Whether it’s the way the Nationals will choose come April remains to be seen. A pressing offensive question is how they will optimize Soto in an order that drops off after him and Turner. The 22-year-old Soto led the sport in a whole list of advanced statistics in 2020, drawing comparisons to Ted Williams’s production at the same age. Now, heading into Soto’s third full season, the key is giving him the maximum number of chances to tilt the scoreboard. Protecting him with Turner, the team’s next best hitter, could be a good start.
“I wouldn’t read into it too much,” Manager Dave Martinez said Wednesday, the first time he used Robles, Soto and Turner in that order. “It was vice versa last year, for the most part. Trea hit in front of Soto, and they did well together. But I just want to see what this kind of looks like.”
The truth is that lineup construction — and lineup protection, to a lesser extent — is better for bar-side debate than predicting outcomes. Its effect on games has never quite matched the oxygen or ink it receives (perhaps here included). Old-school lineup thinking followed a familiar pattern: a fast leadoff hitter; a second hitter who makes a lot of contact; a third hitter with the rare combination of contact and power; a fourth hitter (or “cleanup” batter) who uses power to knock everyone in; then a fifth hitter with enough power to “protect” the cleanup guy and keep pitchers from walking him with no consequence. The (not-so-)new-age thinking, though, is pretty simple on its face: Get your top hitters as many at-bats as possible.
Speed and a high on-base percentage are still preferred characteristics for a leadoff hitter. And there are, of course, dozens of wrinkles beyond that. But it’s all rooted in the idea that teams get a fixed number of plate appearances per season, and those should largely be handed to the most productive hitters. Think of Mike Trout, maybe one of the top players ever, hitting second for the Los Angeles Angels. Or Christian Yelich and Freddie Freeman hitting second during recent MVP seasons.
By that logic, the Nationals should hit Soto second behind a player who gets on base a lot. Speed wouldn’t hurt, either. But this is where it gets a bit complicated.
The obvious choice is Turner, who broke out last season with a .335 average, a .394 on-base percentage and a .588 slugging percentage. He was the Nationals’ leadoff man for all of 2019 and some of a shortened 2020. He is the traditional prototype. But there’s a strong case that, as the club’s second-best hitter, he should hit after Soto in the order.
Protection, at a very basic level, is slotting one good hitter behind another to dissuade teams from avoiding the first good hitter. A player is thought to get more fastballs, or at least more pitches in the strike zone, if the next batter is respected. Having Turner behind Soto could help prevent what happened in September, when Soto walked 28 times (11 of those intentionally) in 92 plate appearances. Teams kept putting him on because they didn’t fear Eric Thames or Asdrúbal Cabrera in the on-deck circle.
“It’s really different to have Howie Kendrick behind me,” Soto explained during that stretch. “At the beginning of the year, I didn’t know how different it is. My hitting coach would tell me, ‘Hey, you need Howie right there behind you.’ I didn’t expect that. I was like, ‘They’re going to still pitch to me.’ And then I realized they walked me intentionally a lot of times. And then I said, ‘All right, I need somebody behind me.’ ”
So without Kendrick, who retired this winter, the options are Turner, Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber. The latter two were acquired this offseason to strengthen the lineup around Soto and Turner. When hitting well, both are home run threats who walk a lot. Bell, a switch hitter, smacked 37 homers in 2019 before struggling last summer. Schwarber, a left-handed hitter, had 38 homers and an .871 on-base-plus-slugging percentage before cratering last year, too. The Nationals are counting on them to rebound.
But even if they do, Turner provides a bigger presence behind Soto. Last season, his fifth as a full-time player, he turned flashes of power into consistent results. He slugged 12 homers and tied for the National League lead with four triples. He is a lot more dynamic than a skinny shortstop who slaps the ball and runs. Yet moving him to third in the order would create another conundrum up top.
Martinez has not been shy about wanting Robles to lead off. Neither has hitting coach Kevin Long. But Robles had a .293 on-base percentage in 2020. His slash line against right-handed pitchers was a disappointing .180/.250/.279 in 136 plate appearances. He hits lefties well and is still 23 but remains an experiment at the plate.
The Nationals could ease in by hitting him first against lefties, then using a left-handed hitter (maybe Schwarber) against righties. Schwarber led off in 96 of 551 games with the Chicago Cubs. The outcomes were mixed. With him in that spot, Washington would gain on-base percentage and lose a lot of speed. That’s why this is a loop of cost-benefit analysis.
“If we can have Victor Robles lead off, it’s huge,” Long said on a videoconference call with reporters last week. “Because it now allows us to put Trea, who’s now a really, really polished hitter, in maybe the two or three hole. And it kind of lengthens out our lineup.”
These discussions are full of ifs. If Robles takes a huge leap, the Nationals could be flexible with Turner and Soto. If Bell and Schwarber improve and are closer to their pre-2020 selves, hitting Soto second and Turner third — or vice versa — could depend on whom Martinez wants on base for whom.
And, inevitably, teams are going to pitch around Soto whenever they can. The Nationals just have to make that work for them.
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