Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Orioles 2012: Bottom of the 1st

Image via Diamond-Uniforms

The Orioles continue to play well.  At the 18-game mark, the win-loss record stands at 11-7.  In this post, we'll look at the top of the batting order: the first three hitters in the lineup, guaranteed to hit in the first inning.  The job of the first three hitters is to set the table for the power hitters who will follow.  It's the leadoff man's job to get on base, then advance as quickly as possible.  He is usually the team's fastest player.  The #2 hitter is a contact hitter's spot.  He needs to move the runner along, hopefully manage to reach base safely himself.  The 3-spot is where you usually put your best all-around hitter, someone who can hit for both power and average.  Earl Weaver, legendary manager of the Orioles during their heyday, believed in playing for 3-run homers and in the best case scenario, the top of the order can get that done right away.  From the sabermetric view, the most important responsibility of these three - and truly any - hitters is to get on base without causing an out.  Let's see how the Birds are doing so far.  We'll go last to first...

The Three-Hole

Photo via Fantasy Baseball Dugout

Right fielder Nick Markakis is beginning his seventh Major League season, all played with Baltimore.  He is a former Olympian, having played for the Greek national team in the 2004 Games in Athens.  While the team is playing well, Markakis has had a slow start, only hitting .231 with 2 homers.  Compared to other teams hitting from the #3 spot, the Orioles are 22nd in the Majors in on-base percentage, 23rd in slugging and 23rd in OPS which combines the two.

The Two-Hole

Photo via Bleacher Report

Shortstop J.J. Hardy is in his eighth Major League season, second with the Birds.  He is the son of two professional athletes, his father a tennis player, his mother a golfer.  He was a pleasant surprise for the O's last year, finishing the season with 30 home runs.  But like Markakis, he's yet to take off in 2012: .185 batting average.  Hitting from the #2 spot, the Orioles are 27th in the Majors in on-base percentage.

The Leadoff Platoon

The leadoff role is currently shared by Endy Chavez and Nolan Reimold.  The two men are also splitting duties in left field.  Over the past nine games, the lefty Chavez has gotten six of the starts, all against right-handed starting pitchers.  The righty Reimold got the nod against the one left-handed starter and two against righties. 

Photo via Wikipedia
The 34-year-old Chavez hails from Venezuela.  The Orioles signed him as a free agent to a one-year contract in December.  His batting average is an abysmal .156 and he was caught stealing the only time he tried. 

Photo via Oriole Post

Reimold, on the other hand, has had an outstanding April.  He leads the team in on-base percentage, slugging and OPS.  He stole successfully on his only attempt.  This begs the very obvious question of why he's not playing every day, especially with Chavez playing so poorly.  Baseball conventional wisdom says that, all else being equal, you should hit lefties against righties and righties against lefties.  But here's the kicker: Reimold has, to this point, hit better against right-handed pitching than Chavez has!  I suppose one month isn't much to go on and it's dangerous to tinker with a team that's playing well, but the decision seems obvious to me.

Looking Ahead

Overall, I suppose it's good news that the Orioles are winning even though the top of the lineup is hitting so poorly.  I am hopeful that Hardy and, certainly, Markakis can turn things around.  If the team starts losing and the trend described above continues, giving Reimold the full-time gig at leadoff will be unavoidable.

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