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Washington Nationals manager Matt Williams treats defense like lineup

Earlier this season, Matt Williams seemed to make Michael Taylor his leadoff man because he was replacing his regular leadoff man. On Friday, he's playing the best defensive infielder he has at first base because Danny Espinosa is in the lineup in place of Ryan Zimmerman. Here we go again......

It's great to see Danny Espinosa add to his bag of tricks by playing first base, but the Nats are weakening their infield defense by playing him there.
It's great to see Danny Espinosa add to his bag of tricks by playing first base, but the Nats are weakening their infield defense by playing him there.
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

At the beginning of the season, Washington Nationals manager Matt Williams used rookie Michael A. Taylor in the leadoff spot.  It appeared that there were a couple of things that persuaded Williams to go in that direction.

  1. Despite the high strikeout rate and the fact that he hadn't proven he could hit big league pitching yet, Taylor was fast
  2. Taylor was replacing Denard Span, who happened to be the Nats leadoff man

There didn't appear to be a whole lot of creativity in how Williams decided to handle that spot in the order... you know, the one that is guaranteed to at least tie for the most plate appearances in a game.  It was a really curious decision to give that spot to a rookie who struck out in 30% of his plate appearances between the minors and majors last season.

Fast forward to June 13.  Danny Espinosa, who was expected to be the Nats backup infielder, has been the club's second best hitter thus far this season.  Anthony Rendon recently returned to the lineup after missing the first two months, which meant that Espinosa was about to be relegated to bench duty or that the Nats were going to try to find other ways to get his bat in the lineup.  It didn't take long for a spot to open up, as Ryan Zimmerman hit the disabled list earlier this week with plantar fasciitis.

This leaves Matt Williams with a handful of spots that Espinosa (or the spot that was vacated for Espinosa) can play.  The Michael Taylor/Clint Robinson/Tyler Moore platoon in left field has been less than impressive with the bat.  Robinson and Moore would be the two players expected to primarily battle for playing time at first base with Zimmerman out.  Espinosa will obviously see time spelling the rest of the infield, particularly when it's factored in that Escobar has missed some time with nagging injuries and Rendon just returned from the disabled list.

That brings us to the problem:

  • Over the past five seasons, Espinosa has shown us that he's a borderline elite defender at second base.  His UZR/150 ranks tenth in baseball at 2b since 2010 and third among 2b this season.
  • In 2014, Anthony Rendon showed us that he's a plus defender at third base.  His UZR/150 ranked ninth among big league third basemen in 2014 and his Defensive Runs Above Average ranked eighth.
  • Escobar's defensive metrics probably don't mean that much at third base since we're still dealing with such a small sample.  Those metrics don't seem to like him one bit, though.  He ranks 19th among 23 qualifying third basemen with a -7.3 UZR/150 and -1.5 Defense Runs Above Average. Regardless of whether you believe in those metrics or not, Escobar had never played third base prior to this season and is adjusting to a new position anyway.

With Zimmerman out of the lineup and the Nats trying to find ways to give Espinosa playing time, all three of the above players are in Saturday's lineup.  Escobar is playing third base.  The Nationals are playing their plus third baseman (Rendon) at second base.  Their borderline elite second baseman (Espinosa) and the best defensive infielder they'll have on the field is playing first base.

In truth, the optimization of the defensive alignment over a two week period probably only makes a one or two run difference in the grand scheme of things.  However, whenever I get on these rants about optimization, it's about the attention to detail (or lack thereof) that seems to be shown when Williams has to make adjustments to his lineup.  Rather than use the guys he's putting on the field at their best positions, he's weakening his club defensively at two spots so that he keeps everyone else where they're used to playing.

Hopefully this plays out like the scenario that had Taylor leading off did.  I've hammered Williams for making questionable decisions, so it's only fair to give him credit when he does adjust.  It took a little over a week for Williams to bump Taylor back down in the order to a spot where he was a better fit.  Maybe he'll realize that he's minimizing the value of his best defender on the infield by playing him at first base fairly quickly.  We'll see.