The average lead-off hitter in the NL this season has hit .267/.331/.393. Denard Span for his career has hit .281/.351/.384. Given that he sounds like a perfectly acceptable lead-off hitter, but Span is having a career worst season at the plate batting .257/.311/.350. If this continues the Nationals are going to have a choice to make, or a non-choice. The acquisition of Hairston makes it possible to have a platoon of Span in center with Hairston hopefully batting somewhere lower in the order and Jayson Werth or Anthony Rendon in the lead-off spot when the Nationals face a left hander.
Span’s poor offensive numbers in 2013 are due mostly to his inability to hit left handed pitching. For his career Span has a batting line of .276/.356/.371 against left handed pitchers and .283/.349/.390 against right handed pitchers. In 2013 his numbers against right handed pitching are even better than his career numbers at .301/.351/.422, but his numbers against left handed pitching are a paltry .144/.210/.165. That is bad. It is very bad. Those are the types of numbers that indicate a batter shouldn’t even face left handed pitching, but it doesn’t jive with Span’s career numbers and as any sophisticated baseball fan will tell you career numbers are far more predictive than the small sample size of a half season’s worth of at bats against left handed pitching.
The choice the Nationals have is to look at the 106 plate appearances Span has had this season and ascribe to them a great deal of meaning and move Span out of the line-up or at least out of the lead-off spot against left handed pitching, or they can look at the more meaningful 955 plate appearances vs. left handed pitching Span has had for his career and ride this out. The issue the Nationals face is that they are reaching the denouement of the season and they are running out of time to wait for stats to normalize, and on top of that there is no guarantee that stats will normalize. The great saying that things even out in baseball is in no uncertain terms bullshit.
The Nationals best course of action is to not platoon Span with Hairston as the defense in center would suffer greatly. Denard Span ranks eighth among center fielders in all of baseball in UZR/150 and every Nationals fan that has watched him track a ball in center field has wondered, “Where has Denard Span been all our lives.” It is easy to justify taking his bat out of the line-up against left handed pitching given his 2013 numbers, but it is very difficult to justify taking his glove out of the field.
The lead-off spot should be for a team’s best OBP hitter, and for the Washington Nationals this season that has been Bryce Harper. His .542 SLG on the other hand makes him much better suited for another spot in the line-up. Second on the team in OBP is Jayson Werth who has an OBP of .362 and lead-off for much of the second half of the 2012 season when the Nationals averaged 4.9 runs a game. Having Werth followed by Harper at the top of the line-up gave the Nationals one of the most dangerous and productive top of order in baseball.
It really isn’t hard to understand why that would be. Both Werth and Harper get on base, can work counts, and hit for power. Having two of the best hitters in a line-up getting the most plate appearances is never a bad thing, and there are some in the modern baseball community who believe a team’s best hitter should bat second. There are others that worry that a hitter like Jayson Werth has too much power for the lead-off spot, but 60% of all homeruns hit in 2013 have been solo shots. What does it matter if they are coming with one out in the second or no outs in the first? It probably matters to the degree that when a baseball team in 2013 has entered the second inning with a lead they win 66% of the time. There is no real justification to say that a hitter with moderate power like Werth is wasted in the lead-off spot.
Line-up construction is one of the more banal points of baseball discussion. If everyone is producing it doesn’t matter who hits where, but not everyone is going to produce every night, and the key is to get the batters with the highest chance to produce next to each other in the line-up and coming to the plate more often. The spots that offer that are lead-off and the number two hitter, and Werth and Harper have been the Nationals two most consistent producers along with Zimmerman and LaRoche for more of the 2013 season. A line-up of Werth, Harper, Zimmerman, LaRoche, Desmond, Rendon, Ramos, Span, pitcher’s spot is the toughest line-up the Nationals can put on the field right now. It stacks their best and most consistent hitters, gets Werth and Harper the most plate appearances, has good power from spots 1-7, and keeps Span’s glove in centerfield. And if Span’s offense starts to come around against left handed pitching then it give Werth and Harper the chance to hit with more men on base from the top of the order.
The other option is to wait for Span to improve, and he only needs to improve vs. left handed pitching. He is hitting above his career norms vs. right handed pitching. Most nights it makes perfect sense for Span to be leading off, but even on those nights it makes better sense to have Werth leading off. Davey Johnson and the Nationals may not see it that way and sticking with Span and waiting for him to hit more towards his career averages is a very Davey Johnson thing to do. Despite the fact that the Nationals have played nowhere close to their potential they are still six games out of the division and four out of the Wild Card with 70 games left to play. A lot of less talented teams have come back from bigger holes, but the Nationals could help themselves with just a little bit of line-up modification, and at this point any help can’t hurt.