The Pittsburgh Pirates should figure out who bats leadoff next year as it could change the dynamic of the line-up significantly.
The leadoff spot in the line-up has one job: to get on base. They’re table setters for the big bats later down in the line-up. The Pittsburgh Pirates as a team had just a .299 OBP out of the leadoff spot, just the 23rd-best in baseball. The league average OBP in 2023 was .312, and the average OBP for a leadoff hitter was .319. A good leadoff batter can change the dynamic of a line-up very much, so what player would make the best leadoff batter next season?
The most likely answer is Ji-Hwan Bae. Bae has consistently been a good hitter throughout the minor leagues. Last season, he spent most of the year at Triple-A, where he put together a .289/.362/.430 triple-slash. Bae’s 10.1% walk rate is the third season in a row he’s had a 10%+ walk rate, while his 16.9% strikeout rate is a career-best. What’s also a career-best is his .141 isolated slugging percentage. All told, Bae was a well above-average batter with a .353 wOBA and 112 wRC+.
Bae is what you think of when you think of a leadoff batter. He gets on base consistently, racking up both hits and walks, and he’s extremely fast. He swiped 30 bases last year and grades out with 65-grade speed. Leading Bae off would give plenty of opportunities for Oneil Cruz, Rodolfo Castro, Jack Suwinski, Carlos Santana/Ji-Man Choi, and (hopefully) Bryan Reynolds to drive in runs. But there could be a less obvious and somewhat unorthodox solution to the leadoff role.
That would be to bat Oneil Cruz at the no. 1 spot. Cruz did exceptionally well when slotted into the leadoff role. It was only 145 plate appearances, but he slashed .281/.331/.541 with a 141 wRC+. He was the Pirates most productive batter at the leadoff spot, per wRC+ in at least 100 plate appearances. His .331 OBP is above average for a leadoff batter and was above the top 90th percentile of sprint speed last year.
Cruz certainly wouldn’t be the worst leadoff option, but it does take away a large bat who could hit in the middle of the order. Cruz was the most productive as a leadoff guy, and you want to put players in the best opportunity to succeed. If Cruz bats leadoff, the Pirates almost have to figure out who bats 9th. If you have a guy like Cruz atop the order, you’re going to want someone at the bottom who can give him a turn to hit. This is another spot where Bae could fit.
Bae might fit the leadoff man mold, but Cruz was highly productive there last season. Until more prospects start arriving in the major leagues, I would leave Cruz in the leadoff spot, at least for the start of the season. Maybe starting Cruz in another part of the line-up once or twice a week to see how he would fare would help the Pittsburgh Pirates get an idea of where he would be the most useful. But having Cruz at the top of the lineup would still give others like Suwinski, Reynolds, Castro, and others a decent amount of chances to drive in a run.