This is Part II of my series of what I personally consider to be baseball’s toughest jobs from a position player standpoint.
Yesterday I made the case for the starting catcher position as the most grueling job for a position player. Today I’ll make the case for another job that’s very grueling and is actually a combination of two very tough jobs that is a common double task in today’s game: the combination of batting leadoff and playing center field.
Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson set the standard for the modern leadoff man. He’s expected to be a consistent table setter. His job is to put together solid at-bats, making the pitcher work, and giving his teammates a look at what the pitcher has in the process. With the expectation of being a consistent count bleeder comes the expectation of putting up a high on base percentage. A common trait also found in the prototypical leadoff man is above average speed and baserunning ability. Just as he set the bar for getting on base and wearing out pitchers, “The Man of Steal” would retire with the All-Time stolen bases record. His single-season record of 130 steals will likely never be surpassed. Probably unlikely we’ll ever see someone reach 100 steals in a season ever again either.
If the expectations of consistently bleeding pitch counts and being smart and aggressive on the basepaths wasn’t demanding enough: Leadoff hitters make
the most plate appearances per game and usually per season (depending on if he misses time due to injury, bereavement, suspension, etc). Having to take a demanding approach more times per game and/or per season makes batting leadoff a very tough job to do.
Unlike a starting catcher, a center fielder doesn’t have to play his position in a strenuous crouched stance. But just like catcher, the job is very physically demanding. The center fielder has to cover more ground than anybody else on the field. He’s expected to have quick reaction to fly balls coming in his direction. It’s almost a necessity that a center fielder be an above average defensive player who makes memorable leaping catches in addition to routine plays.
For a center fielder who’s a centerpiece in the heart of his team’s order, the physical demands of fielding his position can be overwhelming. Two different players, two different eras, similar story: Mickie Mantle and Ken Griffey Jr. Both players were excellent defensive players in center field. They were also among the most, if not the most feared home run threats of their respective eras. The physical demands of playing center field played a big part in both players becoming injury-prone. Both men are still first ballot Hall of Famers (technically Griffey isn’t officially one yet, but it’ll be a HUGE shock if he’s not voted in after the 2015 season) who both hit over 500 home runs (over 600 for Griffey). But because of the injuries they suffered, we’re also playing the “What if” game when it comes to both players.
Combine the physical demands that come with batting leadoff and playing center field, you have a very strenuous double-task. The Red Sox are no stranger to having players take on this double task, as they’ve had a starting center fielder serve as the primary leadoff man for over a decade.
Johnny Damon signed with the Red Sox in the 2001-2002 offseason. One of the best free agent signings in club history. In his four seasons in Boston, Damon would average 149.25 games played per season. He would play through the occasional nagging injury and put up an impressive .362 OBP and .803 OPS in those four seasons.
When he hit free agency after the 2005 season, the Red Sox had to make a decision. Damon had been a good contributor to the club and a great teammate. But he was also 32 and had spent over a decade batting leadoff and playing center field. The club opted to let him walk and we all know the rest. Damon did put up a good OPS (.821) in his four years in New York. But he was signed with the intentions to be a primary center fielder and leadoff man. By his last season in New York, Damon was doing neither. Damon would occasionally bat leadoff, but not primarily and was also spending more time in left field and designated hitter by the time his contract with the Yankees expired.
In 2006 and most of 2007, Coco Crisp served as a stopgap center fielder/leadoff man. His .330 OBS and .720 OPS were decent but not spectacular. But Crisp was, and still is, a stud defender in center as well as a really good base stealer. He’s currently the center fielder/leadoff man for the Oakland A’s.
Jacoby Ellsbury has been the primary leadoff man since 2008 and the primary center fielder from 2008-2009 and 2011-present. He’s been a great defender in center and an above average offensive player. Most seasons, he’s been a high-average/respectable OBP/high number of stolen bases guy. In 2011, he would hit 32 home runs with 105 RBIs from the leadoff spot. Triple digits in RBIs is very rare for a leadoff hitter, and Ellsbury’s RBI total that season is the club record for runs batted in for the number one hitter in the lineup.
Ellsbury will be a free agent after the 2013 season. Whether or not he stays or walks is anyone’s guess. One can easily cite his injury-riddled 2010 and 2012 seasons as two obvious red flags (both injuries came off freak collisions but he never fully recovered in either season). But they’ll also have to consider the fact that Ellsbury will be 30 years old and has spent over half a decade doing one of the game’s toughest jobs.
If Ellsbury does indeed walk, it looks like the trend of utilizing the center fielder at the leadoff spot will continue regardless. Jackie Bradley Jrappears to be the heir apparent for both
jobs. He plays great defense and should develop into an even better count bleeder. If Bradley isn’t quite ready for the job in 2014, Shane Victorino could hold down the job in the interim. Before signing with the Red Sox, “The Flyin’ Hawaiian” spent most of his career as the leadoff man/center fielder for the Philadelphia Phillies.
Whoever is patrolling center and/or batting leadoff for the Red Sox beyond 2013 is up for debate. But we can all agree that the double task of batting leadoff and manning center is one of baseball’s toughest jobs.
This concludes my series on what I consider to be baseball’s toughest jobs for position players. Do you agree? Do you disagree? Are there other positions on the field and/or in the lineup that are as tough or possibly tougher? Please feel free to comment. I’m anxious for your feedback.