Is it time to pass the mantle of leadoff hitter to Davis Schneider?

Photo credit:Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
Thomas Hall
1 month ago
Since arriving via free agency in 2021, George Springer has been the Toronto Blue Jays’ go-to leadoff hitter over the last four seasons, including ’24. But has the time come to make a permanent switch for a club desperate for improved run creation, particularly atop the batting order?
The leadoff spot and Springer have spent plenty of time together since ’21. Of the 1,769 plate appearances he’s logged as a Blue Jay, 1,555 have come as the table setter for the rest of the batting order. No other player — past or present — has come within a sniffing distance of him in that time, with former Blue Jay Marcus Semien the next highest on the list at 403.
Of course, hitting first is a role Springer has maintained from his days with the Houston Astros, where he was a sparkplug in the No. 1 hole for most of his seven seasons with the franchise. There, he routinely changed the score in the first inning with one swing and, albeit with reduced frequency, has done so for Toronto, too. That has led to 57 career leadoff home runs, trailing only Rickey Henderson’s 81 for most all-time.
But as sparkling as Springer’s resume is as one of the best leadoff hitters this sport has ever seen, his offensive production has been on a sharp, dramatic decline since the beginning of last season.
From 2019-22, the right-handed-hitting outfielder slashed .274/.360/.536 while accounting for a 143 wRC+ in 384 games split between the Astros and Blue Jays. He crushed 21 home runs in ’23, reaching the 20-home-run mark for the seventh consecutive season — excluding 2020. However, he was just four per cent above league average per wRC+ and registered career-lows in OBP (.327), SLG (.405) and wOBA (.320) despite playing 154 contests, the second-highest of his career.
As disappointing as last year was, the four-time All-Star is off to a horrific start this season, hitting just .200/.273/.290 with three home runs and a miserable 66 wRC+ across 37 games. And he hasn’t shown any reason for optimism with his underlying metrics, as he sits below the 50th percentile in almost every quality-of-contact metric, including xSLG (.378), xwOBA (.308), average exit velocity (87.3 m.p.h.), hard-hit rate (35.9 per cent) and barrel rate (6.0 per cent).
All but one of Springer’s 161 plate appearances have come as Toronto’s leadoff hitter this season. Given that he’s occupied 87 per cent of the total reps at that spot, it shouldn’t be difficult to guess where this team’s offensive production from the top of the lineup ranks throughout the majors — it’s squarely in the basement.
TOR’s Leadoff HittersMLB Rank
This lack of success probably wouldn’t be front and centre — at least as much as it’s been thus far — if the Blue Jays were piling up wins on the backs of their two franchise cornerstones, Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. But since runs have been tough to come by, as have series victories of late, the time for waiting for Springer to get going is over — or it should be.
Much of Toronto’s fan base has clamoured for change in the leadoff spot for weeks, even months back to last season. Those cries have been answered recently as Springer’s missed time due to an illness, thrusting Davis Schneider up the order with a much-deserved promotion.
It hasn’t been all rainbows and butterflies thus far, considering Schneider has gone 0-for-8 with three strikeouts in two of the three games he’s led off. That middle game of the three, though, is one where he imposed his will on the Minnesota Twins last Saturday.
At a time when the Blue Jays once trailed 7-1, last year’s rookie sensation was a primary source of offence, recording his first three-hit performance of 2024 — the fourth of his young career. He was responsible for a third of the club’s 10 runs, including his fifth-inning solo shot that helped spark a badly-needed comeback effort.
The Blue Jays bumped Schneider down to fifth in Sunday’s finale against the Twins with Springer available once again, only for the declining 34-year-old outfielder to go 0-for-4 with a pair of strikeouts. His bat, of course, wasn’t the only one that struggled, as Bailey Ober and Minnesota’s bullpen held this lineup to just two hits.
At the same time, it’s become increasingly clear that it’s time for Toronto to provide someone other than Springer an extended run in the leadoff spot, and there may not be a better replacement on the roster than Schneider.
Gone are the days of every leadoff hitter needing to feature a high-speed, high-contact profile. Now, most clubs typically deploy their most productive hitter atop the order and for Toronto, that’s been Schneider this season.
Of the eight Blue Jays batters to earn at least 100 plate appearances, the 25-year-old leads the team in SLG (.474), wOBA (.370), wRC+ (143) and offensive WAR (5.2) while trailing only Guerrero (.376) in OBP, with the two separated by just .010 points.
While Schneider’s 73.5-per-cent contact rate ranks eighth amongst that group, it’s much improved compared to last season, climbing nearly 10 per cent from his 64.9-per-cent figure. Plus, his plate discipline has been impeccable, with his 11.6-per-cent walk rate third-highest on the team and positioned in the 77th percentile.
There’s still a fair bit of swing and miss in his bat, considering his strikeout (26.8 per cent) and whiff rates (29.6 per cent) are ranked in the 22nd and 25th percentiles, respectively. But each of those metrics has taken a positive step forward in 2024, as his strikeout rate has dropped nearly four per cent while his whiff rate has fallen by almost eight.
And most of those swings and misses have transpired within the strike zone, given he owns a 94th percentile chase rate at 19.7 per cent.
Not only is Schneider making quality swing decisions, but he’s also taking advantage of pitcher’s mistakes by punishing them with his barrel, as he entered Monday’s series opener versus the Baltimore Orioles with the second-highest barrel rate (21 per cent) in baseball, behind only Shohei Ohtani (23.6 per cent).
Few alternatives exist, if any, that are more sensible than keeping Schneider in the leadoff spot moving forward. The only other viable option might be Justin Turner. But he’s currently amidst a 1-for-22 skid over his previous five games and likely better served to remain put in the middle of the lineup, where he’ll earn significantly more run-scoring opportunities.
Having Schneider lead off regularly will undoubtedly force opposing teams to focus on his strengths and weaknesses more thoroughly than they already have, and we’ve begun to witness that in short order recently. Another crucial aspect worth monitoring is whether he stays mentally and philosophically consistent after becoming a larger focal point of opponents’ game plans.
Most importantly, removing Springer from the leadoff spot would be a decision to construct the best possible lineup rather than hoping that moving down the order helps ignite his bat. The red flags that have plagued him early on — like his poor quality-of-contact metrics and declining bat speed — will probably remain regardless of where he’s hitting.
It is simply the harsh reality of the situation. Father Time is undefeated, and Springer’s rapid decline is likely only the beginning of what’s to come. He should recover from his mercifully slow start. But with an emerging star like Schneider ascending, that bounce-back probably needs to occur in the bottom half of the Blue Jays’ lineup.

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