Why The Nationals Lineup Construction Has Been A Frustrating Issue This Year
By Sam Holstine
The 4-9 start the Nationals find themselves with is relatively on par with expectations placed on them coming into the year. There have already been several disappointments intertwined with a number of enlightening storylines for the Nats, both things that are to be expected with a rebuilding squad. Regardless of player performance, an area Nats fans find themselves continuously frustrated with is how the lineup has been constructed. First, let's take a look at what have been the issues and why it is important to address them sooner rather than later.
The Washington Nationals will enter their three game series against the Cleveland Guardians with the 25th most runs in the majors despite being 10th in hits. Why? For beginners, about 78% of the Nats' hits have been singles, something that doesn't lead to sustained offensive success in the big leagues. It wasn't a secret that this lineup was depleted of power coming into the year, something backed up their league worst five home runs thus far. As it stands, the Nats have 86 singles compared to only 17 doubles, 2 triples, and the aforementioned 5 home runs. While it's quite obvious this team won't be an offensive powerhouse, Davey Martinez can at least do something with the lineup to put them in a more advantageous situation and put their better hitters ahead of their weaker ones, something that should be pretty obvious. With that being said, let's take a look at what has been the issues and how they can be fixed moving forward for the better of the organization and enjoyment of the fans.
The lineup is backwards.
The lineup has been pretty much the same all season so far. One of Lane Thomas or Alex Call leads off. Following him up is typically the trio of Jeimer Candelario, Dom Smith, and Joey Meneses in some order to make up the 2-3-4 portion of the lineup. Keibert Ruiz has found a home in the 5 hole, with Lane Thomas, Luis Garcia, CJ Abrams, and Victor Robles rotating around the bottom four spots to round off the lineup.
The fact that this format of a lineup has been followed very closely for practically every game highlights the idea that Davey possibly doesn't care to reward those who are hitting well and would rather stick with what he's been going with. With the state of the team and the statistics mentioned above, it's relatively clear this offense isn't necessarily clicking and this team isn't competitive, so why stick with a lineup that's not working when it doesn't even matter?
As mentioned above Dom Smith has been locked into the three or four spot every game this year. His numbers so far? A slash line of .279/.354/.279 for an OPS of .633, or in other words, not good. His average and slugging percentage are the same, meaning every single one of his hits have been singles, with a lot of luck sprinkled in. His xBA, or expected batting average, is .187. That's almost a whopping hundred points lower than his actual batting average. Practically every single advanced metric isn't kind on Dom Smith. The only things he has done really well so far, is not striking out and play above average defense, as he ranks in the 89th percentile in K% and OAA. You get the point so I'll stop with the Dom Smith tangent, but if you're bored and wanna go more in depth on Dom Smith here's his baseball savant page. Get ready to see a lot of blue.
Jeimer Candelario and Joey Meneses join Smith in the center of the lineup despite also not being off to great starts. Candelario and his .226 average, which is still low by all means, can give some quick love to luck as well, as his xBA is sitting at .201, barely above the mendoza line. When it comes to Meneses, I will cut some slack as he has been on the other end of the luck fortune in 2023. His actual average is .224, despite a xBA of .266, so while his counting stats aren't the prettiest to start off the year, he hasn't been as bad as it seems on the surface.
On the other end of the lineup, Victor Robles finds himself at the bottom of the lineup every single game. The once untouchable prospect in Robles is a guy almost every Nationals fan had given up on at this point is enjoying a surprisingly excellent offensive start to the season. A .359 average and .444 OBP being produced by Victor Robles would be the last thing on any Nats fans' bingo card coming into the season, but that's where we are at. His reward for an improved approach at the plate with better plate discipline and swing decisions? Hitting at the bottom third of the lineup every game as depicted by this graphic.
While Robles' blazing hot start to the season might burn out real quick, he should at least be rewarded by getting a chance to prove himself at the top of the lineup rather than always hitting at the bottom third when players like the previously mentioned Dom Smith get to remain in the three hole or cleanup spot despite little to no production.
Speaking of players who haven't gotten rewarded for stellar play, enter Stone Garrett.
Stone Garrett was granted a start in each of the last two games in Colorado, where he went a combined 6 for 10 with two doubles, a home run, and five runs batted in. It was a stellar performance by Garrett and had many Nats fans hoping to see more of him. Davey Martinez had other plans, as he rewarded him by sitting him the whole next series.
CJ Abrams had a game against Colorado where he hit for two triples in the same game out of the number eight spot at the bottom of the lineup. How was he rewarded? Being moved down to the nine hole the next day.
There's an obvious and recurring theme here: the young guys aren't being rewarded for hitting well and the veterans are getting guaranteed games in the VIP spots of the lineup. It feels each and every time the lineup cards are released there is at least one question mark about how the Nats lineup is designed for that day. An additional issue is the times Davey elects to bench Abrams or Garcia just because the opponent is starting a southpaw that game. While they might not be all that good in those left-on-left matchups, this team is not competitive so why does it matter all that much? And how are they gonna improve in those situations if not given the chance to get some experience in those opportunities? The young guys are the main thing keeping the fans interested in the team, so give them more ABs to improve and show us what they got.
It's time for a new look, and if it were up to me this is how I would set up the Nats lineup:
CF: Victor Robles
SS: CJ Abrams
1B: Joey Meneses
DH: Stone Garrett
C: Keibert Ruiz
3B: Jeimer Candelario
2B: Luis Garcia
RF: Lane Thomas
LF: Alex Call
All stats via FanGraphs, Baseball Reference and Baseball Savant.