The first Baltimore Orioles lineup of the new season features a surprise at the top. Chris Davis, the hulking first baseman who ranks sixth in baseball in home runs (111) over the last three seasons, will be tasked with the first cuts of the year:
Manager Buck Showalter tinkered with batting Davis leadoff during spring training. Both Showalter and Davis believe a change in mentality -- perhaps shifting to a more contact-orientated approach -- can help Davis remain more productive. Davis went so far as to say he's "tired of hitting .200" and intends to make defenses pay rent for their shifts.
Whether or not Davis's talk translates into results, his promotion to leadoff man makes sense. Though he's hit .234 over the last three seasons, he's nonetheless managed a .336 on-base percentage. Showalter led off four batters more than 20 times in 2017: Seth Smith, Tim Beckham, Adam Jones, and Joey Rickard. Only Smith and Beckham reached base more often, and neither seems like a great option to bat first -- Smith is no longer with the team, while Beckham's career OBP is .310.
According to ZiPS, a projection system housed at FanGraphs, Davis is expected to post the third-best on-base percentage on the Orioles -- a point behind Trey Mancini, who are both more than a dozen points off from team-leader Manny Machado. Theoretically, the O's could slot in Machado or Mancini, but both reinforce the fact that Baltimore lacks a prototypical leadoff hitter. As such, giving the nod to Davis is a defensible move -- especially if there are psychic benefits to be gained.
The lack of a good alternative doesn't make Davis a good leadoff hitter on its own. He's more likely to bat without a runner on base in the top slot, increasing his chance at leading the league in solo blasts as well as upping the odds of him seeing an extreme overshift. Add in how Davis is a plodder -- he's taken the extra base just 29 percent of the time in two of the last three seasons, and he ranked last on the Orioles in sprint speed -- and the Orioles will taking a loss on the basepaths.
Still, getting on base is the most important thing for any hitter, but especially for leadoff hitters. In that sense, Davis is qualified, even if he isn't perfect.