Dusty Baker’s lineup construction might need some new blueprints

When Bryce Harper departed DC after the 2015 season ended, he let Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo know exactly what he expected in the off-season.

“The one thing we definitely need is another lefthanded bat and hopefully a HUGE righthanded bat to hit behind me or in front of me,” Bryce Harper said. “If we can do that, that would definitely help us out and put us up to the top.”

Bryce got one wish granted. He actually got an impact lefthanded bat in Daniel Murphy. Bryce did not get a new HUGE righthanded bat and as we surmised, Rizzo wasn’t going to replace Jayson Werth or for that matter Ryan Zimmerman, and here we are in a situation where the righthanded batter (Zimmerman) behind Bryce Harper ranks as the 26th worst in OPS out of the 30 MLB teams at a .234 BA and a  .624 OBP. In front of Bryce Harper, that righty is hard luck Anthony Rendon who puts the ball in play and he is batting .229 with a .556 OPS for 28th worse in the Majors.

Two spots in front of Harper could be the biggest problem perhaps. Michael Taylor ranks as the worst leadoff man in baseball which has the Nats ranked last in the MLB and Anthony Rendon cannot seem to bat with men on base and is batting .229 overall. Jayson Werth has shown once again last year that he can be extremely effective in the front of the lineup as he hit .318 last year with a .388 OBP and has been very effective in front of Bryce Harper in the past.

Is this a cause and effect situation where Taylor was put in a spot with a high probability of failure because of his free swinging style and propensity for the strikeouts while yielding a low batter pitch count? Taylor has tried at times to conform to a lead-off man’s approach. Taylor came off of a hot Spring Training ranked either 1st or 2nd in the Majors with Nolan Arenado atop the stats sheets. Unfortunately those Spring Training stats did not get reflected into Taylor’s stats so far and perhaps that was due to being placed in that lead-off spot which changed his approach.

Coaches are supposed to put their players in their best spots to succeed. Is this a case where a good player was put in the wrong spot or is this just who Michael Taylor is and he is regressing back to the mean? If you look at Taylor’s 2015 season, he was even better than what we are seeing now. Interestingly, if you remove the failed experiment of 31 games in leadoff last year for Taylor where he batted just .201, you will see that Taylor was actually a .241 hitter overall in 2015 in all other spots combined and that is a serviceable number. Was Dusty not aware that Taylor was not good in the leadoff in 2015? On the other hand, Jayson Werth was much better and one of the best in the Majors in the leadoff in 2015 as Werth slashed an impressive .318/.388/.580/.967

Taylor is now batting .192 and has an OBP just over .200 while the NL average OBP for leadoff men is over .355 if you removed the Nats as they are weighing down the average:

leadoff stats

Dusty last night told the media he is not going to change the line-up. Will a good night’s sleep get him to change his mind? Can you really keep a struggling Ryan Zimmerman behind Bryce Harper? Dusty Baker has options.

Rian Watt of Baseball Prospectus got access to the Nationals on Sunday and interviewed players and stayed for the game and saw an improbable win after Baker left Strasburg in too long and he gave up a 3 run HR to his final batter of the day.

Watt had these thoughts:

I see two themes emerging here. First, that he believes in his guys, and that they know he believes in them. That came up constantly. It’s not like Baker is the only one doing this—playing loose and playing free of fear is something Joe Maddon, for example, talks about all the time, but Maddon gets credit in our community for doing it. Surely Dusty deserves that same credit for instilling in his players a willingess willingness to stretch themselves without fear of reprisal.

The second theme is a sense of personal loyalty to his players that sometimes overrides tactical concerns. If you were feeling charitable, you might call such an approach strategy over tactics. In post-game comments, Dusty mentioned that he left Strasburg in so that he could get a pitcher win—he didn’t want the young man’s efforts “going to waste,” and that he took Harper out, despite the game going to extras, because he’d promised his star the day off, and didn’t want to renege on that promise. This is the sort of thing that makes some heads spin. But it speaks to loyalty, the players notice, and I’m sure it puts them in a position to play better for their manager later on. Players want to play for Dusty. That seems to be a fact. And games like that which happened on Sunday are part of the reason why.

A thousand different times, Dusty Baker has made tactical decisions that teeter on the border between the bizarre and the just plain stupid. Those things, which are well within the remit of what we write about, pretty clearly cost his team runs and therefore wins. I’m not here to argue that point one little bit. What is equally clear to me, though, is that Baker does things in the clubhouse—in the subtle crevices and nuances of personal relationships, respect, and loyalty—that earn him extraordinary devotion from his players. He is, fundamentally, a people person.

I cannot imagine that that trait does not have a positive impact on the bottom line win totals for his teams. Is the positive impact he engenders negated by the tactical confusion he also creates? Possibly. Would it be better if Baker were both a players’ manager and a tactical wizard? Definitely. For now, though, my working hypothesis is that Baker has found, through years of experience, that he can’t always be both, and when he can’t, he sides with the players. We don’t like that choice because we can’t fully understand the benefits he’s seeing. But the players can, and they tell us they’re real. In the absence of further evidence, that’s meaningful to me.

Many comments on Talk Nats seem to center around the 4 players current hitting under the Mendoza level in Michael Taylor, Jayson Werth, Danny Espinosa and Jose Lobaton. Again, line-up construction is a key sometimes to a player’s success. Can you move Werth forward in the order and Taylor back to get them in line-up spots that improve their batting. It is worth trying it. Even Bill Ladson thinks so.

This seems 18 games past due on that library book Mr. Ladson. Certain players thrive in certain spots in the batting order. That is just the way it is, and while it might defy logic, explain that one to Tony LaRussa as he tinkered with line-up construction like he was building a miniature model airplane.

Here is Dusty Baker’s response, to changing the line-up:

“I don’t know, I think we’re 14-6. You don’t start moving guys yet. If you move too many guys around … if you shake up the basket and there isn’t nothing happening in the basket and you shake it up, there still ain’t nothing happening. It don’t really matter where you’re hitting if you’re not hitting. And everybody can’t hit in front of Harper. And some of the guys hitting in front of Harper still aren’t hitting. Plus, believe it or not, hitting is not that easy.”

Can someone inform Dusty Baker that he has the 2 best hitters in the Major Leagues in that basket—-their names are Harper and Murphy. In addition Wilson Ramos has started off strong and could be poised for a special season.

The issue with poor line-up construction is that the weakest link can snap the chain, and opposing mangers know that. You don’t want to see an opposing manager exploit Bryce Harper. The Nats travel next week to face the Cubs. Joe Maddon will exploit a weak link. He has done it before.  Dusty, check the blueprints for weak construction.

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