Ian Desmond was named the leadoff man for the Washington Nationals to start the season to mixed reviews. Manager Davey Johnson believed this was the best spot for his young shortstop, but many fans questioned the move due to Desmond’s low on-base percentage and propensity for strikeouts. Injuries to Jayson Werth and Michael Morse, combined with a sub-.300 OBP and his ability to hit for power, caused Desmond to be dropped to the No. 5 spot.
The Nationals don’t have a true lead off hitter on their team. It’s a known fact across the league, which is going to make it expensive prospect-wise to acquire one in a trade. So without a true solution, Desmond, who has good speed, was placed in the role. He also swings at the first pitch a whole lot: 40 times in 182 at-bats to be exact. But as frustrating as it can be when he grounds out on the first pitch, the statistics may be backing up Desmond’s tendency to swing at that first pitch. He’s hitting .425, that’s 17-for-40, when swinging at the first pitch of an at-bat.
Even with that impressive stat, Desmond has walked just six times in 189 plate appearances. That’s clearly unacceptable for a lead off hitter, but not quite as outrageous for a number five hitter. Without Jayson Werth for the next several months and with Michael Morse on the mend for a couple more weeks, Desmond might be a fine stop gap behind Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche.
Zimmerman and LaRoche both have insanely high OBPs, .354 and .409 respectively, and need someone to drive them in. Desmond has 18 RBI, 16 of them batting first, which is second-best on the team; only LaRoche has more with 31. The leadoff spot isn’t a traditionally high-RBI position, but Desmond’s done pretty well for himself. That number could go way up for him with Zimm and LaRoche ahead of him. In limited work in the five spot, Desmond is hitting 3-for-9 with two doubles.
Though his OBP is below other five-hole hitters, Desmond’s .275 batting average is 18 points above the league average for other number five hitters. His .456 slugging is 31 points higher than the same group. He could continue to grow from his six home runs from the leadoff spot. He had eight all of last season.
Michael Morse is still slated to return to the Nats line up in early June, and he is likely to slide into the five spot. That could move Desmond back to the top of the order, or he could bat sixth. Until then, though, Desmond has an opportunity to make his mark by swinging that quick bat in the heart of the Nats order. He’ll see more first-pitch breaking stuff now than he did when leading off, so he’ll have to make the adjustment to not swing at the first pitch quite as often. If he does that, the Nats and Davey Johnson might have finally found the true offensive value of Ian Desmond.