In earlier eras, who to bat atop the Orioles’ lineup would’ve been an obvious decision.
Cedric Mullins, with his speed and base stealing ability, is a prototypical leadoff hitter — the role he’s occupied for most of his career.
Those traits are still valued in today’s game — especially this season with MLB’s new base runner-friendly rules — but it’s no longer a prerequisite to lead off games. Philadelphia’s Kyle Schwarber and San Francisco’s Lamonte Wade Jr. are both their team’s primary leadoff hitters despite below-average speed with little-to-no stolen base potential.
The Orioles have joined that group of teams in recent weeks with Adley Rutschman, the club’s new leadoff hitter (for now), after he assumed the role with Mullins in the injured list. Rutschman, who leads the team with a .367 on-base percentage but has yet to steal a base this season, has led off Baltimore’s past 19 games.
With Mullins back and playing like his usual self, manager Brandon Hyde has to decide whether to continue having his All-Star catcher atop the order or go back to Mullins, a 2021 All-Star who led off 40 of Baltimore’s first 54 games before his first of two IL stints with a right groin strain.
But having two players who are capable of leading off — perhaps even four considering the platoon of Austin Hays versus left-handers and Gunnar Henderson against righties was employed for most of June and July — is a good problem to have. Hyde said before Friday night’s series-opening win over the Oakland Athletics that his lineup has versatility, and it proved that with a 16-hit, nine-run performance in which all 10 players who batted recorded a hit.
“I’m comfortable leading off a lot of guys and moving guys around in the order a little bit,” Hyde said. “We’re pretty flexible. Our guys are willing to do anything and are total team guys, so it’s going to be series to series, night to night on what the lineup is.”
The argument for Mullins to reclaim his spot is his history of success in the role. Nearly 88% of his career starts going back to 2018 have come in the leadoff spot. Every game he started in his 2021 All-Star campaign was in the top spot. With 30-plus stolen bases in each of the previous two seasons and 15 this year, Mullins’ speed could be a small boost ahead of Rutschman, Henderson and Anthony Santander.
Mullins said he isn’t worried about where he hits in the order; he’s just happy to be in it after missing 44 games on the IL.
“I don’t think that I just think of myself as a leadoff hitter,” Mullins said. “I have the capability of hitting up and down the lineup.”
However, Mullins has done some of his best damage early in counts. In his career entering Friday, he’s hitting .311 when he swings at the first pitch of an at-bat and .239 when he doesn’t. This year, he’s slashing .195/.267/.195 when he leads off games and .212/.291/.323 when he leads off any inning. On the season, Mullins is slashing .253/.334/.448 — good for a .782 OPS.
He’s also been one of the Orioles’ best hitters with runners in scoring position, situations leadoff hitters find themselves in less often than middle-of-the-order bats. In 84 plate appearances in such circumstances entering Friday, Mullins was hitting .353 with a 1.093 OPS.
Rutschman, on the other hand, is new to leading off, not having done so as a big leaguer before Hyde penciled him in about three weeks ago. He doesn’t often swing at the first pitch, doing so in about 13% of his plate appearances compared with 30% for Mullins. In his career before Friday’s game, Rutschman’s on-base percentage is more than 50 points higher when he doesn’t swing at the first pitch (.369) than when he does (.318).
“It’s a little bit different for a baseball team to have their catcher lead off,” Orioles starting pitcher Kyle Gibson said. “But I saw it a little bit with [Joe] Mauer in Minnesota, and it works out pretty good, especially when your catcher can put together at-bats like Adley does.”
Hyde said Rutschman’s proclivity to see more pitches — his 4.20 pitches per plate appearance ranks third-best in the AL — is the main reason he feels comfortable writing the switch-hitter atop his order. On the season, Rutschman is slashing .272/.367/.430 — good for a .797 OPS — with 68 walks versus 78 strikeouts.
“It’s just his ability to get on base — his ability to take pitches and get on base from both sides of the plate,” Hyde said. “That’s why I wanted to try it out, honestly. He was our best on-base guy. We have some guys doing some damage behind him, so hopefully we can generate some runs that way.”
Meanwhile, in his career, Rutschman has been worse with runners in scoring position than in other situations. Entering Friday, the 25-year-old owned a career .226 average and .726 OPS with runners in scoring position compared with a .284 average and .842 OPS with the bases empty.
When Hyde first put Rutschman in the leadoff spot July 29, he said he didn’t want him to alter his approach — a request Hyde said Rutschman has followed thus far.
“I haven’t seen him change anything. I wanted him to keep doing exactly what he’s doing, which is the ability to manage an at-bat,” Hyde said. “You’ve seen him swing at some first pitches and do some damage on ‘em, that’s fantastic. He’s got the ability to take a walk and get in hitter’s counts, so we’ll see how it goes.”
Hyde hasn’t committed to Rutschman as the club’s permanent leadoff man, but he did say for certain that his star catcher will be hitting in the top three of his order. Who Hyde pencils in at the top is less important than the myriad other decisions he has. Who to play in his congested infield, which relievers to use and how to manage the increasing workloads of his pitching staff are all far more important questions.
But, as evidenced in Friday’s win in which Rutschman and Henderson combined for six hits atop the Orioles’ order, production at the front of the lineup will continue to be vital for a team with postseason aspirations.
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