With the Washington Nationals three games into the second half, what should their optimal lineup be going forward?
Dusty Baker possesses countless excellent qualities. He is fun-loving, lighthearted, and cool. He cracks jokes with the media before games. Baker commands respect from everyone across baseball. For the second straight season, he has this Washington Nationals team cruising through the NL East towards the postseason. However, Baker does have one flaw that jumps out in particular – his lineup construction.
The Washington Nationals injury problems have robbed the lineup of its depth, but that means Baker has to be even smarter about his choices. Right now, this is what the Nats are currently trotting out on a daily basis (factoring in injuries to Adam Eaton, Jayson Werth, Trea Turner, and Michael Taylor):
Baker is committing some serial lineup mismanagement here. Difo should never be hitting second. At best, he is merely a league-average bat. At worst, he is not a major league player. In the old-school sense of a two-hitter – someone who should be able to handle the bat and advance the runner for the big bats behind him – Difo fails to make the cut.
The two-hole is arguably the most important spot in the lineup. Look at the Angels for example, where Mike Trout has hit second more than any other spot in his career.
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I like to see a manager slot his best hitter right behind the leadoff batter. In 2016, the Washington Nationals sent their two-hole hitter to the plate a total of 742 times. Meanwhile, the Nats’ three-hitter received just 716 plate appearances. Imagine what Harper could do with 20-30 more plate appearances per season, while still receiving plenty of at-bats with men on-base.
It is also high time for Baker to flip Rendon and Zimmerman. Both have totaled similar stat lines for the entire season. While Zimmerman’s 2017 numbers have been buoyed by his torrid April, Rendon has been on a steady climb all season long. Since the beginning of May, Rendon owns a 1.104 OPS, while Zimmerman’s is just .792 (which is still useful).
Last month, MASN’s Mark Zuckerberg wrote about possible lineup changes following Turner’s wrist injury, which included a quote from Baker:
"“I mean, [Rendon’s] been our clutch man, our RBI man. You’ve got to have somebody in that RBI spot, cause that’s the one thing we’re missing. We’re scoring a lot of runs, but we’re still leaving a lot of runners out there, and he’s one of the main guys…”"
There are a couple things wrong with that statement. First of all, Rendon has been just as good with the bases empty as he has with runners on, if not a little better (.971 OPS with no one on, .964 OPS with someone aboard). Also, if Baker sandwiches Rendon between Harper and Murphy, then Murphy becomes the so-called “RBI man,” a position for which he is clearly qualified.
Here is what I would like the Nationals lineup to look like (until the injured players return):
By stacking Harper, Rendon, and Murphy, and moving the dynamic trio closer to the top of the order, Baker guarantees more at-bats for his best hitters, who are still backed by the solid Zimmerman.
Once the playoffs roll around and Turner, Werth, and Taylor are all back in the fold, the ideal lineup would look like this:
There is so much fire power here. Turner possesses wicked speed and surprising pop. Harper, Rendon, and Murphy are three of the best hitters in the National League. Zimmerman and Taylor can pair their slugging skills nicely with Werth’s on-base ability. Wieters is passable at the plate for a catcher.
Baker clearly does not have to overthink the lineup. The Washington Nationals have the best offense in the National League and are scoring over 5.5 runs per contest. Once the playoffs roll around, the Nats should have six or seven dangerous bats at their disposal. By making these lineup changes, Baker might be improving Washington’s chances by just a few percent.
But that few percent matters in the postseason and we’ve seen the Nationals come out on the losing side of the equation in 2012, ’14, and ’16. Playoff baseball is synonymous with small sample size; the right lineup adjustment could make or break their season.