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

51 Responses to “The Nationals’ Lineup, Not Their Rotation, Makes Them Great”

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  1. Nats Fan says:

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

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    • Paul says:

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

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      • Nats Fan says:

        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.

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      • dregarx says:

        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+.

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        • Steven says:

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

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        • Paul says:

          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.

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        • Nats Fan says:

          @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.

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        • Paul says:

          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.

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        • JCCfromDC says:

          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).

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      • AC says:

        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.

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      • philosofool says:

        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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  2. screamin_jay says:

    the nats get everything. evil always wins

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  3. screamin_jay says:

    love that the gods give the perfect team in every way to the worst possible fans

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    • Well-Beered Englishman says:

      I don’t think the Phillies are very good, but you have a point about St. Louis.

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    • Jason B says:

      “love that the gods give the perfect team in every way to the worst possible fans”

      I’m pretty sure whichever fan you’re a team of has the worst possible fans.

      Well, fan.

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    • UGW says:

      Shtick poster doing Shtick. It’s getting tiring at this point. You should worry more about your team, family, friends than focusing on the Nats fans.

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    • James says:

      I think this regularly, but then I remember that the only fans that buy marlins tickets are phillies, mets, and nats fans. And NY/Boston fans that are just “going to a game.” So in a way, marlins supporters are a self-hating coagulation of the worst fans in baseball.

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  4. screamin_jay says:

    the nats just pretty much have everything. perfectly constructed team and perfect luck

    and yet these bastards still do nothing but complain about them and act like they’ve had it bad

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    • JCA says:

      Perfect luck? no, probably closer to average. Significant time lost for 2/5th of the rotation is better luck than the Braves, true, but far from perfect. Also, significant time lost for 3 out of 8 regulars (Zimmerman, Ramos, and Harper) forcing the 750 PAs out of the McLouth/Espinosa/Lobaton/Leon is normal luck, at best. going forward, they look strong, especially with Harper shaking off the effects of the wrist and Cabrera available.

      If you want to talk about luck, then maybe you ought to mention why on earth a contender like the NYY let Thornton go on a waiver claim. That’s good fortune, sure, but lots of other teams could have claimed him.

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    • AC says:

      Yeah, it’s only been 90 years since any Washington team won a World Series and since the Expos became the Nationals they’ve made the playoffs once out of 9 seasons and had a winning record a whopping two out of nine times. What fan base ever had it so good?

      There are a lot of complaints on this thread, but you seem to have posted them all.

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    • troybell23 says:

      What are you even talking about? There aren’t many people complaining about the Nats around D.C.

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  5. screamin_jay says:

    oh, and at least 3 of those players acquired will be scapegoated and called busts for pedestrian above-average performances while the nats are only 3 games ahead in june. tough break astros young guns, you don’t understand DC SPORTZZZ and 2005-11 and JIM BOWDEN

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  6. Chaz says:

    This article could also be about the Giants. They are more known as a pitching team, but they actually have a pretty well balanced lineup of solidly above-average position players. Park effects really hurt the numbers, but if you go by wRC+ they are a top 3 offense in the NL (even slightly better than the Nats).

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    • Drew Fairservice says:

      Believe me, every piece I write “could also be about the Giants” because almost of them start out that way.

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    • JCCfromDC says:

      I’ll see you park effects and raise you injuries. The Nats have outscored the Giants by a slight margin (~.1 run/game), and they’ve done it with more significant injuries. Losing Belt hurt the Giants, sure, but the Nationals have lost Ryan Zimmerman for about 100 games to go with severe injuries to Wilson Ramos and Bryce Harper – injuries that have sapped those players’ power even when they returned (and the thumb injury robbed Zimmerman of some power during his brief return before the hamstring injury). The Nats have put up their numbers while only getting 25 home runs from Harper, Ramos and Zimmerman combined – a total that you might expect the three players to each average in a season. Harper is only now rounding back into shape (8 of Harper’s 11 home runs have come in the last 28 days), and Ramos isn’t there yet.

      That’s not to dis the Giants – Nats fans will always remember Mikey Mo fondly (while being grateful not to have to put up with his glove), and I really enjoy watching Hunter Pence play baseball (because he’s so weird and yet so good). I like the Giants’ lineup, but 1-8 I think the lineup the Nats put out there right now is just a bit better. YMMV, of course :)

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    • Cool Lester Smooth says:

      I think the argument this article makes is that the Nats offense has been rounding into form over the last two months, making them significantly better than their overall numbers indicate.

      The Giants have had a hell of a year, though. There’s no denying that.

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  7. JCCfromDC says:

    Thanks for this article. It also points up the unusual situation where the team with the best record in the league and the best run differential in the league (by a lot) only had two players in the All-Star game (both pitchers), has no players in serious contention for the NL MVP or Cy Young award. They score more runs per game than any other team in the league outside of Colorado, a team whose numbers are as much a product of its home park than anything else.

    The depth pointed up in this article makes it clear how the Nationals have been able to put up these numbers despite significant injuries to their position players. This also means that they should be able to sustain injuries going forward without the devastating impact that a similar injury would have on other teams. When McCutcheon got hurt the Pirates tanked; the Dodgers are essentially a .500 team in games not started by Kershaw. There is no equivalent player on the Nationals.

    This doesn’t guarantee postseason success, of course – as Billy Beane said, that’s a crap shoot – but it does load the dice a bit in the Nats’ favor. And in the meantime it’s been pretty impressive to watch.

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    • Pennsy says:

      Rendon more than deserved the All-Star game nod, just didn’t get it.

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    • Jim says:

      I keep seeing this narrative lately about the Dodgers and Kershaw, it seems kind of silly stat to me. He has gotten more run support than Greinke and Ryu this year, therefore the dodgers are a .500 team without him? They are second in the NL to Pirates by WRC+.

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  8. Borge Jett says:

    It’s good they don’t hit homeruns because that kills the big inning.

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  9. Wobatus says:

    Certainly seems like the line-up has been picking it up recently and is deep, 2nd in WAR in the second half, but the pitching staff is number 1 in baseball this year by WAR, and 2nd for starters in WAR, xFIP, etc. So I’d say having a very good lineup and a very good staff makes them great.

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  10. jss133 says:

    This Mike Rizzo fella seems to not suck

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  11. algionfriddo says:

    Where will R. Zimmerman play defensively if LaRoche is healthy. Is Zim likely to be the long term 1b-man after this season?

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    • snack man says:

      He says above that Asdrubal Cabrera goes back to the bench and (presumably) Rendon goes back to 2B.

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      • Cool Lester Smooth says:

        No way in hell that happens. LaRoche is gone after this year anyway.

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        • @notrizzo says:

          When Zim came back from his last injury they said no way Rendon would go back to 2nd, but he did. Also, no way you bench ALR for Cabrera, that’s just silly. Regualar lineup will be;
          Not saying it should be that, only that Matt Williams will use that lineup except to sit either Harper or ALR vs LHSPs or give Werth/Rendon a day off.

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  12. EL says:

    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.

    I think the logic there is as questionable as the they’re vs their choice. The presence of two negative WAR outfielders is hardly insulation against injury. There are approximately thirty teams that have 4th and 5th outfielders; how many of those sets are significantly worse?

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  13. Joseph says:

    For reference, Bill Petti had a look at the value of (in)consistent play, on both sides of the ball. He didn’t look specifically at, say, situational hitting, but just the broad ideas of scoring/preventing runs.

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  14. Pennsy says:

    The ending to the season did not seem to bear this out…

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