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What makes a good leadoff hitter? Orioles buck prototype with Adam Jones

Adam Jones isn't a prototypical leadoff hitter, but not many players are these days.

Adam Jones still struggles calling himself a "leadoff hitter," shaking his head at the thought of it. That's because the Orioles center fielder isn't the prototypical leadoff man — the proverbial speedy table-setter who works counts, gets on base, is a base-stealing threat and lets the middle of the order drive him in.

That's not Jones' game. He is a slugger averaging 29 homers and 122 strikeouts over the past five seasons. But while the definition of a true leadoff man remains the same, more teams are putting power bats atop their orders to create disruption in a different way.

"It's crazy that I'm hitting leadoff," Jones said. "It still boggles my mind, but it's fun. … A lot of my friends have asked me how I like hitting leadoff. It's not how I like it, it's just where I'm at. I've got my team in my mind and I think it's got our team going a little bit. We've been aggressive ever since I've been there.

"I'll probably finish with 700 at-bats," Jones said with a smile, "but hey, wherever this team needs me, I don't care where it's at. All I want is to win and impact the game. If you want to hit me leadoff, cool."

After the Orioles were swept in a three-game series in Houston, manager Buck Showalter called Jones into his office. At the time, Jones was batting .223/.282/.357, hitting mostly from the No. 3 spot. They discussed the possibility of Jones hitting leadoff, in part to distribute the high-power, high-strikeout bats throughout the order.

The Orioles haven't featured a true leadoff man since Brian Roberts. Nick Markakis filled that role for a few years, more so because of his patience at the plate than being a threat on the bases. Manny Machado has done it more recently, including six games this season, but his blossoming power had him sliding down the order. Rule 5 pick Joey Rickard, who hit leadoff 39 times this season, is the player whose skill set best fits the role, but it's a lot to ask from a rookie.

"The truth is it's because they're hard to find," Showalter said. "How many guys are there? And most of them are in the National League. And what is the prototype anymore? ...One of the things is that guys are so proficient to holding runners that the stolen base is not [as evident]. … So you kind of pick your poison sometimes. But in the American League, look at the 15 clubs and tell me, 'Yeah there's the guy.' It's hard to find.

Showalter said the dearth of true leadoff hitters in the majors might be a product of teams paying more for players who drive in runs than those who score them. Throughout the Orioles' farm system, there isn't a prototypical leadoff guy, Showalter noted.

"Watching some of the College World Series, they don't have one either," he added. I"t's kind of what's going on. People aren't drawn to that skill set, or that hitter description. Young guys, they want to do things and flip bats and look at me and see how far they can hit it."

Moving Jones to the top of the order has worked so far. Since Jones moved to the leadoff spot, his bat has heated up. In 23 games from atop the Orioles batting order, Jones is hitting .281/.314/.573 with eight homers and 22 RBIs. His OPS of .887 is .248 points higher than when he was hitting in the middle of the order. In the seven games leading up to Monday's in Texas, Jones had four homers — all against AL East competition — and boasted a .333/.375/.767 hitting line.

Since putting Jones atop the batting order, the Orioles are averaging 1.3 more runs a game — 5.7 compared to 4.4 — and have hit 41 homers in 23 games, a 1.78-per-game average compared to their 1.2 average before Jones moved up. More importantly, heading into Monday's game, the Orioles were 14-9 in games when Jones hit leadoff.

"I hadn't hit leadoff since 2010, but I think it was an opportunity to get me going a little bit, get the team going a little bit," Jones said. "The first pitch, I'm hacking. So it's just showing the guys, 'We're swinging today.' But you can look at different teams and it's different."

The Orioles aren't alone in this unconventional method. In Toronto, the Blue Jays have experimented with batting right fielder Jose Bautista, who just went on the disabled list this weekend, in the leadoff spot in an attempt to break him out of an early season slump. Bautista is one of the top home-run hitters in the game, but also led the AL in walks last year (110) and is doing the same this season (48), so his high on-base percentage fits that spot well.

In Houston, the Astros are hitting rising slugger George Springer, who is on pace for a 30-homer season, in the leadoff spot over second baseman Jose Altuve, a more prototypical leadoff option with a .342 average and an AL-leading .423 on-base percentage. But again, Springer's .353 career on-base average plays in that role.

"Lineups are changing," Jones said. "I don't know if it's an evolution. I think sometimes it's to get people going. With Bautista hitting first, he leads baseball in walks, you know he's going to give you a good at-bat and he's on base a lot. It doesn't matter how you get on base, but if you get on base for [Josh] Donaldson, [Edwin] Encarnacion, the chances of you scoring increase rapidly. I think it's sometimes just to get the guys going. Part of it is that the game is changing in that regard, especially with strikeouts going up."

The Astros, Blue Jays and Orioles were the majors' top three teams in home runs last season. The Orioles (107) and Blue Jays (104) are first and second this season.

The Orioles, like Toronto, have one of the deepest lineups in the game. They have five players who already have at least 12 homers through 68 games: Mark Trumbo (20), Machado (17), Chris Davis (16), Jones (13) and Jonathan Schoop (12).

"With our lineup, it's different than most lineups because we don't have a true leadoff hitter," Jones said. "I think we have a lot of guys that are two through six hitters. You've got a guy with Schoop's power potentially at 7-8-9, it lets you know how potent this lineup is. We're a powerful lineup. With ours, we have some flexibility. … We can have Rickard hitting leadoff, as he was. You can hit Manny leadoff any day of the week. I think you could hit [Hyun Soo] Kim leadoff if you wanted to."

Jones insists his approach at the plate hasn't changed. He's still aggressive in looking for a fastball to hit early in the count, and he's more likely to see one hitting leadoff, but Jones admits he is focusing more on lengthening his at bats when he falls behind.

"Nick [Markakis] wasn't a leadoff hitter, but you knew Nick was going to give you a good at-bat," Jones said. "That's all I'm trying to do. I'm still trying to be aggressive. If the first pitch is down the middle, why not swing at it? I'm not changing my approach. You're always trying not to swing at balls, but it's just trying to have a really strong at-bat and make it tough on the pitcher. He might go 0-2, but OK, he's going to have to make another good pitch to get me out because I'm slowly trying to wean myself from chasing those two-strike sliders and make the pitcher throw it over the plate."

Jones doesn't walk often — he averages just one for every 22.5 plate appearances over his career — but he's already drawn 18 walks in 64 games this season. It took Jones 90 games to reach 18 walks last season, when he eventually drew 24 in 581 plate appearances. But Jones said it's not necessarily so much about drawing walks, but more about being a different kind of table setter but working good at-bats.

"I just think I've been able to go from 0-2 to 3-2 in a lot more instances," Jones said. "Even if the result isn't what I want to be, I think the mindset is still, 'OK, it's 0-2, but I'm not just going to give this at-bat away.' I can fight my way back and the team sees I'm fighting to have a good at-bat for the team, and you've seen the at-bats. It's us trying to pass the baton."

eencina@baltsun.com

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