After a few years of searching for the right kind of player to bat leadoff, Buck Showalter may have found a solution in 2017 – or at least a partial one. In his first year as an Oriole, Seth Smith is providing just what Dan Duquette was hoping for when he shipped pitcher Yovani Gallardo to Seattle for the left-handed hitting outfielder - an on-base machine.
Smith, 34, has cemented his role as the Oriole leadoff hitter on the strong side of the platoon by hitting a robust .313/.400/.547 with three home runs and eight RBIs. He has scored 15 runs in 17 games when batting at the top of the order.
Getting on base 40 percent of the time provides a big boost to the Orioles offense and allows for last year’s first-place hitter Adam Jones to more fittingly apply his power skills from the second spot in the order. Not having an obvious choice like Smith to bat leadoff last year, Showalter moved Jones there - but he also thought it might help Jones break out of a slump. And it worked.
Batting third in 2016, Jones’ line was a dismal .223/.281/.384. But he became more patient at the plate and hit .282/.320/.471 from the leadoff spot in 108 games helping lead the team to the playoffs. But while his .320 OBP was an improvement for the free-swinging run-producer, the team’s OBP from the leadoff spot broke a four-year run of improvement and fell to .310.
The Orioles addressed that with the acquisition of Smith, a veteran who now has a .356 career OBP. After all, the job of a leadoff hitter is to get on base, especially in the first inning when there are no outs.
According to Bill James, there is a 38 percent chance that a leadoff walk or single results in a run. And the average number of runs scored in an inning that begins with a walk is .905. As James points out, if all those runs are earned, that equates to an 8.15 ERA for the pitcher.
Through 33 games this year, the Birds have a .348 OBP from the number one slot – the highest it’s been since the 2015 year when Manny Machado was the primary leadoff hitter. And we knew that would be temporary given the middle-of-the-order skills Manny has developed.
The OBP may not as appealing from the other side of the platoon, but Joey Rickard is pulling his weight since coming off the DL and replacing Craig Gentry as the leadoff hitter versus lefties. Batting first, his OBP is .297 but he’s hitting .278 with a homer, two steals and five runs scored in his seven starts leading off.
If a Smith-Rickard combination can continue at this level, the Oriole sluggers who hit behind them should have plenty of RBI opportunities.