To Maximize Power in Middle, O’s Need Patience at Top

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Will the Orioles have the best offense in the American League this year?

Peter Schmuck tackled that very question in his latest piece for the Baltimore Sun, in which he mentions the Nelson Cruz addition putting “a charge into the batting order” in 2014.

However he does point out, unlike a lot of the other beat writers, the team’s on-base percentage (OBP) being a key factor. Unfortunately like all the other Orioles beat writers, he stops there and gets a throwaway quote from Showalter saying that plate discipline is a “point of emphasis” for them in Spring Training.

Really?  Not from the offseason I’ve just seen, otherwise instead of acquiring free swingers like David Lough, Francisco Peguero, Delmon Young, and yes, Cruz (versus RHP anyway), the players coming in would look a lot different. A leopard can’t change its spots, and free-swingers with low walk rates aren’t going to become the masters of plate discipline and improve their OBP by leaps and bounds like the Orioles need to be the best offense in the AL.

Fortunately for the Orioles, the player that they are projected to have hitting leadoff in 2014 has shown he can get on base in the past.  Nick Markakis owns a career .375 OBP in the leadoff spot, and the Orioles will need every bit of that as they only ranked seventh in the AL in OBP from that spot in the lineup in 2013 with a .331 OBP.  Nate McLouth was the regular leadoff man in 2013, and he started off with a .347 OBP in the first half but plummeted to a .303 OBP in the second half. As we all remember, the Orioles’ offense plummeted with him in those final months.

The tale of two halves can also be the story of their projected #2 hitter, Manny Machado.  Manny, in the first half of the 2013 season, had a solid .337 OBP, but in the second half he had a dreadful .277 OBP – the worst mark for a third baseman in MLB with 200 PAs or more.  Consequently, Machado’s poor showing put the Orioles in the tenth spot in the AL for OBP from the #2 spot.

For anybody wondering why the Orioles’ offense sputtered in the second half, you need not look any further than the lack of your #1 and #2 hitters getting on base.  It gets kind of hard for Adam Jones and Chris Davis to drive in guys that don’t exist on the basepaths – which led to a lot of solo HRs and power that was wasted with missed opportunities, as we all saw.

Conversely, the Boston Red Sox ranked first in OBP from in the leadoff spot, and had the number two ranking in the AL from their #2 spot, and they were the best offense in the AL and all of MLB in OBP and runs scored.

On base percentage from the top of the lineup is clearly crucial to an offense’s success or failure, so what chance do the Orioles have to replicate what the Red Sox did last season?

For Markakis, he’s done it before, it’s just a matter of him being healthy and doing it again.  His .329 OBP was more of an anomaly than his lack of home runs and that was mostly due to his injuries.  People need to stop thinking of his lack of power and focus on his on-base ability as that is where he helps the team out the most.  He is the best OBP guy by far for the Orioles and has a career walk rate of 9.3%.  He doesn’t have to hit 25 HRs and drive in 100 RBI if he can do what he’s always done.  That will be much more valuable to the Orioles than his power at the plate.  The alternative is putting David Lough with his career OBP of .308 and BB% of 3.5 at the top the lineup, and we’ve seen what happens when you put a guy like that there.

As for Machado, he has to stop swinging for the fences in the #2 spot.  When he took pitches, he did a lot better with his OBP and with his power numbers – especially with doubles.  The home runs will come, but they shouldn’t be forced or expected.  I’d much rather see him aboard on first base or second base for Chris Davis or Adam Jones to knock in.  It’s a lot easier to score runs when your #2 guy is standing on second base as often as Machado was in the first half of 2013.

Manny had 39 doubles in the first half, and only 12 in the second.  He had 49 extra base hits in the first half and only 19 in the second with an equal amount of home runs (7) in both.  His P/PA dropped from 3.59 to 3.44.  The impatience he showed clearly shows up in the stats as it did for the Orioles inconsistent, sometimes sputtering offense of that second half of 2013.

Unlike somebody like Lough, Manny has shown the ability to walk in the minors with a 13.5 BB% in A ball and 10.1% in AA, yet he’s only managed a career 4.2% rate at the major league level.    That has to improve along with his career .309 OBP if he is to stay in the #2 spot and have success; otherwise he’s better off in a lower spot in the lineup where he won’t have as many PAs to drag down the offense.

The alternative to Machado is likely J.J. Hardy to keep a right handed bat at the position, and it took forever for Buck to take him out of the #2 spot the last time, so we don’t need to see that again.  As a reminder (probably not needed), Hardy’s career OBP is .312 and at the #2 spot he has a career OBP of .304.

I shudder to see a lineup with Lough or Hardy in the #1 or #2 spots.

Markakis and Machado must both step it up this season as there really is no alternative other than more of what we saw in the second half of 2013.  If we see that, the question of the Orioles’ offense being the best in the AL will already be answered, and the Orioles will have to depend on solely their hopefully improved pitching and power bats for a shot at the playoffs.  That’s a combination that failed in 2013, so I don’t have high hopes for it going forward.

For the Orioles, the answer to the question of being the best offense in the AL – and also the question of a playoff berth – will come down to what happens at the top of the order as much as in the middle.

photo: Craig Landefeld