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10.03.2005

Leading Off in 2006 

On the final day of the year, Randy Winn auditioned in the three spot. Felipe Alou has mused this week about batting him there next year, given Winn's power proclivities since coming to the Giants: 14 home runs, 5 triples, 22 doubles in 230 ABs.

Winn in '06 could easily regress to his more normal career numbers. The Giants (and their fans) hope he's in a career phase similar to Luis Gonzalez, who began a power surge in his early thirties and has only slowed down eight years and 230 dingers later due to injury. (In fact, the two look quite similar -- tall, lean lefthanded batters). I wouldn't bet money on Winn hitting 57 homers, as LuGo did in 2001, but trying him as a 3-hitter isn't entirely unreasonable. He has a career .346 OBP -- not terrible, but not leadoff gold standard.

It's not unreasonable, that is, until you really start thinking about who would bat leadoff instead.

As the current roster stands, Omar Vizquel and Ray Durham are the other choices. Durham's legs are too fragile; he can't leg out infield choppers, a crucial skill for a guy whose job is to get on base by any means necessary. More accurately, Durham may still have the speed for infield hits, but the Giants don't want him running at 100% and tweaking a groin (or hammy, or quad, or toenail) on every sprint to first on a foggy night. Better he stays healthy and runs 85%.

That leaves Omar Vizquel to lead off, a move that could seriously hamper the Giant offense. As much as we all love Omar, he's really in the lineup for his glove. A .341 OBP (his 2005 final and his career average, too) isn't leadoff quality. In fact, it's lower than Winn's career OBP.

Because of Vizquel's Gold Glove, Felipe will be obliged to play him every day. This is bad for two reasons:

1) He sucks against left handed pitching. It was true when we perused his numbers last winter; it was true all through the year; it is true now.

2) He wears down. In his age-38 year, Vizquel faded badly in August and September, with OPSes of .642 and .534. He needs more rest during the year; the logical days off would come when a left-hander starts against the Giants.

If that doesn't happen and he plays against lefties, he shouldn't bat leadoff. Felipe could drop him down to 8th, if Vizquel's pride would allow it, or at least #2. But when Barry Bonds is batting fourth, why would you bat a guy second who only gets on base 30% of the time? Maximize base runners, and give Barry more pitches to hit.

A good scenario is to give Vizquel a day off against a tough lefty on the same day Bonds sits. Jason Ellison could play outfield and hit leadoff. Though his flaws were exposed to the world this year, Ellison put up very good numbers against lefties: .375 OBP/.454 SLG in 119 ABs.

An Ellison start at the top of the order every so often doesn't seem so bad when you consider Winn's OBP against lefties the past four years has been under .330. In general, he's better as a left-handed batter. This year his OPS split (vs. RHP/vs. LHP) is .896/.732; the previous three years it was .817/.755. (Meanwhile, Ray Durham, who figures to hit anywhere from second to sixth in the lineup next year, generally hits better against lefties.)

A couple other season-ending notes:

* Mike Matheny set career highs in doubles (34), home runs (13), slugging % (.406), OPS (.701), and at-bats (443). He also threw out 38% of would-be basestealers, a statistic that depends heavily on the pitchers' skills and pitch selection, so don't read too much into it. Like Vizquel, he needs more rest next year. It's extremely unlikely a 35-year-old catcher can play 130+ games in back-to-back years and post above-average numbers, let alone stay healthy. Yamid Haad is not the answer.

* Pedro Feliz had arguably his worst big-league season yet. Sure, the guy was asked to play much of the year at an unfamiliar position, left field, and replace Bonds in the lineup. But he got a career-high number of at-bats and ended up regressing across the board. His plate discipline was atrocious, dipping back below the .300 mark, and his power numbers sharply declined to .422 SLG. With talk of Pedro moving full-time to 3B and turning Fonzie into a backup at third and second, let's pray that the stability will help him focus and lay off the first-pitch slider in the dirt. Start burning your incense now.

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