Brett Butler bunted and raced to first. He stole second. Mike Piazza homered and the Los Angeles Dodgers had a two-run lead in the first inning on the road that they didn't relinquish for the rest of the game.
Most teams nowadays overlook the importance of a good leadoff hitter. In the exciting National League West, no team has a good leadoff hitter. Even though Angel Pagan of the San Francisco Giants is the best in the division, he doesn't get on base enough to put fear in the opposition.
Except for Coors Field and Chase Field, the stadiums make hitting home runs difficult. Teams need to manufacture runs, yet they don't have the most important piece of a dynamic offense. An effective leadoff hitter can help his team take an early lead that dampens the confidence of the opponent. When a team has a little doubt that it can win a particular game, it usually doesn't.
While power hitters get attention from the media, and fans flock to see them, good leadoff hitters don't get much attention from anyone, and yet they can be as important to the success of their teams as the greatest power hitter.
Nearly all power hitters strike out too much because they need to be aggressive at the plate. If they hit about 35 home runs a season, they had a good performance that year. Since they don't have much speed, they frequently ground into double plays that deny their teams potential scores.
A good leadoff hitter uses creative ways to reach base, his main objective. His good knowledge of the strike zone enables him to get many walks while allowing his teammates to see a pitcher's selection on a given night before they come to bat. This helps the players to hit better than they would without seeing those pitches. Watching video for hours before the game isn't the same as seeing a pitcher known for a terrific curve having problems with hanging it minutes before a hitter faces him.
Leadoff hitters should be contact hitters. Making contact gives the fielders more chances to commit an error that allows the hitter to reach base. Every time a hitter gets on, especially when there are less than two outs, his team has a potential run-scoring rally. Having many rallies during a game tires the starting pitcher, so he must come out earlier than planned. Since the bullpens for most teams are weaker than starting rotations, the opponents have a much better chance of scoring against the bullpens.
Some very skillful leadoff hitters get at least 200 hits a season. With these hits, they help either ignite rallies or drive in runs. Subsequently, most leadoff hitters have superb bat control, they frequently can advance a runner with a sacrifice bunt or a little grounder to the right side of the infield. Bunting for base hits can cause havoc for the opponents' infield, and this rare skill helps his team score.
According to an old baseball adage, speed never has a slump. This is true, except when a speedy player injures a leg. Speed can independently change the complexion of the game. Fielders tend to rush their plays resulting in errors or no plays. Stealing bases is a vital ability for a team that needs to manufacture runs. Sometimes a leadoff hitter reaches on a walk, steals second, goes to third on a throwing error by the catcher and comes home on a sacrifice fly. That team just scored a run without a hit, which frustrates a pitcher, and a frustrated pitcher doesn't perform as well as a relaxed pitcher.
If the Colorado Rockies would let Dexter Fowler bat leadoff regardless of whether he is in a slump or not, they would have the best leadoff hitter in the NL West. This will help make them more competitive.
What I don't understand is why the Los Angeles Dodgers don't look for a quality leadoff hitter. They spend enough on every other aspect of the game to have the best possible. Already having a good bullpen, the Dodgers are rumored to be interested in every reliever available.
Unless Dee Gordon suddenly matures and displaces Hanley Ramirez at shortstop, the Dodgers don't have a bona fide leadoff hitter. Yes, Mark Ellis can do it, but he doesn't possess incredible speed. Carl Crawford coming off Tommy John surgery has done it before. A.J. Ellis has the perfect mindset to be a leadoff hitter, but he doesn't run well.
The importance of having a quality leadoff hitter shouldn't be underestimated. This can make an ordinary team into an epic one.
Sarah D. Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.