It’s no secret that the lead-off man is one of the most important pieces to a baseball lineup, outside of the clean-up hitter. The lead-off man’s job is to get on base as often as possible, putting himself in position to score when the heart of the lineup comes to the plate. It’s also vital that the lead-off man possesses sufficient speed and base-running abilities.
The Baltimore Orioles have had a top-tier lead-off man in second baseman Brian Roberts for eight seasons before the now-35 year old’s career began to unravel due to injury.
Though he’s back in the line-up as designated hitter now, Roberts will never be what he once was for the Orioles. In his prime, Roberts would hit .300, score 100 runs, drive in 50 additional runs while stealing 40-50 bags and post a .370 on-base percentage. The two-time All-Star had a great glove at second to add on to his accomplishments with the cellar-dwelling Orioles in the mid-2000s.
Now that the Orioles are in playoff contention, Brian has struggled to consistently stay on the field and in the lineup. Thanks to a multitude of health issues over the past few seasons––including concussions and back problems––Roberts has played in a combined 123 games since the 2010 season.
Because of his health issues, the Orioles have struggled to find a viable replacement at the top of the batting order. Over the last four seasons, Baltimore has experimented with numerous different lead-off men, including but not limited to: Corey Patterson, Lou Montanez, Felix Pie, Adam Jones, Robert Andino, J.J. Hardy, Matt Angle, Nolan Reimold, Endy Chavez, Xavier Avery, Nick Markakis and Nate McLouth.
It wasn’t until last July 13 that the Orioles finally stuck with one player consistently in Roberts’ absence. Right fielder Nick Markakis, primarily a No. 3 hitter over his eight-year Major League Baseball career. At the top spot in the order for 54 consecutive games from July to the beginning of September, Baltimore posted a 33-21 record with Markakis posting a .335 average and .390 on-base percentage. In 246 plate appearances, Markakis scored 34 runs, drove in 28 more and posted a 20/14 BB-K ratio. Markakis didn’t steal any bases from the lead-off position, but did his job by getting on base and putting Baltimore in position to put runs on the board.
This all came just after returning from his first disabled list stint in his MLB career following surgery to remove part of the hamate bone in his right wrist. Unfortunately Baltimore was forced to switch lead-off batters once again when Markakis was lost for the season with a fractured thumb on September 8.
Manager Buck Showalter turned to another veteran to fill Markakis’ void in the lead-off slot, left fielder Nate McLouth.
Signed to a Minor League deal just a few months prior, McLouth was looking for one last chance at proving he still belongs in the majors. Buck didn’t hesitate to throw McLouth in there at lead-off following Markakis’ second injury, and it didn’t take long for him to get acclimated at the lead-off spot for the playoff-bound O’s. He started 22 of the final 23 games at left field, leading off, as the O’s posted a 15-8 record over that span.
Though his numbers didn’t quite compare to Markakis’ in 2012 as the lead-off man, McLouth’s bat and base-running down the stretch became a vital part in the postseason run. In six postseason games, McLouth hit .321 and stole three bases.
Heading into 2013, Showalter had a big decision to make: Markakis or McLouth? Who should get the coveted spot at the lead-off position? Being one of the most important spots in the line-up, right behind the clean-up spot, the decision could impact the team in the long run.
Instead of making a decision and sticking with it, Showalter has taken a bit of a different stance on the issue: sharing the lead-off spot between the two of them. Through July 5, Markakis has started 22 of his 85 games at lead-off (the rest of the time he hits third in the lineup) with McLouth hitting lead-off in 64 of his 76 games.
Though it’s not a 50/50 split, you’d still think it would be tough to switch up the line-up so often, rather than consistently sticking with one guy over the 162-game season. It could take away from the team chemistry in and around the clubhouse, and possibly effect the play of the two players.
Or so you’d think.
Instead, McLouth has become an even bigger piece to the 48-39 Baltimore squad, putting up a .289/.363/.411 line with a career-high 24 stolen bases. Overall this season, McLouth’s on-base percentage currently sits at .361, which is higher than he’s ever posted over his nine-year career with Pittsburgh, Atlanta and Baltimore.
Markakis is in the middle of a heated battle with Toronto outfielder Jose Bautista in the American League All-Star voting. Whether Markakis gets to take a trip to his first-career All-Star game this season or not will not take away from the success he’s had in 2013. After a rough season injury-wise in 2012, Markakis appears to be as healthy as ever over his 85 games. The left-handed 29-year old is hitting .291 with 52 runs and 43 runs batted in. Though his on-base percentage is rather low compared to the rest of his career (.339; his career OBP is .363), he’s elevated his game in the lead-off spot in the line-up.
Over his 22 starts and 102 plate appearances at the No. 1 spot in the Baltimore lineup, Markakis is hitting .351 with 12 runs and a .373 on-base percentage, which is well-above his career OBP. He hasn’t been stealing bases––in fact he hasn’t stolen a single one all season––but that’s the good thing about the lead-off spot: you don’t need to steal bases. Clearly Roberts did over his Baltimore career, including 50 in a single-season, but stolen bases from your lead-off man is just a bonus. What you need from the first batter is the ability to get on-base, run the bases cleanly and score runs.
That’s why McLouth has been such a commodity this season––he gets on-base, runs the bases superbly, including stealing 24 bags, and puts runs across the plate. Though it’s not what Roberts was in his prime, the combination of Markakis and McLouth at the No. 1 spot in the order has been refreshing and very effective for Buck’s Birds.
McLouth provides the walks and the speed on the base paths while Markakis provides Baltimore with the average and runs batted in. It can be a deadly combination, for teams to be forced to face two different lead-off men in the same series, especially given their different strengths.
It may not be quite the same as Roberts’ 2007 season in which he batted in 57, scored 103 runs, hit 42 two-baggers, stole 50 bases all while hitting .290 over his 156 games. But the McLouth/Markakis duo at the lead-off position is working for Baltimore, and has kept them alive in the hunt for the AL East division in 2012 and 2013 thus far.