Cristian Guzman, leadoff hitter
Nyjer Morgan may return to the first spot before the year ends, but for the immediate future his place in the Nationals lineup is second, behind new leadoff hitter Cristian Guzman.
"If he had a bad ballgame, he's hitting second tomorrow," Manager Jim Riggleman said yesterday, after Guzman and Morgan wreaked havoc and set up a season-best offensive day. "If he had a good ballgame, he's hitting second tomorrow. We're looking for results. The results were good, so we'll stay there."
With their places settled for now, it's worth wondering how effective Guzman can be at the top of the lineup. Guzman, without question, is an extraordinarily skilled batsman. But there is more to being a productive offensive player than hitting, particularly at the top of the lineup, where reaching base matters most. The question is, as a leadoff man, will Guzman get on base enough?
"That's what we don't know," Riggleman said. "He's not your prototypical leadoff hitter. But Nyjer's on-base percentage is lower than Guzman's at this time. We're just trying to do it the best way we can and get everybody situated."
Last year, the median on-base percentage for a team's leadoff hitters was .350.* Guzman's on-base percentage last year was .306, lower than his career .308 OBP. In 2008, he put up a respectable .345.
Currently, Guzman has a very good .353 on-base percentage. It's been built almost wholly on his hits -- he leads the NL with a .327 batting average. He has just six walks in 174 plate appearances. He also faces 3.32 pitches per plate appearance, second lowest in the NL to Pedro Feliz, who sees 3.27.
*I could stress how important a leadoff man's on-base percentage is by pointing out that the Yankees led baseball with a .402 on-base percentage from their top spot -- but the National League champion Phillies got a .294 on-base percentage from their leadoff men. Go figure.
Because he walks so rarely, Guzman's on-base percentage is going to closely resemble his batting average. That's perfectly fine when Guzman is on a tear, like he is right now. Again, he's a really talented hitter.
Here's the problem: Guzman's batting average on balls in play is .383, second highest in the league behind David Freese. (The league average is .299, and Guzman's lifetime BABIP is .310.) Now, Guzman deserves a high BABIP. He runs reasonably well, he's hitting lots of line drives (23 percent of balls he puts in play) and rarely popping up to the infield (two percent of fly balls).
Even still, a .386 BABIP is rarely sustainable; only David Wright, with a .394 BABIP compiled in a cavernous home park, had one higher last year. It is practically inevitable Guzman's batting average will drop, and when it does there will be few walks to prop up his on-base percentage.
If and when that happens, the Nationals will have recourse. As much as Morgan struggled in May, they'll at least have a player who hit leadoff 93 times for them in the past two season who owns a .355 career on-base percentage. If Morgan regains his form hitting second, he can simply move back up.
"If Guzie has got to hit leadoff for a while, then that's where it will be," Riggleman said. "You see the Cardinals made the switch with Albert Pujols 3 to 4. Now they've switched him back. That's what we'd like to eventually do, too."
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