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Nationals batting order woes

Posted By Sam Diament On Jun 17 2010 @ 9:50 pm In Washington Nationals | No Comments

Imagine for one second that the Nationals had a legitimate leadoff hitter.  Instead of with two outs and nobody on, Ryan Zimmerman steps into the batters box with a runner on second base and one out.  Since this is our imagination, allow us to be even more optimistic.  Zimmerman steps into the box and there are two men on and nobody out.  What a turnaround.

There is an explanation for having taken you through this exercise, and I am certain you have figured it out.  Right now, it seems like the Nationals do not have any serious candidates to fill the holes atop their batting order.  Day-after-day, manager Jim Riggleman sketches the names “Morgan” and “Guzman” or “Guzman” and “Morgan” on the top of his lineup card.  I am really not sure why he continues to do this, but maybe someone can fill me in.

What I know, and Riggleman must know as well, is that Cristian Guzman’s on-base percentage in 2010 is .325, or 5 points below the National League average.  Nyjer Morgan’s OBP is .314.  Considering what kind of production the Nationals have received from these two spots this year (.253/.315/.341 and .274/.330/.365), league average would be an absolute upgrade.

There is a logical reason why these two places in the batting order are so important.  Most people know this already.  Broadcasters refer to these players as “table-setters.”  These players are faced with task of getting on base, getting into scoring position, and scoring when the proceeding batters drive them in.  Somewhere along the line speed became a necessity for these two spots in the batting order.  It’s sad, really, because if the batter cannot get on base, his speed won’t help him at all.  This, by the way, is the reason why Usain Bolt does not play baseball.  He could sprint around the bases all he wants, but that does not qualify him as a good hitter.

There is a chain effect that occurs by putting betters hitters at the top of the batting order.  Not only do they get more plate appearances, but worse hitters get fewer plate appearances.  And why not?  Until a player proves he can hit, why should he be given more opportunities than someone who has proven he can hit?  And why should that player be placed into a more premium spot in the lineup?  I often wonder if Riggleman asks these questions when filling out his lineup card.

The Nationals currently rank 10th in the National League with 283 runs scored.  That number could be much higher if the Nationals fielded a competent batting order.  The question is, how would one go about making the Nationals batting order proficient?  Undoubtedly, the most important statistic for a leadoff hitter is on-base percentage.  Regardless of how powerful or speedy the batter is, his goal is to get on base.  It does not matter what base he reaches or where he ends up when the second batter approaches home plate.  What matters is that he reached base, or, to put it another way, did not make an out.  Quite simply, making outs advances the game more quickly and allows the team fewer opportunities to score runs.

Let’s take a look at the on-base percentages of Nationals’ players with at least 100 plate appearances in 2010.

As of 6/16/2010 5:00 pm ET:

Josh Willingham 0.422
Ryan Zimmerman 0.393
Adam Dunn 0.381
Ivan Rodriguez 0.362
Roger Bernadina 0.356
Adam Kennedy 0.329
Cristian Guzman 0.325
Nyjer Morgan 0.314
Ian Desmond 0.305
Willie Harris 0.257
Wil Nieves 0.202

Of course, on-base percentage is not the only criterion to be a successful leadoff hitter.  I said before that it does not matter which base the batters reaches as long as he gets to one.  This is true, but it is also true that reaching a further base is more beneficial than reaching first base.*  Thus, the next aspect I would like to measure is power, and I will do this using the isolated power statistic (ISO).  ISO is simply slugging percentage minus batting average.  Let’s look at this simple derivation of the formula:

Given:  BA = H/AB; SLG = TB/AB; TB = 1B + 2B*2 + 3B*3 + HR*4


= TB/AB – H/AB

= (TB – H) / AB

In other words, ISO measures how many extra bases a batter produces per at-bat.  For example, if a batter has a .250 batting average and a .520 slugging percentage, then his ISO is .270.  That batter produces an extra .270 bases every time he steps up to bat.  Why is this important when we already have slugging percentage?  Essentially, it takes the weight off of singles.  This is not a dismissing of singles as positive contributions but rather as a result of good power.  If batters needed much power to hit a single, Juan Pierre would never have even dreamed of a .300 batting average.

Here are the isolated power numbers of Nationals players in 2010 (min. 100 PA):

As of 6/16/2010 5:00 pm ET:

Adam Dunn 0.285
Ryan Zimmerman 0.266
Josh Willingham 0.229
Willie Harris 0.184
Roger Bernadina 0.158
Ian Desmond 0.140
Ivan Rodriguez 0.119
Adam Kennedy 0.092
Nyjer Morgan 0.083
Wil Nieves 0.074
Cristian Guzman 0.073

Unsurprisingly, Adam Dunn tops the list.  Dunn is a man-beast who hits the ball harder than almost any other baseball player.  What is surprising is the bottom of the list.  The very bottom of the list.  Indeed, Cristian Guzman has hit for less power this year than Wil Nieves.  Keep in mind, it is a measly 1 point, or .001 extra bases per at bat differences between the two players.  Still, the point is clear:  Cristian Guzman just does not have enough power to hit near the top of the order.

What else must a good leadoff hitter do?  Well, if he gets on base, he has certainly done his job.  However, it is definitely an added bonus if the first hitter of the game sees many pitches.  Doing so allows subsequent batters to see what the pitcher is throwing and the umpire’s strike zone, among other things.  The following table shows each batter’s amount of pitchers per plate appearances, percentage of swings on pitches out of the strike zone, and percentage of times the batter makes contact on pitches out of the zone:

As of 6/17/2010 4:55 pm ET:

P/PA O-Swing% O-Contact%
Josh Willingham 4.17 17.8% 65.1%
Adam Dunn 4.11 27.2% 49.4%
Ryan Zimmerman 4.04 26.5% 70.2%
Willie Harris 4.02 19.5% 77.8%
Adam Kennedy 4.01 24.0% 72.4%
Nyjer Morgan 3.96 26.7% 75.9%
Roger Bernadina 3.89 23.6% 50.8%
League Average 3.84 28.1% 66.4%
Ian Desmond 3.44 34.6% 63.2%
Ivan Rodriguez 3.39 39.3% 73.6%
Cristian Guzman 3.36 35.3% 71.9%
Wil Nieves 3.32 39.4% 63.9%

Again, to no one’s amazement, Josh Willingham tops the list.  Fittingly, he also leads the team in on-base percentage.  He also swings at the least pitches out of the strike zone but makes contact a decent amount of the time (1.3% below league average) when he does.  My intention is not to beat a dead horse, but, as usual, Cristian Guzman appears near the bottom of the list.  He also swings at more pitches out of the zone than anyone on the team besides the catchers.  This approach will prove to be unsuccessful – and already has been – over the course of the year.

The intention of this article is not to create some super statistic called “Leadoff Index” or xBAT1 or some crazy name.  My goal is to bring attention to the fact that Nyjer Morgan and Cristian Guzman have been two of the least successful hitters in the Nationals’ daily starting lineup, yet they are both consistently placed in premium positions in the batting order.  Somewhere along the line, something has to change.  I say “something” instead of “this” because there is one possibility that I have not mentioned.  Measuring how many pitches a batter sees per plate appearances is part of his tendencies and will not change.  In other words, Cristian Guzman will not begin to take more pitches out of the blue.  However, Guzman may begin to hit the ball a bit harder, and he may have another red hot month like May.  The odds of this are unlikely because, quite frankly, Guzman is not a very good batter.  He is, essentially, an efficient out machine.  Getting Guzman out three times is similar to pitching a 10-pitch inning.

I will conclude what I started with an unsatisfying answer:  there is no permanent solution for the leadoff role.  Not yet, anyway.  What I mean is that any hitter could have a hot streak and any player could go cold at any time.  That is the very essence of baseball.  Guzman was the very best candidate for the leadoff job during May, a month in which he hit .381/.411/.452.  So far in June, he has posted a .237 on-base percentage.  On the other hand, Roger Bernadina is hitting .366/.469/.561 in June after having posted a .250/.284/.434 line in May.  Thus, I believe that the leadoff role should be reserved for whoever has a hot bat.  Some readers may argue that certain players prefer to hit in certain spots in the batting order.  Many players claim that they do not like leading off.  What do they do when they are due to lead off an inning?  These excuses are almost as absurd as a closer who cannot pitch unless his team is winning by three or less runs in the 9th inning (it sounds ridiculous when you spell it out, doesn’t it?).

Right now, Bernadina should get as many plate appearances as possible.  He has been getting on base, hitting for power, and stealing bases this month.  Maybe in a week, Nyjer Morgan will have caught fire.  Maybe he will once again become the catalyst that the Nationals thought they were getting when they traded for him last July.  The important thing is to not wait for him to become hot.  All that accomplishes is hurting the team.

Lastly, I want to point out an interesting stat line.  Nyjer Morgan is batting .340/.397/.509 in first innings this year.  In the following innings, he is batting only .223/.286/.280.  Yes, that is horrible.  It is intriguing that in the first inning, Morgan seems to be acting like the spark the team expects.  Yet, after that, he is almost completely useless.  I have attempted to create an explanation, but I cannot think of one.  I would really like to know why Morgan cannot hit after the first inning.  It should still be noted that the leadoff hitter gets more plate appearances than any other batter, and the ensuing plate appearances that Morgan gets after the first inning are essentially free outs.

*Quick side note:  it could be argued that a leadoff walk is more advantageous than a leadoff single or even a double.  I don’t have access to the proper data to research the value of a leadoff walk compared to a walk with one or two outs, but I think it might be worth studying.

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