Orioles manager Brandon Hyde put out his 14th lineup of the Grapefruit League season on Sunday, and for the first time this spring it did not feature Cedric Mullins or Austin Hays atop the order. Instead, glove-first middle infielder Yolmer Sanchez found his name in the one hole.
Rotating leadoff options is nothing new in Baltimore. Four different players took turns as the O’s first hitter of the game throughout the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. Hanser Alberto was the most frequent choice, appearing 31 times, Mullins was second with 17, Hays third with 10, and finally Chance Sisco just twice.
The Orioles were actually a fairly productive offensive unit overall a season ago. They were middle of the MLB pack with a 104 wRC+ (13th-best in MLB), .323 wOBA (14th), .429 slugging percentage (.429), and 274 runs scored (16th). But none of that was because they had successful leadoff hitters.
In fact, the Orioles were dragged down by the performance at the top of the order. As a group, the team’s lead-off hitters posted a 64 wRC+, the second-worst mark in the league. They were sunk by an MLB-worst walk rate (4.7%), and wOBA (.264). Those numbers would be bad anywhere in a big league lineup, but they are unacceptable at the very top.
The departure of Alberto should help the situation. His high-contact/low-walk offensive profile can be useful in the big leagues, but it requires him to be firing on all cylinders. That didn’t happen last year as he saw his walk rate dip to 2.2% on the year while his strikeout rate jumped to 13.0%.
Based on the lineups he has put together so far, Hyde will be hoping that Mullins or Hays claims the role for themselves. But really, all he can do is hope. There isn’t much evidence (yet) to suggest they are right for the role either.
As good as it seemed that Mullins played last year, he still ended the year with just a .315 on-base percentage and 97 wRC+. You could even consider those numbers hard to replicate since he got there with the help of a bundle of bunt base hits. That’s not to say he had a bad season. These stats are perfectly fine for someone that provides value by running the bases well and playing a good centerfield, two things that Mullins does. But it doesn’t mean he should bat leadoff.
Of course, it should be noted that Mullins will no longer switch hit, instead swinging from the left side of the plate full-time. There will be an adjustment period, but it should make him at least playable against southpaws and provide a boost to his overall numbers.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record when talking about the Orioles’ two center field options, however, Hays remains the one with more upside at the plate and a better fit at the top of the order. Just look at what he did in September following a month-long IL stint. Over 14 games, he hit .377 with a .988 OPS. It was reminiscent of the 21 games he played with the O’s in 2019, when he had a .947 OPS and 147 OPS+.
The problem for Hays has been consistency and physical health. Yes, he finished well last season, but that was following a .203/.273/.246 batting line prior to September. Plus, for the third straight season he spent time on the IL, this time an entire month.
If the role doesn’t belong to Mullins or Hays all season long, then who could step into the lead-off role for the Orioles and be successful? There aren’t any obvious solutions.
The fact that Yolmer Sanchez led off the O’s lineup this past weekend would seem to indicate that Hyde is somewhat interested in the 28-year-old’s ability to fill the role.
Sanchez owns a career .300 on-base percentage and a 6.5% walk rate, which would be less than ideal to start the order. However, his OBP dating back to 2017 is actually .315, and he has seen his walk rate steadily climb from 6.6% in 2017 to 7.4% in 2018, 7.9% in 2019, and then five walks in just 21 plate appearances in 2020. If Sanchez continues to improve in 2021 then he could be a competent albeit unremarkable option to lead off. But even in that scenario he makes more sense at the bottom of the order than the top.
As mentioned before, Chance Sisco led off twice for the 2020 Orioles. It didn’t come as much of a surprise. The catcher was well-regarded for his batting eye while coming through the Orioles farm system. He had a career .386 on-base percentage throughout the minors, a perfect fit atop a big league lineup.
His performance early in 2020 warranted it as well. From July 24 through August 29, Sisco walked 13 times and had a .412 OBP on the season. But there were some smoke and mirrors at work. Sisco was also sporting an unsustainable .391 batting average on balls in play. That dipped to .267 the rest of the season, and his on-base percentage fell right with it to .302. Sisco makes sense hitting first if he is in the midst of a hot streak, but he struggles to make consistent enough contact to be reliable in that role.
We could continue to evaluate every hitter on the Orioles 40-man roster, but we will stop with just one more.
DJ Stewart has “professional hitter” written all over him. The former first-round pick has played in just 92 MLB games due to a combination of injury and performance issues, but when he does play he has shown an ability to work counts and get on base. He has turned his career .358 OBP in the minors into a .334 OBP so far in the bigs.
That patience at the plate was put on display last summer when despite recording no hits in his first 10 games of the season, Stewart still had a .385 on-base percentage thanks to nine walks. He eventually did start swinging the bat a bit more and saw his OBP drop to .345 over the season’s final three weeks, but it coincided with a power surge of seven home runs and a .556 slugging percentage, a trade off that Stewart and the Orioles would gladly take.
Like all of the other players mentioned here, Stewart isn’t without his cons. In all likelihood, his 2020 season was an aberration. His walk rate (17.9%) and strikeout rate (33.9%) were wildly out of step with his career numbers. And his home run per fly ball rate of 33.3% will be impossible to replicate.
But if players like Sanchez and Sisco are going to be under consideration for batting lead-off then Stewart deserves it as well. He has a track record of plate discipline and arguably has more offensive upside than those other two. He won’t necessarily be Hyde’s preferred option, but he should at least be an option.
The Orioles remain in pursuit of many of the building blocks that they hope will serve as the base of the next competitive team in Baltimore. A dependable leadoff hitter still eludes them. Perhaps they find that person this year, but at the very least they will learn more about the current crop of hitters vying for the spot.
Who should serve as the Orioles lead-off hitter most often in 2021
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