It may have crashed, but the 'Chris Davis Leadoff Experiment' reaching 5 games is nearly unprecedented (sans one MLB Hall-of-Famer) - BaltimoreBaseball.com
Paul Folkemer

It may have crashed, but the ‘Chris Davis Leadoff Experiment’ reaching 5 games is nearly unprecedented (sans one MLB Hall-of-Famer)

Photo credit: Joy R. Absalon

The Chris Davis leadoff experiment has been put on hold — and could be abandoned altogether — after the first baseman went 1-for-20 with five strikeouts in the Orioles’ first five games.

Davis hasn’t seemed comfortable in the leadoff spot, and Buck Showalter’s decision to pencil him into that role to start 2018 had many scratching their heads. It was an unconventional idea, plugging a career slugger with 267 home runs, a 50-homer season and no previous leadoff experience into the top slot.

But just how unconventional was it? In MLB history, has a player like Davis ever batted leadoff?

Let’s delve into this.

To start, I’ll focus on hitters who, like Davis, have had a 50-homer season in their careers. There have been 45 times in MLB history that a player has bashed 50 or more homers in a season, with 29 different hitters accomplishing the feat (some did it multiple times).

Of those 29 hitters, 12 never started a game at leadoff in their careers.

Four started exactly one game at leadoff, usually as a fluke or some special circumstance. Last year, for instance, the Miami Marlins’ Giancarlo Stanton — who had 59 home runs — led off the final game of the season to give him an extra chance to reach the 60-homer mark.

And, in 2000, St. Louis Cardinals’ slugger Mark McGwire, too injured to play the field, was penned into the lineup as a leadoff hitter for a road game just to get him an at-bat. He was removed when the bottom of the first began.

Several hitters had multiple starts at leadoff early in their careers — long before they established themselves as sluggers — but never had another after they achieved a 50-homer season. That list includes Roger Maris, Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey Jr., among others.

Two of the most prodigious home run hitters of all time, career MLB homer leader Barry Bonds (762) and Sammy Sosa (609), fall into this category, as well. Bonds had 440 starts at leadoff, but all were within the first five years of his career; Sosa had 113 leadoff starts, all within his first six seasons. Neither had more than 33 homers in a season during that span.

So, none of those players is a perfect match for Davis.

Narrowing down the list, there are only three players in major league history — besides Davis — who started five or more games at leadoff after having a 50-homer season.

The leader, as Orioles’ fans might have guessed, is Brady Anderson.

The Orioles Hall of Famer, and the club’s current vice president of baseball operations, led off 1,295 times in his career, including 565 games after his 50-homer season in 1996. (He also led off 102 games during his 50-homer campaign.)

Anderson, though, isn’t a great comparison to Davis. It’s not as if Anderson was a case of a long-time power guy being surprisingly shifted to the leadoff role. He was a top-of-the-lineup hitter nearly his whole career and wasn’t known as a slugger. (Other than the 1996 explosion, he never topped 24 homers in a season.)

Then there’s recent Orioles’ nemesis, longtime Toronto Blue Jays’ right fielder Jose Bautista. In 2016 and 2017, the Blue Jays experimented with putting Bautista in the leadoff spot, even though he’d spent the majority of his Toronto career batting in the middle of the order (and had clubbed 54 homers in 2010). Bautista started 40 games at leadoff in 2016 and 51 in 2017.

The gamble didn’t really pay off. In 2016, Bautista posted a .341 OBP and .800 OPS in the leadoff spot — decent numbers, but less successful than when he batted third (.376/.844) or fourth (.420/.914). In 2017, which was a forgettable season all around for Bautista, he managed only a .305 OBP from the leadoff hole, compared to .338 at No. 2 and .332 at No. 3.

One difference between Bautista and Davis, though (aside from their general personalities), is that Bautista was no stranger to the leadoff role when he moved there in 2016 and 2017. He’d led off 103 games earlier in his career, most of them when he was a young third baseman for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

So, Anderson and Bautista don’t quite fit the criteria, either. I’m looking for another player in MLB history who, like Davis, did all of the following:

  1. Had a 50-homer season
  2. Batted leadoff at least five times after the 50-homer season
  3. Had never batted leadoff before

Of the 19,206 players in MLB history, Davis matches only one other man.

Say hey: It’s Willie Mays.

The Hall of Famer, one of the best to ever play the game, started 66 games at leadoff, all of them after his 51-homer season in 1955.

The bulk of his leadoff duty came at the tail end of his career from 1972-1973, when he was playing out the string with the New York Mets in his 40s. Mays’ power had dried up by then — he hit just 14 homers in 135 games with the Mets — but he still could get on base at a decent clip (.352 OBP with New York).

Plus, batting Mays leadoff allowed him to get a few extra plate appearances in front of his adoring fans in New York, where he’d started his illustrious career in 1951 with the Giants.

There you have it.

If you thought Chris Davis batting leadoff was unusual, historic even, you’re right. It’s nearly unprecedented in baseball history, save for the Say Hey Kid.

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25 Comments

25 Comments

  1. Boog Robinson Robinson

    April 5, 2018 at 7:17 am

    And we can only hope that the baseball-reference.com database querie engines have recovered from the extreme number crunching Mr. Folkemer must have put them through yesterday. Good stuff Paul.
    My only issue with your work is that somehow, you managed to forever link Crush Davis’ name to that of the hallowed Say Hey Kid. No offense intended, but I find something a bit perverse in that.

    • Stacey

      April 5, 2018 at 11:40 am

      I think the only real similarity is that Mays didn’t bat leadoff until he was late enough into his career that his power was almost gone.

      • Boog Robinson Robinson

        April 5, 2018 at 1:30 pm

        Hey Stacey, welcome back. I agree, there really is no similarity between the two. Mays was a 5 tool all-time great player. To this day he’s considered one fo the gods of the game, to be mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Ruth, Williams, Musial, Cobb and Aaron … but ceratinly not alongside Crush Davis.

    • Dan Connolly

      April 5, 2018 at 1:47 pm

      But Davis has that going for him. Which is nice.

  2. Orial

    April 5, 2018 at 8:55 am

    5 strikeouts in 5 games? Doesn’t sound correct. What to do,what to do. He’s so bad he makes Trumbo’s return,look

    • Orial

      April 5, 2018 at 8:57 am

      as I was saying–he makes Trumbo’s return look positive. Davis is a real head scratcher,how can someone be this bad?

    • Dan Connolly

      April 5, 2018 at 1:48 pm

      We know how much the mental game plays a part here. Davis is an over thinker. I think that’s a major part of the problem here.

  3. Bancells Moustache

    April 5, 2018 at 10:14 am

    He may run like Mays but he hits like s**t.

    • bv22

      April 5, 2018 at 12:32 pm

      This website needs a “like” button- that’s a great pull/quote!

    • Dan Connolly

      April 5, 2018 at 1:48 pm

      Great pull quote. Ahhh, major league.

  4. Wade Warren

    April 5, 2018 at 10:31 am

    Dan any possibility Davis can go to the minors temporarily to get his swing back? I believe in Davis want him to excel but maybe time to take a step back and relax a little

    • Dan Connolly

      April 5, 2018 at 1:49 pm

      No. I don’t think so. Even if it is mutually agreed upon with the contract the way it is there are too many factors. Phantom DL stint is only way, I’d suppose.

  5. TxBirdFan

    April 5, 2018 at 10:53 am

    The say hey kid is arguably the best player ever in baseball. Wonder if Buck dangled that comparison in front of CD during spring training to get him fired up?

    We need his bat to produce somewhere in the order this year. The next experiment might be batting him 2nd or in the last 3 spots. The middle of the order is reserved for run producers. Good stuff Paul!

    • Dan Connolly

      April 5, 2018 at 1:50 pm

      I think dropping his in the bottom third is more likely.

  6. jkneps63

    April 5, 2018 at 11:09 am

    Davis leading off or not, 1-9 is looking very possible…at least we have the Masters to distract us this weekend.

    • Dan Connolly

      April 5, 2018 at 1:51 pm

      Yeah. Although it is hard to sweep a MLB team in 4 games. That said, the Orioles haven’t looked like a MLB team much in the past week.

  7. bickel57

    April 5, 2018 at 12:34 pm

    The experiment should of never lasted this long. Is there any validity to rumor that is elbow is hurting him. This team doesn’t have a legitimate leadoff hitter. The closest one we have maybe in Bowie either Mullens or Hays.

    • Dan Connolly

      April 5, 2018 at 1:59 pm

      Come on, Bick. It was five games. We’re not talking months here.

  8. Grand Strand Bird Fan

    April 5, 2018 at 12:56 pm

    Nice job researching this topic. Originally thought the Davis leadoff experiment was temorary. I thought Buck did it to possibly get him a few extra at bats due to missing time. It started in ST and carried over from there. Righr now no matter where hits he is a liability. Hopefully, he can turn it around soon.

    • Dan Connolly

      April 5, 2018 at 2:00 pm

      I think it was temporary with an asterisk. I guess I wouldn’t be totally blown away if Buck does it again. But I think the desired effect obviously wasn’t reached.

  9. LenSakata

    April 5, 2018 at 2:24 pm

    Wonder why Buck didn’t try hitting Jiminez lead off last year? Maybe that would have helped.

  10. mindless1

    April 5, 2018 at 3:47 pm

    Davis’ massive decline is very curious, considering he’s not that old.
    The team says his elbow is fine, and, presumably they have checked his eyesight but he continues to stare at pitches that are right down the middle and flail at balls that are in the dirt or 2 feet outside.

    Buck tries to shrug it off, saying he’s just in a slump and needs some time to get it going but there is something seriously wrong here.

    If he’s still dealing with ADD issues, maybe his meds aren’t right? I would think the medical staff has looked into this…

    • Dan Connolly

      April 5, 2018 at 4:33 pm

      These guys are major investments. Trust me, everything is explored. I once talked to Davis about the eyesight thing. He brought it up. He said his eyes are always off the chart in exams. Better than 20/20. He told me to tell fans he can see the ball fine. He’s just not seeing the ball.

  11. mlbbirdfan

    April 6, 2018 at 6:38 pm

    Dan, is Davis definitely taking Adderol? He’s playing like someone with ADHD issues.

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