Rickie Weeks, Leading Off

(Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from Nick Petakas of Drunk at the Batrack, a general baseball blog. Nick will be contributing posts every now and then, and hopefully will provide a nice change of pace here. Feel free to comment on his first post below, and you can follow him on Twitter @NicholasPetakas. –JL)

The position and requirements of a leadoff hitter have undergone more evolutionary changes than Sonic Youth since the speed seeking-intangible days of Mickey Rivers and the nearly immeasurable talents of the once undervalued Rickey Henderson. Prior to the start of 2011, it was penned and somewhat definitively spoken that Rickie Weeks is now the best leadoff hitter in the game. The once underrated sabermetric equivalent to your favorite underground indie-rock band has now made it atop the proverbial lists of the nation’s top baseball writers’ premier leadoff hitters.

Which brings me to an interesting paradox — instead of proving how much he’s worth, as a lot of his talents and upside went unnoticed in the past, we can actually quantify him against his colleagues and prove the popular opinion of the “toolsy” Weeks to actually be correct.

The Brewers immediately recognized the commodity they had in Weeks by inking him to a 4-year/$38.5 million extension — as soon as he was able to muscle out a full year of health and everyday play. A career high 160 games/754 plate appearances set Rickie off to finally live up to his potential after several staggered injury-plagued seasons, however productive when healthy.

At this point his data both proven and projected puts him in the top tier of leadoff hitter standouts along with running mate Ian Kinsler, the ageless/anemic Ichiro and the surprising and slightly overachieving Brett Gardner.

This of course being the conclusion because division-mate and comparable talent (to Weeks) Andrew McCutchen is consistently batting third for the Buccos and that, by all assumptions, will continue at least through 2011(barring injury or a serious lack of production from his teammates). Same goes for a few other potential “leadoff” hitters who get moved around just about everyday.

Based on the more weighted leadoff hitter expectations and commensurate isolated statistics, including reliable speed and isolated power #s, here’s how things shook out in 2010 from the aforementioned hitters:

Rickie – .366 OBP, 0.41 BB/K, 5.1 Spd Score, .195 ISO.
Ian – .382 OBP, 0.98 BB/K, 5.2 Spd Score, .125 ISO
Brett – .383 OBP, .078 BB/K, 8.1 Spd Score, .103 ISO.
Ichiro .359 OBP, 0.52 BB/K, 5.4 Spd Score, .079 ISO

As you see, Rickie’s value is in his well-roundedness, highlighted by his consistent power threat. (slugging a lofty .537 in 2011 through the Brewers first 10 games btw).

Since 2011 leaves much to be determined, here are what this year’s ZiPS projections have told us:

Rickie – .352 OBP, 0.45 BB/K, 6.0 Spd Score, .187 ISO
Ian – .362 OBP, 0.81 BB/K, 6.2 Spd Score, .185 ISO
Brett – .355 OBP, 0.68 BB/K, 9.5 Spd Score, .107 ISO
Ichiro – .340 OBP, 0.52 BB/K, 4.0 Spd Score, .092 ISO

Taking into account that Rickie has had relatively modest projections from most reliable sources due to his history of injury, it’s not that he doesn’t share those problems with his counterpart in Texas, Ian Kinsler. All things considered, if healthy and able-bodied in 2011 and beyond, Rickie and Ian should run neck and neck in terms of production for quite some time. Here’s a look at their career lines to this point, keep in mind both players were born just 5 months apart:

Rickie – .785 OPS (.863 vs LHP/,759 vs RHP)
Ian – .825 OPS (.913 vs LHP/.794 vs RHP)

Significant advantage to Ian in slugging, as they are just a point apart in career OBP (.355 for Rickie, .356 for Ian)

When running more primitive offensive numbers (subtracting Speed, contact and BB/K from the aforementioned) Rickie and Ian are seemingly runaways from the rest of the field, with the obvious advantage going to Kinsler based on the data we’ve chosen. It can actually be argued that the two second basemen have set themselves apart on a “tier” of their own due to their proven balanced play and offensive prowess.

From a Brewers’ perspective it’s refreshing to see just how obvious Weeks’ value has become. The only anxieties I continue to have in the back of my Roenicke-sensitive brain are if/when he (Roenicke) would get “creative” and tempt fate by moving Rickie down significantly and getting cute by throwing “CarGo the bad” (Gomez), Nyjer Morgan or GOD FORBID Yuniesky Betancourt in that leadoff hole in anything more than just an intrasquad game.  Yikes, I don’t even want to mutter that.

So, as the leadoff position has evolved through experiments such as Travis Buck by the A’s just a few years ago and current pet projects like Michael Brantley and Austin Jackson – the Brewers will not be forced to wait out uneven production from the top of their order for what seems like a good, long while. Rickie may just be a notch under the “best”, but “best-ish” is certainly more than good enough in an age where Melky Cabrera still gets slotted in the 1-hole often enough to make one cringe.

Incidentally, if there were tackling in baseball, Rickie Weeks would make all of these dudes cry. That should be noted as well.