“I like the fact that Trea will get on base, he can steal, will not have to worry about hitting in front of [Anthony] Rendon early,” Martinez said of hitting Turner first. “And Adam, who can hit the hole with the best of them there, to pull the ball and get the ball in the hole, for me it’s about scoring runs early in the game, and those two guys make it happen.”
There are a few elements to unpack there. Let’s start with how the order will look depending on who leads off.
If Turner is first, Martinez would have Eaton hit second, Rendon hit third and Juan Soto hit fourth. If Eaton leads off, Martinez would have Turner hit second, Soto hit third and Rendon hit fourth. He will have only two left-handed hitters in his regular lineup, with first baseman Matt Adams on the bench as a pinch hitter, and Martinez always will avoid hitting Eaton and Soto back-to-back.
This is important. While mostly hitting second last season, Turner led the National League with 43 stolen bases and was second in the league with 52 attempts. But Martinez wants the 25-year-old shortstop to attempt a lot more steals — maybe even north of 75 — and believes hitting in front of Eaton could unleash Turner on the base paths.
Turner was regularly ahead of Bryce Harper in 2018 and, once on base, may have been cautious for two reasons: A two-out steal attempt could have taken the bat out of Harper’s hands. A steal attempt in any situation could risk erasing an RBI opportunity for a feared hitter.
It would be a similar situation if Turner slots in front of Rendon, who hit 24 home runs and had a .909 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 136 games last season. Hitting in front of Eaton would lead to a lot more base running freedom. A bulk of Turner’s career plate appearances have come in the leadoff spot — 1,022, compared with 425 hitting second — but Eaton almost exclusively has led off when healthy in the past two seasons.
“You’ve got to be in the right position, and your teammates have got to help you out a little bit sometimes,” Turner said in mid-February when asked if he could have stolen more bases last season. “I think that’s overlooked sometimes, who’s hitting behind you, and they have to kind of help you. I think that’s a kind of complementary thing, and I think that helps our team, whether it’s putting pressure on the other team, scoring more runs.”
Then Turner said this when asked Friday about hitting leadoff: “It will probably help me run a little bit more, definitely change my game a little bit in the sense that I’ll get pitched differently with Eaton behind me. And he’s a really good bat-control guy, so he can do a lot of different things. He can bunt, hit and run, and I think it’s going to be fun if we do hit one and two.”
That leads into how Eaton’s tendencies make sense behind Turner. Eaton’s balls in play were pretty evenly distributed in 2018 — 31.9 percent pulled, 31.9 percent up the middle and 36.2 percent to the opposite field, according to FanGraphs — but he was undoubtedly most productive when he pulled the ball. He had a .414 batting average and .971 OPS on balls that he pulled, compared to .371/.909 up the middle and .340/.736 to the opposite field. And because he is left-handed, his pulled hits go to right field, and that could give Turner regular opportunities to go from first to third on a single.
Wherever Martinez decides to hit Turner and Eaton, he wants to find a much more consistent lineup in 2019. The Nationals had 125 different batting orders last season, without counting the pitcher’s spot, and their most regular lineup was used only 10 times. That was largely because of injuries, but it also was because Martinez fiddled in search of a spark that never really came.
Martinez has mentioned possibly hitting Robles ninth to give the Nationals a second leadoff hitter at the bottom of the order. He has had Turner first and Eaton second in the past two exhibitions they started together, and Turner again led off against the Houston Astros on Sunday. Martinez probably will start the year with Ryan Zimmerman hitting fifth, Dozier behind him and one of the team’s two veteran catchers, Yan Gomes or Kurt Suzuki, in the seventh spot.
And expect Martinez to stick with a leadoff hitter if he likes one order better than another. That’s the current plan, at least, and it’s always easy to make promises in the spring.
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