We often underestimate the importance of the leadoff hitter. He’s the guy that gets things started, sets the table for the rest of the order and ends up with the most plate appearances at the end of the season. A struggling hitter atop a lineup can doom an inning or, at the very least, limit the damage against an opposing pitcher.
One of my biggest concerns when the Orioles lost Nick Markakis to free agency was how they would be able to replace his production at the top of the lineup. Markakis had embraced the role and evolved into exactly the type of guy I wanted to see leading off. In 2014, he slashed .274/.339/.378 as a leadoff hitter and .302/.341/.365 in 267 plate appearances while batting first in an inning.
The stat I focus on most for this role is on-base percentage. There’s much debate around baseball about the approach of hitters in certain spots and whether guys are too aggressive or too eager to draw a walk. If you ask them to sit back, you eliminate the potential of extra bases. If you encourage swinging away, you increase the likelihood of striking out. In the leadoff spot, however, everyone universally agrees that it’s all about getting on. That .339 OBP (.341 when leading off an inning) is what made Markakis so good and allowed him to score 78 runs in that spot last year.
Over the past couple of weeks, I have seen Manny Machado similarly take to the role and the results have been outstanding. As a leadoff hitter, Machado is slashing .292/.349/.509 on the season. When batting first in an inning, he’s hit .294/.336/.541. Machado has scored 30 runs in that spot, ranking eighth among leadoff hitters. The seven guys ahead of him have all played at least four or more games in the role.
We’ve seen natural talent from Machado at the plate over the past four seasons, but his approach has changed in 2015. This season, Machado has drawn 24 walks (15 in the leadoff spot). In 82 games in 2014, Machado walked just 20 times. He walked 29 times in 156 games in 2013. So it should come as no surprise that Machado’s strikeout-to-walk ratio is also at a career low, 1.95 coming into last night, down from 2.83 in 2014 and 3.89 in 2013.
Machado’s plate discipline has dramatically improved this season, leading to the success in the leadoff spot. Overall, he’s swinging 7.7 percent less than he did last season, 5.1 percent less than his career average. In the zone, he’s relatively the same hitter he has been over the past couple offseasons. However, on pitches outside of the strike zone, Machado is swinging at 13 percent less than he did in 2014 and making contact with 7.2 percent more of them. That’s a crazy combination.
That patience combined with some pop has made Machado one of the best leadoff hitters in the game today. He’s hit 13 home runs his season (nine while batting first) and is on pace for 33 on the season. Carlos Gomez led leadoff hitters last season with 20. Only Brian Dozier (12) and Rookie of the Year favorite Joc Pederson (19) have more in the spot this season.
June has been the Orioles’ month so far, they’re 11-5 and have outscored their opponents 87-49. In all 16 games, Machado his hit atop Buck Showalter’s batting order slashing .328/.377/.578, crossing home 14 times, homering five and scoring 11 runs of his own. That’s certainly no coincidence.
Zach Wilt blogs about the Orioles at Baltimore Sports Report. Follow him on Twitter: @zach_wilt. His views appear here as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our pages. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.