Manny Machado Could be Permanent Solution as Orioles’ Leadoff Hitter

In a stroke of pure Buck Showalter genius, Manny Machado batted out of the leadoff spot in the Baltimore Orioles’ lineup last night in their 4-0 win over the Tampa Bay Rays. Machado went 0-for-3, but did score a run after a walk. Showalter has made a habit of using players in his leadoff slot who do not possess the typical top-of-the-order speed like Nick Markakis for most of the past two years. It looks like Machado may be ready to take on that mantle in 2015.

The Baltimore Orioles have one of the best lineups in all of baseball. The Orioles have scored 112 runs this season. Even with the team missing two games this week, that ranks the Birds sixth in the league. The Orioles .279 batting average ranks third, as does their .803 OPS.

One spot in the lineup, however, has bogged down the Orioles consistently this season, and it is the same spot that has been a bugaboo for the Orioles since their return to prominence in 2012. I’m talking about the leadoff spot.

On the surface, the Orioles’ leadoff numbers do not look that bad so far this year — .261/.320/.375. That’s pretty much as middle-of-the-pack as you can get in Major League Baseball. When you get further into the numbers, however, it becomes apparent that the Orioles might have a bit of a problem on their hands with the leadoff spot.

Alejandro De Aza has played 15 of the Orioles 21 games as the leadoff hitter. He is slashing .219/.265/.375 in that role. His 21 strikeouts against only three walks are not pretty. De Aza brings a little bit of pop to the top of the order, but the Orioles can no longer afford to bat him leadoff. He is not able to be counted on to get on base and set the table for the big boppers who follow in the Orioles’ lineup.

Everth Cabrera has played well in five games leading off, but when J.J. Hardy and Jonathan Schoop ultimately return later this season, he will see his at-bats and playing time greatly diminished. The Orioles need a permanent solution to their leadoff conundrum, which has dogged this team since injuries cut down Brian Roberts‘ career.

Manny Machado had taken only ten career at-bats as the leadoff hitter prior to last night’s home game at Tropicana Yards, but I believe he can be a permanent solution for the Orioles at the top of the order. Machado has mostly batted sixth this year, but he is showing increasing maturity as a hitter, and is ready to top the Orioles’ batting order. His improved plate discipline in 2015 supports that notion.

So far in 2015, Manny Machado has swung at only 20.5% of pitches outside the strike zone. That is down from 33.3% a year ago. His walk rate has nearly doubled from 5.7% to 10.5% this season. Machado is also seeing 4.08 pitches per plate appearance, which ranks him in the top-20 in the league. Conversely, De Aza has swung at 35.6% of pitches outside of the zone and has walked only 4.4% of the time.

The numbers make it quite clear that Alejandro De Aza is not suited to be an everyday leadoff hitter in the Major Leagues. A serviceable player yes, a leadoff hitter, no. The Orioles need a more sustainable solution to their leadoff spot, and Manny Machado is ready. Since starting the season 1-for-19, Machado has batted .310, and has been one of the best players in the lineup. While his defense might need some tightening up this season, the Orioles’ young third baseman has been very good at the plate.

Manny Machado batted mostly second in his All-Star 2013 season. His plate discipline and willingness to take a walk have improved drastically since that season in which he led the American League in doubles with 51, but drew only 29 walks in 710 plate appearances. This season, he is on pace for over 70 walks, and despite the fact that his current batting average sits nearly 30 points below his career average, Machado’s OBP is nearly ten points higher than in 2013, his only full season with the Orioles. Machado’s batting average will continue to climb as the slow start to the season works its way out of his numbers as the at-bats pile up.

The Orioles can have a top-five lineup in the Major Leagues. Some would argue they already do, but that status can be cemented with Manny Machado becoming a permanent fixture at the top of the order. While the Orioles probably always pictured Machado batting in the heart of their order, he may presently have the most value to the team as the leadoff hitter. The Orioles have flaunted traditional baseball wisdom the past few seasons with their leadoff hitter selections, and I do not think Showalter will continue running De Aza out there in a role he simply cannot handle.

The Manny Machado of 2013 could not have handled the leadoff role, but as he has matured and refined his approach at the plate, it has become a role he is ideally suited for. I think Buck Showalter gets this, and we will not see Macahdo’s stint as the leadoff hitter be only a temporary experiment. That could make the Orioles’ lineup truly unstoppable.

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