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:
- Had a 50-homer season
- Batted leadoff at least five times after the 50-homer season
- 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.