Hey Dusty, got a second?
It might be time to consider moving Harper to No. 2 in the Nationals’ batting order
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.