Back when the Orioles first called up Adley Rutschman in May of 2022, I expected that Baltimore was getting the middle of the order bat that would carry their lineup for the next decade. Sure, he wasn’t going to automatically assume the third or fourth spot in the lineup because no matter how good a rookie is as a prospect, they still need that adjustment period. However, with prospect Adley’s contact and power coming in at 60 and 65 on the 20-80 scale, the Orioles seemed poised to finally have a worthy successor to Manny Machado at the heart of their order.
The reality of Adley’s time in the majors has presented a somewhat different story and offensive profile. Instead of playing like a switch-hitting Mike Piazza, so far Adley has made an impact at the majors with different aspects of his game. Throughout the first 239 games of his career, the Orioles’ backstop has made a name for himself as one of the most disciplined hitters in all of baseball. His on-base percentage and walk rate has been among the MLB’s best since he arrived in Baltimore, and this year he ranks seventh in all of baseball in pitches per plate appearance. This approach has helped Adley become a player that drives the ball to all fields, someone that hits for power but is also perfectly willing to slap a single to the opposite field to keep the offense moving.
It was this offensive profile that saw Brandon Hyde install Adley as his everyday No. 2 hitter after the All-Star break last year. I was admittedly skeptical of the move at first—wary that it would limit Adley’s run creating opportunities in an offense that often seemed inconsistent. However, there was still sound logic behind Hyder’s move. Moving Adley up to the two-hole, instead of batting him third or fourth, would give him more at-bats and thus more opportunities to make use of his elite on-base skills. So as I and the rest of Birdland acclimated to Adley’s new role, we began to picture him as the No.2 hitter for the next decade.
That’s where this season’s latest twist comes into play. With long-time leadoff hitter Cedric Mullins battling through two separate stints on the IL, Brandon Hyde and his staff once again had to get creative at the top of the order. While Gunnar Henderson was initially given the chance to lead the batting order, Adley has been the Orioles every-day leadoff hitter for the last month. Even since Mullins returned from his latest IL stint on August 11th, Adley has continued to man the top spot in the lineup.
However, two questions remain regarding this experiment with Leadoff Adley: 1) is the Orioles lineup actually better with Adley hitting leadoff? and 2) are Adley and Cedric Mullins better suited to their new roles? Since Adley moved into the leadoff spot, the O’s are averaging 5.36 runs per game and have a .667 win percentage in those 28 games. In the 103 games prior to promoting Adley to the leadoff spot, the Orioles scored 4.84 runs per game and had a winning percentage of .611. According to the Pythagorean Winning Percentage formula, that uptick in scoring over a 162-game season would see the O’s go from a 96-win team to a 102-win team.
Now of course Adley is not the only setting the table and helping the O’s offense reach new heights. Ryan Mountcastle continues to be one of the hottest hitters in baseball, as confirmed by his 1.022 OPS since the All-Star break. Gunnar Henderson also continues to play well above his rookie station, putting up a .862 OPS with 17 HRs and 51 RBIs since the beginning of June. However, the impact of having an elite on-base machine like Adley at the top of the lineup can still not be understated.
Now the jury is still out as to whether hitting in the leadoff spot is the best way to get the best version of Adley—even if it’s helping the Orioles’ lineup. As the leadoff hitter, the catcher’s batting average has certainly gone up—from .272 when batting second to .290 in the leadoff spot. However, there’s also been a dip in Adley’s walk percentage—down from 9.6% in July to a season low 8.3% in August—while his slugging percentage has also dropped 19 points since his move to the lead off spot.
Where the move has been an undoubted success is with the play of Cedric Mullins. The Orioles center fielder put up respectable numbers in the leadoff role before his injuries—slashing .247/.341/.440 while adding 12 steals. Since his return, he’s been hitting mostly in the sixth spot, and has been thriving in that new role. As the de facto leadoff hitter of the second half of the lineup, Mullins has bumped up his numbers to .378/.396/.533 in the six hole. It’s a small sample size with only 45 ABs, but his demotion from the leadoff spot has definitely helped rejuvenate Mullins’ season post injuries.
Whether or not Rutschman sticks in the role past this season could also depend on how Baltimore integrates top prospects into their lineup next season. The biggest threat to Adley’s reign atop the O’s lineup should be No.1 prospect in all of baseball, Jackson Holliday. With a 70-grade hit tool and plus speed, Holliday is almost tailor-made to be a major league hitter in the mold of someone like Mooke Betts. While Holliday almost certainly won’t make his major league debut until 2024, he’ll certainly be pushing Adley for the top spot in the lineup once he arrives in Baltimore. It’s also worth noting that Colton Cowser has found a ton of success as the leadoff hitter in Norfolk this season—so he could be another contender for that top spot once he gets better acclimated to big league pitching.
The reign of Leadoff Adley could extend beyond this year or it could just be a mere stepping stone as this lineup continues to grow, improve and evolve. No matter what happens next year, the move to place Adley atop the lineup in 2023 shows the ingenuity that is constantly at play in how Brandon Hyde—and the organization as whole—crafts this lineup. It is that ingenuity that should continue to excite all of Birdland as Elias and Hyder continue to integrate the next generation of Baby Birds into this growing juggernaut of a team.
What will be Adley’s primary spot in the order in 2024?
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