Pitchers and catchers only reported to Port St. Lucie yesterday, but the first mini-controversy of the 2010 Mets season has already been stirred up. Mets manager Jerry Manuel, pondering how to fill out the lineup card with Carlos Beltran on the shelf, indicated that he is toying with the idea of batting Jose Reyes third.
"I think Jose has the ability to probably hit anywhere in the lineup, anywhere from first to fifth -- maybe not fourth," Manuel said. "We toyed with that a little bit last year, and the reason is, in his evolution as a player, I think he is ready for that."
Manuel is almost correct. Reyes ideally belongs somewhere in the top three spots of the order (or as the #8 hitter in a All-Star caliber lineup). As a #5 hitter, he probably isn't enough of a home run threat to sufficiently protect the cleanup hitter. Still, I completely understand why Manuel is thinking about trying out Reyes in the third spot in the order. It's really very simple.
Jose Reyes is not an ideal leadoff hitter.
Yes, I know that Reyes runs very fast and can steal a lot of bases if given the opportunity. That only makes him a prototypical leadoff hitter, not an ideal one. Reyes, at his best, is a threat to join the 70-70-70 club every season (as in walks, stolen bases and extra-base hits). That type of production is actually more useful further down the lineup, where those extra-base hits can drive in more runs.
The ideal leadoff hitter, by contrast, can steal 50 bases, but he can also walk 100 times. It's nice to be able to hit .300, but it's nicer to have an on-base percentage of .400. Reyes is just not that type of player. At best, Reyes might get on base at a .375 clip in 2010. That's nothing to sneeze at, of course, but Reyes is more likely to post an OBP between .350 and .365 if he stays healthy this year.
The notion of speed being essential for a leadoff hitter has been ingrained into the minds of baseball fans since childhood. Speed is a wonderful asset, but it's a wonderful asset from any spot in the lineup. It is essential to have players who can get on base at the top of the order, to give your best hitters the opportunity to drive in more runs. It's always nice if they happen to be fast base runners, but it simply is not essential.
In short, if given the choice between Willy Taveras and JD Drew as your leadoff hitter, put Drew at the top of the lineup every single time.