One of the reasons the Nationals have gone 32-18 since Jayson Werth returned on August second is that they installed Jayson Werth as the lead-off hitter. Before Werth ascended to that spot the Nationals tried a collection of players there. In 57 games as a lead-off hitter Steve Lombardozzi hit .274/.314/.369, Danny Espinosa in 26 games in that spot has batted .259/.312/.457, and in 38 games at lead-off Ian Desmond hit .272/.294/.451. The main problem all those players had is that they didn’t get on base enough. The MLB average from a lead-off hitter is .262/.324/.393. Still a low OBP, but higher than what any of the three Nats main lead-off hitters had done.
Werth since his return and since becoming the lead-off hitter has hit .325/.407/.470. That isn’t just good for a lead-off hitter. That is elite, and when your top of the order gets on base it puts the rest of the line-up in a situation in order to drive in runs. Werth is able to not only get on base but he extends pitch counts and has seen 4.40 pitches per plate appearance. Not only is Werth helping to tire out to opposing pitcher by not making an out he does it when he makes an out as well, and he allows the batters behind him to see everything the current pitcher is featuring.
One of those batters behind him is the 19 year old phenom Bryce Harper. Harper has played most of his young career batting second and has put up a batting line of .256/.325/.447. Harper isn’t as good as Werth at seeing pitches in an at bat as he has seen an average of 3.86 pitches per plate appearance, but he can still extend an at bat and make pitchers work to get him out. The best quality Harper has is his ability to make quick adjustments. The first time facing a starting pitcher he has a .721 OPS, the second time .891, and the third time .945.
Harper and Werth at the top of the order are a big reason as to why the Nationals have averaged 5.0 runs a game since Werth’s return on August 2. A strong top of the order is important for many reasons. If they can even just get on in the first inning they can cause the order to turn over quickly, if someone in the bottom of the order gets on they can drive them in, and it is always good to have good hitters batting more during the course of a game.
Think about the Nationals line-up. They don’t have a big 40 homer middle of the order bat, but what they do have is three very solid hitters in Ryan Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche, and Michael Morse. None of those guys is a difference maker like Miguel Cabrera or Josh Hamilton, but they are all solid above average major league bats. Having runners on base is always important, but it is even better when a team has a Jayson Werth getting on base 40% of the time. Follow that up with a power bat like Harper who can be a terror on the bases, and it makes it so that almost any hit from the middle of the order has a chance to score a run.
There was a time for the Washington Nationals where it felt like every time you looked up Ryan Zimmerman was batting with two outs and nobody on. In fact in 2011 Ryan Zimmerman had 181 PA with runners on base, and with nine games left in 2012 Zimmerman has come to the plate 280 times with runners on base. Modified to represent total PA that is an increase of 5%. A big part of that is having Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper batting in front of him, and as all baseball fans know, more base runners leads to more opportunities for runs to be driven in and opportunity is the path to success.