Who could be best suited to regularly leadoff for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2024?
The leadoff hitter is your table setter, but the role has changed over the last handful of years. A role that was once reserved for fast and speedy guys has now become the home of one of the team’s most productive batters, regardless of speed. The Pittsburgh Pirates and their roster construction in 2024 will be key to their success on the offensive side of the ball, so who are their leadoff options?
Oneil Cruz may be the best option for the Pirates. Cruz looked set to be the big bat at the top of the line-up for the Pirates in 2023, but an injury during the home opening series led to him missing the rest of the year. Cruz, however, looked outstanding down the stretch in 2023 where he batted mostly out of the #1 spot of the line-up.
Cruz’s 2022 season ended on an extremely high note. Through his final 167 plate appearances of the season, the towering shortstop batted .275/.353/.523 with a .377 wOBA, and 143 wRC+. Cruz walked in 10.2% of his plate appearances. His 31.7% strikeout rate was nothing to be too proud of, however, something he should be proud of is that it marked a 5.9% decrease from his first 197 plate appearances.
Cruz took 145 plate appearances batting leadoff in 2022, and hit .281/.331/.541 with a .360 wOBA, and 140 wRC+. Cruz stuck out at a 29% rate with a mediocre 6.1% walk rate, but had Cruz spent the entire season out of the leadoff role, he would have been one of the most powerful leadoff hitters in the league. Among the batters with as many plate appearances as Cruz in the first spot in the order, Cruz had the second highest slugging percentage and fourth-highest isolated slugging percentage among National League batters.
Ji Hwan Bae is what classic leadoff hitters look like. Bae was in the top 97th percentile of sprint speed and stole 24 bases in 33 attempts. But Bae did not deliver the numbers you want from you leadoff guy. He hit just .231/.296/.311 with a .272 wOBA, and 66 wRC+. Bae ranked bottom 11th or lower in OPS, wOBA, and wRC+.
So what reason, other than speed, could Bae potentially be a leadoff candidate? Bae wasn’t doing horrible up through June 16th. The 2B/CF was hitting .269/.330/.352 with a .303 wOBA, and 87 wRC+ in 203 plate appearances, which makes up about 55% of his total trips to the plate. Sure, Bae hit for very little power, but his on-base percentage was above the league average, and with his speed, that’s important.
But there is another option, and that was the guy who led off most often for the Pirates in 2023. That was breakout third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes. Hayes slashed a strong .265/.333/.495 with a .352 wOBA, and 120 wRC+ in 204 plate appearances. Hayes only struck out 16.7% of the time and drew walks at a 9.5% rate. Like Cruz in 2022, Hayes was one of the biggest power threats in the leadoff role, ranking 6th in isolated slugging among the batters with 200+ plate appearances.
So who would be the best leadoff option going into 2024 for the Bucs?
If you ask me, it comes down to either Cruz or Hayes. Sure, Bae is fast, and his OBP at his peak of 2023 could match both Hayes’ and Cruz’s OBPs at the leadoff spot. But he is the least productive hitter as well.
Sure, he’s fast, but Cruz was also one of the fastest players in baseball in 2022, and Hayes can certainly hold his own on the basepaths. Bae is best suited for a 9th batter sort of spot where he can turn the line-up over and be a table setter for the table setters.
But between Hayes and Cruz, I think Cruz may have the edge here. That’s no knock on Hayes, and he could easily be the leadoff man as well on days Cruz isn’t playing. But you’re talking about a guy with enough speed to go from first to third on a single, and the ability to hit 30+ knocks a year from the leadoff spot. Having him hit in front of Hayes and Bryan Reynolds would be a strong 1-3.