The Detroit Tigers barely missed the playoffs last year, ultimately losing a Game 163 play-in to the Twins. Among the myriad reasons they wound up on the outside looking in during October were the performances at the top of their lineup.
Though they combined for 34 homers and 17 steals -- thanks primarily to the work of Curtis Granderson, who took 79 percent of the team's plate appearances in that spot -- Tigers leadoff hitters batted a combined .247/.321/.458. By comparison, the average AL leadoff hitter batted .284/.355/.420, and while the OPS numbers might give you the impression that Granderson's power made up for his lack of plate discipline, every point of on-base percentage is actually worth about 1.8 times as much as a point of slugging percentage, so the Tigers wound up costing themselves a few runs there. Far more damaging was what the Tigers got out of the second spot in the lineup, a .275/.321/.389 line -- with Placido Polanco taking 88 percent of the plate appearances in that slot -- as compared to a league-average performance of .277/.337/.430 from No. 2 hitters.
With Granderson now a Yankee and Polanco a Phillie, Detroit appears to be headed toward a batting order in which a pair of ex-Yanks will fill the top two spots. Prospect Austin Jackson, obtained in the winter blockbuster trade that sent Granderson to the Bronx, is slated to bat leadoff, while free agent Johnny Damon will bat second.
PECOTA isn't terribly wowed by Jackson, who hit .300/.358/.405 at Triple-A Scranton last year. Our current 50th-percentile forecast projects him to hit a rather unimpressive .250/.311/.369. Only around his 70th-percentile projection (.272/.338/.415/.258 True Average) does his performance come close to a league-average hitter (.260 True Average).
While one should be careful not to put too much stock in Jackson's red-hot performance this spring (.350/.435/.550 through Sunday, with six walks in 46 PA), it's worth noting that manager Jim Leyland has been quite impressed with the 23-year-old's plate discipline. "I think the thing I've been most impressed with so far is that he isn't swinging at bad balls," says Leyland, who's hardly known for the kind of rookie puffery that former Tigers skipper Sparky Anderson made famous.
As for the 36-year-old Damon, he's more of a known commodity. His 50th-percentile projection is for a .279/.362/.451 line, and while that would represent a falloff from last year's .282/.366/.489 showing in pinstripes, keep in mind that he's a year older, and moving to a much tougher park for hitters. It's still a considerable step up from what Polanco or Granderson gave them.
In the event that Jackson struggles out of the gate, don't be surprised if Damon takes over the leadoff spot, with Leyland adjusting his order to put another capable hitter in the two slot while protecting his prized rookie. That should provide more baserunners for the middle-of-the-order bats (Magglio Ordonez, Miguel Cabrera and Carlos Guillen) to drive home. And if he doesn't -- if he continues to muddle through with his two most frequent hitters getting on base a piddling 32 percent of the time -- he'll deserve every loss that comes his way.
Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus.