When Spring Training started, we all envisioned Bryce Harper as the clear favorite to lead the Washington Nationals in positional WAR. With Harper’s defense slacking and dragging down his metrics — Trea Turner this morning has grabbed the lead on Fangraph’s WAR ratings in almost a statistical tie with Harper — but that is not the shocker — it is the #3 and #4 positional WAR leaders for this team. The names attached to those two spots are players who started the season as bench depth and they are Wilmer Difo and Matt Adams.
When Matt Adams starts, the team is on a 95+ win pace which is just the beginning of the story. When Difo starts, the team is an incredible 15-and-9. How is that possible? That is a 101+ pace. Difo brings some intangibles to this line-up. Batting him in the back of the line-up has turned into a new level of genius.
Adams would have a much higher WAR but has taken one for the team playing in left field where Fangraphs rates him as a big negative compared to playing at first base where ‘Big City’ is a +0.8 UZR. Sure, he made that amazing catch robbing a home run over the weekend, but Adams is a natural first baseman.
There is that ole saying about coaches must put players in their best situations to succeed. The Nationals have a good problem to have. They have to find spots for Wilmer Difo and Matt Adams as players return to the line-up.
Should Wilmer Difo be the new left fielder and Matt Adams the new first baseman. Yes, it is almost blasphemous to suggest putting Ryan Zimmerman on the bench — but the stats tell you that Matt Adams is well ahead of Zimmerman’s pace of last year when he was a +3.3 WAR in 576 plate appearances. Maybe the solution is not as complicated as it looks. Zimmerman is clobbering lefties at a .290 batting average this season compared to batting a horrific .156 against righties this season. Maybe the solution is the sum of the parts being better than the whole where you bat Adams and Zim in a platoon.
Davey Martinez comes from a system where Joe Maddon had similar problems. Every manager has. How you handle the situation is called making the tough decision. The great managers usually know what to do even if the player was a World Series hero like the player Maddon had to platoon the following season.
“I can’t avoid it. I’m saying I’m going to do [a platoon] until I feel good about him because I don’t want to lay too many at-bats on him in a negative situation,” Joe Maddon said about a struggling player when Dave Martinez was his bench coach. “… I’m just trying to pick his spots right now to get him going.”
Maddon didn’t say a word about the player’s average Exit Velocity (mph) which was near 91mph. Sure, everyone seems to espouse the virtues of exit velo for Ryan Zimmerman like it is the cure-all. The player in 2nd place this season in average exit velo is Jorge Alfaro who the Nats just faced this weekend. Yah, he’s hitting .211. The player in 3rd place in average exit velo is Houston’s Derek Fisher. He is hitting .179. Exit velo isn’t all that it is cracked up to be. Maddon’s player’s results were not there, and he just was not hitting well but very close to Zimmerman. The unnamed player was slashing .188/.312/.361/.673 the day he was platooned a year ago at almost the same point of the season. On this season, Zimmerman’s OBP and OPS is below that at .194/.256/.398/.655.
“Exit velocity means almost nothing when not paired with launch angle,” Casey Boguslaw told me as he is one of the gurus on barreling up baseballs in his writings in the The Medium. “If you’re hitting it hard to the same place every time you’re useless. The hardest hit ball so far this season is 118.3 mph (!) by Carlos Gonzalez – was simply a groundout. It had a -16° launch angle.”
By putting Matt Adams at 1st base, that opens up left field for Wilmer Difo so you have created spots for both players.
“His composure at the plate is very relaxed,” Jeff Messer said to us about Matt Adams who played for him in college. “A very fluid swing. He doesn’t have to muscle the ball to get it to go a long way. The ball just sounds different off of his bat.”
Once you get Difo and Adams situated, it should be time to talk about the catcher and centerfield positions, but that is a story for another day.
WAR is a cumulative statistic. Can you interpolate and extrapolate some stats to valuate what we are seeing? Adam Eaton is probably the team’s most valuable player for what we saw by the way. When Eaton and Daniel Murphy return, manager Dave Martinez will have to find even more spots for his displaced players who have held down the fort.