After Danny Espinosa's hot start which saw him .529 with three homers in his first week of Major League Baseball, Nationals manager Jim Riggleman has elected to let the slugging young middle infielder attempt to fill the void that is the leadoff spot. Espinosa has sparked energy into the Nationals since his arrival with not only his bat but also his glove and his impressive quickness on the base paths. However, since Espinosa's hot start, he has been hitless in his last four games, which begs the question, should a kid with only 30 MLB at bats really be leading off?
The leadoff spot in the order has a lot of hidden responsibilities entrenched in its role, much like the catcher position in the field. The first hitter in the line up needs to be not only comfortable hitting a pitcher that no one has yet seen pitch on that day, but he must also use his at bat to help expose as much of the pitchers arsenal as possible. It's his job to work the count, and make the pitcher display every weapon he has in the first at bat. As a result, the leadoff hitter also has to be able to hit a variety of pitches and be flexible with the bat.
In today's press conference with the bloggers at Nationals Park Espinosa expressed that the most difficult part of adjusting to the major leagues was keeping up with pitchers who quickly learn batters weaknesses. In short, he's having trouble both fooling and figuring out pitchers. This makes sense, he's a very very young player with very little pro experience, of course his adjustment to the big leagues will take time.
So why are the Nationals exacerbating this development by batting him first?
Putting him at the top of the order first forces him to face more diverse and difficult pitches than he would batting seventh or eighth where he would see mostly fastballs. It's forcing him to face a pitcher before he's had a chance to see him pitch to several other batters earlier in the game, and it's forcing him to work the count instead of concentrating on getting a hit.
Of course, another important part of hitting off in the leadoff role is getting on base. Forcing a pitcher to work with runners on the bases automatically improves a teams chance to score runs - it takes them out of the wind up and shifts the defense out of position. Throughout 2010 Espinosa has had a pretty poor on base percentage. He combined to only get on base .337 between double and triple A this summer despite launching 22 homers. While Espinosa could ultimately be a leadoff hitter once he becomes more acclimated, he will certainly have to learn to walk more often...
The bottom line is this. Espinosa is special, very special. He has the chance to be an All-Star in this league, but I don't think the Nationals are doing themselves, or the line-up, any favors by batting him at the top of the order until at least next year.