OAKLAND Leading off the first inning for the A’s on Monday night, Joey Wendle put forth the kind of plate appearance that both his manager and one of the best leadoff hitters of all time – who happened to be in the dugout – would appreciate.
Wendle fell behind Houston Astros right-hander Brad Peacock 0-2 by taking two fastballs in the strike zone. He then laid off four consecutive pitches out of the zone, two sliders and two fastballs, to work a walk.
Wendle, the rookie second baseman called up Aug. 31, has been leading off regularly for the A’s, who have been looking for someone to fill that role since trading Coco Crisp. Wendle is, by manager Bob Melvin’s admission, perhaps not a prototypical leadoff hitter, though the exact definition of that term may be changing.
Entering Monday, leadoff hitters in the majors this season had combined to hit 535 home runs, up from 354 two years ago and 69 more than any full season in the past 20 years. They also had combined for 580 stolen bases, on pace for the lowest total over the last 20 years, and a 17.8 percent strikeout rate, which would tie 2015 for the highest in that span.
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I just love coming out and competing every day and having every pitch, every small decision, be important and actually matter at the major-league level. That’s really what I’ve enjoyed.
Joey Wendle, A’s rookie second baseman
American League players with a significant number of at-bats in the leadoff spot this year include the Minnesota Twins’ Brian Dozier (41 homers), Houston’s George Springer (28 homers, nine steals) and Cleveland Indians catcher Carlos Santana (32 homers, five steals) – none of whom fit the traditional image of the speedster whose job is solely to set the table for middle-of-the-order hitters.
Leadoff hitters this season are eating, too. But as Melvin pointed out, another similarity among those three players is an ability to get on base: all three rank among the top three hitters on their team and top 30 in the league in on-base percentage.
“When you’re talking about leadoff hitters, you’re talking about guys that make pitchers work,” Melvin said. “They take some walks. They’ll see some pitches for the guys behind them, certainly the first at-bat. They’re not necessarily first- or second-pitch swing guys.”
Wendle doesn’t even fit that mold, necessarily. Melvin said the 26-year-old, acquired by the A’s from Cleveland for Brandon Moss after the 2014 season, is “probably more of an early-count swinger, yet he has made the adjustment.”
And though in a small sampling, he has gotten on base: at a .405 clip in his first nine games hitting leadoff for the A’s.
“For a young guy to be thrust into that role and make some adjustments he’s not used to making, I think that’s doubly impressive,” Melvin said. “He has an understanding of what a leadoff hitter does.”
Even that has changed in recent years, said Rickey Henderson, the former A’s outfielder who combined power and speed in the leadoff spot during his Hall of Fame career.
“When I was coming up, we had a certain thing we had to do,” Henderson said Tuesday in Oakland, where he was with the A’s as a special instructor. “Be a little more patient, learn the strike zone, get deep in the count and then fight from there. I think what I learned the most was knowing that I could hit with two strikes and stay as patient as if I had no strikes.”
Because of the havoc he wreaked on the bases, Henderson said he thinks pitchers usually threw strikes to avoid walking him, and his ability to key on certain locations in the zone helped drive up his power numbers. That correlation between steals and homers, though, does not hold for today’s leadoff hitters.
“They’re learning, ‘I’m trying to get on base, trying to create something for the hitters to hit behind me,’ ” Henderson said. “Now I think a leadoff hitter tries to be just like a fourth hitter. I’m getting up, I’m trying to get a pitch, and I might try to drive it out of the park.”
For a young guy to be thrust into that role and make some adjustments he’s not used to making, I think that’s doubly impressive. He has an understanding of what a leadoff hitter does.
Bob Melvin, A’s manager, on Joey Wendle
Wendle, who batted leadoff only about a dozen times this season at Triple-A Nashville, said Melvin told him not to change his approach upon moving him into that spot this month.
“That being said, first at-bat of the game, I do think it’s important to let the hitters behind you see a couple pitches,” Wendle said. “So for that first at-bat, maybe that would be my approach. Then after that, just trying to get a pitch in the zone I can make solid contact.”
Wendle, one of the slew of rookies the A’s have called up to evaluate for next season and beyond, has made a quick impression on the team’s staff with his bat and glove. When the A’s acquired him, Wendle’s defense was said to be behind his offense. But Melvin has lauded Wendle’s defense, particularly his range at second base.
“I feel like I’ve been happy with how the transition has gone,” Wendle said. “I just love coming out and competing every day and having every pitch, every small decision, be important and actually matter at the major-league level. That’s really what I’ve enjoyed.”