For the last decade, Jimmy Rollins and the Phillies' leadoff hitter have been one in the same. But an honest evaluation of the roster moving forward will require the front office to grade those two aspects separately. Rollins the short stop is still a solid major league hitter. His .715 OPS ranks 11th out of 24 major league short stops with at least 300 plate appearances. That's .001 behind Starlin Castro and .24 behind Derek Jeter. In fact, Castro's .272/.304/.412 line is some pretty good context for Rollins' .246/.306/.409 line. While Rollins has clearly regressed at the plate in recent years, he is still providing production that the majority of teams would be happy with. His on base percentage ranks 12th, while his slugging percentage ranks seventh. He also ranks sixth with 18 stolen bases.
Rollins the leadoff hitter is a separate issue. Only three National League teams have a lower on base percentage than the .309 the Phillies have posted at the leadoff spot. They rank 11th with a .250 batting average but fourth with a .410 slugging percentage. Phillies leadoff hitters are ninth with 69 runs scored and third with 46 RBI.
The perception amongst a lot of readers who have emailed me about this topic is that Charlie Manuel is forever wedded to Rollins as his leadoff hitter. But I don't know that I buy that perception.
Today, I asked Manuel if he fan foresee a time in the near future when Rollins is not his leadoff hitter.
"The older he gets, and that's probably natural, he's a different kind of hitter," Manuel said. "He is definitely a different kind of hitter. When he's knocking in 75 to 95 runs and he's scoring 100, he was definitely a different player, and he was definitely a different leadoff hitter, because of the extra base hits and things. You can look at leadoff hitters anyway you want to, it's still a position in the lineup where guys have to get on base a lot."
The biggest issue, at least the way I see it, is the Phillies haven't really had a better option this season. Juan Pierre has been the people's choice, but Pierre's shortcomings on defense are the reason why he hasn't been an everyday player throughout the season. And the gain that you would get by moving Rollins out of the leadoff spot on days when Pierre starts might not be worth the risk you take in Rollins adapting to whatever lineup spot you move him to. It might not make sense to those of us not in uniform, but it does seem to matter to those in uniform. It just does. You can argue that it shouldn't. But I have heard the manager say that it does, and I have heard several players say that it does, and I have seen several players struggle when batting outside of their comfort zone. In this case, perception is an unfortunate reality.
But the one area the Phillies will need to improve moving forward is the base-reaching ability of the top half of their lineup. The leadoff hitter gets the most plate appearances, which means he gets the most opportunities to make outs, which suggests a team would be better served batting one of its better out-avoiders at the top of the order.
That player who can improve the leadoff spot, at least from the perspective of the 2013 lineup, probably is not on the roster right now. Domonic Brown has shown a keen eye at the plate and a propensity for getting on base in the couple of weeks that he has been with the team. But I don't see the Phillies going that direction, especially if Brown eventually develops the power that they are hoping for. Michael Bourn would be a better fit than Rollins, but I have serious doubts about whether the Phillies will out-bid the plethora of teams who figure to be in the market for the speedy center fielder.
For what it's worth, Manuel did not rule out the possibility of Pierre returning next season. But logic suggests he will not be returning in an everyday role.
Manuel also said he thought Rollins would be open to hitting somewhere other than the top of the order. The list of potential free agents is not exactly chock full of options. Still, the numbers suggest that the Phillies would be wise to take an active approach and give their manager a good reason to have a conversation with his longtime leadoff man.