Best place for San Francisco Giants’ worst hitter is leadoff

When the Giants watched Pablo Sandoval leave as a free agent this offseason, they didn’t really have any internal replacements ready to take his place at third base. With most of their money allocated toward re-signing pitchers Jake Peavy, Ryan Vogelsong and Sergio Romo, the team ended up bargain-hunting for a new third baseman. The Giants found their man in Miami, importing Casey McGehee from the Marlins, as they continue to be a franchise that emphasizes hitting for contact — McGehee’s primary calling card as a big leaguer.

Preferring this skill has worked out well for the Giants over the years, leading them to underrated players like Angel Pagan, Marco Scutaro, Joe Panik, and Nori Aoki. While other teams have chased power in an environment where it has become ever scarcer, the Giants have been content to single their way to three World Series titles. So while McGehee is an unconventional third baseman — he hit just four home runs last year — the Giants targeting an underpowered contact hitter shouldn’t have been a huge surprise.

Unfortunately for the Giants, the beginning of McGehee’s career in San Francisco has been a disaster. After an 0-for-3 performance on Tuesday night, he’s now hitting .164/.220/.255, and if you can believe it, he’s actually been even worse than that line would suggest, because BA/OBP/SLG don’t account for the extra harm that comes from hitting into double plays. And nobody in baseball hits into double plays like Casey McGehee.

McGehee has already hit into eight twin killings this year; no one else has done so more than five times, so he leads the league in GIDPs even though he hasn’t actually played enough games to qualify for the batting title yet. That McGehee is leading the double-play charge shouldn’t be a huge surprise, however, as he hit into a whopping 31 double plays last year, tied for the eighth-highest single-season total in major-league history.

McGehee is basically the perfect storm of a double-play candidate. He specializes in making contact and hitting groundballs, only unlike most guys who pound the ball into the ground, he’s remarkably slow. McGehee has the batted-ball profile of a leadoff hitter and the foot-speed of a designated hitter; if he comes up with a man on first base and less than two outs, there’s a pretty good chance that two outs are on their way.

So when you take into account the negative value of the extra outs McGehee is making by hitting into double plays — and at FanGraphs, we have a metric called RE24 that does just that — we find that he’s been the very worst offensive player in baseball to date, some 12 runs below a league-average performer. That’s kind of remarkable, considering he’s played in only 16 games. While San Francisco’s early-season struggles are not solely McGehee’s fault, no one has done more to single-handedly bring down his team’s ability to score runs than its third baseman.

Unfortunately, the Giants still don’t really have an alternative at third base; that’s why they had to trade for McGehee in the first place. So, the team is probably just going to have to keep running him out there and hoping he turns it around. But since he’s going to be in the lineup, the Giants should think about doing something to reduce the likelihood of McGehee threatening Jim Rice’s single-season double-play record (36), set back in 1984. Since there’s no real good alternative if they benched him, I’d instead like to suggest something even more radical: Make him the leadoff hitter.

Yeah, you don’t generally take a guy who is hitting .164 and move him to the top of the batting order, and the top spot in the lineup is almost exclusively reserved for guys who can run. Aoki, who has primarily hit leadoff for the Giants this year, has been excellent in that role, hitting .306/.392/.376 and stealing six bases to boot. Aoki has been something close to the perfect leadoff hitter so far, and I realize that displacing him to promote McGehee sounds nuts.

But if you’re going to play McGehee, then you want to minimize his number of double-play opportunities, and no spot in the batting order gets fewer chances to hit into a double play than a National League leadoff hitter. Not only does the first hitter get one guaranteed at-bat with no one on, he also bats directly behind the pitcher, who is highly unlikely to reach base on his own, and will have almost always been asked to sacrifice a runner from first to second base when that opportunity is available.

How rare is it for an NL leadoff hitter to hit into a double play? Here are the 2014 plate appearance and double-play totals for each of the first eight spots in the National League batting order:

Lineup Spot PA GIDP Plate Appearances Per GIDP
Batting 1st 11217 96 117
Batting 2nd 10947 198 55
Batting 3rd 10721 231 46
Batting 4th 10482 243 43
Batting 5th 10237 224 46
Batting 6th 9960 228 44
Batting 7th 9686 220 44
Batting 8th 9405 194 48

NL leadoff hitters hit into double plays half as often as No. 2 hitters, and nearly one-third as often as guys hitting in the middle of the batting order. Certainly, there’s a good amount of selection bias here, as managers put fast guys at the top and slow guys in the middle, so these results aren’t solely due to lineup placement. But the dramatic difference between the GIDP rates for the top two hitters are not a coincidence, as leadoff hitters in the National League rarely come up to bat with a man on first base and less than two outs.

For comparison, McGehee came up to the plate with a runner on first and less than two outs 131 times last year. Matt Carpenter, batting almost exclusively as the Cardinals leadoff hitter while playing 156 games in 2014, hit in that same situation only 80 times. Denard Span, with 666 plate appearances from the leadoff spot, hit with a man on first and less than two outs just 72 times.

By moving McGehee to the very top of the lineup, the Giants can cut his double-play opportunities nearly in half. Aoki can easily slide into the No. 2 spot in the order behind McGehee, with Panik dropping back in the order to fill McGehee’s role. While Panik isn’t any kind of power hitter, he’s also not nearly the groundball machine that McGehee is, and he has hit into only five double plays in his big league career; McGehee hit into that many in a four-game stretch last week.

While hitting higher in the order is often seen as a reward for a player who is performing well, the Giants might actually be better off using it as a strategic opportunity to hide a glaring weakness. McGehee hasn’t earned more at-bats, but with his skillset, he can do the least amount of harm to the Giants offense by routinely hitting with the bases empty. The best place to ensure he comes up with first base open is to let him hit leadoff.

If the Giants had a bunch of great hitters who were going to come to the plate less as a result of putting McGehee at the top of the order, then the cost might not be worth the benefit. But the Giants don’t have a bunch of great hitters, and getting Panik a few dozen fewer trips to the plate over the course of the year won’t really hurt San Francisco that much. Letting McGehee continue to snuff out every rally he comes across, though? That’s a problem the Giants need to think about fixing.