Nationals Baseball: Ian Desmond - 20th century leadoff man

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Ian Desmond - 20th century leadoff man

In his latest Q&A session, the hardest working man in Nat business, Bill Ladson, notes somewhat offhandedly:
The Nationals still believe in Desmond, who is projected to become the leadoff hitter...
Hmm maybe that didn't need a block quote... anyway, I hadn't really thought about it much but that seems about right.  Desmond was the leadoff hitter for the last month and a half of the year.  He seemed to be doing pretty well in that spot, and it sort of feels like he fits that spot.  Here's the thing, though - Ian Desmond doesn't get on base very well.

Ian's career OBP is .304.  His OBP last year was .298.  This isn't a fluke.  His career minor league OBP is .326 and that includes the 2009 year that seems more and more out of place the longer we see Desmond play.

Now it is true that Desmond did better in the leadoff spot, but he still wasn't good at getting on base.  He had an OBP of .318 while batting first. You could parse it further and say he did even better than that the second time around as a leadoff hitter  - He did have an OBP of .342 after being set in that role in mid-August - but it was a batting average driven .342 (not to mention only 40 games).  He only had 8 walks during those 41 games.  If he hits say... .280, a completely respectable batting average that's about 20 points over his career average, that OBP is more like .317.  That's terrible, somewhere around 75th if we look at the 100 NL batters with the most at bats. Unless you believe he will be a .300 hitter, Ian isn't the type of guy you want leading off.

Wait a second, you might say, I remember you saying that batting order doesn't really matter. Well, you're right.  I did say that, and I believe it.  Putting the wrong guy in the wrong spot isn't going to dramatically change the prospects of a team.  But it might change it by one win and the Nats are in a position where that one win could really matter. If they were worse or better, maybe you can start Desmond as the leadoff hitter and hope he grows into that role. But lose one more game than they need to in 2012 and that may be the difference between being the 2nd WC and packing it up at season's end. This is a year where the Nats have to look toward optimizing everything to squeeze out as many wins as they can from day one.

Here's the dilemma though.  Who does leadoff then? The Nats don't get on base.  You aren't going to put Zimmerman or Morse as leadoff hitters.  Putting Werth at leadoff was possibly Riggleman's most inspired move, but Jayson's terrible season derailed that move before it could get started, and I don't see Davey making the same sort of move, unfortunately.  Ramos will get enough hits to get on base more, but he's a catcher and convention demands a base stealer at the top of the lineup. Espinosa will walk enough to get on base more and can steal a base, but has a natural power that people don't want "wasted" at the top of the lineup.  LaRoche and Ankiel would be terrible choices for a couple reasons. That's it - that's everyone.  Desmond gets to leadoff and not get on base... by default?  Because everyone is too good to get more at bats?  Because the improvement is minimal, even over the course of an entire season, so it's easier to go with the standard line-up than deal with the distraction of one that's probably better?

I'm not sure what the Nats are gonna do. They need every win they can get, but since they don't have a prototypical lead-off hitter any alternate player put in that spot will have to succeed immediately or else the 150 years of convention weighing down on the team will force a change. I'd honestly love to see Werth in that position again because he only needs to hit like .250 to lead this bunch in getting on base, but I don't see that happening, so I'm hoping for a Ramos/Espinosa at the top of the lineup in either order.  It's not typical, but it's not crazy either, and it has the built-in "trying to get my best young hitters as many at bats as possible" argument that can stand against most fans of convention. I think that's the best I can hope for.

Update - Nats Blog had a take on this too.  Just yesterday. Quick summary : "Yep, there are no good choices".  But worth a read just to see how badly in numbers the Nats failed at finding a leadoff hitter last year (and in general)


blovy8 said...

Yeah, I think it's going to be a matter of putting players where they are the most comfortable hitting, regardless of how the OBP looks. It could end up costing more than a win, because you're looking at the power guys coming up with two outs more often, especially in those innings where the pitcher hits. But maybe productive outs aren't so important given how much this team strikes out. I know Bernadina's splits have made the 2 spot seem like his for the taking, but I'm not buying it for the kind of at bats he tends to have, I'd rather see Werth there. The idea that putting him sixth allows DJ to split up the righties is less important to me than having base runners, but I guess if Werth "likes" to hit sixth, that will happen.

Cory said...

It really should go to Werth, given his patience at the plate and speed on the bases. Only convention and perhaps ego keep that from happening.

I'd go Werth, Ramos, Zim, Morse, Danny, LaRoche, Ankiel, Desmond, Pitcher. I like Ramos' contact rates in 2-hole, and it gives him good pitches. Though Zim would be scary there too, if you wanted to make Ramos 5th/6th. Danny and LaRoche both have 20-25 HR pop. I'd even like to see pitcher 8th, with Desmond's speed wrapping back in front of Werth.

Harper is perfect for 4/5 with everyone dropping down a spot.

The problem with Ian is that he's never going to be an above-average batter, and he shouldn't need coddling or ego stroking by batting in a bad spot.

michael k said...

Why wouldn't batting order matter? Generally you want OBP guys hit before avg/slug guys. A walk ain't much good with 2 outs and a runner on second, but it's the same as a single if no one's on base.

Cory I love your idea of leading off Werth and batting Desmond 9th. I think that Werth makes a good #2 hitter on this team, as he has good obp and decent-but-not-great speed, and you don't want to waste his power having him leadoff. This allows him to bat "2nd" and have Desmond "leadoff" most times through the order - just with an extra at bat taken away from Desmond.

Donald said...

For no good reason, I'm still cautiously optimistic about Ian leading off. He's a decent bunter and has good base running skills. The question is around whether or not he can learn more patience and not try to swing for the fences. Maybe Davey can help him with that. If you believe batters can't fundamentally change in that regard then I agree about Desmond. But I'm crossing my fingers and ready to give him one more shot. He seems like the kind of guy that works really hard. Unlike some players that mope and gripe if they are asked to change, I think Desmond will try 100% to get it.

michael K said...

Donald - even if Desmond improves his swing, does that make him a good leadoff hitter? Harper mentioned his low walk rate, and predicted that even with a .280 BA his obp will be around .317 - and that sounds about right to me, too.

blovy8 said...

Yeah, even when Desmond posted his good numbers late in the year, it was fueled by a high batting average on balls in play. He still struck out as much and walked as little as ever. I don't see him hitting more than 270 or 280 unless he gets really lucky, or drag bunts for a hit every so often. Actually, it seems to me like he could hit with more power and have a bit of a benefit there. If he hits 15 homers that'll offset some of the .320 obp.

Matt said...

Here's the rub, though: if bating leadoff makes Desmond a better hitter, how many more wins is that worth to the Nats?

And I do think batting leadoff makes him better: as other comments have noted, Desmond tries to swing for the fences too much, and when he's batting leadoff he puts more effort into getting on base and stops trying to swing for the fences, which is very good for his bottom line.

Matt said...

blovy8 - the 1 thing which kills BABIP is flyballs. When Desmond swings for the fences, he produces a LOT of these, most of which don't have enough go to actually get out. I think his jump in BABIP is no coincidence.

Harper said...

blovy - I still think Ankiel will begin the season as starter - not Bernadina - so the #2 batter issue should be moot and go to Espinosa... it should. Then again he batted 6th a lot at the end of last year and Ramos mostly 8th. Hmm - hmm Davey's gotta mix this up a little doesn't he?

Cory - definitely won't happen - and not even because of Werth - managers love the alternating bats and this lineup puts all the lefties in one spot.

michael k - the math just works out so difference between the theoretical best and your typical lineup is generally around 10 runs a year which is like a win or two. Think about it this way - the chances the best OBP gets on base and your best hitter gets a hit is like 12% (.400 * .300), put the worst guy there instead and it's 9% (.300 * .300). That's a difference of 15 better circumstances during the course of the season (500 at bats), and not all of those will lead directly to runs because of the combination. And your going from best case to worst case something you rarely see.

This is just a long winded way of saying it matters, but usually not enough to get as worked up about it as we do.

Donald - since it almost certainly will happen yours is probably the best approach for Nats fans. I think guys can learn to be better but it's hard. I guess it's better he tries it one last time this year.

mk b8 - Donald did say he needs to learn more patience, but you're point is right a simple raising of average is not going to be enough.

Matt - we'll have to see. honestly he hasn't had enough at bats at any spot to be sure about his tendencies but he DID hit a lot fewer FBs in Sept. It be a shame if he can't reproduce that in another spot though because like I said, even hitting .280 he's not a good leadoff hitter. But if he can't for some reason he can't. (another worry would be a drop in power. We didn't see it last quarter season but if his Sept hitting style continues I'd expect to see it in 2012.)

blovy8 said...

Desmond's fly ball rate was slightly lower last year and he swung at fewer pitches overall which surprises me. But his homers per fly ball is lousy and could actually improve with a little luck.

When you're arguing about whether to play Ankiel or Bernadina, it's time to hope DeRosa can play a lot. Some projection systems like Rotochamp seem to think Bernadina can slash 260/320/390. That's ok and more needed than Ankiel's arm in the OF.

Donald said...

On a slightly different topic, the NatsBlog wrote about the 5 Nats out of options. Near the end, they state fairly matter of factly that Lannan has more trade value than Detwiler. Is that really true? I think Lannan has obviously been a more valuable pitcher to date, but Detwiler has more upside and is far cheaper for a longer time.

What do you think?

Unknown said...

Lerner called me at 3 am this morning and asked me to be GM, so, too sleepy to object, I said OK, then made the obvious moves: trading Desmond for some AA talent, moving Espinosa to SS (his natural position), adding Lombardozzi to 2B and moving ANYONE who shows a better OBP in ST than Desmond had last year to the top spot. Then I fell asleep and had my best night's sleep in 2 years!

Anonymous said...

Gotta chime in on the "leadoff" thing. Your leadoff hitter leads off a little more than one time per game. Absolutely, it's important (particularly with a young team) to get that first run or more--is it team-breaking? So we don't have a prototypical leadoff hitter. Bat the guy who plays a position well and might go deep occasionally. Pitching and defense are this team's obvious strengths. Win the 2-1 game, the 4-2 game. Lose the 9-6 game, because those will be rarer this year. I don't see Davey allowing any pitcher to get down more than 3 or 4 runs in the first 3 innings without going to Gorz or whoever else. No more "Livo's pitched pretty well, just found himself down 6 here in the third." Keep the total runs scored low and look for the big hit in the late innings (after all, as much as he thought he was smarter than Earl Weaver, that's the managing school Davey's come from).


Dave Nichols said...

It's not just lead-off though. The Nats were 14th in the league in total base runners last year. They need a team-wide improvement for the runs (and therefor, wins) to increase. and since they did nothing to address the hitting in the off-season, they have to hope for internal improvement.

Nick said...

I'd love to see Werth, Zim, Espi, Morse, Ramos, LaRoche, Desmond, Ankiel/Cameron/Bernie, and P. I just want to see Zim get as many ABs as possible, and I would have no issues if he hit leadoff either.

Nattydread said...

The exciting thing about Prince Fielder was that his numbers ALONE would have improved the Nats offense enough to make the lead off discussion moot.

Now its February and we're still embroiled in this discussion --- which went on and on at a number of web sites last year.

Bottom line with this lineup is that it has way too many K's.

When you think about it, the DECREASE in hitting from pitchers (loss of Livo, etc) is likely to have more affect than juggling the existing set of low-OBP guys at leadoff.

Angels12 said...

Desmond can barely hit his weight, I'm tired of o fer four nights and that's our lead off? He's a 8 hole hitter at best. Do I have a solution for who leads off? Nope.......I just know who shouldn't

Harper said...

blovy8 - odd that you say that about his FB and HR rates. In Sept, when everyone went gaga over him leading off, his HR rate actually was at it's highest, I think artificially boosting his power during his new ground ball hitting phase. Something to keep an eye on.

And when you're aruging about whether to play Ankeil or Bernadina and start to hope DeRosa can play a lot it's time to accept that spot as a lost one in your lineup...

Donald - I wouldn't think so, given Detwiler's age and the upside as you note. But I could see the other view, given that Detwiler's got only a 1/3rd of a decent season under his belt. THe right team might value Lannan more (though I think overall it'd be the other way around)

Unknown - I hear half-asleep at 3 AM was exactly how Bowden would perform his GM duties.

chaos - no argument, which is why I framed it as "well it might matter one game - but one game is impt for this team" all the other moves this season has brought the Nats into a position where the minor issue of leadoff may actually matter.

Nichols - What? You have an issue with a low average, no-walk taking team with at best average power? The best case for internal improvement to me is Ramos bumping up that average, Werth bounce back and a healthy Zim. Will that be enough to counteract a slightly less impressive Morse and other failings? Not sure.

Nick - I might flip Ramos and Espy in that personally but I like the guts of it. Never happen, but I like the guts.

ND - Possibly, though I think it would have made the "one game" changes into #1 WC v DIV talk as opposed to #2 WC or out of the playoffs.

As for the pitchers hitting, it's not like the Nats had good hitting pitchers - they were pretty middle of the road. I guess it could get worst but you just have to suck that up... I guess. I wonder if anyone has ever deceided between two pitchers that seemed evenly matched by going with the better hitter?

Angels12 - how fat do you think Ian is? But yeah - he's not a good hitter and therefore should be at the bottom of the lineup. Unfortunately so should OF X and maybe LaRoche if he isn't recovered.

DezoPenguin said...

If LaRoche isn't recovered, he shouldn't even be in the lineup. If he bats up to his career average, he's probably the third best hitter in the lineup after Zimmerman and Morse, and his plus defense at 1B helps. If he can't hit, though, 1B is not a defensive priority position to the point that it's worth keeping Morse out in LF (of course, the first internal solution there is DeRosa, really can't win there).

But yes. Werth should lead off. Especially if LaRoche is hitting, so you can have a 3-4-5 of Zimmerman, Morse, and LaRoche that actually present some genuine power. No clue who I'd hit second, though. I like Espi-Ramos-Desmond for the 6-7-8 slots, but that puts OF X in the #2 spot. Which if it's Cameron and he hits like he did for Florida last year is actually not hopeless. (.338 OBP and .751 OPS are actually a substantial improvement for a Nats CF @_@ -- it's just that age and health are more likely than not to go off in his face at any time, including spring training)