ANAHEIM, Calif. — Perhaps it is a testament to the way they shored up their bullpen this week that one of the more heated subjects of Nationals-related discussion these days is Dusty Baker’s construction of the top of his batting order.
The most vexing issue seems to be Baker’s insistence on leaving Anthony Rendon — in the midst of the best offensive season of his career — in the sixth spot while allowing lesser hitters such as Wilmer Difo or Ryan Raburn to hit second. With tailor-made leadoff men Trea Turner and Adam Eaton out with injury, and less-ideal-but-still-good options Jayson Werth and Michael A. Taylor also hurt, that Baker has gone to Brian Goodwin as his everyday leadoff man is understandable. But allowing Rendon to get an at-bat fewer a night than those aforementioned second-hole choices is hard to defend statistically.
All along, when asked why he would not move Rendon to the two spot despite his high on-base percentage and propensity to see pitches, Baker has said he wants to keep Rendon behind Murphy to leave the historically potent middle of his order in its high-functioning order. In theory, moving Rendon ahead of Bryce Harper would only give him more pitches to hit. But in 238 games in that two spot, Rendon is hitting .269 with a .752 OPS. In 95 games in the sixth spot — most of them played during this, his best season — Rendon is hitting .320 with a 1.044 OPS. One can almost always find statistics to defend nearly every baseball decision.
But another telling statistic is the difference between Rendon’s OPS and that of Wednesday night’s two-hitter Raburn — 1.016 minus .775 = .341 points difference. Getting the better of those two hitters to bat once more could change a game, even if Rendon dropped off in the second spot.
Baker admits the top of his order is a work-in-progress these days.
“It’s been a challenge. A lot of them weren’t really used to being at the top of the lineup,” Baker said. “… we always want them to do better, but it’s a learning process.”
Goodwin, for example, is still learning how to lead off. Baker asked the 26-year-old to drop down a bunt now and then, to add that dimension to his game. Goodwin asked him when to do it, a lesson learned with time.
“I think I’m pretty comfortable. I’ve been comfortable there, two-hole, wherever, man,” Goodwin said. “It’s the same game regardless of where you’re at. No different at the top or the bottom.”
But while Goodwin seems likely to get plenty of time in the leadoff spot, Baker is still feeling for reliable options in that second spot. Rendon would not necessarily be the only one.
One proposition, an approach Baker has taken once or twice over the past month, is to slide that middle of the order up a spot. In that lineup, Goodwin would lead off with Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, Daniel Murphy, and Rendon behind him, thereby preserving the left-right ratio Baker prizes as a way to disrupt late-game matchups. While moving a hitter of Harper’s caliber from the third spot into a non-RBI spot might seem silly, several other teams have hit their most powerful producers in that spot recently. Giancarlo Stanton has hit second for the Marlins. Mike Trout hit second Wednesday night.
Besides, Harper leads the Nationals in walks. Moving him up one spot — but still protecting him with that terrifying trio — would not change much about the way teams approach him. With Zimmerman, Murphy and Rendon looming, teams still have to pick their poison, whether two men hit before him in that first inning or not. It is worth noting, however, that Harper has hit second in 147 games in his career, most of them early on. He actually hits worse there (.256 with a .770 OPS) than at any other spot with enough at-bats to matter.
Either way, any lineup-related angst should be short-lived — and taken for what they are, a problem caused by injury to a team that has won 20 more games than it has lost, and has a 12-game July lead in its division. For all his foot trouble, Werth should still be back in August. So should Turner. Taylor could be back even sooner. These lineup-related questions should all be irrelevant fairly soon, and the fact that they are so prominent now speaks to the strength of this team, and the nature of its season.