The Nationals’ Lineup, Not Their Rotation, Makes Them Great

The Washington Nationals are a good team, probably the best in the National League. After they made headlines for winning games via walkoff only, they settled down and started winning games the traditional way. With a seven-game lead in the NL East, the Nats are all but a lock to at least qualify for the postseason this year. As of today, their playoff odds sit at 99.9%, with a 99.3% chance of holding on to the division crown, the highest marks in baseball.

By Base Runs and Pythag, their talent on-hand appears to be slightly better than their record shows. The Nats are a team best characterized as a great pitching team, with a formidable starting rotation and steady bullpen supported by strong defense. Their offense doesn’t get its due, boasting a 98 wRC+ for the season – though their non-pitchers rank among the best in the game.

It is somewhat surprising to see the Nats offense rank so high, given their high strikeout rate and lack of a single offensive force (Jayson Werth’s 136 wRC+ is best on the club, ranking him 21st among qualified hitters). But it is this offense that I believe makes them even more troubling for potential playoff opponents. The Nationals deadline deals and improving health might make the prospect of facing their lineup even scarier come October than a rotation stacked with studs.

Zooming out on the Nats offense, you see a well-balanced attack. Dropping the plate appearance limit to 100 as to include recent acquisition Asdrubal Cabrera, the Nats claim nine players with above-average offensive numbers this season, suggesting an incredibly balanced lineup. More to that point, the bulk of their non-performers with the bat are no longer counted on and can no longer drag the overall team line down.

The Nats handed nearly 1000 PAs to Kevin Frandsen, Jose Lobaton, Danny Espinosa and Nate McLouth, and they combined for a 69 wRC+. Bench players are a necessary evil, but Lobaton is the backup catcher (and Stephen Strasburg’s personal guy) and McLouth is (mercifully?) out for the season with a shoulder injury. Meanwhile, Espinosa and Frandsen are now bench players, forced into reduced roles since the addition of Cabrera. Once Ryan Zimmerman is healthy, there is little need for either player to see the field with any regularity.

As they battle through meaningful games and look forward to the postseason, expect to see the Nationals run this lineup out most days:

  1. Span
  2. Rendon
  3. Werth
  4. LaRoche
  5. Desmond
  6. Harper
  7. Ramos
  8. Cabrera
  9. Pitcher

While limiting the exposure of marginal hitters helps the offense on one hand, the improvements and/or returns-to-form from Bryce Harper and Denard Span pushed the Nats lineup from middling towards something much more menacing for the opposition, finally giving breakout star Anthony Rendon and Werth the support they need. Harper’s season is yet to produce the results expected from such talent, but a recent swing change produced numbers more in line with his considerable abilities. Harper leads the team with nine second-half home runs, putting up a 137 wRC+ in that time. Span’s table setting is virtually unmatched over the last three months, buzzing along at a .318/.369/.442 clip as he has since June 1st.

They’re trending in the right direction, they’re balanced against pitchers from both sides and their numbers against ground ball/fly ball pitchers suggest there isn’t any one good way to attack them. Though it isn’t an “ideal” setup, hitting Harper all the way down in the number six spot gives the Nats more punch that low in the order compared to the league. Cabrera is a league-average hitter at worst and projects to put up even better numbers over the final month of the year.

Ian Desmond is experiencing something of a down year but he remains a home run threat. With Zimmerman fighting to come back and veteran outfielders Scott Hairston and Nate Schierholtz providing bench cover, their largely insulated against the kind of bumps and bruises that could undercut one of the older NL teams.

The balance and composition of the Nats order reminds me of the 2013 St. Louis Cardinals. Last year’s NL champs only featured one player — Matt Adams — with an ISO above .200, exactly one more hitter of that stature than the 2014 Nats feature. But the Cardinals lineup famously excelled in higher leverage situations and featured a relentless attack from top to bottom, stringing together big innings without the long ball and producing situationally like few teams before.

Does this kind of lineup breed better situational hitting? I’ll leave the heavy lifting for someone with more SQL might, but the idea sounds right inside my head. Without the holes of less balanced squads, perhaps an evenly-distributed lineup of good (but not great) hitters can take better advantage of run-scoring situations and make life even more difficult on opposing managers hoping to play matchups.

During a league-wide offensive drought, the Nationals are drowning in offensive excess. While their chief rivals in the NL East race send Ryan Doumit out as their cleanup hitter, the Nats hit Bryce Harper sixth. The Nats pitching might steal the headlines, but it is their “one-through-eight” attack that makes the team to beat in the National League. The “who starts Game One” controversy might get more of the publicity and the thought of facing four of Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, Tanner Roark and Doug Fister is a daunting one indeed, but the overlooked offense could be the key to October success.



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Drew used to write about baseball and other things at theScore but now he writes here. Follow him on twitter @DrewGROF


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Nats Fan
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Nats Fan

Harper hit’s 6th because Williams is not a good manager.

Paul
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Paul

You do know that 4 of the 5 guys batting ahead of Harper have a higher wRC+ than him this season, right?

Nats Fan
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Nats Fan

True but Harper has been battling a thumb injury all season that looks to have sapped his power. Harper needs to be swapped for LaRoche in the lineup. Also Williams never moves him down when he subs players out, it’s insanity.

Hank G.
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Hank G.

Harper has been battling a thumb injury all season that looks to have sapped his power.

That would seem to be a good reason to back him sixth, until his power returns.

Nats Fan
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Nats Fan

@Hank his second half numbers have been awesome.

snack man
Guest

Hank, in the last week he has hit a home run off Kershaw and hit two in Seattle. I think the thumb is fine now.

dregarx
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dregarx

Ah, but ZiPS has Harper batting better than all 5 of them ROS, and he has them beat in Steamer as well as well with the exception of Werth, who only has a 2-point edge on Harper in Steamer ROS wRC+.

Steven
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Steven

Does ZIPS take into the extent of his potentially nagging injury?

Paul
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Paul

Yeah, I’m not saying that Harper isn’t the most talented hitter on that team and that there aren’t other relevant stats or mitigating circumstances. I’m just noting that a reasonable person could look at this situation and not say that Matt Williams is a bad manager. Just defending the skip, I guess.

Nats Fan
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Nats Fan

@Paul sorry for the hyperbole Williams hasn’t been all terrible and I expect him to get better but you can’t say that he is above criticism.

Paul
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Paul

I can live with that point. He’s a first year manager and obviously learning on the job, with warranted criticism. But I think on the whole he has held the team together well in spite of a rash of injuries and improved the guys in areas such as baserunning and fielding. So that is a plus. But yeah, curious decisions with bullpen management (like pitching Blevins against a righty, ever) and lineup construction have happened.

JCCfromDC
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JCCfromDC

Paul, letting Blevins pitch against RH batters for most of 2014 was not an irrational decision. If you look at Blevins’s career numbers, not only does he not have a particularly pronounced L/R split for his career, but he was actually better last year against RH batters than LH batters. His results this season are wildly out of line with the rest of his career. So for much of the season it was qutie rational to think that the numbers would regress towards Blevins’s career numbers. At what point do the numbers reflect SSS noise versus a substantive difference?

Last year, for the first time in his career, Span sucked against LH pitching. This year he’s back to being, well, Denard Span. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Blevins bounced back in a big way next season (while being very happy the Nats picked up Thornton so they can move Blevins into a LOOGY role the remainder of this year).

AC
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AC

Maybe four of those guys have a higher wRC+, but Span it’s only by a point and given their respective trajectories I’d be shocked if Harper doesn’t pass LaRoche very soon. In the second half Harper’s got the third highest wRC+ on the team, not counting Zimmerman and his 20 second-half PAs.

philosofool
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philosofool

The 5th guy has been 15 points lower than Harper this season. Desmond is not a very good hitter, but he fools bad managers like Williams with an aggresive, high contact approach.

Too bad Harper has to learn that not walking is what moves you up in the order.

Williams is terrible.

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