Nick Markakis was the Orioles’ primary leadoff hitter the past three years, with a sprinkling of Nate McLouth. In his time perched atop the Orioles’ batting order, he played 251 games and stole a whopping total of four bases. Markakis was valuable to the Orioles as a leadoff hitter not because he could run, but because of his ability to get on base at a .351 clip. With Markakis taking his talents to Atlanta this offseason, the Orioles were left in a bind when hunting for their next leadoff hitter.
Surprisingly, the Orioles went with conventional wisdom, and started the season with Alejandro De Aza as their leadoff hitter. De Aza runs fast. That’s about the limit of his worth to the Orioles as a leadoff man. De Aza strikes out a lot and does not walk. After a productive first week of the season, De Aza has struck out 25 times and drawn only three walks. He has not even been able to use his greatest asset, his wheels, with only two stolen bases so far this season.
Enter Manny Machado.
Machado has batted leadoff in seven of the Orioles’ past eight games. While the team itself has struggled in those games, going 3-5 and struggling to score runs, it has not been because of their leadoff hitter. Machado has slashed .280/.379/.440 from the top spot. Those numbers are a far cry from the .234/.279/.391 line they have gotten from De Aza. Machado has also continued to show an ability to draw a walk with four free passes in 30 plate appearances as the leadoff hitter.
Machado has taken great strides as a hitter in his third full Major League Season. He showed improved plate discipline in an injury-shortened 2014 campaign, and has furthered that trend in 2015. He has also continued his physical development and maturation, as he appears visibly stronger this season. These developments are paying off with the best on-base and power numbers of the Gold Glove third baseman’s young career. Machado is both reaching base and slugging nearly 30 points higher than his career averages.
The excellent production the Orioles have gotten from Machado is not the result of a small sample size — if you want to talk small sample size, remember that he started the season 1-for-19. Since that skid ended, Machado has batted .321 and could arguably be called the Orioles’ most consistent hitter as Adam Jones has begun cooling off from his hot start.
Pitching struggles aside, the Orioles appear to have solved one of the most glaring holes in their lineup at the start of the season. Buck Showalter should pencil in Manny Machado at the top of the order every day and leave it at that. Over the past three seasons, Showalter tossed conventional wisdom to the wind and went with Markakis as his leadoff hitter. The Orioles tried De Aza out, and his speed may have proven an asset, but his weaknesses render him a poor choice to lead off.
While it is important not to put too much emphasis on the leadoff hitter’s importance — he truly only “leads” off once a game as Showalter reminded the crowd at Orioles’ FanFest this winter — Machado is more valuable to the Orioles as the leadoff hitter than the sixth hitter if only for the simple fact that it will give him a handful of extra at-bats each week. As Machado continues to grow as a hitter, those extra at-bats become even more valuable for the Orioles.