A.J. Hinch admits his views on the ideal leadoff hitter have changed over his years as a Major League manager. He also readily admits the player who changed it the most.
“George Springer,” he said.
Hinch rotated through a handful of leadoff hitters during his first managerial tenure with the D-backs. His first Astros team in 2015 began the season with Jose Altuve, then way more of a contact hitter and stolen-base threat than a home run hitter, leading off. Then a young Springer began to emerge.
“I mean, I don’t want to make anybody out to be George Springer, and I don’t love talking about the past, but I think that has taken hold,” Hinch said Sunday. “I think [that’s] dating back to Joe Torre’s Alfonso Soriano days, when he put the most dangerous hitter [up there]. He was not going to take pitches and he was not going to walk, but he was going to hit a ton of power. That started a little bit of a trend that’s taken off.
“I tried to continue it with George, and now I’ve seen Aaron Judge lead off, I’ve seen Mike Trout lead off, I’ve seen less stereotypical leadoff hitters at the top of the order, and I’ve watched it be a difference-maker in how the pitcher has to approach the very first at-bat of the game. And while you might produce a run or two more by having somebody like that in the middle of the order, there’s a great advantage in having that guy get a fifth at-bat, or that guy lead the game off with energy and damage.”
This is where Riley Greene is now in the Tigers’ order. That says something about the Tigers’ offensive struggles this season, but it says more about Greene. Two weeks into his big league career, he’s already the most dangerous hitter on the team. He entered Sunday with the second highest fWAR on the team at 0.6, trailing only Jonathan Schoop at 0.8. His 0.8 offensive WAR, according to baseball-reference, was the highest on the team entering Sunday, just ahead of Javier Báez.
Greene isn’t exactly a free swinger; his strike-zone judgment is already advanced for a 21-year-old and getting better, and he entered Sunday with more walks (10) than strikeouts (eight). He spent three games batting cleanup last week in part for lineup balance, and three games each in the second and fifth spots.
Hinch has tried moving him around to places where he can do the most damage. But watching how Greene fared early last week in San Francisco against lefty starters Carlos Rodón and Alex Wood convinced him to make the move up.
“One of the reasons I’ve moved him up is because of his mental strength,” Hinch said. “I mean, he’s not even fazed the least bit, whether I hit him first, second, fourth, sixth, against righties, lefties.”
He’s far from the first Tigers center fielder to bat leadoff as a rookie; Austin Jackson batted leadoff in 143 games as a rookie in 2010, while Curtis Granderson alternated between leadoff and ninth in the order in 2005. But Greene’s skill set makes this a different decision.
“I do view him as a modern-day leadoff guy,” Hinch said. “I think his on-base skills so far have been very apparent. His power in the Minor Leagues, and then [Saturday], are obvious.”
Twice last week, that extra at-bat at the end of a game paid dividends. Greene drew a ninth-inning walk off Royals closer Scott Barlow to put the potential tying run on base Friday. Then, of course, came his walk-off home run to the center-field shrubs Saturday.
“I want us to have more hitters like him that can stretch a lineup to being more dangerous,” Hinch continued. “Last couple games have worked out to where the lineup has rolled around and he’s gotten an extra at-bat that’s been very important. He has delivered in both. But I can easily see him hitting first or second [long term]. If we acquire somebody that maybe steals a little more bases, it’s not etched in stone. But certainly the look that we’re getting now and the at-bats we’re getting now, I want him to get as many at-bats on our team as we can.”
Greene, for his part, is used to it. He batted leadoff for virtually his entire Double-A Erie tenure last year.
“I love it,” he said. “I was comfortable in it then and I’m comfortable in it now.”