On Tuesday, Bruce Bochy treated Giants fans to the unfamiliar sight of Brandon Belt, leadoff hitter. And if you were anything like me, you had this reaction to the news:
For the Belt haters reading this right now, listen to me when I say this move makes sense. No, really! The primary goal of a leadoff hitter is to get on base, and that’s exactly what Belt does. Even with a batting average that would make Billy Hamilton wince, Belt still boasts a .355 OBP. That’s a full 130 points of on-basing achieved almost solely through the power of walks.
Of course, batting Belt first is not the first time the team experimented with a first baseman in the first spot of the lineup. That distinction belongs to none other than Will Clark, the slugger with the ambrosia swing. And unlike Belt so far, he didn’t suck batting leadoff.
To be clear, it was a short experiment. Over his 15-year career, Will the Thrill led off a mere 28 times, all of which came during his first two seasons with the Giants. It’s not exactly clear to me why then-manager Roger Craig decided to pencil in Clark at the top—remember, we’re talking about the 1980s here, when the leadoff hitter was supposed to be a plucky, base-stealing threat. My speculation is that those lineups featured a lot of new, fresh faces, so why not stick the kid at the top and see what he could do?
As it turns out, he could do pretty good things. In 1986, Clark batted leadoff nine times. Across 36 at-bats, he slashed a line of .333/.375/.444, good for an OPS of .819. He even stole a base! Of course, it came on a throwing error by the catcher, and he ended up getting stranded, but never mind that.
But Clark really cemented his leadoff legacy the following year, when he started 23 of the first 25 games of the season at the top spot. And what a legacy it was turning out to be—over his first eight games leading off, he batted at a…thrilling…pace, putting up an obscene .371/.378/.629. That includes this haymaker of a game, when he went 3-for-5 with a double and a home run and scored three runs.
Of course, the perceptive reader will have noticed a problem: The dude didn’t walk. Once the batting average cooled off, so did his OBP. By May 2—the last time Clark would bat leadoff in his career—the first baseman was sporting a line of .264/.323/.448. Respectable enough, but not exactly ideal for a leadoff hitter. After that, he started bouncing around the batting order until he found his groove again in the fifth and sixth spots.
Clark would never lead off again.
It’s easy to point to small sample sizes and say that the Will Clark Leadoff Extravaganza was worth another shot. But by the next season, it didn’t matter—over the offseason, the Giants signed Brett Butler, one of the greatest leadoff hitters of all time. There was no question now who would bat first.
Still, one can dream of the slugging leadoff hitter that could have been. And hey, who knows? Maybe Belt can be that guy! There’s still a chance he—
/Belt strikes out looking