/.463 with a 128 wRC+ with men on base. Frazier hit .333/.413/.593 with a 164 wRC+ with RISP, and .323/.402/.527 with a 149 wRC+ with men on. Starling Marte? .330/.372/.578 with a 149 wRC+ with RISP, .310/.356/.540 with a 138 wRC+ with men on. Gregory Polanco? .299/.370/.608, 142 wRC+ with RISP, .264/.348/.534, 127 wRC+ with men on. What about Colin Moran? .287/.364/.426, 106 wRC+ with RISP.
The Pirates as a team were just good when it came to getting hits with men on. With runners in scoring position, the Pirates ranked 2nd in the National League in batting average (.266), 3rd in slugging (.422), 4th in OPS (.778), had the 5th lowest strikeout rate (20.7%) and wOBA (.322), and they were 6th in wRC+ (102). With men on base, the Bucs had the 3rd highest batting average (.269), slugging percentage (.444), OPS (.779) wRC+ (106), and they were 4th in wOBA (.329).
So why didn’t Cervelli lead off most of the time? I would like to say that it, sadly, might have been because he didn’t fit the classic mold and play style of a lead off hitter. Cervelli was a slow catcher, while Harrison and Frazier were speedy middle infielders. Harrison and Frazier would have made great lead off hitters, that is if they got on base. Plus, in the history of the sport, you usually don’t see many teams batting their catcher first. It’s just uncommon, but sometimes costs teams runs because of classical thinking, as it did here.
Batting both second basemen in the lead off spot costed the Pirates so many runs, and a handful of potential wins. Would they have taken a playoff spot if they batted Cervelli lead off? Possibly, they were only 4.5 games out of a second NL Wild Card spot on August 1st, and it’s not out of the question that had they been batting Cervelli out of the lead off spot all year, they couldn’t have added 4 or more wins. The 2018 Pirates scored 692 runs that year, and Cervelli was responsible for 5% of them, or 39. Cervelli reached base about 152 times in 2018, and scored about 25% of the time. If he was batting lead off, and scored about 10% more of the time, he would have added up to 14 runs. The Pirates missed a big chance to add a handful of more runs to their line up, all because Cervelli didn’t fit the mold of a traditional lead off hitter. While the 2018 Pirates finished with a winning record and had a successful season, it could have been even better had Cervelli bat lead off.