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Williams considers lineup with Harper batting fifth

Feb 20, 2014, 9:56 AM EDT

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VIERA, Fla. — Among Matt Williams’ tougher decisions this spring involves the construction of his starting lineup, and there are no shortage of options for the rookie manager to consider.

The Nationals are somewhat unique in that two of their best offensive players (Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth) are versatile enough to hit anywhere from leadoff through fifth in a lineup. Both are good at making pitchers work and drawing walks. Both have the raw power to club a bunch of home runs but also have strong gap-to-gap power that produces doubles. And Harper, of course, brings the added element of speed to his game, the kind of tool best exploited near the top of the lineup.

Throw in the fact the Nationals have three more right-handed power hitters in Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond and Wilson Ramos, a left-handed slugger coming off a down year in Adam LaRoche and a good contact hitter in Anthony Rendon (should he win the second baseman’s job) and Williams has plenty to consider.

Williams, who played in the ’80s and ’90s, prefers the set lineups that were prevalent during that era. But he also recognizes today’s game and today’s players offer more of an opportunity for regular tweaks.

“The hope of every manager, especially a first-time manager, is to say: ‘Guys, it’s going to be this way, and don’t even bother looking at the lineup card when you come into the clubhouse, because you’re going to hit in this spot,” Williams said. “When in reality, that doesn’t happen. So my objective this spring is to find out where they’re comfortable, and try to put them in that position as much as I can, so they feel comfortable going out to play and it’s not foreign to them.”

Williams said he’ll probably change things around based on matchups, especially on days when tough left-handers are opposing the Nationals. Harper, still working to perfect his swing against lefties, could be most-affected by that.

Since reaching the majors in 2012, Harper has most commonly hit second or third. Williams, though, suggested he may prefer to bat the young slugger fifth, affording him more opportunities to drive in runs.

“I think back to my day, and the 5-spot is a really nice spot,” the manager said. “It allows him to get freed up a little bit. He’s not necessarily worried about running in front of the 3-4 guys, if he’s hitting 2. There’s a lot of cleanup RBIs there. And it may provide protection for the 3-4 guys as well, depending on the matchup, righty-lefty.”

Before you get too worked up over that notion, be aware that Williams hasn’t decided anything yet and doesn’t plan to make a final decision anytime soon.

“Two is certainly a spot that he can hit in,” Williams said. “He’s done that. He’s led off as well. He’s hit 3. So all of those spots play. We’ll see. We’ll experiment a little bit in spring and find out where he feels good and examine that as well.”

  1. natinalsgo - Feb 20, 2014 at 10:11 AM

    Williams also can go with an all lefty outfield with McLouth and rest Werth facing RHPs.

    McLouth last year hit righties at a .753 OPS which is well below Werth who was smashing righties at a .884 OPS which makes the key to use McLouth vs pitchers Jayson wasn’t having success with.

    • natinalsgo - Feb 20, 2014 at 10:18 AM

      As Mark mentioned, Harper has struggled against lefties and specifically against lefties who throw sliders breaking away from him. Bryce has to stop chasing those pitches out of the zone.

      Davey was unwilling to sit Bryce in those situations. Will Williams do that and put Hairston out there and then bring Bryce off the bench if Hairston is countered with the rightie reliever.

      I think that is a key for this year.

      • David Proctor - Feb 20, 2014 at 10:33 AM

        Bryce should rarely sit against lefties. The only way he will learn to hit them is if he gets the chance. It’s not like he’s a platoon player.

      • Theophilus T.S. - Feb 20, 2014 at 10:38 AM

        The key for this year is for Harper to hit LHs and get every available AB.

      • natinalsgo - Feb 20, 2014 at 10:45 AM

        Sounds like you are advocating Daveys system. Learn in real games. That could be the way to approach it and hope he improves or it ends up costing you wins while he’s learning.

        That’s a managers decision prompted by Mark’s comment. I’m just giving deeper underlying numbers that Bryce just isn’t effective against lefty sliders.

      • Jb - Feb 20, 2014 at 11:10 AM

        If he doesn’t learn in real games, he’ll never learn.

    • wadelefler556 - Feb 20, 2014 at 5:31 PM

      Call me crazy but I think everyone is sniffing glue when it comes to Harper. Put him leading off! Tons of at bats, stolen bases and lead off homers will be yours for the playing…Have him hit fewer lefties?…more glue sniffing…He’s fast, he’s tough, hits like a demon, and fearless, everything a growing boy needs to lead off!

      You heard it here…

      WadeLefler556

  2. natinalsgo - Feb 20, 2014 at 10:38 AM

    Against lefties last year, Bryce hit .033 against their sliders (1 for 30) and over .280 vs their fastballs. His whiff percentage against lefty sliders was 20.72% vs. 6.54% on fastballs.

    Luckily for Bryce not many lefties throw sliders. Those should be the days he sits is when he would have to face a lefty slider pitcher.

    • Doc - Feb 20, 2014 at 10:49 AM

      Thanks for digging out the stats, natinalsgo.

      Williams has access to the same stuff from the Nats’ sabermetrics department—let’s see if he puts them to good use.

      • David Proctor - Feb 20, 2014 at 10:55 AM

        Good use is letting Harper learn to hit it. You don’t stunt the development of a generational talent by turning him Ito a glorified platoon player. You just don’t. Will there be growing pains? Maybe. But we’re not losing because Harper can’t ht a lefty slider. If we lose, there are bigger reasons than that.

      • natinalsgo - Feb 20, 2014 at 11:04 AM

        David, who is suggesting platooning Harper. Like I said, most lefties don’t throw sliders. His starter nemisis is Cliff Lee and reliever Antonio Bastardo. Mike Minor has done well against Harp while throwing him chase pitches.

        Harp hits Cole Hamels well and Madison Baumgartner who are both lefties.

      • Sonny G 10 - Feb 20, 2014 at 12:55 PM

        I’m with David Proctor on this issue. I want Bryce batting against lefty sliders so he can learn to hit them better. The more holes in his swing that Bryce can eliminate, the better he’s going to be.

      • unkyd59 - Feb 20, 2014 at 1:20 PM

        I hope he gets a steady diet of lefty sliders. With his great eyes and superhuman reflexes, he’ll get it…. In a couple of years very, very few pitchers will be able to solve The Bryce Equation…. If he’s allowed to struggle with the few things that give him trouble. Or we could just hide him from the lefty slider, until he’s at the plate, with a championship on the line, and the Yankees put in their lefty slider machine, and he either whiffs, or we pinch hit for him….. To me, this is a no-brainer…. Hell, I’d bring him in on his off day, just to pinch hit him against LSM…..

      • letswin3 - Feb 20, 2014 at 2:27 PM

        Yeah, can you imagine the REVERSE strategy. The pitcher scheduled to pitch the next day against Boston back in the day says “I’ll pass. Skip. Williams hits my fastball, changeup, slider and curve like crazy. Maybe just slide me down in the rotation.”. I’m confident that Harper can learn to hit any pitch from any pitcher …. besides, he does lots of other stuff that can help a talented squad. I wish I could remember the win we got last season when Harper went hitless … because he walked, made a steal and scored on a solid single. I would rather lose a game with him on the field than second guess a loss when he was benched.

  3. Section 222 - Feb 20, 2014 at 11:02 AM

    Batting Harper 5th means putting someone other than Werth and Zim somewhere in the 2-4 spots. Who is that? Desi batting second? Doesn’t seem like a good idea since you need someone with more patience and bat control. Rendon? Maybe, but I’d prefer to have him lower in the lineup, at least for the first month or two of the season. ALR batting 4th? Please no. Ramos batting 3rd or 4th? Doesn’t seem likely.

    It still think your 1-5 hitters are Span leading off and then some combination of Werth, Zim, Harper, and Desi. Out of those four, I’d bat Desi 5th, not 2nd.

    • David Proctor - Feb 20, 2014 at 11:06 AM

      Span, Rendon, Zim, Werth, Harper seems to be the 1-5 if Harper bats fifth.

      • Section 222 - Feb 20, 2014 at 11:11 AM

        I remember that that’s the lineup you favored early on. I don’t think Rendon is ready for the 2 hole, not when you have Harper, Werth, or Zim as an option there. Plus, batting Rendon 2nd and Desi 6th doesn’t make much sense to me. Desi has become a middle of the order guy. But it could happen.

      • David Proctor - Feb 20, 2014 at 11:18 AM

        Desi batting 2: 79 OPS+ in 600 ABs.
        Desi batting 5/6: 120/121 OPS+ respectively.

        5/6 is by far his best spot. I also think Rendon can handle hitting 2. If you take away his awful July (and I know you can’t, but chalk it up to rookie adjustments), he hit .292 with a near .350 OBP. He finished strong in August and September, too. He’s an ideal 2 hole hitter.

    • Jb - Feb 20, 2014 at 11:12 AM

      Espinosa can hit second on the days he starts.

      • Section 222 - Feb 20, 2014 at 11:34 AM

        You’re joking, right? Ok, maybe in the alternative universe where he has recovered his 2011 form. But in that universe, he’s still starting at 2B.

      • Jb - Feb 20, 2014 at 11:42 AM

        Rendon isn’t starting every day. Neither are Zim and Desi. If Zim plays first, Espi starts at second. Espinosa could easily get 50-60 starts out of all that.

      • Section 222 - Feb 20, 2014 at 1:41 PM

        He better not get 50-60 starts if he’s hitting like he did last year. Desi probably won’t take a lot of days off. Neither will Zim, unless he’s injured. 130-140 games may be the best we can expect from Rendon.

        At any rate, unless Espi is truly recovered and productive, he shouldn’t be anywhere near the top of the order.

  4. David Proctor - Feb 20, 2014 at 11:11 AM

    My point is that shielding Harper from his weaknesses helps nobody. If he can’t hit lefty sliders, he needs to learn. He will only learn by getting the opportunity.

    • natinalsgo - Feb 20, 2014 at 11:21 AM

      David, I think there is a big difference from learning and continual improvement. Adam LaRoche said he learned how to hit lefty breaking pitches by having his father throw them against him in practice over and over.

      Bryce needs that repetition. See it and recognize it. Bryce knows his weaknesses and so does the league. Think what his lefty on lefty stats would be if he didn’t have that 1-30 on his record or could greatly improve upon it. That’s his kryptonite right now. He has no other holes in his game.

    • senators5 - Feb 20, 2014 at 3:05 PM

      Absolutely agree with DP. To apply all of the so-called stats to a kid like Harper is sheer nonsense. Put him out there, keep him out there and then bask in the rewards when he figures it out and he will, probably much quicker than any of would expect. Sitting him on the bench other than for the injuries that he is certain to get, is beyond nonsense.

  5. Section 222 - Feb 20, 2014 at 11:32 AM

    I don’t think anyone is saying Harper should be platooned. That’s a straw man. But it does sound like Williams wants to rest guys regularly and Harper will benefit from that. It makes sense to give him a day off, even now and then, against a tough lefty. Same with ALR, same with Werth, same with Span. The only guys that it seems to me don’t really need to be rested are Zim and Desi. But it wouldn’t be awful to give them a day off occasionally too.

  6. natinalsgo - Feb 20, 2014 at 11:41 AM

    Thanks because I never suggested a ridiculous platoon. Smart rest is what every player needs and you don’t rest a player on a day where he could face a pitcher he’s bashing .450 against.

  7. adcwonk - Feb 20, 2014 at 11:49 AM

    I don’t like Harper as low as fifth simple because he’ll get more at bats higher up in the order. You want your best player to have a lot of at bats, right?

    The lead-off position gets about 16-17 more plate appearances per season than the two-hole, who gets 16-17 more PA’s than the three-hole, and so on. That begins to add up by the time you’re at the 5-hole — 80+ fewer PA’s than the leadoff guy.

    I really liked it early on last year, when Harper was on fire, all the times that the Nats scored in the first inning, in part, due to Harper’s hitting.

    • zmunchkin - Feb 20, 2014 at 1:25 PM

      As David Proctor said yesterday in another post, such logic is not supported by the data. At least for ABs and likely also true for PAs. The number of extra ABs in a season for 3 vs. 5 is tiny.

      If Harper is the guy everyone is afraid of, you put him at 5 to protect 3 and 4 and he will also like get more RBI chances at 5.

      • adcwonk - Feb 20, 2014 at 1:37 PM

        With all due respect — what data are you looking at?

        If you go to http://www.baseball-reference.com/leagues/split.cgi?t=b&lg=NL&year=2013, you can see that, over 2430 games that:

        Batting Position – PA

        Batting 1st 11257
        Batting 2nd 11015
        Batting 3rd 10749
        Batting 4th 10517
        Batting 5th 10270
        Batting 6th 10013
        Batting 7th 9726
        Batting 8th 9435
        Batting 9th 9134

        You can clearly see that it goes down by 250-300 per batting order position. Divide by 2430 games, and you get about 0.1 PA per game. Over 162 games, that’s 16+ AB’s.

      • adcwonk - Feb 20, 2014 at 1:38 PM

        Or, I guess I should say: what data was David Proctor looking at?

        I’ll happily be corrected if someone can show me where I’m wrong.

      • natinalsgo - Feb 20, 2014 at 2:43 PM

        adcwonk, right you are but why let that get in the way of someone’s BS theory of relativity.

      • zmunchkin - Feb 20, 2014 at 3:41 PM

        I believe he was looking at ABs. I tried to find PAs for the Nats but could not.

        But bottom line, you have proven the point, over the course of the season, 16 more PAs is slight more than 2 more PAs a month – maybe 4-5 extra hits over the entire season. Or one every roughly 6 weeks. So are you saying that is enough of a reason to move the guy who will likely be your best power hitter?

  8. Section 222 - Feb 20, 2014 at 1:51 PM

    While batting orders are fun to talk about, I’m not sure it makes all that much difference in the long run. But what does make a difference is sticking with someone in the middle of the order who is not producing. I think I noted a little while ago that it took until mid- August for Davey to move ALR down to 6th. Having a human rally killer batting 3rd, 4th or 5th because they have always hit there is a really bad idea, and will have a bigger impact than whether one of your best hitters hits 3rd or 5th.

    • nats128 - Feb 20, 2014 at 4:45 PM

      The team is stuck with Laroche for now and we have to hope he can get started hot and continue hot and make this a moot point. If hes cold to start Im not sure what you do except move him down to 7 or 8 in the order.

  9. David Proctor - Feb 20, 2014 at 2:18 PM

    I was referring to our team specifically last year, Wonk.

    • adcwonk - Feb 20, 2014 at 3:06 PM

      For Nationals (http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/split.cgi?t=b&team=WSN&year=2013)

      Batting 1st 742
      Batting 2nd 722
      Batting 3rd 706
      Batting 4th 688
      Batting 5th 671
      Batting 6th 660
      Batting 7th 640
      Batting 8th 618
      Batting 9th 600

      Look, it makes sense. Somebody, every single game, is going to have the last at bat of the game. The guy who’s on deck when that happens will have one less at bat. If it were distributed completely evenly, then the odds are 1/9 (or 0.11) that it will happen to any given batting slot on any given night. Over 162 games that’s about 17 PA’s. Which, on average, is just what the above shows.

      Bottom line: the guy batting #5 batted 50 times less than the guy batting #2.

      Is it worth it to get more RBI’s and/or afford protection for #3 and #4? I dunno — but I’d love to have 50 extra PA’s from a guy who could be the best hitter on the team.

      • David Proctor - Feb 20, 2014 at 3:17 PM

        Fair enough, but it’s also not like Harper will bat 5th every day. Williams made clear he’ll bat 2nd, 3rd and 4th, too, depending. So I really doubt it ends up being 50 ABs.

      • sjm308 - Feb 20, 2014 at 3:25 PM

        Great that you can now just say “fair enough” but I wonder where you got the stats you cited the other day when you claimed it was just 5 or 8 more?

      • natinalsgo - Feb 20, 2014 at 3:34 PM

        The reason so many don’t post here anymore is because some people like to prove points and belittle people by making up stats to support their way of thinking or make up things like claiming someone suggested Bryce should be platooned.

        Again, why give facts when BS sounds better.

      • adcwonk - Feb 20, 2014 at 4:03 PM

        From what I can gather, I think I’m happy I missed yesterday’s debate ;-)

      • zmunchkin - Feb 20, 2014 at 5:26 PM

        Thx ADC for this link.

        I have to admit that I am confused by what the games colums means. But that aside, if you look at PAs and ABs, you see a very different drop-off for ABs vs PAs:

            PA  AB
        2nd 722 658
        3rd 706 609
        4th 688 604
        5th 671 614
        

        The AB difference between 3, 4 and 5 seems inconsequential. And in fact the ABs goes up for the #5 batter. The HR, BB, OBP, RBI counts for 3/4 are better than 5. The difference in walks is the most striking to me. Lots more walks at 3 and 4 which could suggest that those guys are being pitched around to get to the #5 hitter. Lots of alternative possibilities could explain this as well. But it does suggest that putting your best hitter at 5 instead of 3, for example, might get more ABs for your 3/4 hitters and thus your #5.

      • nats128 - Feb 20, 2014 at 7:48 PM

        zmunchkin, the 742 is plate appearances and thats what you measure not ABs which removes walks and HBPs, and Sac Bunts. Time up to the plate. Thats whats important that you want your main guys at bat and not left in the on-deck circle as the game ends. If they walk then obviously it doesnt count as a AB for stat purposes but they made something happen and thats what Bryce does. He scores runs and makes things happen.

        Werth wants to bat 3rd. Cant blame him. Im sure Harp does also.

      • zmunchkin - Feb 20, 2014 at 9:04 PM

        I don’t disagree nats128 that PAs are more important. But my point was that the fact that PAs and ABs don’t have even remotely the same pattern suggests that perhaps last year the 3/4 guys were pitched around to get to the #5 guy. I read somewhere that Williams was of the opinion that Harper was the most feared by opponents and so pitchers were pitching around him. So by putting Harper behind the guys who are less scary to the opposition, they get better pitches to hit, which then puts guys on base for Harper to drive in.

        I think you could easily justify Harper anywhere between 2-5. I thought Zimm did great at the 2 spot at the end of last year and so that might be a good position for him. If you put Harper at 3 or 4, you want to have someone the other teams are at least a little scared of behind him.

      • nats128 - Feb 21, 2014 at 7:19 AM

        zmunchkin writes: “perhaps last year the 3/4 guys were pitched around to get to the #5 guy.”

        If you have Span, Werth, Harp, Zim, Desi in your 1-5 and they want to pitch around Harp and Zim to pitch to Desmond then so be it.

        The problem last year in RISP situations was Harper was one of the worst on the team with BA. He only batted .230 but had a good OBP as they seemed to be willing to walk him while hoping he would chase a pitch and get himself out and play to his aggressiveness. It was the same with Laroche who actually had the highest OBP with RISP at .435 but only batted .259.

        The teams most efficient RBI man was Ramos. He led the team in RBI chances per AB and led the team in BA with .326 and a good OPS of .863

        Werth was the team’s best RISP overall slashing .292/.396/.500/.896

        If you use that data it probably suggests Span, Harper, Werth, Ramos, Zim, Desi, ALR, Rendon

      • natinalsgo - Feb 21, 2014 at 7:48 AM

        My favorite stat is what a player does with 2 outs and RISP and that’s where Ramos really excelled. 20 RBIs in 39.ABs with a .921 OPS.

        I agree that Harper in RISP situations would expand his strike zone and in the 2 out RISP situation his BA was .182 with a .413 OBP and a .625 OPS.

    • nats128 - Feb 21, 2014 at 8:00 AM

      Again, I think that huge disparity between BA and OBP in RISP situations is indicative of opposing teams are nibbling or pitching out of the strike zone and hoping to play to Harp’s aggressiveness.

      The saying of take what the game gives you is very true. If they are willing to walk you, take the walk and let the guy behind you do his job.

      I still doubt Williams will want to stack the 2 lefties 1-2 in the order (Span and Harper)

      Ramos and those stats are very intriguing as he was actually one of the best in the NL in RISP efficiency.

  10. nats128 - Feb 20, 2014 at 4:35 PM

    Bryce Harper is going to get some days off. Are you suggesting he gets days off against lefties or righties.

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