The 2014 edition of the Washington Nationals doesn’t have too many roster question marks – the 5th starter, the last bullpen spot, the backup catcher and the last bench spot. All of those questions marks are on the margins, the bulk of the heavy lifting will be done by known commodities. Ramos will be the catcher, LaRoche-Rendon-Desmond-Zim across and the infield and Harper-Span-Werth in the outfield. In the rough-and-tumble world of Major League Baseball, the difference between a pennant and missing the playoffs could come down to a couple of runs here or there.
The Book rated each spot in the lineup by how costly making an out is and came up with the following order of importance: #1, #4, #2, #5, #3, #6, #7, #8, #9. To quote BtB (again):
“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.”
And here are the Nats’ hitters in order ofwRC+, or weighted Runs Created (which measures how many runs a player compared to the league average. Fangraphs explains it here and Frank compares wRC to wOBA here.) in 2013:
- Werth – 160
- Harper – 137
- Zimmerman – 125
- Desmond – 116
- Ramos – 114
- LaRoche – 103
- Rendon – 100
- Span – 97
The best three hitters on the Nats are pretty clear cut – Werth, Harper and Zim. While Denard Span seems like your typical leadoff man, he’s pretty much the worst choice you can make to hit leadoff. Even if we went on just OBA, he’d be 7th – ahead of only Ramos. Lineup optimization is all about taking advantage of your lineup to score more runs than expected. Last year, the Nats were 14th in baseball with a REW of 1.70 and a RE24 of only 12.69. That means the Nats only scored about 13 more runs than they should have over the course of the entire season, which only translated to 1.7 extra wins. The World Series Champion Red Sox lead baseball with a RE24 of 140.10 and a REW of 14.42. The Braves had a REW of 7.98 (68.47 RE24) to lead the NL East. So it’s not hard to draw a straight line from RE24/REW (RE24 counts runs and REW converts those to wins) to on-field success. Perhaps using a lineup inspired by The Book will help the Nats take better advantage of game situations.
If not Span, then who should hit leadoff? The Book says to hit the highest OBP guy first unless he’s also the best SLG guy. The Nats have the interesting situation of having three guys who are the top three in both categories. Zim’s SLG was the lowest of the three but so was his OBP. Werth led the team in SLG but was only .002 ISO points ahead of Harper, meaning their power was pretty much identical. But Werth’s OBP was .030 points higher at .398 so he’s the best option to hit leadoff. (Just like 2012, and that worked out okay). Harper certainly has the power to hit cleanup so that’s where he should go, which leaves Zim in the 2-hole since he’s the third best hitter and that the third best spot.
Next comes the 4th and 5th best hitters for the #5 and #3 spots. Ian Desmond and Wilson Ramos are clearly the next two top hitters. Anthony Rendon will hopefully enter this equation, but Ramos’s track record puts him ahead for now. The Book tells us that the #3 hitter comes to bat with the bases empty a lot which means two things – it’s a less important spot than #5 and you want to go with the guy with more home run power in the 3-spot since homers create runs with nobody on. Desmond had a higher wRC+ and wOBA, but Ramos had the higher SLG and 16 HRs in 303 plate-appearances compared to 20 HRs in in 655 PAs for Desi. So Ramos should be the #3 hitter and Desmond should hit 5th.
The bottom of the order follows conventional wisdom with a couple caveats – basestealers should hit ahead of singles hitters and hitting the pitcher 8th makes sense in the National League. From BtB:
“Yes, giving an awful hitter more plate appearances by hitting him higher in the lineup is costly, but the benefit of having a better number nine hitter interacting with the top of the lineup is worth the trade-off, by about two runs per season.”
With Werth leading off, it’s even more important to have a real hitter hitting 9th which makes the Nats the ideal team to implement this strategy on a regular basis. Span is the only base-stealer left, and he’s not that much worse than the other guys, so he should hit 6th. LaRoche and Rendon were fairly even last year, but again, Rendon is on the right side of the aging curve so I’m going to give him the advantage and hit him 7th. That leaves LaRoche hitting 9th behind the pitcher.
So that gives us a batting order of:
- Werth – best OBP, best hitter in ’13 but due for regression
- Zim – 3rd best hitter
- Ramos – 5th best hitter, 1 HR every 19 PAs
- Harper – 2nd best hitter in ’13, will probably be the best in ’14
- Desmond – 4th best hitter
- Span – best base-stealer
- Rendon – should improve on ’13
- pitcher – might only hit twice before a PH, allows a better hitter to turn over lineup
- LaRoche – provides legitimate hitter to hit in front of Werth, might continue to regress
I’ll give you a moment to wipe the tear from your eye… Ok, that should do it.
This lineup slots the three best hitters in the three best slots, provides a solid home run threat in the 3-spot, a base-stealer in the 6-hole and even alternates handedness. This lineup does not waste outs at the top of the order and puts a real hitter in front of our leadoff hitter since leadoff hitters only really lead off once. This lineup, while disorienting at first, has the potential to put pressure on the opponent on a nightly basis by starting the game with two of the best three hitters.
I assume Frank will just lay down and agree with all of this but you know what assuming does to Uma Thurman. Your move, Frank.