If you look at the numbers Jimmy Rollins has put up over his career it’s hard not to wonder how well-suited he is to be a leadoff man. He’s pounded 55 home runs over the past two seasons and he’s never posted an on-base percentage of .350 or better in his career. He managed to drive in 94 runs for the Phils in 2007, 81 of which came while he was hitting first in the lineup. That was by far the most of any NL hitter in the leadoff slot — Alfonso Soriano was second and he drove in 69 runs as a leadoff hitter.

The 81 RBI as a leadoff is a ton. But he got a lot of help from a productive lineup that produces base-runners for everyone in the lineup, regardless of where they hit. As I pointed out earlier this week, going by percentage of plate appearances with runners aboard Rollins hits with the bases empty far fewer than anyone else on the team. In 2007 he hit 20 solo home runs. The question has been around just about as long as J-Roll has been in the league — should he be hitting leadoff?

And if you think the answer is yes a big part of your argument can be this: Rollins is simply a better hitter when he’s hitting leadoff. And over his career, outside of the leadoff spot he’s been barely passable as an offensive player.

Here are his career numbers and what he’s done while hitting first in the order and what he’s done when hitting anywhere besides first:


AB

AVG

OBP

SLG

OPS
Career 4713 .277 .331 .441 .772
#1 3441 .284 .338 .465 .803
Not #1 1272 .260 .312 .377 .688

Undeniably, Rollins has better results when hitting first in the lineup. When he doesn’t hit first in the lineup he has been a very poor hitter over a large number of at-bats. The ‘why’ of all this is pretty interesting, but I have no idea. The one thing I’m sure of is that the answer isn’t that he tries harder when he hits first in the order. If I were the Phillies I think I’d try to figure it out, though, because given the power numbers he has put up over the past two years he has the potential to drive in a lot more runs if he were getting his at-bats with more men on base. But until I did figure it out I think I’d let him keep leading off.

This article from MLB.com about the contenders that may miss the playoffs is kind of rough on the Phils.

Update 2/8/08: A comment was made wondering how many of Rollins’ at-bats outside of the #1 spot in the order came early in his career, before he put up his best offensive numbers. This is a really good point I should have addressed in the original post.

It is true that the vast majority of the at-bats that Rollins has had outside of the top spot in the batting order, about 80 percent, came before 2004. Since he has been more productive as a hitter overall of late, you would think the numbers outside the leadoff spot would look worse because he was just a worse hitter overall while he getting most of his time there. And they do. However, if you also look at each of his seasons independently without putting them in the context of his overall career numbers, in just about every year he’s also had more success hitting first than hitting in other spots in the order.

Rollins made his league debut in 2000 and has played at least part of eight seasons.

In three of them, 2000, ’05 and ’06, Rollins got less than 20 plate appearances anywhere other than the leadoff spots.

In ’03, using OPS as the measure, he was worse overall in his plate appearances in the leadoff spot. That season he posted a .693 OPS in 280 at-bats as a leadoff hitter, which was lower than his .707 OPS on the season. The .693 was better than his .688 as a #2 hitter, but he hit 360/385/493 in 75 at-bats hitting sixth and 278/381/407 in 54 at-bats hitting seventh.

In 2001, ’02, ’04 and ’07 he got at least 100 plate appearances at positions in the batting order other than #1. In each of those seasons, using OPS as the measure he was a better hitter hitting first in the lineup than hitting in all of the other spots.

In 2001, 261 of his 656 at-bats came as the top hitter in the lineup. He posted a .794 OPS as the # hitter in the lineup — his OPS overall on the year was .742.

In ’02, 395 of his 637 at-bats came as a one-hitter. .727 OPS as a leadoff hitter and .686 overall.

In 2004, 498 of his 657 at-bats were a leadoff hitter. .852 leadoff and .803 overall. With the big home run numbers, most people see 2006 and 2007 as Rollins’ best seasons with the bat. 2004 was arguably as good or better than ’06 despite the fact that he hit just 14 home runs in ’04 compared to 25 in ’06. His numbers in ’04 would have been even better if it hadn’t been for the 208/255/271 he hit in 48 at-bats as an eight hitter and his .777 OPS in 83 at-bats as a #2 hitter.

And in 2007 he hit first and third, posting a .903 OPS in 622 at-bats as a #1 hitter and a .694 OPS in 94 at-bats as a #3 hitter.

Finally, I think you can could also make a case that getting all that time in the leadoff spot recently in his career is part of what has contributed to his offensive success over the last couple of seasons.