The Shin-Soo Choo to the Rangers on a $130 million contract is old news and many people have pointed out that if Jayson Werth were a free agent this off-season the four years and $83 million remaining on his contract would be a fair deal. What hasn’t been pointed out is one of the main criticisms of the Nats signing Jayson Werth was that when they did it they planned on batting him second. Werth as a National has batted all over the place but he has never been more effective than when he was leading off near the end of 2012. It should come as no surprise that with Werth and Harper batting one, two the Nationals saw the best offensive production of their existence.
It wasn’t that long ago where the thinking of the experts on television was that $126 million was too much for a top of the order bat, but that thinking has changed and it isn’t because Choo is a markedly different player than Jayson Werth. Choo just signed a seven year $130 million deal to lead off for the Rangers. He is heading into his age 31 season whereas Werth was heading into his age 32 season, but that is only a difference of one season. Werth was signed to such a large deal based mostly on his .282/.380/.506 slash line he put up with the Phillies, but even Werth’s career slash line before the contract of .272/.367/.481 is good and comparable to Choo’s career line of .288/.389/.465. Werth has slightly more power, Choo gets on base a little better, but the numbers are close enough that it is easy to call them two players with similar skill sets.
From December of 2010 to December of 2013 the thinking around baseball has changed a little bit. The debate of where your best hitter should hit is no longer as much of a debate and the importance of the top two spots in the order has been recognized. In 2013 the average number one spot batted 750 times for a NL team and the number two spot 734 times. These are the two spots in a line-up that are going to bat the most and should go to the two best hitters on the team. For the Nationals that is Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper.
The main criticism of batting a hitter like Werth who has averaged 24 homers per 162 games is that those homers are going to be wasted in the lead-off spot, but in 2013 2,811 of 4,661 homeruns were solo shots. That is 60.3% of all major league homeruns are solo shots. There is no difference in a solo shot that leads off the game than a solo shot in the third inning with two outs and nobody on. The gain in on base percentage at the top of the order is much more important than the risk that there won’t be runners on base when a homerun is hit. If there aren’t players that can get on base in the one or two spots then the homeruns that would be wasted at the top of the order will still be solo shots.
The good news on this is that Shin-Soo Choo’s 162 game average homerun count is 20, or four less than Jayson Werth. If the Rangers aren’t worried about wasting those homers at the top of the order then the Nationals shouldn’t be either. Denard Span is an excellent defensive centerfielder, but he isn’t an elite base stealer and his 162 game average of 24 stolen bases isn’t that much higher than Jayson Werth’s of 16. If Werth is around his career OBP of .367 then not only will the Nats number one hitter get on base more their number two and three hitters will get more opportunities to hit with men on base and more total opportunities to hit.
One of the Nationals biggest issues in 2013 was that they didn’t have enough base runners. By simply batting Werth lead-off the Nationals would add base runners and give their best hitter more opportunities to hit. The perception not that long ago was that a lead-off hitter wasn’t the guy to get a $126 million contract. That that amount of money should be paid to a run producer and not a table setter, but the thinking around baseball has changed and the importance of batting a good hitter the most times during the season has been recognized. The criticism that a player with a $126 million contract shouldn’t lead-off is passé especially seeing as a player just signed a $130 million contract to do exactly that.