The batting spot for Washington Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon has been a hot topic lately.
Rendon, owner of the league’s ninth-best on-base plus slugging (.980), is creating runs at a rate that is 52 percent higher than average after taking into account league and park effects (152 wRC+). Only nine major league hitters are better run producers this season, including teammate Bryce Harper, who ranks third (165 wRC+). Yet 261 of Rendon’s 421 plate appearances were as the No. 6 batter in the lineup, leaving everyone from manager Dusty Baker to local sports radio to television broadcasters from rival teams giving their take on where the 27-year old should be in the batting order.
Here’s the answer: He should be at the very top of the batting order.
According to “The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball,” by Tom Tango, Mitchel Lichtman and Andy Dolphin, the order of importance for spots in the lineup based on avoiding outs is as follows: No. 1, No. 4, No. 2, No. 5, No. 3, No. 6, No. 7, No. 8 and No. 9. That means the team’s best three hitters should occupy three of the four top spots, not near the bottom of the order, where Rendon is now. We can agree on that, but the impact of moving him around is minimal.
Some are suggesting he should bat second, but let’s break down the belief that the Nationals’ No. 2 hitters have been bad, because they really haven’t. They have batted .281 as a whole, the 12th best average in baseball since Jayson Werth’s last appearance in a game on June 3, creating runs at a rate that is nine percent above the league average (109 wRC+) — that puts 18 other teams behind them in terms of production from that spot in the lineup. Washington’s No. 2 batters hit .281 with a 120 wRC+ before Werth’s injury, making the loss of production real, but not important.
The two most used lineups by Baker this season do indeed have Rendon batting sixth, and we would expect those lineups to score between 5.45 and 5.52 runs per game. The order in which Rendon has batted second this season is expected to score 5.59 runs per game. The difference is a mere 22 runs over the course of a 162-game campaign, which would equal slightly over two wins (2.26, to be exact) during the 2017 regular season. Since the Nationals are expected to win the NL East by 17 wins, plus or minus two wins has virtually no impact on their future. But it’s still not optimal to have him in the six hole.
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Utility man Howie Kendrick, acquired by Washington from the Philadelphia Phillies near the trade deadline, has already seen five games in the No. 2 spot, giving the Nationals an expected 5.7 runs per game. An improvement for sure, and perhaps enough to hold the Rendon truthers at bay (if Kendrick’s back is okay). But if you really want to lobby for optimization, you should be arguing for Baker to install Rendon as the team’s leadoff hitter.
Rendon leads the team in walk rate (14.5 percent of plate appearances) and has the team’s second-highest on-base percentage among Washington’s hitters qualifying for the batting title. His OPS with zero outs is also the eighth-highest in the majors (1.079) — including 12 balls hit on the sweet spot, tied with Harper for most on the team — making him the perfect table setter among the available options.
And while we’re at it, let’s put it out there again that Harper should be batting second. Not only would he get more at-bats per game — over the course of a 162-game season, the No. 2 hitter would have 737 plate appearances compared to 718 and 702 for the third and fourth batters — he would also come to the plate with no outs and runners on base more often (14 vs. 11 percent of the time).
Perhaps the three percentage points separating the two doesn’t sound meaningful enough to tinker with the lineup so aggressively, but consider that the average run expectancy of Rendon or Harper at the top of the order with a man on first and no outs (1.107) is almost triple what the team could expect with one out and no one on (.411) from similarly skilled hitters, leading this optimized lineup to average 5.86 runs per game, the highest rate of all the iterations Baker has tried, and that includes with and without Jayson Werth available.
Rendon batting sixth or second this season wouldn’t have changed much for the Nationals — they would still hold a commanding lead in the NL East with their playoff fortunes largely unchanged. But if you want to argue where Rendon should bat, the evidence clearly suggests it is in the No. 1 spot.
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