It’s Time for Adley To Come Home for Christmas

Adley Rutschman
Reggie Hildred-USA TODAY Sports

The other night, I had pie for dinner and watched a Hallmark Christmas movie (HCM). It was a solid hang, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. On a night when my brain felt like mashed potatoes and my body refused to accept that it was 7:00 p.m. and not 11:00, I warmly welcomed the sugar rush, in both the literal (pie) and figurative (HCM) sense.

Despite the pleasantness of the evening, I do not intend to adopt an all-dessert diet and swear off the movie theater. I might make it three days before becoming so starved for substance that my mind and body start acting out a horror movie in rebellion. While sugary sweets and romcoms provide enjoyment, they lack staying power.

Which naturally brings me to Adley Rutschman and the Orioles. Rutschman currently stars in an HCM, written and produced by the Orioles’ front office and ownership group, in which he attempts to woo O’s fans and save Christmas (aka their postseason aspirations). Adley receives support from a promising ensemble cast, but their inexperience shows in their performance, particularly when asked to stretch their ability for an intense scene during the movie’s climax. Meanwhile, the story’s B-plot (starting pitching) felt a little thin, like they might need to resort to a cringy musical number to fill time, and the C-plot (bullpen) started out as a bright spot to relieve tension but threw a surprise twist in the mix that went unresolved.

Rather than belabor that metaphor any further, let’s lock in on one particular quirk of our main character. Rutschman is a catcher who frequently bats leadoff, and catchers don’t typically fit the profile of a leadoff hitter. Research shows that batting order ranks low in its ability to influence outcomes, but it’s one of the more controllable features of the game, so managers may as well control it wisely. Analysis employing thousands of simulated games concludes that a high OBP is the most beneficial characteristic when leading off, and strong overall baserunning skills prevent the hitter from clogging the bases for the heavy hitters coming up next. Managers also favor hitters known for seeing a plethora of pitches so that the rest of the lineup gets a feel for the starter’s stuff that night and to make sure the pitcher doesn’t breeze through the first inning too easily. With these attributes in mind, we’ll use OBP, Baserunning Runs (BsR), and pitches seen per PA (PPA) to evaluate leadoff candidates for the remainder of this article.

Catchers tend to be larger, lumbering types who hit for power more than average, strike out much more than they walk, and aren’t burners on the basepaths. If a catcher regularly bats first, it’s not by random chance. It’s likely to say something about the player, the lineup, the team’s philosophy, or all of the above.

The original hypothesis of this article was that a player who can play at catcher and hit atop the order satisfies two very important tasks inherent to roster construction. With those problems solved, the remaining items on a general manager’s to-do list should be easy as pie. Thus, if a team slots its unicorn of a catcher into the leadoff spot, that means that even if the rest of the lineup is composed of regular horses, they’re probably agile horses, with rippling muscles and well-conditioned manes, right? No light-hitting, defense-first pack mules around here?

Wrong.

When sifting through the sands of the last two decades, only a few catchers logged a majority of their PAs in a season batting first: Jason Kendall for the 2004 Pirates and the 2006 A’s, John Jaso for the 2010 Rays, and MJ Melendez for the 2022 Royals.

Pittsburgh’s 2004 team finished last in the NL Central with a record of 72–89. Kendall’s numbers objectively qualified him to bat first, with an OBP of .399, 1.2 BsR, and 4.22 PPA, but his peers didn’t offer much competition either; the next highest OBP was Jason Bay’s .358, and he saw over 0.6 more PPA than his fellow batsmen. Oakland’s 2006 team went 93–69 before losing in the ALCS to Detroit. Kendall had stronger competition here for the leadoff spot; Nick Swisher, Milton Bradley, and Frank Thomas all bested his .367 OBP. Swisher and Bradley also topped Kendall’s -0.4 BsR, and Swisher maintained a slight edge over his 4.08 PPA.

Tampa Bay’s 2010 team won the AL East with a record of 96–66 before losing in the ALDS to Texas. While Jaso hit first more often than he hit anywhere else in the order, he shared leadoff duties with Jason Bartlett, B.J. Upton, and Ben Zobrist. Jaso’s OBP was best among that group at .367, but the other three accrued significantly more BsR, and Zobrist matched his 4.11 PPA. In addition to those four options, Evan Longoria (.372 OBP, 4.5 BsR, 3.88 PPA) and Carl Crawford (.356 OBP, 13.3 BsR, 3.75 PPA) posted numbers worthy of the task of leading off if need be.

Kansas City’s 2022 team won just 65 games and finished last in the AL Central. Melendez logged a .313 OBP, -0.3 BsR, and 4.11 PPA, sharing the top spot with Whit Merrifield, who trailed him in OBP (.298) and PPA (3.67) but accrued more BsR (2.6). The Royals’ only other reasonable candidate was Andrew Benintendi, who had a .373 OBP, 0.6 BsR, and 3.93 PPA.

Within these historical examples of catchers hitting in the top spot, the successful teams had viable alternatives and put their catcher up first by choice; the losing teams defaulted into their catcher batting first. Melendez is unlikely to lead off for any other team but found himself in that position as a marginally better option than his ho-hum competition. With Kendall’s stint in Pittsburgh, he earned the role, but the lack of a close runner-up indicates the Pirates were too dependent on his unique combination of skills to carry the offense.

More generally, the teams rolling out a lineup with a catcher leading off are among those notorious for operating with fewer resources. That can lead to a patchwork cast of characters, who as individuals bring distinct carrying tools to the table read but as an ensemble may not form a cohesive or conventional offense. Wacky hijinks ensue.

Most teams do seem to realize that a catcher hitting first is not ideal. In recent history, several employed a catcher capable of leading off but instead found themselves some better options. This table shows leadoff-caliber catchers — those with a .350 OBP or higher and league-average or higher values for BsR (-1.6) and PPA (3.91) — with their team’s actual leadoff hitters listed below.

Leadoff Caliber Catchers
Season Team Player OBP BsR PPA
2004 BOS Jason Varitek .390 -1.6 4.09
2004 BOS Johnny Damon .380 6.9 4.12
2007 BOS Jason Varitek .367 -1.1 4.13
2007 BOS Julio Lugo .294 3.5 3.88
2008 MIN Joe Mauer .413 2.8 4.07
2008 MIN Carlos Gómez .296 5.1 3.44
2008 MIN Denard Span .387 4.0 3.88
2011 MIN Joe Mauer .360 -0.9 4.09
2011 MIN Denard Span .328 2.1 3.76
2011 MIN Ben Revere .310 4.9 3.54
2012 MIN Joe Mauer .416 -1.6 4.32
2012 MIN Denard Span 3.42 2.1 3.90
2012 MIN Ben Revere .333 6.5 3.61
2013 MIN Joe Mauer .404 0.4 4.25
2013 MIN Brian Dozier .312 2.0 4.17
2013 CLE Carlos Santana .377 -1.5 4.30
2013 CLE Michael Bourn .316 4.2 3.88
2015 PIT Francisco Cervelli .370 -0.8 3.93
2015 PIT Gregory Polanco .320 5.1 3.88
2023 LAD Will Smith .359 1.9 4.15
2023 LAD Mookie Betts .408 3.5 3.92

These teams with catchers who exercise patience at the plate, reach base at an above-average clip and don’t move at a glacial pace once they get there, combined with other equal or better options to hit first, tend to perform well. Aside from a couple of rough seasons from the Twins, these squads largely finished well above .500 and made the postseason. Obviously, the rest of the lineup and the pitching matter enormously, but in comparison to teams who backed themselves into the catcher leading off corner, the endings sure are sunnier.

In the case of Rutschman and the Orioles, are his leadoff PA because he’s a unicorn who’s best-suited for the role, or are they a byproduct of poor roster construction? Baltimore split leadoff duties between four players last year: Rutschman, Gunnar Henderson, Cedric Mullins, and Austin Hays. Rutschman beat out his peers by 50 points with respect to OBP. He compiled the second-most BsR with 3.3, behind Henderson’s 5.2, and he averaged 4.23 PPA, beating Mullins 3.92 by a sizable margin. By these marks, he does give off mythical creature vibes. But someone like Henderson (.325 OBP, 5.2 BsR, 3.87 PPA) could more than adequately do the job, leaving Rutschman to focus on maximizing the Orioles’ woeful pitching staff rather than asking him to do the most on a team committed to doing the least with respect to payroll.

The Orioles expect Rutschman to play the hearthrob who saves the holidays and makes the whole town fall in love with him. It’s a strategy expertly run by HCMs, who bring in one “star” to headline the movie (like the actress who played Gretchen Wieners in Mean Girls, or the former Disney Channel star who dated Zac Efron on-screen and off) and fill the rest of the cast with store-brand versions of current stars. The producers hope to distract viewers from the sparse plot and lack of substance with glittery snow, twinkle lights, and music that ignites the nostalgia region of our brains. Similarly, Orioles brass hope to occupy fans with a flashy offense, an array of water-themed celebrations, and a guy nicknamed The Mountain, so that they don’t fixate on the thin rotation and lack of veteran presence.

Hallmark Christmas movies are a fun time, but they don’t win Oscars. Pie is wonderful, but bodies need protein and vitamins. Fans will crave sustenance over empty calories, and Rutschman deserves to star in a Steven Spielberg production, not the 12th Marcy Holland movie to air on Hallmark Movies and Mysteries this month.





Kiri lives in the PNW while contributing part-time to FanGraphs and working full-time as a data scientist. She spent 5 years working as an analyst for multiple MLB organizations. You can find her on Twitter @technical_K0.

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Jim Hmember
4 months ago

Is Blake Shelton now an editor here?