Do You Have What It Takes To Lead Off?
The Guy at the Top of the Order Sets the Tone for the Lineup
Every team has to have a lead-off hitter, but some hitters are just the first guy in the order, and others are true lead-off material. A team with a real-deal lead-off man has a real advantage.
To be chosen to lead off for a good hitting team is both an honor and a big responsibility. You are expected to perform at a high level, as you set the tone for the rest of the game.
To put it as simply as possible, your job as lead-off is to get on base. Period. Whatever way it takes, as you are the first link in your team's offense. You're out there to get driven in by the guys behind you.
Obviously, there are several ways to get on base. You can get a base hit - that's a pretty good solution. Or you can take a base on balls (better known as a walk). You can get on base on a fielder's error, or you can get hit by a pitch. You can even get on by catcher's interference, if your bat hits his mitt while swinging at a pitch.
A team that has not played you before looks at the lead-off hitter as an indication of how this team is offensively. They assume that the guy with the most discipline, the best eye, the most prolific contact hitter, the best base-runner, is the guy who will come to the plate first. If you walk up there and cluelessly flail away at lousy pitches, it gives the other team a pretty good indication that if you're the best they've got, the rest of the lineup needn't be feared.
You're up there to follow orders, whether team protocol, or specific signs being flashed to you from the third base coach. Chances are pretty good that you're going to be asked to take pitches until you get a strike, to give the team a look at what stuff the pitcher has. If you've got excellent bat control as well as an eye for the strikezone, you'll probably run the count to full, getting a clue as to the umpire's strike zone on that particular day.
A great at-bat is one in which you'll foul off several pitches that are too close to take, but nothing you can drive. In doing so, you're exposing the pitcher's stuff, his control, his own discipline, and his poise.
At this point, you're not looking to pound the ball over the outfielder's head. Rather, you need something in the strikezone - it need not be perfect - that you can go with and hit where it's pitched. This means that if it's on the outside half of the plate, you drive it to the right side (or visa versa if you're a lefty hitter). If it's an inside pitch, you'll hit out in front more, and it will "pull" itself. If you get a decent pitch and you hit it hard, but you get fielded out, well, you did your best and ran up the pitch count.
But if you do get a hit or walk, you've set the tone for the guys behind you, and you're able to now make it easier for them to get a hit. How?
Your job on base is to distract and rattle the pitcher. Your darting lead-offs, drawing his throws over to first, your dives back to the base, your taunting, annoys him and upsets his rhythm. Unable to concentrate solely on the batter, he's far more likely to make a mistake pitch.
Being a true lead-off hitter requires a special state of mind, a resolve that you can win any battle at the plate, against any pitcher.
Chances are, when you come up through the lineup again, you'll not be leading off the inning. So your job changes slightly. Although you want to get on base to get driven in by those behind you, there's a possibility that there are already men on base, counting on you to move them over or bring them in.
You're not as likely to take a lot of pitches now, since everyone has seen what the pitcher has, and a walk is not necessarily the best thing right then. A walk does not score a runner unless bases are loaded, but a base hit can. Your bat control and discipline should allow you to look for a pitch you can take to the right side to move or score runners. If you're up against a very smart and skilled pitcher, who jams you inside knowing you're looking for an outside pitch, you'll change your plan. See what he throws you after he gets one strike on you, then don't be picky - hit it hard someplace if it's close.
You might be called upon to bunt, or to execute a hit-and-run. Both of these are crucial to scoring runners in close games, and failing to perform is not an option. These two skills should be practiced during every batting practice you take.
Being a successful lead-off hitter is not something you're born with, it's something you develop and never stop perfecting. If you are a smaller guy, never one who's going to hit 400-foot home runs, then make up your mind that you can be just as integral a part of the lineup, just as irreplaceable as Mr. Number Four Hitter.
A good lead-off man can be a team's most valuable player.
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