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Sarah's Take: Leadoff hitters
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04/08/2002 5:34 pm ET 
Sarah's Take: Leadoff hitters
By Sarah Morris / Dodgers.Com

"Brett Butler, who is one of my favorite baseball players of all time, was gifted at prolonging at-bats. I remember when he batted that it would take about ten minutes before he either reached base or was retired." (Jon SooHoo/Dodgers)

A leadoff hitter is essential to the success of a baseball team. Over the years, the Los Angeles Dodgers have had many good leadoff hitters translating to many divisional titles and trips to the World Series. Since 1997 when Brett Butler retired from playing, the Dodgers have struggled to locate a suitable leadoff hitter.

This spring the Dodgers had many questions to address. However, one of the primary questions to solve was to find an effective leadoff hitter. After six weeks, Jim Tracy picked Dave Roberts to be the leadoff hitter because Tracy liked his approach to each at-bat.

The primary goal of a leadoff hitter is to get on base any way he can. Though Rickey Henderson has led off many games with a home run, leadoff hitters are not powerful. Many leadoff hitters are slap hitters, meaning that they hold the bats several inches above the knob. When a hitter "chokes up on the bat," he is less likely to strikeout. A strikeout to open a game is depressing for the team that is batting and provides an emotional lift for the opposition.

I remember when Paul Lo Duca led off several games last year. I enjoyed watching or listening to the games that Lo Duca was leading off because he almost never struck out. Thus, I believed that the Dodgers had a better chance to win the game.

Many leadoff hitters like to bunt to get on base. When the opposition knows the bunt is coming, they easily field it. However, when they do not expect the bunt, there sometimes is a comedic scene. Brett Butler made his living by laying down bunts. Because Butler bunted so often, the third baseman could not play at a normal depth creating a hole that Butler abused to get singles. This year Dodger fans probably will see more bunting than in the recent past because both Roberts and shortstop Cesar Izturis enjoy bunting.

Most leadoff hitters have a good eye for the strike zone. Though walks are a good way to reach base, a good knowledge of the strike zone allows the leadoff hitter to take a few pitches. This allows the leadoff hitter's team to see more pitches. When a team sees many pitches from a certain pitcher, it is more likely to score runs. A starter has to pace himself. When a hitter works deep into the count, he exhausts the starter, making the manager go to the bullpen sooner than he wants.

Brett Butler, who is one of my favorite baseball players of all time, was gifted at prolonging at-bats. I remember when he batted that it would take about ten minutes before he either reached base or was retired. When he was an Atlanta Brave or a San Francisco Giant, I hated the annoying little hitter, who exhausted the pitcher before the seats were warm. However, when he became a Dodger, I marveled at his skill to foul off countless consecutive pitches. Butler said he used to love taking pitches just to see what kind of stuff the pitcher had and report it back to his teammates.

As both Butler and Steve Sax were, most leadoff hitters are speedy and skillful base stealers. In 1982, Sax's rookie season, I found watching Sax run was fascinating because he was as graceful as a ballerina. Though a stolen base seems to be easy to defend against, I have seen more errors produced by a stolen base. The catcher usually overthrows second, so the runner takes third base. I cannot write how many ways there are to score a runner from third with less than two outs.

A good leadoff hitter produces enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is contagious. When Dodger fans say that the Dodgers have not had an enthusiastic team for a long time, I say that they have not had a good leadoff hitter for a long time either. Eric Young tried, but he was hampered by injuries and did not get along with management.

This year Dave Roberts is trying to carry out the proud tradition of the Dodger leadoff hitter, started by Maury Wills and passed on to Davey Lopes, Steve Sax, and Brett Butler.

Can he do it?

I think so. In the first week of the season, he has shown signs of being an offensive catalyst, which is what a leadoff hitter should be.

Sarah Morris is the editor of Dodger Place. She lives in Anderson, Texas.

 


 





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