One of the burning questions this offseason has been who is going to end up batting leadoff in 2017. Sure, there’s a few in-house candidates, like Joey Rickard, Adam Jones, or even Manny Machado. They’ve all had their share of leadoff duties recently, however, neither of the three are true leadoff batters.
What’s the definition of a true leadoff hitter you ask? Well, how about we take a stroll down Orioles memory lane, and see how leadoff batters for the O’s have fared since the turn of the millennium.
Let’s start with Brady Anderson. Brady was the Orioles leadoff batter in 2000, and 2001. His on-base percentage in the leadoff spot during those years was .374, and .307 respectively. Through 1,030 leadoff plate appearances, Brady was able to tally 65 extra-base hits, 139 walks, and stole 26 of 38 total bases. Not to mention he probably had the best sideburns in the game.
Moving along here, in 2002, the Orioles gave the majority of leadoff duties to Melvin Mora. Through 531 plate appearances batting leadoff, Mora had an OBP of .342, and smacked 46 extra-base hits, while walking 52 times. This was also the same season that Mora managed to walk a total of 70 times, the most in a season of his career. As for stolen bases, Mora was 12-of-22 out of the leadoff spot, and 16-of-22 total.
The following season, a gentleman by the name of Brian Roberts took over the leadoff role on May 21 from Jerry Hairston, Jr., after Hairston broke a bone in his foot after fouling off a pitch from Kevin Appier. Roberts went on to bat leadoff for the Orioles from 2003, until 2010, when injuries began plaguing the then 32-year-old All Star. In his tenure as leadoff man for the Orioles, Roberts had OBP’s northward of .330 every season. Over those years, B-Rob’s OBP’s went .335, .346, .384, .347, .376, .379, .355, and .355. Roberts also hit 310 doubles, including 50 in 2004, and 56 in 2009, both American League bests. He walked 505 times over his 4,854 plate appearances as a leadoff batter, and had a 80% successful stolen base rate (243-for-303), including 50 in 2007, again, good for American League best. Roberts also went on to become a two-time All-Star for the Orioles, the likes of which they have not seen from the leadoff spot since Roberts’ playing days.
The Orioles have had a different player in the leadoff spot each year since 2011, when JJ Hardy had 293 plate appearances, with an OBP of just .295. In 2012, Nick Markakis had 246 plate appearances, with an OBP of .390. Markakis, much like Hardy the year before, did not have a stolen base from the leadoff spot, and hit 22 extra-base hits while walking just 20 times. Markakis also led off in 2014 for the O’s, seeing 681 plate appearances, while garnering an OBP of .339. In 2013, Nate McClouth had leadoff duties, seeing 497 plate appearances, walking 46 times, and stealing 28-of-33. Manny Machado, in 2015, had the best OBP of the next two seasons of leadoff batters, as his was .364 in 496 plate appearances, compared to Adam Jones, and Joey Rickard in 2016, with a .320, and .297, respectively.
It’s pretty clear that they haven’t had any consistency in the leadoff spot since 2009, and although Adam Jones has done a nice job taking over, he is not a leadoff type guy.
So, who bats leadoff in 2017?
The in-house candidates at the moment are of course Joey Rickard, and Adam Jones. However, Buck Showalter has said that he does not want to bat Adam Jones in the leadoff spot any longer. That leaves Joey Rickard, who hit .313 vs. left-handed pitching in 90 plate appearances, and .247 against right handers in 192 appearances. Sure, he didn’t play past July 20, and we didn’t have the opportunity to see if he had a second half surge, or regression, but in 85 games, he only drew 18 walks. However, as much as he isn’t the most popular choice, Rickard did see 4.33 pitches per plate appearance, which was higher than the MLB average of 3.87, and swung at the first pitch only 13.5% of the time, which was lower than the MLB average of 28.4%.
So, if it’s not Joey Rickard, or any other in-house player, who could they attempt to sign via free agency?
Free agent, Gregor Blanco, could be a good fit, and he’d not only solve the leadoff batter problem, he could also fill a corner outfield spot that has been a talk of the offseason as well. Blanco, in 1,361 career plate appearances leading off, has a slash line of .252/.338/.347, with 75 extra base hits, and 147 walks. He has a career 73.1% successful stolen base rate, and last season, saw 3.93 pitches per at-bat, with a 30.7% first pitch swing rate, slightly higher than the MLB average.
Elsewhere on the market are guys like, Austin Jackson (.275/.335/.406 with 3,171 PA’s in the leadoff spot), Angel Pagan (.293/.337/.438 with 2,094 PA’s in the leadoff spot), or even Michael Bourn (.264/.328/.355 with 4,099 PA’s in the leadoff spot). Either of those three could work out well at the the top of the lineup, and could also be obtained without sacrificing what few prospects are left in the minors.