While we wait (and wait, and wait…) for more hot stove action from our Washington Nationals, one of the things we can speculate about for the coming season is what the starting lineup will look like. Yes, we know the players it will include at this point, but we don’t know in what order they’ll appear.
I’m going to lay out a few scenarios, but first, let’s take a look at our dramatis personae.
Ryan Zimmerman, entering his age-32 season, is the Nats’ presumptive starting first baseman. That is a role Zimmerman has held since 2015, when he took over the position from Adam LaRoche after spending most of his career to that point as a third baseman. Zimmerman bats from the right side. He has never been regarded as much of a threat on the basepaths, with his season record for stolen bases at 11 – accompanied by 8 times caught stealing – back in 2006. During his best seasons, his calling card was always his ability to hit for both power and average. However, in recent years, Zimmerman has struggled to stay on the field, and his decline over the past two seasons in particular has come after the shoulder surgery that forced him to move from third to first base.
Daniel Murphy, entering his age-32 season, is the Nats’ presumptive starting second baseman. After beginning his career as a first baseman and corner outfielder, Murphy was converted to primarily playing second base by 2012. Murphy bats from the left side. A serious threat to steal earlier in his career (he swiped 23 bags and was caught just 3 times in 2013), running has become much less a part of his game in recent seasons. Known for most of his career as a consistent singles and doubles hitter without much home run power, Murphy appeared to turn a corner midway through his 2015 season with the New York Mets after moving closer to the plate and tweaking his swing mechanics, and he crushed both a career-high 25 homers last season and a league-leading 47 doubles en route to a second-place showing in the voting for National League Most Valuable Player of the Year.
Anthony Rendon, entering his age-27 season, is the Nats’ presumptive starting third baseman. Although he saw most of his playing time at second base in 2013 and 2015, Rendon was the starting third baseman for most of 2014 and played at third exclusively in 2016. Rendon bats from the right side. Sometimes referred to during his formative years in the Nationals organization as a five-tool prospect, Rendon is not an exceptional base-stealer, with a career-high 17 steals to 3 times caught stealing in 2014 but a dismal 6 caught to 12 steals in 2016. He is known as a doubles hitter with home run power, with 38 doubles and 20 home runs in 2016 – close enough to the 39 doubles and 21 homers he hit in 2014 to be recognized as the National League Comeback Player of the Year after a poor and injury-shortened 2015 season.
Trea Turner, entering his age-24 season, is the Nats’ presumptive starting shortstop. A rookie last season, Turner primarily played center field, also seeing significant time as a second baseman, although he was developed by both the Nats and the San Diego Padres (who drafted him) as a shortstop. Turner bats from the right side. One of the fastest players in Major League Baseball, he stole 33 bases in just 73 games at the major league level in 2016 and was caught 6 times. While not regarded as a power hitter in the minor leagues, he demonstrated both excellent contact skills and surprising home run power in his 2016 campaign, homering 13 times for the Nats in 307 at-bats, in which he placed second in National League Rookie of the Year voting.
Jayson Werth, entering his age-38 season, is the Nats’ presumptive starting left fielder. Primarily a corner outfielder throughout his career, Werth switched full-time to left field beginning in 2015 after playing mostly in right field with the Philadelphia Phillies and earlier seasons with the Nationals. Werth bats from the right side. Although he turned in consecutive 20/20 seasons (that is, 20+ steals and 20+ homers) in 2008 and 2009 with Philadelphia, in the twilight of his playing career, he is no longer regarded as a significant threat to steal. While his offensive ability has declined with age, particularly in terms of his batting average, he remains a potent slugger, whacking 21 home runs in 2016.
Adam Eaton, entering his age-28 season, is the Nats’ presumptive starting center fielder. That is a position Eaton is familiar with, playing mostly in center for his first four seasons in Major League Baseball with the Arizona Diamondbacks and Chicago White Sox, although he spent most of his 2016 campaign in right field. Eaton bats from the left side. With good speed on the basepaths, he has put up double-digit steal totals in each of the past three seasons, although his ratio of successful steals to being caught stealing is not excellent; he stole 18 bases in 2015, his career high, but was gunned down in 8 attempts. While he is not regarded as a power hitter, Eaton has displayed more pop in his past two campaigns, hitting 14 home runs in each season with Chicago, and he led the American League in triples in both 2014 and 2016.
Bryce Harper, entering his age-24 season, is the Nats’ presumptive starting right fielder. In the Nationals’ outfield, right field has been Harper’s regular domain since 2015, although he logged most of his time in center field in his rookie season in 2012 and was primarily a left fielder in 2013 and 2014. Harper bats from the left side. Often considered a five-tool player due to his combination of hitting, speed, fielding, power, and arm strength, he delivered his first 20/20 season in 2016 with 21 stolen bases (in 31 attempts) and 24 home runs. Although by most players’ standards, his 2016 campaign would have been considered a triumph, his numbers dropped off considerably from 2015, when he was unanimously acclaimed as the National League Most Valuable Player of the Year, amid persistent rumors of a neck or shoulder injury.
The Nats are expected to carry two catchers on the active roster, and it is the only position where manager Dusty Baker is expected to deploy some sort of a platoon.
Derek Norris, entering his age-28 season, is one of the catchers the Nats are likely to have on the active roster. He bats from the right side. Jose Lobaton, entering his age-32 season, is the other likely active catcher. He is a switch-hitter but is considered a better hitter batting from the left side. Both have primarily worked behind the plate in their careers, although Norris has some experience as a first baseman with the Padres. Norris is considered fairly speedy for a catcher, stealing 9 bases in 2016 while being caught twice. Lobaton is one of the slowest runners in Major League Baseball and has never stolen a base in his major league career (he has tried twice, unsuccessfully). Norris is a power threat, muscling double-digit home runs in each of the past three seasons, with 14 long balls in both 2015 and 2016, but he was one of the worst hitters in baseball last season due to a very poor batting average and on-base percentage. Lobaton is not well regarded with the bat at all and has yet to reach 10 home runs in a season, with his career high of 7 coming in his 2013 campaign, when he served as the Tampa Bay Rays’ primary catcher, although he outhit Norris on balance in 2016.
Constructing a lineup
To be grossly generalistic, there are two main schools of thought in lineup construction.
The traditional view holds that your #1 hitter, or leadoff hitter, should be a speedster who can get on and steal a base, scoring from first on a double, scoring from second on a single, and antagonizing the opposing pitcher by taking a big lead; your #2 hitter should be someone who can advance the leadoff guy if he gets on base, moving him to second so he can score on a base hit or getting him to third so a sacrifice fly can drive him in, with speed being an added bonus to potentially get two runners into scoring position rather than having runners at the corners; your #3 hitter should be your best all-around offensive player, particularly in terms of his batting average, because you want him to cash in that leadoff man; your #4 hitter, or cleanup hitter, should be your best slugger, a guy who can clear the bases with a home run, since the thinking goes that he will often come to bat with two outs and needs to do maximal damage with one big hit; your #5 hitter should be another slugger who can, again, knock one out of the park if the cleanup hitter extends the inning; and the remaining four spots in the lineup are basically your least effective hitters, organized by descending ability (with your worst hitter – usually your pitcher, in the National League – batting ninth). Traditionalists also often value alternating, or at least splitting up, right- and left-handed hitters to foil opposing managers who might deploy bullpen specialists in later innings to get through blocs of tough batters from one side or the other.
The sabermetric view holds that your leadoff man should be someone who can get on base, period, with speed as a nice bonus for the same reason it is in the traditional view but secondary to the overall goal of having someone on for the next batters in the lineup to drive in; your #2 guy should be your best overall hitter, with the philosophy being that he will see nearly as many plate appearances over the course of a full season as your leadoff guy, so it makes the most sense for the guy with the best offensive numbers to come to bat more often than the rest of your lineup; your #3 hitter isn’t all that important, since he will come to bat without runners on base more often than other guys in the lineup, although he should still be a solid all-around offensive player because he will generally get the third-most plate appearances, and power helps because a solo shot is almost as good as a run-scoring single; your cleanup guy should be your best power hitter, with the thinking being similar to the traditional view in that he will often come to bat in key situations where he can drive in more than one run with a big hit; your #5 hitter should probably be your third- or fourth-best overall hitter on the team, better than the guy in the three-spot, once again because of situational hitting making him more valuable than that guy in games; your #6 hitter should be a speed guy if possible, someone who can steal bases or take an extra base on a hit, definitely a smart baserunner who won’t run into a needless out; and then your remaining three spots are, as in the traditional view, for your worst hitters in descending order of ineffectiveness, although some sabermetricians like to flip the book and bat the pitcher eighth in non-DH leagues, thinking that having a #9 hitter who can reach base more often gives the top of the lineup one more guy to potentially drive in. Keeping a left-right-left-right pattern is seen more as a bonus than a requirement by most sabermetric thinkers, who often prefer to simply platoon players who are especially poor at hitting against pitchers who throw from a certain side.
Let’s be real here: Dusty Baker is a traditionalist’s traditionalist. This is the man who batted strikeout machine Michael A. Taylor (career .281 OBP) in the leadoff spot for weeks in 2016 because he was distracted by Taylor’s foot speed and home run power. He has been around the game for longer than any other manager in Major League Baseball. He isn’t likely to suddenly become a discipline of Bill James and begin taking a sabermetric approach to lineup construction in his 22nd season as a baseball manager.
But it’s hot stove season, so what the heck. Let’s slice and dice the starting lineup both ways.
Traditional lineup construction
If your philosophy is that speed is the alpha and the omega for the leadoff spot in the order, there is only one choice for the job: Trea Turner. The shortstop might be the fastest player in the major leagues, and he rocketed up the leaderboard to finish tied for seventh in steals despite playing less than half a full season. The guy gives pitchers fits. It doesn’t hurt that he has enough power to occasionally drive himself in.
Someone who can advance the runner looks great for the second spot, and speed being a bonus, there are two good options here: Anthony Rendon and Adam Eaton. Both have nice, solid batting averages, the ability to hit for extra bases, and the raw speed to swipe a base (with it being less devastating than for a leadoff hitter if they get thrown out at second with a runner already on third, or so the thinking goes – at least it takes the double play out of order). Alternating right- with left-handed batters is a goal, but neither Rendon nor Eaton were particularly troubled by having a platoon disadvantage in 2016. Either would work, but for the sake of the rest of the lineup, we’ll put Rendon here.
No one on the team hit better last season than Daniel Murphy, so he makes the most sense for the third spot in the order. He can hit for both average and power, so if he can drive in a couple of runs with a single, that’s great; he led the league in doubles last year, maybe reducing the pressure on the two-hole hitter if he reaches base to go for second; and with his power, he’ll sometimes be plating three runs with one swing of the bat. He hits from the left side, so in mid- and late-game situations, managers who would rather throw a lefty at him might choose to dig into their bullpen rather than tempt fate against the 1.010 OPS he put up against right-handed pitching in 2016 by keeping the right-hander they might have used against Turner and Rendon in the game.
His enigmatic 2016 season notwithstanding, Bryce Harper is the one and only National who truly has eye-popping power. He is the obvious choice for the cleanup spot, with a boomstick that has collected 121 home runs and 334 runs batted in over five major league seasons. The downside to batting him behind Murphy is that it stacks two lefties in the lineup, but in 2016, his slugging percentage suffered by just four-hundredths when facing left-handed pitching (.442 versus right-handers, .438 versus left-handers). For a traditional cleanup hitter, that is a number you love to see. He’ll do just fine here in our traditional lineup.
If your five-hole is meant for a guy who wants to be a cleanup hitter, as is often said, you could do much worse on the Nationals than Jayson Werth. Even as the rest of his offensive stats have declined, his isolated power numbers remain very high, suggesting that his greatest value to the Washington offense will continue to come with home runs. He is also a famously patient hitter who will wear out opposing hitters, giving him utility beyond just swatting long balls out of the fifth spot in the lineup. There are competing philosophies that would prefer to bat the guy who isn’t hitting second in this hole, but for a traditionalist, Werth is the way to go. The only other real candidates here, based on their power numbers, might be Ryan Zimmerman and Derek Norris, but their dreadful offensive seasons last year have ticketed them for less important spots in the lineup.
It seems cruel to relegate a guy you got for trading three of your best pitching prospects to the less heralded last four spots in the lineup, but then again, Dusty isn’t the general manager. After missing out on batting second, Eaton is the logical choice to bat sixth. He is the best of the rest, for one, and for another, he provides a left-batting presence to alternate with Werth, a right-handed hitter. He shortens the bottom of the order by really extending the heart of the order, since he is an above-average offensive player who can both drive in runs toward the end of an inning or start an inning off in a big way with an extra-base hit.
The seventh and eighth spots in the order are mostly interchangeable between Zimmerman and your catcher, either Norris or Jose Lobaton. But there is a compelling reason to put Zimmerman in the seventh spot and bat either catcher eighth. With Norris in the lineup, he provides some unexpected speed that might make a pitcher regret putting him on ahead of the ninth-hole hitter, who is going to be a pitcher or bench player depending on the stage of the game. Zimmerman has no speed to speak of at this stage in his career, making even the prospect of sacrifice-bunting him over to second base somewhat dicey. And with Lobaton in the lineup, you just don’t have any compelling reason to bat him higher than eighth; he did turn in a higher OPS over a smaller sample size of plate appearances than Zimmerman in 2016, but historically, his isolated power numbers have been very low. If Zimmerman is really going to be a worse hitter over the course of a full season than Lobaton for the second year in a row, then he probably shouldn’t be playing a full season. And lastly, Lobaton is usually going to be playing in situations where he is batting from the left side, so putting him eighth allows the right-batting Zimmerman to separate two lefties in the order.
So, here’s your everyday traditional Washington Nationals lineup for 2017:
Sabermetric lineup construction
If you make on-base percentage your lodestar for batting in the leadoff spot, all other things considered, you really have two options on this Washington Nationals team: Trea Turner and Adam Eaton. Eaton has had a ridiculously consistent OBP in his career, as his stats table above shows, and his .362 OBP stacks up comparably to the .370 OBP that Turner posted while tearing up the league in the second half of 2016. Seeing as that Turner’s major league stats are markedly higher than his minor league stats, it seems reasonable to expect some regression from the youngster as the league adjusts and his bonkers .388 BABIP, or batting average on balls in play, comes down to Earth (league average is usually around .300). But even if you call it a draw, Turner’s superior baserunning skills and instincts win out here. Eaton has a strong argument to lead off in a sabermetrically constructed lineup, but Turner is the better candidate until proven otherwise.
There is still some good sense to batting Eaton behind Turner in the sabermetric view, prizing Eaton’s remarkably consistent offensive numbers over the single-season incandescence of Daniel Murphy in 2016 and Bryce Harper in 2015. But if you are putting your best overall hitter in the two-hole, as sabermetricians recommend, it’s hard to argue with a straight face that Eaton is the best hitter on the team. As the runner-up for MVP last season and certainly the team MVP, Murphy belongs here, where he can appear more times at bat than anyone on the team except for Turner leading off and thereby do the most damage with his incredible offensive numbers. Like Turner, Murphy is a regression candidate, but as Harper demonstrated from 2015 to 2016, even a huge regression results in pretty darn good stats when your starting point is that high.
While the third spot in the lineup is considered the most valuable piece of real estate by traditionalists, sabermetricians don’t think it’s all that great. Eaton, who found himself batting sixth in our traditional lineup, is not a bad candidate at all to hit third in a sabermetric lineup. His main “competition” for this spot is, once again, Anthony Rendon – as the two profile very similarly as offensive players, albeit with Eaton swinging the bat from the left side and Rendon batting right-handed. Splitting up right- and left-handed hitters isn’t considered as important in sabermetrics as it is to many traditionalists, but as a tiebreaker, it gives Rendon the edge here. Rendon also hits for slightly more power, a nod to the traditional perspective that your three-hole hitter should be a guy who can deliver the long ball on a regular basis.
Harper makes the most sense in the cleanup role for the same reason he does in the traditionalist’s book: When he’s locked in, he can hit the stuffing out of a baseball and drive in runs like nobody’s business. If he can overcome whatever was sapping his ability in 2016 and bounce back with a strong offensive season (Steamer is projecting him for a .286/.413/.532 triple slash, a heavenly line for a four-hole hitter), he could again be one of the most valuable players in baseball hitting from this spot in the order.
The #5 hitter is supposed to basically be the best offensive player you couldn’t plug into the first, second, or fourth spots in the lineup, in the sabermetric view. There are really two remaining options here: Jayson Werth, who had this job in the traditional lineup thanks to his durable ISO, and Eaton. At this stage in their respective careers, Eaton is clearly the superior all-around hitter. While he lacks Werth’s power, and his speed makes a lot of sense for the six-hole in sabermetric thinking, he is the kind of on-base and extra-base-hitting machine that could have worked well in any of the first three spots in the lineup, and it makes sense to give him what sabermetricians consider to be the third- or fourth-most important job among starting hitters. He can drive in a lot of runs from the five-hole.
Just as Eaton defaulted to the sixth spot in the order in our traditional lineup, Werth defaults there in the sabermetric lineup. He was a roughly league-average hitter in 2016, and further age-related decline would surprise no one as he enters what could be his final season as a major league ballplayer. But where Werth shines is as a canny veteran. He is one of the Nats’ best baserunners, despite his diminished speed, because he knows when he can take an extra base on a hit and when he needs to stay put. He is good at working the count and seeing a lot of pitches, as exemplified by his double-digit walk rate and strikeout rate in the low 20s – that is the product of getting to a lot of 2-2 and full counts. Even though his ability to hit for average has fallen considerably from his best years, he remains a valuable piece of the Nats’ offense because of those factors, which are hard even for statheads to quantify.
Once again, the seventh and eighth spots in the order are virtually interchangeable, with some combination of three below-average hitters (Ryan Zimmerman, Derek Norris, and Jose Lobaton) set to fill them on most days. There is no real reason to break from the way the traditional lineup was built, although it’s worth considering whether to bat a pitcher eighth. With Zimmerman and Lobaton’s very poor footspeed, bunting them into scoring position is something a manager tries at his own risk (and many sabermetric managers eschew bunting altogether), but that approach could work better with Norris. Unfortunately, Zimmerman was dreadful with runners in scoring position in 2016 (batting .179 with a .583 OPS), and while that was unusual in the context of his career, it doesn’t provide much reason to shake things up by batting him ninth and expecting him to drive in the catcher. Given the players the Nats have on their roster, batting the pitcher eighth is not sensible.
Here is our 2017 sabermetric lineup:
A parting word
Although speculating and arguing about lineup construction is a fun and longstanding pastime for fans, most baseball scholars agree that it is not all that important to the game.
Dusty Baker could come out with a traditional lineup, similar or identical to the one I have posited here, that the sabermetricians among us bemoan (“Werth in the five-hole!? He’s an average hitter at best, and right-handers kill him!”). He could, if he is spending the off-season listening religiously to Baseball Prospectus podcasts and devouring the collected works of Bill James and Tom Tango, experiment with a sabermetrically optimized lineup, similar or identical to the lineup above, that drives our traditionalists a little crazy (“You can’t bat Murphy second! Three-run home runs are always better than two-run shots!”). But the fact is that the sabermetric research suggests that a perfectly built lineup might be worth one win over an average or poorly constructed lineup – at most.
That means that however Dusty builds the lineup, it will probably matter just as much or more to the Nats’ fortunes how the next relief pitcher or bench player that general manager Mike Rizzo adds to the roster ends up performing over the course of the season.