In this still-young post-Nick Markakis era in Birdland, it can be easy to forget how recently the leadoff spot in our batting order was a revolving door. Let us not forget the 282 plate appearances of J.J. Hardy and his .295 OBP from 2011, or the trials and tribulations of the Nate McLouth era.
Markakis, of course, brought patience and a seemingly endless supply of singles to the top spot, and entering play in 2015 it was highly unclear how the O's would replace him. Alejandro de Aza came out of the gate hot, but has since been relegated to the part-time role for which he's better suited. For a while it seemed like no better in-house alternative existed, and that all would fall to cinders and ash...until Buck Showalter pulled what I can only imagine baseball people have started referring to as A Real Buck Showalter Move: he asked Manny Machado to do it.
Machado hardly profiles as a prototypical number one - he's a tall, gangly, not particularly speedy corner infielder. And yet, thus far, I'd argue that Manny the Leadoff Hitter is the second-most pleasant surprise of the 2015 season, with a decent shot of overtaking the Jimmy Paredes Hall of Fame Explosion once it inevitably subsides.
As Jim Hunter noted in last night's MASN broadcast, Manny is seeing more pitches per plate appearance this season than he has in previous years - 3.99 to be exact, up from 3.64 in 2014. That's not just a positive trend for Machado individually - it puts him in the top 40 overall among AL batters, and compares favorably to - you guessed it - Nick Markakis, who's seeing 4.40 Pit/PA for the Braves.
Not that seeing lots of pitches is necessarily an indicator of guaranteed success - the aforementioned top 40 in that category also includes the hideous work of Mike Napoli (.176/.286/.304), Mike Zunino (.159/.235/.295), and other ignominious performances by players not named Mike, like Shin-Soo Choo (.194/.298/.378). Remember when we were sad we didn't sign him?
But Manny is also garnishing his plate discipline with other hallmarks of leadoff-hitter excellence: driving the ball with authority to the opposite field, stealing bases (he's currently responsible for half of the Orioles swiped bags as a team), and drawing walks. Machado's walk percentage is up dramatically thus far: 10.5% versus 5.7% last year. He's also well on his way to a 20+ homer season, which doesn't hurt.
Perhaps the most exciting part of all this is what it suggests about Manny's attitude. It was roughly a year ago when Machado's apparent lack of maturity was front-page news in the sports world, and as we've noted repeatedly on the podcast, he's been known to grouse publicly about his contract and generally let his ego over-inflate.
We know from Pat Jordan's incredible Sports on Earth profile of Buck Showalter that managing Machado has been trying at times, but there seems to be at least some indication that we're witnessing the maturation of our young star into more than just a defensive juggernaut with a rapidly-developing power stroke. He's taken the mantle of leadoff hitter from a franchise legend without complaint, and seems like he might be blossoming into the unquantifiable role that made Markakis so well-loved and so criminally under-valued: a true team player.