Saturday, September 22, 2007

Norris Hopper shouldn't leadoff in 2008

Norris Hopper has been one of the hottest hitters in baseball in the second half. In fact, since the All-Star break, Hopper is hitting .387, which is tops in the NL. That kind of hot streak has led to a lot of speculation about Hopper hitting leadoff for the Reds in 2008. Unfortunately, I think that would be more than a little unwise.


Hopper is not a disciplined hitter, which is typically what you want to see out of your leadoff hitter. An ideal leadoff hitter should get on base at a good clip, see a lot of pitches, and grind out every at bat in an attempt to get on base any way possible.

Hopper is an aggressive hitter who consistently forces an early conclusion to an At Bat. That kind of approach really limits the number of pitches you see and walks you get. That kind of approach results in an On Base Percentage that is made up largely of Batting Average. It is difficult to be an effective leadoff hitter if that is the approach you employ. It can be done, but the best leadoff hitters reach base in other ways besides a hit.


If you compare Hopper to four of the best leadoff hitters throughout history, then you'll see a vastly different approach utilized by Hopper than the others.

#P/PA: Number of pitches seen per plate appearance
%BB: The percentage of plate appearances that results in a walk
%HBP: The percentage of plate appearances that result in a hit by pitch
1stPitch%: The percentage of times the hitter swings at the first pitch
Contact%: The percentage of times the hitter makes contact when he swings


Those four are some of the best leadoff hitters in baseball history, though they utilize different approaches. Here's a bit about the similarities and differences in style.


It's hard to argue against Rickey Henderson being the best leadoff hitter in baseball history. His walk rate is very high (16.4%), sees a ton of pitches (4.34), rarely swings at the first pitch (13%), and makes contact with great frequency (88%). Henderson is the archetypal leadoff hitter.


Tim Raines was a similar leadoff hitter to Henderson, but a bit more aggressive. Rock Raines saw fewer pitches (3.76), walked at lower clip (12.8%), swung at the first pitch with greater frequency (25%), and made contact slightly more often (89%). Still, Rock and Rickey were too patient leadoff hitters who were massively successful.


Craig Biggio was a successful leadoff hitter, though he utilized a slightly different approach. Biggio had good speed and baserunning instincts, but had much more power than the usual leadoff hitter. In addition, Biggio had a lower walk rate (9.3%) than Rickey and Rock, but he made up for some of it by using the HBP as an offensive weapon. Over his career, 2.3% of Biggio's Plate Appearances ended in a hit by pitch. That's a much higher percentage than the others listed and helped increase Biggio's OBP.


At the other end of the spectrum is Ichiro, whose approach at the plate is mirrored by Norris Hopper. Ichiro has tremendous bat control and walks very infrequently (6.4%). He relies on hits, rather than walks and hit by pitches to get on base. Ichiro's OBP is only .046 higher than his batting average over his career. That said, he needs to hit around .315 to even have an OBP above .360. You don't want your leadoff hitter to have an OBP much lower than .360.


As for Norris Hopper, the first thing that jumps out at me is the percentage of pitches at which Norris swings (41%). It is almost to the point where Hopper swings at every other first pitch that he sees. It seems difficult to fathom that when this information gets around the league that Hopper will be able to maintain his level of production. If pitchers see that you'll offer at the first pitch so often, then they will refuse to give you a 1st pitch to hit in an At Bat.

Once word gets around the league on Norris Hopper, he'll need to make serious adjustments in order to maintain his success. Similar to Ichiro, Hopper would need to hit for a very high batting average in order to have an OBP high enough to justify batting leadoff. Hopper's IsoOBP is even lower than Ichiro's at .040, so he'd have to hit .320 in order to even post a .360 OBP. As it stands now, even if Hopper hit .300, he would still fail to have an OBP high enough to be an effective leadoff hitter.

In addition, Hopper steals bases at a much lower clip than the others. Over his career, Hopper is only at a 65% success rate, which is poor for someone with his speed. In fact, from a statistical standpoint, a success rate of 65% actually does more harm than good to the offense. If you aren't any more successful than that, then you are better off not attempting to steal at all.


Personally, I don't think it is common for a hitter to adopt a substantially more disciplined approach at the plate. It happens from time to time, but that is more of the exception to the rule, then the rule itself. For the most part, a hitter is who he is at the plate.

So, it would be unwise to pencil Norris Hopper into the leadoff spot in 2008 with the expectation that he'll either hit .320 or suddenly increase his walk rate. Neither seems very likely, so the Reds would be wise to utilize Norris as a 4th outfielder.


  1. The analysis here is good but I have a couple points. You mentioned an acute problem of his high 1st pitch average but then you said that he would have to make serious adjustments to maintain his success. I think changing the 1st-pitch approach is not a serious mental adjustment and that it by itself may be enough to keep him productive.

    He did drop some weight which may help his stolen base ratio.

    He has really surpassed all expectations up to this point so perhaps he will continue to do so if given a chance. He just seems like such a competitive player that he will find a way. With the crowded outfield situation, his playing time may be severely limited so he might not have a chance to refine his game, especially at the plate.

    I had a controversial idea of having him try to rebuild his plate approach from scratch in the offseason (with his average, it seems ridiculous). Watching some highlights of him, I noticed how off balance he is and that his lack of power has little to do with his physical strength. I really noticed the difference when watching Brandon Phillips, who is probably not physically stronger. I wonder for Hopper's career sake if he shouldn't try to evolve into a more powerful hitter. Probably he's too old of a dog for that but it could increase his value immensely. I was thinking that a winter league would be the place to do that.

  2. Hey Matt,

    Thanks for the thoughts, you make some interesting points.

    I must admit, that over the offseason Hopper has grown on me a bit. A little quiet reflection has me a bit more bullish on his leadoff skills.

    As it stands, I think he's the best bet to hit leadoff and play centerfield. I still don't care for his approach at the plate, as I like late-count hitters, but I'm beginning to wonder if it is a sustainable approach. On my first pass, I didn't think it was, however I'm beginning to wonder.

    As I mentioned above, Hopper is a very aggressive hitter and almost always forces an early consequence to his ABs. I think that is far from ideal for a leadoff hitter, but there are many ways to skin a cat.

    There are early count hitters who make effective leadoff hitters (i.e. Ichiro), so it can be done. In addition, there are a few things that tilt in Hopper's favor.

    Even though his BABIP is rather high, it might be more than just luck. Two factors may help to explain why his high BABIP may be somewhat sustainable:

    1)He hits a high percentage of line drives. For his MLB career, Hopper has a Line Drive% of 19.9%. Line drives fall in for hits much more often than other types of batted balls, so the more you hit, the higher your BABIP.

    2) His bunting skills. In 2007, Hopper had 18 bunt hits and was only thrown out once when he attempted to bunt for a hit. I actually haven't seen any studies on how great bunting skills impact BABIP figures, but I'd say this is a case where a hitter can exert a little control over it.

    The question for me is whether the defense will adjust to Hopper's style. In addition to his 18 bunt hits, Hopper also had 16 infield hits. That's 34 hits that never left the infield, which to me is pretty much the whole ballgame with Hopper. If the defense can limit the numbers of infield hits he gets, then his production will probably fall off the table.

    As for his approach, I don't really think hitters can change their approach very easily. These guys live and breath baseball their entire lives and when they hit they hit the same exact way. I just don't think it's easy to make a guy more patient, so I don't think that'll work with Hopper.

    Also, I think Hopper has embraced the facets of his game that will help him succeed at the MLB level. I think he does have more power than he has shown, but to be a valuable MLB player, I think he needs to be a tablesetter.

    That said, I couldn't agree with you more about Hopper and exceeding expectations. From everything I've seen and read, he's a hard nosed, do whatever it takes kind of player. And, I think you underestimate those types of players at your own peril.

    So, as it stands today, I'm a bit more optimistic about Hopper's chances to be an effective leadoff hitter. However, there is a risk that the defense will significantly limit what he can do at the plate.

    Anyway, thanks for the comments. Let's just hope that Dusty doesn't turn to Corey Patterson as our starting centerfielder, which would be a nightmare.