Washington Nationals: Potential Batting Order Changes in 2020

Washington Nationals (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Washington Nationals (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images) /

Trea Turner and Victor Robles look to increase their offensive production while in new places in the Washington Nationals lineup

One of the keys to the Washington Nationals 2020 season will be compensating for the offensive production that was lost when Anthony Rendon departed the Nationals in free agency. Davey Martinez will be searching for innovative ways to enhance the Nationals offense, which will likely lead to the creation of lineups and substitutions unlike what fans have seen in previous seasons.

One idea that has been floated, is moving Trea Turner out of the leadoff spot and hitting him third in the order ahead of Juan Soto.  This would likely mean that Victor Robles would take over as the leadoff hitter.

Turner has spent the vast majority of his MLB career leading off. He has 1,572 plate appearances from the leadoff spot and has never started a game while hitting out of the number 3 spot in the lineup.

On the surface, the idea of hitting Turner is strange.  He’s a speed guy, and while he has some pop, it’s not likely that he’ll hit 30 home runs in a season anytime soon.

But Turner’s game has evolved over the last few seasons.  He’s become a terrific fastball hitter who has dominant numbers when he is ahead in the count. According to FanGraphs, last season Turner hit .341 with 9 home runs against fast balls. However, he only put the ball in play on fastball in  only 164 (31.4%) of his at bats.

Turner was extremely good in fastball counts, hitting .369 when he was ahead in the count and .302 when the count was even.  His average dropped to .237 when the pitcher was ahead and Turner hit only .225 when he faced a count with two strikes.

These numbers are important because as a leadoff hitter, Turner often found himself working to get deep in at bats. This is evidenced by the fact that Turner put the ball in play in 307 of 569 plate appearances two strikes. When Trea wasn’t ahead in the at-bat and receiving fastballs, he was a dramatically less successful hitter.

Last year for the Nationals Juan Soto hit in front of Anthony Rendon.  This protection, allowed Soto to hit fastballs in 294 of his at-bats, a rate of 54%.  Meanwhile, even though Turner did most of his damage against fastballs he hit them in only 31.4% of his at-bats in 2019.

If Turner moves into the 3 hole and is protected by Soto, this should mean a dramatic increase in the number of fastballs that Turner hits, and the damage he can do as a hitter.

I anticipate a significant increase in Victor Robles’s offensive production in 2020, because of his age and experience but especially if he is moved to the leadoff position.  Robles hit .255 with 17 home runs in his rookie season, generally as the number eight hitter in the batting order. Hitting 8th in the National League (typically ahead of the pitcher), is challenging because hitters often don’t great pitches to hit with their pitcher hitting in the 9th spot of the order.

Surprisingly, Robles hit below his average against fastballs (.244) in 2019, which will be an area of focus entering the 2020 campaign.  However, Robles’s exit velocity against fastballs was 93.9 mph compared to a very similar 94.1 mph for Trea Turner. This causes me to think that Robles got ‘unlucky’ in many of his fastball at bats, and that his production should be much higher in 2020.

Robles is most comfortable hitting  early in the count.  He hit just .155 with two strikes against him, which is not ideal for a traditional leadoff hitter.  However, he should maintain an aggressive mindset regardless of his spot in the lineup 2020.  If he does lead-off, having Adam Eaton hit behind Robles, will create a bit of a cushion. If Robles is swinging at pitches early in the count, Eaton will serve as a veteran hitter who can take pitches and extend at-bats.

Robles also hit well against pitches that move during his rookie season.  He hit .333 against sinkers and .342 versus curveballs.  His speed and bat control make him an ideal leadoff hitting candidate. If Robles can increase his production against fastballs, and become more comfortable hitting with two strikes he should be able to provide consistent production from the leadoff spot.

The Nationals will play a “move the line” style of baseball in 2020.  While Trea Turner is not a traditional number 3 hitter, I anticipate that hitting third will increase his production due to the protection from Soto.  It’ll be important for Robles, Eaton and Turner to find ways on base for Soto, Kendrick, Castro and Thames.

This Nationals team will not rely on the long ball like many other MLB teams do.  Instead, each member of the lineup will be asked to win their at-bat, with the confidence that the man behind them can do the same.