When you think of a leadoff hitter in your mind, what do you see? Do they look something like Ichiro or Billy Hamilton?
Last season Kevin Cash started using Austin Meadows as his primary leadoff hitter — an All-Star caliber hitter and frequent DH, batting in front of Tommy Pham second and saving his big guns like lefty Ji-Man Choi or righty Yandy Diaz for fourth in the order.
I loved this.
There were moments where Cash reverted to some formidable hitters who’d be lighter on their feet in the early going: Brandon Lowe got a spin in leadoff, later Eric Sogard and Joey Wendle, when they were on hot streaks, were at the top.
But for the most part, it was Meadows, who despite DH-ing for the Rays was the leader on offense in WAR (4.0) and home runs (33), and wRC+ (142). If you were an opposing pitcher, the last guy you wanted to face was the first one you got to see.
The 2020 Rays are built differently. Tommy Pham is no longer entrenched at No. 2 in the order because he’s been traded to San Diego (where he’s stealing a ton of bases, so, flourishing), and Austin Meadows has only just returned to baseball activities this weekend due to a requirement to be on the COVID injured list.
#Rays Cash said Meadows will play a little bit in a sim game today in Port Charlotte but "he knows he's behind."— Marc Topkin (@TBTimes_Rays) July 26, 2020
So who has Kevin Cash relied upon at the top of his batting order?
I have great news if you like fun baseball: it’s more muscle.
Across the first three games of the season, Kevin Cash has called upon the biggest men on the lineup as the Rays faced a lefty and two righties for the opening series: Yandy Diaz in Game 1, and Ji-Man Choi for Games 2 and 3.
In other words:
For Opening Day, we got a callback to my favorite lead off hitter of 2019: Yandy Diaz.
On the most recent episode of The Hit Show, we re-lived that moment when Yandy Diaz sent the A’s reeling in the Wild Card game with a lead off home run to being the Rays playoff run — which he followed up with an identical home run the second time he came to bat in the third inning; Sean Manea recorded only six outs, Oakland never recovered.
Yandy Diaz didn’t have the same performance on Opening Day, but he was nevertheless formidable. His first appearance soaked up six pitches, his second appearance with Willy Adames on base had Ryu staying far away and resulted in a five pitch walk. His third appearance started with a similar story, but a sharply hit 2-0 change went for an out, but it was the last out of Ryu’s day.
With a right handed pitcher on the mound, and no Meadows available, Cash continued his trend of muscle leading the line up by slotting Ji-Man Choi first in the order for the rest of the season so far — followed by 2019 All-Star Brandon Lowe second in the order.
In Game 2, Choi was in the right place at the right time in the sixth inning to bat pinch runner Mike Brosseau home in the sixth, but Game 3 deserves all the attention so let’s go there.
Ji-Man Choi is now a switch hitter. Absurd!
In case you’ve been under a rock, in his second plate appearance a lefty took over for the Blue Jays and Choi walked around to the right handed side of the plate, having never done so previously at the major league level (in the minors he had 17 plate appearances as a righty dating through 2015). It was a strikeout.
Third plate appearance of the game? Choi returned as a right-handed hitter, and knocked a home run 429 feet with 110 mph exit velocity!
Ji-Man Choi hadn’t ever had a hit as a righty— Tampa Bay Rays (@RaysBaseball) July 26, 2020
Ji-Man Choi now has a home run as a righty pic.twitter.com/zo6YSsoWZX
Later in the game righty Ken Giles was facing lefty Choi and got to a 3-1 count before incurring an elbow injury. The Jays called in a lefty to face Choi and what did he do? Switch to the right side of the plate again! The result was an easy walk.
Then, of course, came Game 4’s offensive explosion. I’m not gonna say that Ji-Man Choi batting lead off sufficiently got in the head of pitchers to the extent that everyone in the lineup after him was able to score a run in the fourth inning last night, but I’m not gonna not say it either.
This is about playing Chess. You want to bring in a new pitcher to face Ji-Man Choi? Oh, another lefty? No sweat, here comes Ji-Man’s right handed hitting helmet, and two more righties as soon as you face Brandon Lowe (who has a 303 wRC+ through four games, lol). Enjoy that three batter minimum, everybody else!
I know a lot of folks come to this website for hard numbers and analysis, and I love and respect that because as the managing editor it’s what I’ve tried to continue and cultivate over the last six years at this site, but in this moment, I’m not as concerned with much more than having the Rays most provocative hitters up to the plate as frequently as possible.
Sure there’s not a big stolen base threat from Yandy and Choi, but also, who gives a crap when the Rays offense can bat them home without a stolen base?
Back when I played baseball video games, my favorite was the Evan Longoria edition of MLB 2k10. If you’ve heard me talk about this game before, you already know what I’m about to say: In this game, Dioner Navarro was god’s gift to hitting home runs. The Rays switch hitting catcher had an incredible 2008 when he was an All-Star, but an abysmal 2009 on offense. His 2k10 power and contact ability made no sense, but it was a video game so who cares? I just enjoyed it. Any guesses where I batted him in the lineup?
Dear Dream Diary: Ji-Man Choi has made video games a reality, and I’m loving it.
Oh, and Kevin Cash, who is definitely reading this, please let me ask you not change anything when Austin Meadows returns. I’m enjoying this far too much!