Hey Dusty, got a sec­ond?

It might be time to con­sider mov­ing Harper to No. 2 in the Na­tion­als’ bat­ting or­der

The Washington Post Sunday - - WASHINTONPOST.COM/SPORTS - BY NEIL GREEN­BERG neil.green­berg@wash­post.com

One of the pri­mary ob­jec­tives of ad­vanced sta­tis­tics is to pro­vide al­ter­na­tives to con­ven­tional wis­dom. For base­ball, that can mean look­ing at the bat­ting lineup with a more crit­i­cal eye.

For the Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als, it could mean re­struc­tur­ing the bat­ting or­der around Bryce Harper as the No. 2 hit­ter, rather than his typ­i­cal role in the third or fourth spot.

That would be the cor­ner­stone of the Nats’ sta­tis­ti­cally op­ti­mized lineup, based on 2017’s pro­jec­tions.

“I’ve con­sid­ered it,” Na­tion­als Man­ager Dusty Baker told The Post’s Jorge Castillo on Thurs­day. “But it just de­pends on you still have to put two or three left­ies in a row. We’ll see. But I got to have some­body to pro­tect. I had [Mur­phy] pro­tect­ing [Harper] last year be­cause Mur­phy was more pro­duc­tive. So we’ll see how it works out.”

If pro­jec­tions for the 2017 sea­son hold true, we have a good idea what lineup Baker should use when all play­ers are healthy and avail­able.

In “The Book: Play­ing the Per­cent­ages in Base­ball,” au­thor Tom Tango ad­vo­cated the No. 2 bat­ter should be among the team’s three best hit­ters be­cause he bats with the bases empty more of­ten than the hit­ters be­hind him.

Harper is not only one of the best hit­ters on the team — when healthy, he is one of the best hit­ters in base­ball.

In 2015, Harper bat­ted .330, tied for the Na­tional League lead in home runs (42, with Colorado’s Nolan Are­nado), and led in runs scored (118), on-base per­cent­age (.460) and slug­ging per­cent­age (.649). His on-base plus slug­ging (1.109) was al­most dou­ble the league av­er­age (198 OPS+) after ad­just­ing for league and park ef­fects, the high­est since Barry Bonds in 2004.

In 2016 he slumped, but pro­jec­tions peg him to be the sixth most valu­able hit­ter in the ma­jors (5.2 wins above re­place­ment) in 2017.

Mur­phy, mean­while, is ex­pected to have a .353 OBP but just 2.8 fWAR this sea­son. If that holds, Harper is the bet­ter op­tion to bat sec­ond.

The big­gest ben­e­fit to Harper bat­ting sec­ond is more at-bats. The No. 2 hit­ter usu­ally has 737 plate ap­pear­ances com­pared to 718 and 702 for the third and fourth bat­ters, re­spec­tively.

And since Harper is pro­jected to be the best hit­ter on the team, the more times he is at the plate, the bet­ter it is.

The team wouldn’t sac­ri­fice Harper’s RBI opportunities, ei­ther. Based on RBI and runs scored data, the real heart of the or­der are the 2-3-4 bat­ters, not the 3-4-5 hit­ters con­ven­tional wis­dom sug­gests.

The down­side to bat­ting Harper sec­ond is re­duc­ing Trea Turner’s ag­gres­sive­ness on the base paths. Turner, who was Wash­ing­ton’s lead­off hit­ter last sea­son, stole 33 bases in 73 games and is pro­jected to steal be­tween 38 and 53 in 2017, de­pend­ing on which pro­jec­tion sys­tem you pre­fer. But you don’t want to risk giv­ing up an out with Harper at the plate.

Tra­di­tion­ally, the lead­off spot is re­served for con­tact hit­ters with speed, but you re­ally want a player with a high on-base per­cent­age, rather than one who only steals bases, in the top spot. From 2010 to 2015, you would ex­pect a team to score 0.86 runs per in­ning with a man on first and no outs.

That im­proves to 1.1 runs if a player is able to suc­cess­fully steal sec­ond base. How­ever, if caught, that drops the team’s run ex­pectancy down to 0.25 (one out, no run­ners on). In other words, a suc­cess­ful steal in­creases a team’s run ex­pectancy by 0.24; an un­suc­cess­ful at­tempt re­duces it by more than twice as much (0.59).

Also con­sider: If Turner were to steal suc­cess­fully, and Harper some­how re­sumed his hot-hit­ting ways from 2015, first base would be open for an in­ten­tional walk.

Turner’s speed could be bet­ter uti­lized lower in the or­der when there is no risk of tak­ing the bat out of your best hit­ter’s hands.

There is an ar­gu­ment to be made that Harper, be­cause he is the best hit­ter on the team, should bat lead­off, but his over­all power num­bers (31 pro­jected home runs) make him more of a home run threat with run­ners on base in the sec­ond spot.

In­stead of Turner and Harper, Baker should con­sider An­thony Ren­don for the lead­off role.

Ren­don hit .270 with a .348 OBP last sea­son, and is pro­jected to have the fourth-high­est OBP on the team in 2017, only slightly be­hind Adam Ea­ton and Mur­phy, who project to rank No. 2 and No. 3 re­spec­tively.

Turner could then be used as the sixth hit­ter, fol­lowed by a high-con­tact hit­ter like Ea­ton or in­fielder Stephen Drew.

With all this in mind, the ideal lineup, based on 2017 pro­jec­tions, would be: Ren­don, Harper, Jayson Werth, Mur­phy, Ryan Zim­mer­man, Turner, Ea­ton and Matt Wi­eters, with only Zim­mer­man and Turner two like­handed bat­ters back to back.

“We have to bal­ance it,” Baker said. “I don’t know how it’s work­ing out. Like I said, I got time. I’m try­ing things. And, like I said, we’re go­ing to the sea­son with­out a set lineup. It’s set to start the sea­son, but if things ain’t king then I got to make a change. So we’ll have to see. There’s a method to my mad­ness.”


Bryce Harper bat­ting sec­ond would mean more at-bats; the down­side would be re­duc­ing Trea Turner’s ag­gres­sive­ness.

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