Aaron Rowand may have a good year and capitalize on that "Great every three years" cycle a lot of Giants fans have bought into. Baseball fans saw it in 2004 in Chicago (.388 wOBA) and in 2007 in Philadelphia (.382 wOBA). Maybe Giants fans will see something similar from Rowand in 2010.
He's off to a good, though not great start so far. While Rowand has hit four home runs this year in 95 plate appearances, his batting average dipped to .266 after tonight's 8-2 win over the Houston Astros and his OBP fell to .310.
Rowand may still have a breakout year for the Giants. That being said, I don't believe that "big" season will happen with him batting leadoff for this team.
First off, Rowand isn't and never was a leadoff hitter. The Giants panicked and gave him the spot because, after Spring Training ended, they had no other reasonable options at leadoff. As Giants fans, we could live with Rowand batting first simply because nobody else looked better in comparison. (Seriously, Edgar Renteria and his .307 OBP in 2009 was perhaps the second best option to bat leadoff on Opening Day).
However, this isn't Opening Day anymore. The Giants have just finished game 26 of the season. Is it the midway point? No, but it certainly has been long enough to tell what has been working and what hasn't this year for the Giants.
Rowand certainly fits in the latter category.
First off, leadoff hitters need to have one of two things in order to be effective:
1.) Tremendous speed or base stealing ability.
2.) A high propensity to draw walks or get on-base.
In terms of point number one, speed can make up for a hitter's poor plate discipline. Look at Willy Taveras, who has a career OBP of .320 and a career walk percentage of 5.1 percent. Why did he bat leadoff for every team he played for in his career until this season? Because Taveras stole over 30 bases from 2005-2008, and 25 bases in 2009 (and to put it in perspective, he had a .275 OBP for the Reds in 2009).
Rowand doesn't have that speed. Rowand has only 60 stolen bases in his career. Taveras had 68 stolen bases in 2008 ALONE.
So, if Rowand can't steal bases, he must be a good on-base guy, right? A "milk the pitcher and draw some walks" guy in the mold of Kosuke Fukudome?
Not exactly either.
Rowand has a career average walk percentage of 5.7 percent. This season, he has been below his career average, as evidenced by his 3.2 percent walk percentage so far in 2010. Now, while his strikeout rate is 17.8 percent, the first time it has been under 20 percent since 2007, his BB/K ratio is still far from impressive at 0.19. Rowand's BB/K ratios the past two years in San Francisco haven't been much better either, as it was 0.24 last year and 0.35 in 2008 (the league average is usually around 0.50).
Also, the big knock on Rowand has been his plate discipline, and this year he has showed more of the same. After swinging at 32.7 percent of pitches outside the strike zone last season (seven points more than the league average), he has been even worse this year, swinging at 42.8 percent of pitches outside the strike zone.
Therefore, Rowand does not fit either category in terms of being a successful leadoff hitter. I know manager Bruce Bochy likes Rowand, and wants Rowand to get comfortable at a spot in the lineup, but leadoff simply isn't it. The more Rowand bats leadoff for the Giants, the less chance they have of making the playoffs. I do not think any Giants fan can argue with that sentiment.
So who do the Giants bat at leadoff?
I suggest two scenarios.
1.) Andres Torres (the main one).
2.) Nate Schierholtz (the secondary one).
In terms of the first option, it makes the most sense. Torres, who has stepped up this year and proved that 2009 wasn't a fluke so far, fits both categories of a successful leadoff hitter. He has good speed (he has four stolen bases this year) and he has shown a strong ability to draw walks and get on base as well (he has a 14.8 percent walk percentage, a 1.00 BB/K ratio and a .398 OBP). Furthermore, unlike Rowand, Torres has proven to be patient in the batter's box. While Torres has cut down on his swings at the plate this year (42.8 percent swing percentage), he has swung at less pitches outside the strike zone (20.6 percent).
Torres not only deserves to be batting leadoff whenever he is in the lineup, but he deserves more playing time as well. While taking playing time away from Rowand will be a challenge, if unrealistic (simply because of his contract and clout with Bochy and Sabean), he certainly deserves to be playing more games in left field, especially if Mark Derosa's wrist doesn't fully recover this year.
However, while I agree that he deserves to be playing MORE, I do not think he should be the permanent left fielder for the remainder of the year. If anything, some kind of platoon needs to be worked out with John Bowker in left field. Bowker still has potential. His walk rate is the highest its been in his Major League career (9.2 percent) and his HR/FB rate (15.4 percent) shows that he has power potential. BowkerwOBA and 27.6 percent strikeout percentage don't help), but with Derosa hurt, this should be an opportunity for Giants management to give Bowker more at-bats.
The best scenario, in my mind, would be for some kind of 60-40 split (or at the very least, 70-30) between Torres and Bowker in terms of playing time in left field with Derosa out and likely heading to the DL. If they don't do it now, they might as well just send Bowker to Fresno because he isn't going to get any other opportunities considering how crowded this outfield is.
If Bowker does get the opportunity of playing every few days (and that's a big IF), then Schierholtz (who has earned the starting right field job after a great start) should bat leadoff for the Giants when Bowker is starting in left.
Schierholtz isn't a typical leadoff hitter. Unlike Rowand though, he has shown improvement this year in drawing walks and being more patient at the plate. His walk percentage is 7.4 percent this year and his BB/K ratio is 0.70 (it was 0.28 last year and 0.38 in 2008). Additionally, he has been more efficient at the plate, swinging at less pitches outside the strikezone (26 percent, a nine point drop from the previous season), while making better contact to boot (85.9 percent contact rate; an 8.2 percent improvement from 2009).
Surprisingly, Schierholtz has some speed as well. This year he has stolen three bases in four attempts. (He had only three stolen bases all of last year!) It wouldn't be surprising to see Schierholtz to steal 10-15 bases this year if given regular playing time. Is that Taveras base stealing ability? No, but it's efficient, and certainly better than what Rowand has to offer.
The Giants solution at leadoff? Drop Rowand in the lineup (six or seven would be a great fit), make Torres the leadoff when he's in the lineup, and when Bowker is replacing him in left field every few days or so, move Schierholtz up to the one spot.
It sounds easy enough, and there is a prime opportunity to instill this plan with Derosa going to be on the shelf.
The main question though is whether or not Bochy and Sabean will have the moxie to make the move. (Knowing Bochy and his history as Giants manager, my gut says no...unfortunately.)