With news that Trea Turner is out indefinitely with a non-displaced fracture of his right wrist, the Washington Nationals have lost not only their starting shortstop, but the spark plug atop their lineup. Since their other traditional leadoff type, Adam Eaton, happens to be done for the year with a torn ACL, the Nats may now find themselves searching for more than just bullpen help a month from now at the trade deadline.
Barring an immediate move, however, the Nats are going to need to find someone to at least temporarily fill that role. Who do they turn to? Given the preferences that we've seen Dusty Baker show both throughout his managerial career and his tenure in Washington, there's a fairly good chance that they'll turn to Michael A. Taylor to bat leadoff. Taylor brings the type of speed that Baker has always coveted atop his lineup. He does bring quite a bit of pop (11 HR, .241 ISO) that some people tend to think can be wasted by having a guy lead off.
However, the most important issue that should keep him from going to the top of the order is his On-Base Percentage. Even with Taylor's surprising improvement at the plate this season, he still only has a .309 OBP to this point. His 5.1% walk rate is actually the lowest it has been in any single season in his career. His strikeout rate (32.2%) has still been atrocious, and is right in line with what he did last season (32.5%). Having a stolen base threat atop the lineup isn't really very useful unless that stolen base threat is finding a way to steal first, and Taylor still hasn't proven that he can do that consistently at the big league level.
What the Nationals do have are four of the best everyday players in baseball, each of whom have an OBP over .380. Bryce Harper (.420), Anthony Rendon (.402), Daniel Murphy (.389), and Ryan Zimmerman (.379... it actually dropped below .380 Thursday). They all get on base regularly enough so that you want these guys getting as many plate appearances as possible. One of them typically bats sixth in the order because of how much depth the Nats lineup has. It's time to move him to the top.
Anthony Rendon has all of the qualities of a modern leadoff man:
- He can hit well for average (.277 career, .298 this season).
- His 14.6% walk rate ranks eleventh in MLB.
- His 4.44 Pitches Per Plate Appearance ranks second in MLB.
- He has enough power to be drive himself in if necessary
- He's not Trea Turner on the basepaths (Who is?), but Rendon is 35 for 49 when attempting to steal in his career and can wreak some havoc when he's on.
Rendon not only does a terrific job of getting on base, but he also works opposing pitchers as hard as anyone in baseball. In a modern game that focuses heavily on running up pitch counts, that's a useful skill to have atop the lineup. It's also incredibly handy in allowing the hitters behind him to get a look at what kind of stuff the opposing pitcher has that night. While speed may not be the most important aspect of his game, as it is with a player like Turner, Rendon's ability on the basepaths is more of a complementary skill.
More importantly, though, moving Rendon to the leadoff spot could ensure that the Nats get one of their top two hitters as many chances in the batter's box as possible. While the likelihood is that, assuming Turner ends up being out for about two months, Rendon would only end up seeing about fifteen to twenty more plate appearances in the leadoff spot than he would in his current sixth spot, the importance of those at bats is another factor.
In a close late game, when the lineup turns over, the placement of a hitter in the lineup is a tad more important. Your leadoff man will certainly get one more at bat than some of the hitters below him in the lineup, which is where having one of your worst position players batting in the leadoff spot can come back to bite you*. Taylor, who likely ends up one of the more popular candidates to move to the top of the order based on the fact that he's the biggest stolen base threat they have now, ranks 11th on the Nationals with a 109 wRC+ (that is absurd that the Nats 11th best hitter has been 9% better than a league average hitter). That's not who you want coming up for a fifth at bat with two outs in a one run game in the ninth inning.
The Nats lineup this season has been the best in baseball. While the damage that Trea Turner does both in the batter's box and on the basepaths is one of the key reasons for this, it's not the only one (or even necessarily one of the four or five most important ones). They should use this as an opportunity to get their best hitters more opportunities. Move Tony Two Bags to the top spot.