Fifteen years ago Tuesday, the greatest leadoff hitter in baseball history made his first appearance for the Mariners as a pinch runner. Rickey Henderson was 41 years old, long removed from his Hall-of-Fame prime, a $2-million-a-year attitude problem no longer wanted by the New York Mets.
But “The Man of Steal,” who embodied the premise that a walk is as good as a two-base hit, still was capable of creating moments of sheer magic. The following afternoon, Henderson led off the bottom of the first inning by hitting a home run that gave Safeco Field fans chills.
Acquired as a rental, Henderson’s temporary role as Seattle’s leadoff hitter was turned over to Ichiro Suzuki in 2001. Ichiro settled into the job so seamlessly that it would be an entire decade before the Mariners were challenged to identify his successor at the top of the lineup.
But since trading Ichiro to the New York Yankees midway through the 2012 season, the leadoff role has become a hit-and-miss proposition for the Mariners, with fewer hits than misses. Chone Figgins was a head case. Franklin Gutierrez’s head was clear, but his stomach wasn’t. Abraham Almonte and James Jones weren’t ready for prime time. Dustin Ackley is, was and always will be, well, Dustin Ackley.
Austin Jackson, obtained last July from Detroit in a trade-deadline deal, loomed as a solution until his profoundly disappointing 2014 numbers for the Mariners — a .267 on-base percentage — suggested otherwise. Sidelined by an ankle injury, Jackson likely won’t be re-signed when his contract expires after the season.
In other words, there’s room at the top. Five hitters had rotated in the Mariners’ leadoff spot — Jackson, Ackley, Justin Ruggiano, Seth Smith and Rickie Weeks — before manager Lloyd McClendon inserted Brad Miller as leadoff batter against Boston knuckleball specialist Steven Wright in the homestand finale.
Was it a one-day gambit, or a possible long-term commitment?
“I’m not sure,” McClendon admitted Sunday. “It’s just such a small sample. We’re talking about a guy everybody was complaining about last year because he was hitting second and leading the league in strikeouts. So it takes time.
“He did a nice job today,” McClendon said of Miller, whose fifth-inning solo shot to right field was his fourth homer in five games and sealed American League Player of the Week honors announced Monday. “But he’s also done a nice job in the No. 2 hole. So we’ll see.”
Although four at-bats represents the smallest of samples, Miller is not a novice at leading off. Upon his late-June promotion from Tacoma in 2013, Miller made 67 starts as a leadoff man, hitting .265 with a .319 on-base percentage. Granted, .319 is not in the same ballpark as Rickey Henderson, who retired with a .401 OBP thanks to a low-crouch stance that presented a strike zone, as the late sports columnist Jim Murray put it, “smaller than Hitler’s heart.”
But .319 is quite more productive than Austin Jackson’s .267.
While not a burner, Miller runs well and sprints out of the box from the left side. As McClendon noted, strike-zone recognition was a problem last season — 95 whiffs, 34 walks — but he’s improved that ratio from 3-1 in 2014 to something more tolerable (25 strikeouts, 11 walks) through 35 games this season.
A bonus skill for a leadoff hitter is power: The ability to provide a team with a quick lead on one swing. Henderson hit 81 homers as a first-inning leadoff batter, a big-league record almost as impressive as the 796 walks he coaxed to lead off an inning.
Miller’s bat has some pop. Combine that pop with plus-speed and perpetual hustle, there’s a lot to like about his potential as a leadoff hitter.
Miller also offers more subtle ability consistent with productive leadoff men: He’s not prone to overthink the situation. Whether he’s put at No. 1 in the batting order as a shortstop or No. 9 as an outfielder, he takes the news in stride.
“Obviously, I’ve kind of been all over the place lineup-wise and in the field,” he said Sunday. “But if you act like it’s all the same and just go out there and play, it really is the same. You get in the box the same way.”
But make no mistake: If McClendon writes out a Tuesday night lineup that finds Miller leading off against the Orioles in Baltimore, the manager won’t have to sell the assignment to his team’s hottest hitter.
“It’s fun,” Miller said. “You get to go up there first and try to get things going. I’m pretty simple. I like to play hard.”