Byron Buxton made his debut in the leadoff spot for the Twins on Monday, going 3-for-5 with three runs scored and very much looking the part of a No. 1 hitter.
It led to this thought: Who are the best leadoff hitters in Twins history? Here is a list of my top 5, spanning 1961 to the present, with a minimum of 700 plate appearances for Minnesota as a leadoff hitter (with major credit to Baseball Reference, which sorts out all this information).
1 Chuck Knoblauch: Easily the greatest leadoff hitter in Twins history and arguably one of the greatest leadoff hitters of the past 30 years, at least during his time in Minnesota. He was patient enough to draw walks, he had pop and he stole bases.
Consider that Knoblauch had a .399 on-base percentage as a leadoff hitter for the Twins from 1991-97 in more than 3,000 plate appearances in that role. Now consider Ricky Henderson, widely regarded as the best leadoff hitter of all-time, had a career OBP of .401.
2 Cesar Tovar: Had 3,378 career plate appearances as a Twins leadoff hitter, the most in Minnesota history. He only walked 219 times as a leadoff hitter, but he only struck out 218 times – a minuscule amount. He could steal bases (45 in 1969) and he could drive the ball (59 extra-base hits in 1970, including 13 triples). He was a legitimately above-average leadoff hitter for a long time.
3 Shannon Stewart: Had an excellent .358 on-base percentage in nearly 1,500 plate appearances as a Twins leadoff hitter from 2003-06, including a robust .384 mark in 2003 when he nearly single-handedly transformed Minnesota’s season after being acquired mid-year.
4 Denard Span: The last prototypical leadoff hitter the Twins had before putting Buxton in that role Monday, Span had a .354 career on-base percentage as a No. 1 hitter for Minnesota in 2,569 plate appearances in that role. His 2009 season remains singularly impressive and perhaps underrated: .311 batting average, .392 on-base percentage and 23 stolen bases – with 143 of his starts coming as a leadoff hitter that season.
5 Lyman Bostock: A very promising start for Bostock was cut short first by his free agency departure in 1978 to the Angels and then tragically when he was murdered in September that year. He might have been a 1970s version of Kirby Puckett had things gone differently, but in his limited role as a leadoff man for the Twins (715 career plate appearances), his .363 OBP along with solid power really stand out.
Honorable mention: Brian Dozier and Jacque Jones (both scored runs in bunches thanks in part to power, but neither was a prototypical leadoff man); Shane Mack (underrated as a hitter and especially as a leadoff hitter); Kirby Puckett (A good leadoff man when put in that role, though he rarely walked); Dan Gladden (Dynamite in the 1987 postseason); Lenny Green (.350 OBP as primary leadoff hitter for Twins during their first three seasons in Minnesota).
The Vikings acquired two veterans in free agency with previous ties to head coach Mike Zimmer. While one, safety Taylor Mays, didn’t work out, cornerback Terence Newman has fared well so far.
Mays was cut by the team last week and has since signed with the Lions. Meanwhile, Newman received reps with the first team during OTAs and minicamp while Captain Munnerlyn and Josh Robinson recovered from injuries.
“He looks good,” Zimmer said. “He’s very, very smart. He’s helping the guys with a lot of the different concepts and talking about the intricate part of the game, and yes, he looks good.”
Newman, 36, was the fifth overall pick by the Cowboys in 2003 and spent his first four seasons in the NFL with Zimmer as his defensive coordinator. Newman and Zimmer reunited in 2012 with the Bengals for two seasons before Zimmer took over for the Vikings last year. Newman, entering his 13th season, spent three seasons with the Bengals before joining the Vikings in the offseason.
“What he adds to the room as far as confidence as far as calmness, as far as guys being able to reach out to his for information, those type of deals, he’s a true pro,” defensive coordinator George Edwards said. “The first time he gets something. If he doesn’t get it then you won’t worry about it. He won’t make the same mistake again, so from that aspect of it, his work ethic and the younger guys seeing that work ethic and seeing how he comes out here and applies things from the classroom to the field is an advantage to us.”
The Vikings are deep at cornerback heading into training camp. Along with Newman’s presence, the team also drafted Trae Waynes with the 11th overall pick. There will be stiff competition at the position as the Vikings look for a starting corner to pair up with Xavier Rhodes between Newman, Munnerlyn, Waynes and Robinson. That doesn’t even include Marcus Sherels, who always gets counted out this time of the year but works his way onto the 53-man roster, and second-year cornerback Jabari Price.
When the Twins traded both Ben Revere and Denard Span in the offseason leading up to 2013, they willingly created two immediate voids with an eye toward better days ahead.
Not only did they deal away two men who could play center field, they traded away two guys who naturally fit as leadoff hitters. Revere, because he has never been inclined to take a walk, was only an adequate top-of-the-order guy (.333 on-base percentage in 2012), but Span in his heyday was above-average and bordering on elite when he was rolling (.392 OBP in 2009, his best year with the Twins, and a .357 career OBP with the club).
The Twins had drafted their center fielder and possible leadoff man of the future in the summer of 2012 in the speedy, rangy and powerful Byron Buxton, but they knew they had no center fielder or leadoff hitter of the present after the trades. What they did have is pitching prospects in return — one of whom, Trevor May, is in their starting rotation, and another of whom, Alex Meyer, might be figuring out his role as a reliever at Rochester, where he has allowed just one earned run in 16.1 innings (along with 19 strikeouts) since being moved to the bullpen. The Twins were not going to compete in 2013 or 2014 with or without Span and Revere, so it is reasonable to say the trades were worth it and that — at least for now — better days are here.
That said, they left gaping holes the past two-plus seasons. The void in center was filled, at times, by Aaron Hicks — who could field but has never consistently hit. The void at the top of the order has been filled, at times, by decent options in Brian Dozier and Danny Santana, who have done the bulk of the leadoff work for the Twins since the Span and Revere trades.
That said, it has not felt like they they had a true leadoff man since 2012 … until Buxton filled that spot Monday night. It wasn’t just that he went 3-for-5 with three runs scored in his first shot in the spot — including the turning of a mortal single into a Buxton double in the first inning. Rather, it is the credentials he brings to the spot as the perfect mix of gap power, speed and patience (with a career .380 OBP in the minors to go with a career .486 slugging percentage).
From 2010-2012, Span or Revere batted leadoff in all but 18 of the Twins’ 486 games. No other player had more than 10 tries in the spot.
From 2013 through Sunday, six different players had at least 10 starts in the leadoff spot for the Twins.
Again, Dozier’s work shouldn’t be discounted. He has scored 136 runs in 194 starts as a leadoff man in that span, boosted by 37 homers. But his .326 on-base percentage is slightly below the league average for leadoff hitters in that span (.328). He strikes me more as better suited to hit No. 2 or No. 5.
Santana hit .290 in 456 plate appearances as a leadoff hitter, but he also drew just 15 walks for a subpar OBP of .319. Assuming he makes it back to the majors, it should be as a No. 9 hitter who can turn the lineup over and provide speed to go with occasional pop.
Someday, Buxton might prove to be too valuable as a run-producer to use in the leadoff spot — and could, in fact, hit third in the other (another void if we consider Joe Mauer, even in light of some recent power, is not the hitter he once was and isn’t ideally suited for that position in the order).
For now, though, Buxton as a leadoff man is perfect. Batting him ninth as an introduction to the big leagues was nice in theory, but elite players thrive on pressure. Batting him ninth tells him you’re not sure he belongs. Batting him first tells him the trust is there.
Let’s hope Monday was the first of many times we see Buxton’s name at the top of the lineup card … and let’s hope that we don’t see names like Alex Pressly (27 times since 2013), Jamey Carroll (25 times) or Clete Thomas (16 times) for a great long while.