As I continue to think about the Nationals line-up I find one glaring weakness. If I thought like an old school manager this weakness wouldn’t exist as I’d bat my best speed guy, Denard Span, first and my best contact guy, Anthony Rendon, second, and while there is value in that I do not think that is the best approach. It sacrifices too much OBP in favor of offensive skills that don’t really matter. It could also be the way to go if Span can be around his career average .350 OBP and Rendon develops like many expect. Ultimately the components that make-up a line-up are far more important than the order they are placed in, but why teams shy away from having their best hitters in the spots that will get the most at bats is beyond me. In my dream scenario the first and second spots in the batting order belong to Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper.
This is where the weakness comes into play. In my imaginings I’ve always placed Ryan Zimmerman third because Ryan Zimmerman has always batted third and should always bat third. This is the way things have always been and the way they should continue to be, but that isn’t exactly the case. Ryan Zimmerman spent a number of games last season batting second or fourth and for his career is virtually the same batter no matter where he hits in the order. That is as it should be. Announcers and TV analyst talk about leading-off or hitting third being different but a player is placed in those positions because of an already displayed skill set and not to bat differently. This is why in my preferred batting order Ian Desmond should bat third.
Most teams put their best hitter batting third and this is evidenced by the fact that the average number three hitter’s batting line of .273/.352/.446 is the best of any spot in the order. Ian Desmond over the last two seasons is better than the average number three hitter when it comes to power but lags in OBP with an overall batting line of .286/.333/.480. The reason Ian Desmond would be batting third isn’t so much because of Ian Desmond. It has more to do with lengthening the line-up and making it more effective. Desmond’s power also makes him a good hitter to finish off an inning where the number one and two hitter both made outs. Desmond has the ability to pop a solo shot in those situations and salvage an otherwise fruitless inning.
The real benefit from Desmond batting third is that Zimmerman can bat fourth and the innings in which the first three go down in order the Nationals will then have one of their better OBP hitters leading off the subsequent inning. If any of the first three hitters should get on before Zimmerman he has the power and ability to drive them in. The biggest benefit to Desmond batting third is it gives the Nationals a solid front four and stacks the line-up near the top with their four best hitters. In other words it is the best way to make the opposing pitcher’s life difficult.
Without Desmond batting third and Zimmerman there instead there is a natural inclination to shy away from Desmond as the clean-up hitter. He has 20 homer power but more than 20 homer power is wanted in the clean-up spot. The natural inclination with Zimmerman third is to go to LaRoche fourth as he would provide more power than Desmond if he has an average Adam LaRoche season, but LaRoche has a batting line over the last two seasons of .255/.338/.459 so he actually has less power than Desmond. The ultimate conclusion from this is that neither LaRoche nor Desmond is the ideal number four hitter, and while Zimmerman isn’t either he has more power than either of them and helps to lengthen the Nationals line-up.
With Desmond third and Zimmerman fourth LaRoche would bat fifth with Ramos, Span, and Rendon rounding out the batting order. Span near the bottom is my preference due to his defensive abilities and the importance of keeping his glove in the outfield. Ramos bats sixth because he is the most powerful hitter of the remaining three and Rendon is eighth because he is young and should pay his dues. By mid-May this could all sort itself out and Harper could be on a 40 homer pace and Rendon getting on base at a .350+ clip. If that happens then Rendon bats second and everyone else slides down one notch. Even if Span and Werth are both hitting well Werth should remain at the top of the order due to his superior on base skills and close to equal base running skills.
The key to starting the season with a solid line-up remains Ian Desmond batting third. Place him there for the first 100 plate appearances to see how the players are playing and adjust from there. Desmond third lengthens the line-up while also stacking the team’s four best hitters as the first four a pitcher will face. Ian Desmond batting third solves the Nationals lack of a clean-up hitter by making Ryan Zimmerman that hitter. When creating a line-up a manager’s job is to give his players the best chance to succeed and the best way for the Nationals to do that is to start the season with Desmond batting third.