(Photo by John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Bryce Harper made his return to baseball yesterday and gave his opinion on what the Nationals lineup should look like going forward.

“I think [Zimmermann] should be playing left,” Harper said. “Rendon’s a good third baseman. He should be playing third. We’ve got one of the best second basemen in the league in Danny Espinosa. Of course, we want the best-hitting lineup in there.”

And Harper is close to right: the best hitting lineup the Nats have is the one that doesn’t involve outfielder Denard Span batting leadoff.

When filling out a lineup card, obviously the goal is to score the maximum runs you can while preventing the opposition from doing the same. Span at the top of the order doesn’t solve the first of those objectives.

Span is batting .265 with a .312 on base percentage and .388 slugging. That would be terrible except that all but one of his games played has seen him in the leadoff spot, one of the most crucial spots in the order.

The lead-off hitter comes to bat only 36 percent of the time with a runner on base, versus 44 percent of the time for the next lowest spot in the lineup, so why waste home runs? The lead-off hitter also comes to the plate the most times per game, so why give away outs? As for speed, stealing bases is most valuable in front of singles hitters, and since the top of the order is going to be full of power hitters, they’re not as important. The lead-off hitter is one of the best three hitters on the team, the guy without home run power.

Here was the lineup last night in Harper’s return, along with each players’ OBP, SLG and weighted on-base percentage for the last two seasons combined.


For the leadoff hitter, OBP is king, and Span has the third best OBP on the Nats over the past two seasons (.322) and has seen it go even lower this season (.312). It gets worse: among leadoff hitters with at least 200 plate appearances, Span has the fifth lowest OBP out of 23 hitters. And it is costing the Nats runs.

The lineup above should generate 4.468 runs per game but based on work by Cyril MorongKen Arneson and Ryan Armbrust can be optimized to produced in excess of 4.7 runs per game – most of which have Span batting ninth behind the pitcher. Here is the most optimized lineup (4.735 runs per game):

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

The difference would be slightly over 43 runs more per 162-game season or three more expected wins this season through 82 games. However, swapping out Danny Espinosa for Span wouldn’t create a better lineup.

In fact, the most optimized lineup  with Espinosa over Span (Werth, Harper, Rendon, Ramos, Zimmerman, Espinosa, Desmond, Pitcher then LaRoche) would be projected to create 4.534 runs per game.

So Harper is wrong when he says Span shouldn’t be in the lineup. He should, just not batting leadoff.