The Nats cannot score runs and something MUST be done about it. Baseball is marathon, not a sprint, and one must always guard against jumping to conclusions based on the dreaded SSS – Small Sample Size- but at some point enough is enough. The season is almost a third over and the team is break-even because they are terrible at scoring runs. Injuries are surely to blame (it’s not ALL Espinosa’s fault) but so what? Last year’s version had injuries too, but also had a bench step up and fill holes until reinforcements came. That’s not happening this year and I think it’s time to shake things up.
Everyone loves to play the Batting Order Game and I’m no different. (Ed. Note: We realize this comes on the heels of David Huzzard’s very good article suggesting hitting Kurt Suzuki second.) In fact, I’m probably the worst. Batting order optimization is another point of contention between the old and new schools of baseball though. Again, the new school has won me over. Tom Tango’s The Book breaks down some shortcomings of traditional thinking and lays out a new strategy for getting the most out of players. Beyond the Boxscore’s Sky Kalkman has a great breakdown of The Book‘s ideas. Sky sums up Tango’s principles as such:
“Another way to look at things is to order the batting slots by the leveraged value of the out. In plain English (sort of), we want to know how costly making an out is by each lineup position, based on the base-out situations they most often find themselves in, and then weighted by how often each lineup spot comes to the plate. Here’s how the lineup spots rank in the importance of avoiding outs:
#1, #4, #2, #5, #3, #6, #7, #8, #9
So, you want your best three hitters to hit in the #1, #4, and #2 spots. Distribute them so OBP is higher in the order and SLG is lower. Then place your fourth and fifth best hitters, with the #5 spot usually seeing the better hitter, unless he’s a high-homerun guy. Then place your four remaining hitters in decreasing order of overall hitting ability, with basestealers ahead of singles hitters. Finally, stop talking like the lineup is a make-or-break decision. Tango goes to great effort to try to figure out how damaging an out is in every spot and then reverse engineers a lineup from there.”
An important little nugget is that the batting order is not “a make-or-break decision”. There’s only so much it can do, but it can do something and times like this call for a Kitchen Sink approach. Using these theories as a basis, here are the changes I would make if Mike Rizzo suddenly fell ill (temporarily of course) and I had to step in and run the ship, fresh off a night’s sleep at a Holiday Inn Express.
Traditional thinking says a guy like Denard Span is perfect for this role. A no-power speed guy with a decent OBP. Rizzo specifically traded for him to fill the Black Hole that has been centerfield/leadoff hitter. The Book agrees that there’s no need to waste power here and OBP is critical, but it also says this should be one of your top three hitters. Span is not one of these guys. Span is 4th on the team this year in OBP and 8th in wOBA. The Book says speed is best utilized in front of singles hitters and since the leadoff spot is followed by power guys, there’s no real need to put a base-stealing threat at the top of the lineup if that’s all he brings to the table. The Leadoff hitter gets more at-bats than anyone and Nats fans have seen what a lot of outs at the top of a lineup can do to a team. I believe the reason last year’s team was so successful was that Jayson Werth, and his .380 OBP lead off. He would be ideal again since he leads the team in OBP since 2012 – but if he were in the lineup we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation. The Nats three best hitters by wOBA are Harper, Zim and Desi – in that order. We don’t want to waste power here and Desi’s OBP is below .300 so none of these guys are a great fit. Ultimately The Book says OBP is king so I’ve got look elsewhere – and the next two guys on the team leaderboard for OBP this year are Span and Anthony Rendon. Calling up Rendon to leadoff and play second is tempting, but I have my doubts he can play the middle of the field. Shortstop and Second Base require a lot more range, ie footwork, than Third and, in addition to a vast lack of experience at the position, Rendon has a history of ankle problems. Plus, I can’t imagine playing a brand new position at the Major League level will help Rendon feel comfortable. So ultimately we’re back to Span. He’s not one of the three best hitters, but he is one of the three best OBP of the players not on the DL. Span lets me limit outs while saving the power for a little later. However, not having Werth in this spot a big sacrifice.
1. Span – .335 ’13 OBP, .355 career
I’m going to go in order of importance of avoiding outs instead of the straight batting order so we’re going to skip ahead to the #4 spot. The Book says that both the #2 and #4 spots are more important than the #3 spot because the #3 spot bats so much with two outs. The leadoff spot is the most important place to avoid an out, but the cleanup spot is the best place to have your best power hitter since he will bat with more men on base over the course of the season. Bryce Harper is the no-brainer here. He leads the team in basically everything.
4. Harper – .409 ’13 wOBA / .590 ’13 SLG
This has been a big problem whenever the team has been without one of their corner outfielders. The Book says the #4 spot sees more important situations but the #2 makes up for some of that with more plate appearances. The unquestioned best hitter is Bryce Harper – both this season as well as dating back to last year – but who is number 2? Zim has a wOBA of .353 this year, however, Desmond is just ahead of him if we combine last year’s numbers with this year’s.Ultimately, Zim’s OBP is about 80 points higher than Desmond so really this spot is between Harper and Zimmerman. I believe Zimmerman is better call here because you don’t lose too much by not using Harper here. Plus The Book prefers more power in the cleanup spot and that’s Bam Bam.
*Suzuki is not a bad idea here because of his high OBP relative to the rest of the team, but ultimately the team needs one of its best hitters here so ‘Zuk will have to wait his turn.
2. Zimmerman – .353 ’13 wOBA / .371 ’13 OBP
Traditional thinking puts a poor man’s cleanup hitter here, but The Book says this should be a better power hitter than the # 3 hitter (traditionally the best hitter) because the extra opportunities with men on base make up for having fewer at-bats. Ian Desmond has the third best wOBA this year, and the 2nd best going back to last year. He’s one of the team’s top three hitters, but his lack of OBP has kept him out of the leadoff spot. However, his ISO (or measure of power) is second only to Harper this year, ahead of Zimmerman.
5. Desmond – .211 ’13 ISO / .332 ’13 wOBA
‘THE’ Three Hole
Pujols hits third. So did Bonds. This is where your best hitter hits – if you don’t mind them hitting with two outs and nobody on lots of the time. We’ve certainly seen this with Zim over the years and we’ve seen it with Harper this year. The Book tells us to fill this with the best hitter left after the more important spots are taken. This is Adam LaRoche. Werth, Ramos and even Rendon have a higher wOBA this year than ALR but he’s starting to heat up. Plus his wOBA going back to the start of 2012 is only a tick below Werth’s. Adam has enough power to hit 5th, so flipping him with Desmond when he’s particularly hot or when Ian’s particularly cold would be a viable option as well.
3. LaRoche – .302 ’13 wOBA / .349 ’12-’13 wOBA
The Book and traditional thinking basically agree to the extent that the bottom-of-the-order hitters should be ranked in descending order of ability. There are a few caveats though – put speed guys in front of singles hitters and think about hitting the pitcher 8th in the National League. The exact ordering of these last few spots is only worth a handful of runs over the course of the season, but squeezing an extra run out here and there certainly wouldn’t hurt. Kurt Suzuki is the only potential regular left with a wOBA over .300 so he’s the obvious choice to bat 6th. There’s no rule in any book that says catchers HAVE to hit 8th.
6. Suzuki – .300 ’13 wOBA / .324 ’13 OBP
We are now left with the Nats two most unproductive spots – Second Base and Left Field (sans Werth). There are really no good options, either in the minors or the majors, but I also believe these spots offer an opportunity to shake up the roster, in addition to the lineup. The four-man rotation of Moore, Bernadina, Lombardozzi and Espinosa is not working. Espinosa and Bernadina are clear upgrades over Lombo and Moore defensively, but perhaps it’s time to sacrifice some defense to score more runs. Boz says there’s worse things than having a all-glove-no-bat second baseman. I agree. Just don’t ever hit him 7th. Espi either needs surgery or he needs to hit 9th. Yes 9th (more on that shortly). His power is gone and it’s gone from both sides. While Danny was a better hitter right-handed last year, he actually had a higher ISO left-handed because there was only a .30 point drop in his SLG between the two sides. This year there is almost a .100 point drop from right-handed to left-handed. He may not be feeling much pain in his shoulder, but I’ve got to believe the injury has robbed him of his power. He’s going to have to have the surgery sometime, so why not now? Espinosa’s career is at a crossroads and he’s going to need both arms if he’s going to save himself. And thus, Tyler Moore must become the full time Left Fielder and hit 7th.
Since all of our options for LF suck this year, we have to go back to last year to see who gives the Nats the best chance. If Bernadina is hitting, he’s the guy. He adds enough value with defense to offset his hitting woes. And besides, Moore isn’t hitting. But perhaps more playing time will change that. Traditional thinking says to platoon Bernadina and Moore and keep Lombo in the infield. But the platoon isn’t working. Neither guy is getting enough plate appearances to get any kind of rhythm going. I think the best thing is to pick a guy and stick with him for a while. And I think it should be Moore. Losing Ramos, Werth and a healthy Espinosa is putting a drain on the power. Moore is mostly likely not the .361 wOBA hitter was last year, but he’s also not the .177 wOBA hitter he is so far this year. Bernadina’s been around long enough that he is what he is, but Moore is not yet fully formed. The Nats should use this time without Werth to see what they have in T Mo – other than a fantastic son who loves his mother.
7. Moore – .513 ’12 SLG
I’m going pitcher. I know that the order of importance listed above has the #8 spot ahead of #9, but that’s for both leagues. In the NL, hitting the pitcher 8th gives you 2 more runs over the course of the season than hitting him 9th, according to The Book. 2 runs over 162 games isn’t much, but it’s not nothing either. And it allows you to get to your pinch hitter faster. Perhaps hitting a position player 9th in the NL will mess with his head, but I have a solution…
Call up Jeff Kobernus. Play him at Second. Bat him last. If Espinosa goes on the DL then I would call up Kobernus to fill his 25-man spot and compete with Lombo for the everyday gig. Kobernus almost made the Tigers out of Spring Training as a Rule 5 guy and is tearing up AAA Syracuse to the tune of a .329/.368/.418 slash line that equals a .356 wOBA. However Lombo was equally impressive in AAA with a .310/.354/.408 line and wOBA of .340 in about 100 more at-bats. Lombo has never stolen more than 20 bases in a season, majors or minors. Kobernus has 20 stolen bases so far this year. And 41 last year. And 53 the year before. The Book says stolen base threats are best utilized in front of singles hitters and Denard Span is a singles hitter. Hitting a freshly called up rookie making his Big League debut ninth is not nearly the slight that hitting a guy last with a history of 20 homers would be. It would take a lot of pressure off the kid and allow him to cause a little raucous on the base paths as the top of the order is at the plate. A legitimate threat to steal a base is something the Nats have long lacked.
9. Kobernus – 139 career SBs in 332 milb games (as of 5/20/13) / .356 ’13 milb wOBA
In addition to DLing Espinosa and calling up Kobernus, I would call up Chris Marrero when Maya gets sent away. Maya was only called up to be a lefty long man until Zach Duke is ready to pitch again. Instead of calling up Perez again, Marrero should be the move to provide the big right-handed bat off the bench now that I’ve given the everyday job to Moore. He can also spell LaRoche at first. Perez is only really useful as a defensive specialist and pinch runner. Bernadina and either Lombo or Kobernus can fill those roles. It’s more important to have a power threat ready off the bench – especially if you hit the pitcher 8th and are getting to your pinch-hitting spot earlier. Marrero and Tracy would give Davey the options he needs to dictate late inning offensive match-ups.
The offseason addition of Rafael Soriano seemed like Rizzo was adding to a strength. Yet, adding a new closer forced everyone else to move to a new role and so far, the results are mixed. Storen looks good one day and lost the next. Clippard is being used about 10% less so far this year than last and as a result is not as effective. Stammen has also been inconsistant as he has bounced from a long- to short- to back to long-relieving and Henry Rodriguez has been, well, Henry Rodriguez. Mattheus’s act of idiocy provides Fernando Abad a chance to be this year’s Michael Gonzalez. If he fails I say trade for the real article. JC Romero and Bill Bray are both on the DL in the minors so no left-handed relief help is on the way.
I would also have Storen and Stammen switch roles. My ulterior motive is to eventually get Storen into a rotation, and making him the long man begins that process. He could begin pitching 2, then 3 innings at a time, on a regular intervals. This could pave the way for an offseason transition to the rotation while not impacting the Major League squad much in the short term. Stammen is very similar to Storen, in that they both throw multiple pitches. But unlike Storen, only Stammen’s slider is a ‘plus’ pitch which means he’s more of the traditional two-pitch reliever. I think promoting him to the 7th inning, with Clippard as the 8th inning guy, will take advantage of his wipe-out slider, limit the looks the opposition has of him, and help solidify the roles for everyone else.
And then there’s HRod. The guy has as good as ‘stuff’ as anyone on the staff up to and including Stephen Strasburg. His ERA is under 4, but his FIP is a lot higher and his K/9 is pathetic this year. For all his warts, HRod has always been a strikeout-an-inning guy. He has a career K/9 of 9.42. This year it’s only 6.14. That’s a huge drop off. That’s the kind of drop off that gets one Designated For Assignment. Rizzo added Erik Davis to the 40-man roster to protect from losing him to the Rule 5 draft. The best types of Rule 5 guys are relievers will lots of strikeouts who can be hid as middle relievers. That also pretty much sums up HRod’s job description. Why not use that roster spot on a guy with a future instead of on a guy who may or may not kill someone every time out? Let someone else shrink Henry’s head. Besides, Davis is wearing goggles in his team picture. That’s good enough for me.
So my roster would look like this:
- Span (CF)
- Zimmerman (3B)
- LaRoche (1B)
- Harper (RF)
- Desmond (SS)
- Suzuki (C)
- Moore (LF)
- Kobernus (2B)
- Erik Davis
This batting order would allow a struggling offense to maximize every opportunity, while creating some new opportunities to turn the lineup over. Losing HRod in favor of Erik Davis would give Davey another useful arm he’s not (as) afraid of using so that he can better manage the rest of the guys. The return of Chris Marrero, who is currently slugging .506 with 8 homers in Syracuse, would make the Goon Squad Goonier. All in all, I think these moves represent an appropriate reaction to the current listless play. At best, the Nats begin playing with machine-like efficiency causing Brian Kinney’s head to explode with glee. At worst, we can all feel like something is being done to address this unacceptable mediocrity.
What the hell, I say. Fill the 2 hole with Zim, the 9 spot with a Road-Running rookie and for the love of all things holy STOP HITTING SUZUKI 8TH! I’ll miss Henry Rodriguez and his breath-taking antics. But winning is pretty fickin’ bueno too.
Ed Note: I followed up with Court on his thoughts regarding how the lineup would look with Wilson Ramos and/or Jayson Werth healthy and back in the lineup. I’ve added his notes below-but please excuse the abruptness as it wasn’t a fully fleshed out idea.