Debate over who should lead off for the Nationals began as soon as Mike Rizzo dealt three top pitchers (they may leave our farm system, but never our hearts) for Adam Eaton. Eaton’s calling card was his ability to lead off and play great outfield defense – two things Trea Turner did for the 2016 version of the Nats. But Eaton took Turner’s centerfield spot, so Turner took Danny Espinosa‘s shortstop job, and Danny was sent home to California to grow his beard. Turner managed to keep his leadoff job coming out of spring training, but not coming off the DL as Dusty Baker used the return of Turner to switch a few things up. I wouldn’t stop there — I’d go a step further. Here would be my lineup:
- Daniel Murphy
- Matt Wieters
- Bryce Harper
- Ryan Zimmerman
- Anthony Rendon
- Jayson Werth/Adam Lind/Chris Heisey
I’m a big fan of Tom Tango’s The Book (expertly summarized here by Beyond the Boxscore) which does extensive research into baseball’s conventions — including the optimal batting order. He looked into when different types of hitters are best utilized in the order and his findings go against what baseball culture has come to expect. The results aren’t earth-shattering, but he does prove there are advantages to be gained by rethinking batting order conventions. Like bullpen usage, it’s the manager’s job to squeeze as much out of his team as he can.
The basic conclusions are that your best hitters should hit 1,4, and 2, and OBP should hit higher than SLG. Your 1-2 hitters get the most at-bats, and your 4-hitter gets the most at-bats with runners on. The 3-hitter hits with 2 outs and nobody on enough to devalue that spot so the 3 and 5 hitters are similar roles, with the better power guy hitting 5th. The 5-spot sacrifices a few ABs over the 3-hole, but tends to have more runners on base to make up for fewer trips to the plate. The 6-spot is the best place for the base-stealer — not lead-off, as baseball orthodoxy would dictate. Your lead-off hitter hits in front of your best hitters, so the risk/reward for a stolen base fits better lower in the lineup, in front of weaker hitters. The Book also advocates hitting the pitcher 8th in some circumstances. Giving a weak-hitting pitcher more plate appearances is offset by having a better hitter set the table for the top of the lineup.
Putting together a baseball lineup is akin to playing blackjack. If you play blackjack “by the book,” you try to optimize your odds by hitting when the dealer has a good card showing, staying when they don’t, and always doubling-down on aces and eights. Similarly, you want to align your hitters to do the most damage while also shuffling things around from time to time to account for current production.
To come up with this lineup, I looked to Fangraphs’ projections, last year’s results, and the early returns so far this year. Harper, Zimmerman, Murphy, then Eaton have been the best hitters so far this year. Harper, Rendon, and Muphy had the best three pre-season projections with Eaton slightly behind them. And last year’s best three hitters were Murphy, Turner, Rendon, and then Harper. Weighting the present with an eye to the past, and including current health, I’d call Harper, Murphy, and Eaton the top three, with Zimmerman closely behind.
Murphy led the team in OBP last year and was projected to be second only to Harper in 2017. Eaton’s career OBP is below Murphy’s, but Eaton’s leading Murphy in that category so far in ’17. With Murphy’s SLG edge, he should hit lower. Therefore, I’d leadoff Eaton with Murphy hitting 2nd.
Harper is the team’s best hitter and slugger, so Bryce should hit 4th. Cleanup hitters can do more damage than 3-hitters. 3rd and 5th hitters come up in similar situations so you’d want the better power hitter hitting 5th (as a rule: OBP hits higher and SLG lower). Zimmerman has been the team’s second best hitter so far this year – after being one of the league’s worst hitters last year. His ISO is almost .400, just behind Harper’s, which is why I think he should hit just behind Harper. Maybe this rejuvenation won’t last, but hitting him and his power behind Harper is good way to cash in on his hot streak for the time being. The late-arriving Wieters would then hit 3rd as the team’s 5th best hitter and a solid OBP guy.
The Book makes the argument that hitting 6th is the best place for a base-stealer. Extra bases are more useful in front of weaker hitters. I like the idea of Rendon or Werth taking pitches with Turner on base, giving Trea plenty of chances to show off his wheels. He doesn’t need to steal bases to score when he hits in front of Harper, Murphy, and Zim. If Turner hits 2nd and Harper 3rd, then any stolen base would just be an invitation to walk Harper. By hitting 6th, Turner could create havoc on the bases for the bottom of the order and hopefully manufacture a few extra runs here and there. Turner’s power would also be more useful hitting lower in the order.
Rendon was one of the team’s top hitters last year. After a slow start, he’s beginning to heat up again. I’d hit him 7th and Wieters 3rd for now, just considering how hot Wieters has been. But once both hitters return to their more typical norms, I’d hit Rendon 3rd and Wieters or Werth 7th.
Hitting Werth 9th in this lineup is actually a compliment. He’s better than a typical NL 8th hitter, so it’s better for have him hit in front of the top of the order, giving them more run-producing opportunities. I’d platoon Lind and Heisey in Left until Werth returns and hit them 9th too. Lind has a wRC+ of over 200 right now and should be getting at-bats instead of Taylor.
This lineup lets the best hitters hit more, protects Harper, uses Turner’s speed more effectively (while also reducing the pressure on him), and keeps the lefties from stacking up. As the season progresses, the lineup can be juggled around while maintaining the same principles. If Turner is again one of the top 3 hitters, move him to 1 or 2. Turner’s power was a surprise last year. If he’s able to regain that form, he could also hit 5th behind Harper if Zim fades. Eaton would also make a good 6th hitter if other guys hit their way into the first inning. And of course, I’d hit Rendon higher once Wieters cools off.
The name of the game is getting guys on and then getting them in. An optimal lineup plays the odds to give the team a slight advantage, and slight advantages can add to up runs and wins over the course of the long season.
Tags: Adam Eaton, Adam Lind, Anthony Rendon, Bryce Harper, Chris Heisey, Daniel Murphy, Jayson Werth, Matt Wieters, Nationals, Nats, Ryan Zimmerman, Trea Turner, Washington Nationals