Last season, the Atlanta Braves captured their first NL East title since 2013. A big part of the ascent was the boost that Ronald Acuña Jr. brought after being moved to the leadoff spot. Despite that success, who bats leadoff for the Braves this season is not a foregone conclusion. Acuña could be seen to be more valuable in the middle of the lineup this season.
There are several other options on the roster that could bat leadoff. None of the options are perfect and they might be better utilized at another spot in the order too.
Atlanta Braves Lineup – Leadoff Options
Entering 2018, Ender Inciarte was a clear cut, prototypical MLB leadoff hitter. In 2017, he earned his first trip to the All-Star game with a .350 OBP. He consistently steals around 20 bases per season and plays Gold Glove-caliber defense in centerfield.
Things did not go as well in 2018. Inciarte saw nearly a 40-point drop in his batting average from the previous season. He batted from the leadoff spot in 54 games, but only managed a .223 average from the top of the order. He contributed most when batting second last season. Josh Donaldson was signed this off-season and seems like a natural fit to bat second leaving question marks as to where Inciarte can best be used.
#Braves' Josh Donaldson reiterated that he prefers hitting 2nd over 4th or 5th, says it allows him to be a better, more complete hitter instead of going up and trying to hit homers. And Snitker said again that he's planning to bat him second.
— David O'Brien (@DOBrienATL) February 17, 2019
The Braves experimented with using Inciarte as a “second leadoff” hitter, batting him in the No. 9 spot and after the pitcher on multiple occasions. The sample size is small, but he only managed to hit .214 with a modest .333 OBP in those games.
Switch-hitting Ozzie Albies burst on the scene last year, hitting .281 and belting 20 home runs by the All-Star break. He slowed down significantly in the second half though, only hitting .226 with four more home runs. The decline in power was not a big surprise, as Albies had never reached double-digit homers while in the minors. The sharp decline in average and OBP are more concerning.
Albies is a free swinger and lacks the plate discipline that teams are often looking for from the leadoff spot. Last season he only drew 36 walks and rarely worked deep counts. Albies performed best when batting second last season, but as mentioned earlier that spot is not available.
Acuña, the reigning NL Rookie of the Year, was a spark plug for the Braves from the leadoff spot last season. He hit eight leadoff home runs, including five in a two-week stretch in mid-August.
In 111 games, Acuña batted nearly .300 with 26 home runs and 64 RBI. He added 16 stolen bases and drew 45 walks for good measure. If he can project that stat line out over a full season, Acuña will consistently be in the MVP conversation.
This off-season much of the conversation centered around whether or not Acuña should be moved to the cleanup spot. Acuna is on record as saying he prefers to bat leadoff, telling MLB.com, “If it was up to me personally, I’d like to stay in the leadoff spot, simply because I like hitting there.” It is also worth noting that Acuña never batted cleanup last season.
Donaldson and Freddie Freeman are penciled in at the two and three spots, and Nick Markakis will likely end up batting cleanup as he did most of last season. Acuña would probably be a better option in a run-producing spot, but his success and comfort at leadoff means he will likely continue in that role. The batting lineup may be a bit unconventional, but it is a combination that led to a division crown last season.
Embed from Getty Images