Who Will Lead Off for the 2016 Nationals?

Center-fielder Denard Span and the Washington Nationals are sure to part ways this offseason; the team didn’t even extend the 32-year-old a qualifying offer.

This separation leaves both parties with questions: Span is coming off two major medical procedures, and the World Series-aspiring Nationals have a gaping hole at one of the most important spots in the lineup: leadoff.

What does the leadoff hitter actually do?

Over the course of a season, the first position in the lineup accumulates the most plate appearances. It stands to reason that the teams capable of translating the most plate appearances into baserunners as often as possible will score more runs and, therefore, have a better chance to win more.

Of course, the Kansas City Royals just won the World Series with shortstop Alcides Escobar leading off.

Escobar slashed .257/.290/.320 in the regular season. Those are numbers for defense-minded eighth or ninth hitters. They do not say, “Have that player get as many offensive chances as possible.”

Naturally enough, all Escobar did in 16 playoff games was hit like crazy, slashing a whopping .329/.347/.510. His career batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is .297; his BABIP in that stretch was .361.

Escobar is not “the reason” behind the Royals’ title, and why he suddenly became a superstar hitter for two weeks would take its own post. But it does illustrate the bigger point: teams win more games when the guy atop the lineup is good, or just playing really well, or both.

Span embodied that concept for the Nationals about as well as it could be done in 2014, and over 61 games in 2015, too.

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Ignoring his impressive back-of-the-baseball-card stats, we see a player who drew walks at roughly average rates, but essentially struck out half as often as an average National League hitter. That type of output is difficult to replace.

Strike out and walk rates specifically struck me as being especially meaningful when deciphering who would make good leadoff hitters, much more than power numbers or even, to an extent, BABIP. The guys who strike out less and walk more than league average tend get on base more, and therefore are more ideal candidates for leading off.

Base-stealing is a controversial tactic; the value of the skill is ambiguous. While I didn’t focus on stolen bases, I was curious, with an eye toward success rate versus the raw number of stolen bags. In a low-offense era, any guy who can get himself into scoring position out of the first hole in the lineup has additional value that has to be considered.

At any rate, Span is as good as gone, and the Nationals need someone to fill that void. Let’s take a look at what the club’s options are.

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