It had been nearly 20 years since Gene Mauch oversaw the September collapse that scarred a generation of Philadelphians when he posted a lineup before an April game in 1982. The manager of the 1964 Phillies was then guiding the California Angels, who hired Mauch a season earlier with hopes that he could steer their star-filled roster to a World Series.
But it wasn’t where Mauch was hitting Rod Carew, Reggie Jackson, Don Baylor, or Fred Lynn — his four MVPs — that drew attention that April. Instead, it was the way Mauch broke conventional thinking by sliding a slugger into the leadoff spot.
Mauch’s radical approach has since become conventional, and it has become fairly normal in recent seasons for teams to jump-start their lineup with power-hitting leadoff hitters. Last season, NL leadoff hitters posted a record .439 slugging percentage.
And the Phillies — who have received the National League’s fourth-worst production from the top spot since Jimmy Rollins was traded after the 2014 season and had the NL’s fifth-lowest leadoff slugging percentage last season — are now following suit as they search for someone to start their lineup.
But 40 years ago, the leadoff spot was reserved for a slap hitter with speed. So there were quite a few questions for Mauch when he topped his championship contending lineup with Brian Downing, a 31-year-old hulking former catcher who was slowed by a knee injury.
The sportswriters crushed Mauch and the manager stood his ground. Mauch, who played the numbers long before analytics overtook baseball, pointed to Downing’s on-base percentage (a metric that didn’t become an official stat until 1984) and his walk rate.
He was right as Downing stole just two bases but had the third-best OPS among all leadoff hitters.
“Gene was all about numbers,” said Lynn, who won the AL MVP and Rookie of the Year in 1975 with Boston and hit from six lineup spots for Mauch in 1982. “When he managed in Minnesota he was big on platooning because he was a big believer that some guys hit righties better and other guys hit lefties better. His lineup changed all the time.
“He was the first guy to have his designated hitter as the leadoff guy. He even pinch-hit for his DH. He did all kinds of crazy things, but he was into his own numbers. He didn’t tell anyone about them but he was a great tactician. Boy, he knew the X’s and O’s better than anyone.”
Between 2007 and 2014, the Phillies generated the NL’s fifth-best WRC+ from their leadoff spot as Rollins hit first in 62% of the games over his final eight seasons with the team. The Phillies have since cycled through 36 leadoff hitters — including mainstays like Andrew McCutchen and Cesar Hernandez and moonlighters like Emmanuel Burriss, Cameron Perkins, and David Lough — and have struggled to find a leadoff hitter who produced much better than league average for an entire season.
So Joe Girardi, making a Mauch-esque decision, is filling his leadoff spot this season with power hitters who also have a history of reaching base. And the results through the season’s first 10 games have been underwhelming. Kyle Schwarber homered in his first at-bat on opening day en route to going 3 for 32. Girardi swapped Schwarber for J.T. Realmuto, who went 1 for 9 on Saturday and Sunday as the new leadoff hitter.
It’s still early, but the power hitters did not provide an immediate answer to the team’s long search for a leadoff hitter. There are questions this April about Girardi’s lineup construction. Like Mauch, he’s sticking to it.
“I kind of like this,” Girardi told reporters before Sunday’s series finale in Miami. “We’ll see how it goes. But I kind of like the way this sets up.”
Joe Maddon was a 28-year-old minor-league manager in the Angels system in 1982, allowing him to notice the way Mauch structured his big-league lineup. It seemed to influence Maddon years later when he was managing the Cubs and decided before the 2017 season that Schwarber — a former catcher who wasn’t known for his speed but reached base and hit for power — would bat leadoff.
“I’d prefer that he subscribe to the Brian Downing method of leading off,” Maddon told Chicago reporters before that season.
Schwarber had spent most of his career batting second or third and he struggled as a leadoff hitter. He hit just .191 that season in 37 games from the top spot with a .693 OPS. Following the Downing method proved difficult.
“He said, ‘Hey, just make it your own,’” Schwarber said of Maddon’s instructions. “I blame it mostly on me just not being able to do that, not being able to make it my own. I had conceptions where, ‘I have to get on base. I have to see pitches. You want to let these guys drive you in.’ It should’ve just been, ‘Take your at-bat. Get on base? Great. Hit a double? Great. Hit a single? Great.’ You have to be able to not let the label dictate what you’re going to do.”
Schwarber hit leadoff just 58 times over the next three seasons before Washington tried him there again last summer. It clicked as Schwarber hit .297 with a 1.216 OPS in 27 games as a leadoff hitter for the Nationals and Red Sox. His .832 slugging percentage last season is the highest ever by a leadoff hitter with at least 25 starts.
It was enough for the Phillies to crown him as their leadoff hitter to start the season after signing him in March for four years and $79 million.
“I think it was taking the label off of it,” Schwarber said of finding success last year. “The things I do well, that already fits the mold of a leadoff guy. I’m not afraid to see pitches. I’m not afraid to work the guy but I’m not afraid to swing early. I had to take off the label aspect of it and make it my own. Just do what I do good.”
Downing was hitless in six of his first 10 games as Mauch’s leadoff hitter, perhaps providing some hope that Girardi’s power hitters can find their form after a slow start. Mauch was 56 years old in 1982 but still as intimidating as he was in ‘64 as a young manager for a young team that used a conventional leadoff hitter — Phillies great Tony Taylor — to build a 6½-game lead with 12 to play.
“He was pretty intense,” Lynn said. “He could flip a table now and then. If he was pissed, you knew it. If he wasn’t pleased with the way the team was playing, he’d let you know about it. He wasn’t one of those guys who would just let the team go on without saying something. His nickname was the ‘Little General.’ He would stand on the field with his arms crossed and stand behind the shortstop when they were taking grounders before the game just to make the guy nervous. Then the game was a little bit easier. He marched to his own beat.”
Mauch used an unconventional leadoff hitter with the Angels, but the season’s finish was just as crushing as the 10-game losing streak that took down the ‘64 Phils. The Angels won 93 games, clinched a division title, and were a win away from the World Series after winning the first two games of the best-of-five ALCS before losing three straight to Milwaukee.
Mauch managed 27 seasons but never won the pennant, no matter who was batting leadoff. Forty years later, the Phillies hope the leadoff style Mauch helped introduce can lead to a less painful finish.
“You don’t want to walk the leadoff hitter. You don’t want to walk the first guy of the game,” Lynn said. “So chances are he’s going to get a pitch to hit. So they can cherry-pick sometimes and that’s why you’ll see a lot of leadoff hitters hit home runs in their first at-bats. They’ll cherry-pick a fastball and boom you’re up 1-0. I think that’s kind of the theory about this. You can be up 1-0 after one hitter.”