This past weekend against the Royals, Brandon Hyde decided to roll out a pretty dramatic shakeup to the lineup. Since Cedric Mullins’s injury on Memorial Day, Adam Frazier filled the leadoff spot in the lineup. On the surface it made sense—Frazier is a contact over power who rarely strikes out and should give the Orioles competitive at-bats at the top of their order. In practice, it was somewhat of a disaster. The second baseman hit only .200 out of the leadoff spot and posted an atrocious .195 on-base percentage. Hyde needed to make a change atop the order and finally he did against Kansas City. Austin Hays hit leadoff in the first game and Gunnar Henderson manned the top spot in the lineup in the second and third games.
The change proved to be exactly what the struggling Orioles needed. Over the three games, Hays and Henderson combined to go 7-14 with three HRs, two 2Bs and five RBIs. The two—especially Henderson—once again provided the O’s with the spark at the top of the lineup that has been missing since Mullins went down. Also, it’s easy for the rest of the lineup to be inspired by the guy in the leadoff spot when he’s launching home runs like this:
However, what the promotion of Hays and Henderson to the leadoff spot showed is just how desperate the Orioles were for a shakeup in their lineup. Throughout the beginning of the season, the top of the O’s lineup was largely predictable: Cedric Mullins at the top, Adley Rutschman and two and then Ryan Mountcastle and Anthony Santander flip flopping between the three and four spots.
At times, this has been a perfect top four for Baltimore. Before his injury, Mullins was enjoying his best season since winning a Silver Slugger in the 2021 season. After a lackluster April, Santander was one of the hottest bats in all of baseball, hitting .337 with a 1.056 OPS, 7 HRs and 22 RBIs in May. While Mountcastle can be inconsistent and unlucky, he also has shown the type of power that can put up nine RBIs in a single game. Then there’s Adley Rutschman, an on-base machine who has plate vision that most 20-year pros could only dream of. When everything is going right, this quartet can go toe-to-toe with any lineup in baseball.
The problem, especially lately, is that not everything has been going right. Santander has cooled massively over the past couple of weeks. Since Mullins went out of the lineup he’s hitting only .222 and his OPS has dropped to about league average at .722. Tony Taters is by no means a liability of late, but he’s also not hitting like the bonafide three-hole hitter on a 100-win team. Mountcastle, on the other hand, is turning into a liability. Since the beginning of May, RMC is hitting only .211 with a 28% K rate. His .265 OBP during the span continues to bring up the question of whether Mountcastle can get on base enough to be considered a valuable member of this lineup. The answer of late seems to be a resounding no.
What’s become increasingly clear is that, once Mullins returns from injury, the top four in the lineup should consist of him, Henderson, Hays and Rutschman. What becomes unclear is just how the Orioles skipper would organize that group when he has everyone healthy. Perhaps the only thing that is certain is Adley’s rightful place in the No. 2 spot. As one of baseball’s premier on-base machines, Rutschman is a great table setter for the more powerful bats in the lineup. He doesn’t have the speed that teams often look for in a leadoff hitter—the next most logical spot for his on base skills—but when the two hole fits his skills so well there’s no need to move Rutschman.
The rest of the three spots are where it could get tricky. Mullins, Hays and Henderson all have strong cases to continue to be the leadoff hitter. For Mullins, it’s practically the only role he’s ever known, as 89% of his career ABs have come from the very top of the lineup. He offers the ideal blend of speed and power that teams crave in their leadoff spot. When people think of the leadoff spot for these Baltimore Orioles, they think of Cedric Mullins.
However, Hays and Henderson have also excelled in their cameos atop the lineup. In 50 ABs hitting as the leadoff hitter, Hays is hitting .340 with a .949 OPS. Then there’s Henderson who, yes, has only 10 ABs as a leadoff hitter. In those 10 ABs, though, he’s 5-10 with two HRs, a 2B and a 1.700 OPS. More importantly, with Gunnar’s new approach and his recent return to GUNNAR HENDERSON status, it feels like he’s a player that needs as many at-bats as he can possibly get.
What feels likely after Mullins comes off the IL is that Hays will continue to be the go-to leadoff hitter against lefties. Mullins could then slide to the three or four hole—perhaps lower if his .360 OBP against lefties isn’t enough to outweigh his .238 average. Either way, Henderson needs to continue to hit in the top four against both sides of the plate to allow him to continue his breakout. Against righties, there’s a strong argument that Henderson and Mullins should alternate between the leadoff spot to keep giving GUNNAR the most possible ABs. What’s more likely is an order of Mullins-Rutschman-Henderson-Hays when facing a RHP.
The overarching point remains that the Orioles cannot go back to the status quo once the lineup is fully healthy. It’s clear that Hays, Henderson, Mullins and Rutschman are the four best (and most consistent) hitters on the major league roster. The former two have also made great strides as a result of the lineup shakeups that came after Mullins’ injury. A slight demotion down the lineup may also take some of the pressure off the likes of Santander and Mountcastle, allowing them the opportunity to rediscover their best form.
After seemingly fluttering directionless in the wind for a while, this lineup finally has direction and momentum. Adding back Mullins should only add to the positive strides the O’s hitters have taken. That only happens, though, if Hyde and crew continue to reward the players who are making a difference now, instead of just rolling with the ones who were key contributors in the past.
Who should be the Orioles regular lead-off hitter when Cedric Mullins returns?
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