Leading Off: Jayson Werth vs. Denard Span

Heading into the 2014 Washington Nationals season the biggest debate going is who should lead off. It looks like Matt Williams is going to put Denard Span in that spot trusting that the comfort that he felt in the second half of 2013 is going to continue into 2014; while many stat inclined Nationals fans want it to be Jayson Werth as he has been the team’s best OBP guy over the last couple seasons. There are other factors at work in this and the most important is that Jayson Werth doesn’t want to lead-off. As a rookie manager Matt Williams needs the team leaders behind him. Ryan Zimmerman has bought into the idea of playing first every now and then, but Werth views himself as more of a run producer than a table setter, and angering him could cause Williams to lose the clubhouse and if that happens his time as a manager will be short lived.

With all those factors on the table let’s put some numbers to what it means to have Werth leading off over Span. If we use last season’s OBP numbers there is a significant separation between Werth’s .398 and Span’s .327. That is a .071 point difference or 42 extra times on base. With Werth’s 2013 wOBA that is 17 extra runs or 1.7 more wins. With the Nationals finishing four games back of a Wild Card spot in 2013 those 1.7 wins wouldn’t have made a big difference. At best the Nationals are two games out of the playoffs instead of four but still out of the playoffs, and in 2013 Werth was significantly better than Denard Span. Now let’s be a little more realistic.

There is a reason that single season stats aren’t used when analyzing players. It is rare that a player will put up identical seasons in back to back years. In fact I’m not even certain that any player has had an identical season in back to back years. The truth is all players, for better or worse, regress to the mean. That means we aren’t looking at a separation of a .398 OBP compared to a .327 OBP, but Werth’s career average of .367 OBP compared to Span’s .351 OBP. If both players find their level in 2014 then the difference between Werth leading off over Span is .016 points of OBP or 9 extra times on base over the course of 600 plate appearances. Using Werth’s career wOBA that works out to an extra 3 runs.

Is it worth losing the clubhouse over 3 runs? Ask yourself this question and consider that the Nationals front office is considered one of the more analytical front offices in baseball and Matt Williams has stated he is aware of the advanced numbers. If I’ve run the math on the difference with Werth leading off vs. Span then you can be sure someone in the Nationals organization has run the math on it and that it was ten thousand times more accurate math. The people running baseball teams are doing so for a reason and are vastly smarter than any of us writing about it on our blogs.

At this point you’re thinking, “But the Nationals couldn’t score in the first half when Span was leading off and struggling doing so,” and while Span did struggle in the first half of the season his leading off had less to do with the Nationals lack of ability to score runs than who was in the line-up with him. Whether Werth bats first or fifth is going to have little impact on run production. What does have a major impact is if Werth is removed completely from the line-up and replaced with Roger Bernadina, Tyler Moore, or Steve Lombardozzi. The reason the Nationals couldn’t score runs in the first half of the season isn’t because of who was leading off the line-up but because of who was in it.

Jayson Werth, Wilson Ramos, and Bryce Harper all missed significant and concurrent time early in the season and this is when the Nationals struggled to score runs. Add in a one armed Danny Espinosa and that is four below .620, less than replacement level hitters, and a pitcher as part of a major league line-up. On April 17 Ryan Zimmerman hit the fifteen day DL and soon after that Werth suffered his own injury even though he wouldn’t officially go on the DL until May 2. While those two were injured Wilson Ramos strained his hamstring and Bryce Harper injured his ribs on a wall in Atlanta and his knee on a wall in LA. Werth would return on June 4 along with Anthony Rendon coming up to replace Danny Espinosa.

That period of time is the most injured the Nationals were and a time when on a nightly basis the line-up had three to four of Roger Bernadina, Tyler Moore, Steve Lombardozzi, Kurt Suzuki, and Chad Tracy playing. From April 18 through June 3 the Washington Nationals averaged 3.2 runs a game, before those injuries they were averaging 4.3 runs a game and after the injuries 4.4 runs a game. It is amazing how one bad month and a half of run production can color the entire perception of a season, and how the blame can be passed from who was in the line-up to who was leading off the line-up.

Span struggled in 2013, but his struggles in the lead-off spot didn’t have nearly the impact of being followed in the line-up by a bunch of dead weight. Having Werth in the line-up is the most important part of having Jayson Werth. The same goes with Bryce Harper, Wilson Ramos, and Ryan Zimmerman. Where they hit is less important than they exist. If the Nationals suffer injuries and Nate McLouth, Scott Hairston, Jose Lobaton, and Danny Espinosa/Jamey Carroll/Zach Walters are no better than Chad Tracy, Steve Lombardozzi, Tyler Moore, Kurt Suzuki, and Roger Bernadina then the Nationals will once again struggle to score runs and it won’t matter if Ricky Henderson or Tim Raines are leading off.

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