For those of you trying to work out the perfect batting order for the Washington Nationals, here are the precise numbers on how much batting order affects playing time, so to speak. These are 2015 numbers:
As you can see, the difference between batting third and batting first is roughly a difference of a five percent drop in plate appearances. Five percent does not sound like a big difference, but think about what Bryce Harper could have done last year with just five percent more opportunities at the plate.
Most of Harper's positive value comes from his bat. He might have gotten on base another 15 times. He might have hit two or three more home runs. Instead of 9.5 wins above replacement he might have produced closer to 10 wins above replacement.
In 2015, Harper batted third about 70 percent of the time, and fourth about 30 percent of the time, so he probably was down nearly six percent from the maximum production opportunities possible.
Now, we all know nobody is arguing for Harper to be batting first, but it does mean that we have an idea that the teammates that bat ahead of him will cumulatively provide more value in cooperation with Harper than he is giving up by dropping down in the order. Where do we find that value?
The goal is run production, and we all know that power is a big part of the equation as well. The idea is that solo home runs are worth a lot less than multi-run home runs and that the batters at the top of the lineup on average will drive in fewer runs with their home runs and doubles simply because they are not going to come up with men on bases as often.
It's not a science. Batting third and fourth, 25 of Harper's 42 home runs were still solo home runs. The other 17 home runs brought an average of 2.3 runs home, which puts the overall production of his home runs at about 1.5 runs per home run. That is not insignificant, but do realize that Yunel Escobar's nine home runs also brought in 1.5 runs per home run despite the fact that he hit five of them while he was batting leadoff.
Trying to quantify the potential difference in value of Harper's team leading 38 doubles is harder, but the same principle applies.
A double can clear the bases and a double always creates a RISP opportunity for the guy batting behind him. Where home runs rely entirely on the guys already on base for increased value, doubles also benefit from having quality batters behind.
Since Harper is not just a home run hitter, his value is maximized best if he has good hitters both ahead and behind him, although his 40 home run power suggests an emphasis on the top of the order may be called for.
So what do we look for in the batters that get the privilege of taking plate appearances away from Bryce Harper?
Simply put, on base percentage (OBP) is the single most important variable here. The more they get on base, the more he can drive them in and create value. Speed is valuable. Power is not. Being able to score from 1st base on a double is a valuable skill. Safely getting on base is the main thing that justifies giving a player a top slot over Harper.
Here are the candidates:
Ben Revere - Is projected to get on base at about a .336 rate, which is slightly above his career average but below the .342 OBP he put up last year. His speed on the bases does provide added value.
Anthony Rendon - Is projected to get on base at about a .350 rate, also slightly above his career average. Has some speed when healthy (stole 17 bases in 2014).
Daniel Murphy - Steamer projects him to get on base at a .350 rate, though he generally has an OBP between .319 and .332 for four years running. Once speedy, but running game has slowed to a crawl recently.
Jayson Werth - Is projected to get on base at about a .350 rate despite his massive down year in 2015. When healthy his OBP can easily get higher than that (.390s in '14 & '15). Not a bad baserunner but not a steal threat.
By raw OBP (when healthy) we can roughly rank them Werth > Rendon > Revere > Murphy.
Rendon, Werth, and Murphy are all capable of hitting 10 to 15 home runs (maybe more), but it is just as likely that Harper will again hit more home runs as all of them combined, so power is not going to be a big issue. Health will, and the question of health is something that will hopefully be put to rest during spring training.
So, what would you do? Would you bat Harper third or fourth in the lineup? You know that every time you drop Harper in the order you are taking practically guaranteed offensive potential away from the Nationals if the guys you put ahead of him don't get on base enough.
If you want to bat him fourth, what makes you believe that three of those guys will have strong enough seasons to make taking up to 50 plate appearances away from Harper worth it? Bryce Harper last year got on base at a .460 clip and picked up an extra base hit for every eight plate appearances he got. That's ten walks, seven singles, three doubles, and three home runs he won't collect because he is batting fourth instead of leadoff.
Who is worthy of batting ahead of Bryce Harper? Are there two or three bats that you feel are productive enough that they can justify taking the extra plate appearances to set the table for Harper? Remember too that it's not all about Harper. The difference between batting second and sixth is a difference of ten percent bat value just from the number of plate appearances available, and ten percent is significant even for players who are not Bryce Harper.
The Nationals should have their absolute best players at the top of the order if they want to maximize their run-scoring opportunities. Having one of the best bats in baseball in the lineup only makes the decision more critical.