Tuesday, August 25, 2015

What To Do With the Lineup

Denard Span is back and all of a sudden the Nationals roster is bursting at the seams with healthy players. Matt Williams can now go one of two ways with a healthy Span available: He can go the simple, obvious, safe route and go with the lineup everyone pictured on opening day: Ramos at catcher, Zimmerman at first, Rendon at second, Desmond at short, Escobar at third, and Werth, Span, and Harper in the outfield. That’s the lineup that everyone was predicting would run away with the NL East. But, we have more information now that can’t be ignored that indicates Williams could and should get creative with the two guys he would be sitting on the bench: Danny Espinosa and Michael A Taylor.

I’ve been arguing for weeks that Espinosa should get more playing time, and he’s backed it up with his play. His offensive numbers for the second half are down, but that is because he hasn’t been getting consistent playing time. Defensively, he is still the most athletic and most versatile player on the Nationals roster. Rendon had a good couple of games offensively against the Brewers, but he is still working his way back to 100%. A day off every week would do him good, especially considering his lengthy injury history. Desmond is also hitting well, finally, but has played in nearly every Nationals game this year. A day off once a week would do his legs well. Finally, Escobar has obviously hit well this season, but he is showing signs of wearing down. He’s hitting only .263 in the second half of the year after hitting .321 in the first half. Don’t let FP Santangelo fool you, Escobar is a statue at third base, capable handling balls hit right at him, but struggling with balls to his side. Sometimes literally face planting.

However Espinosa is hitting, he will be a defensive upgrade regardless of which infielder he replaces. Of course, if we are picking our spots for Espinosa to play, we should look to see if we can find situations that play to Espinosa’s strengths as a hitter. Espinosa has actually been pretty successful from both sides of the plate this year. Facing left handed pitchers, Espinosa has hit for a higher average while striking out less and taking more walks. Against right handed pitchers, Espinosa does strikeout slightly more and walks slightly less but hits for substantially more power as he has slugged 10 of his 12 homeruns against right handers. In a vacuum and for this Nationals team, Espinosa is probably more valuable when he faces left handed hitters and gets on base, setting the table for Harper. But, his ability to hit left handed means he has the platoon advantage against right handed pitchers, unlike the rest of the Nationals right handed hitting infield. Espinosa’s versatility is reassuring as it means Matt Williams can’t screw up playing Danny Espinosa, he just has to actually play him. No need to slot him in the lineup in specific situations. Just rotate the days off around the infield to keep him in the game, no matter the pitcher.

Michael A Taylor represents the exact opposite conundrum. Taylor has hit 17% below average by wRC+, due mostly to his sky high 32% strike out rate. However, DRS (Defensive Runs Saved) credits him with preventing 8 runs with his outfield defense. UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating), another advanced defensive stat, rates him at nearly 17 runs better than average. If Taylor is going to get playing time, it will be to get his speed and athleticism in the outfield on defense, not because of his bat. Both Span and Harper rate well in terms of defense, so Taylor most clearly represents an upgrade defensively over Jayson Werth. Werth, in only 403 innings, has scored -9 according to DRS and -6.4 by UZR, and this isn’t just a small sample size issue. Werth’s bat may be coming around, but it’s hard to outhit those terrible defensive numbers. He’s a leader of this team, though, and we know he can work the count and get on base ahead of Harper as well. Unlike Espinosa, I’m not calling for Taylor to play every day. Just calling for Werth to get some consistent days off to allow Taylor’s defense to see the field.

Taylor isn’t a total loss at the plate, though, as we all know he can still run into a pitch and send it a long way. He’s held his own against fastballs, he’s hitting over .270 against fastballs with power as 8 of his homeruns have come against fastballs. He’s actually done well against curve balls this year with a .385 batting average; however, he hasn’t gotten an extra base hit against the curve so far. When a pitcher can go to a change up or slider, though, is when Taylor really struggles. He’s hitting only .103 against change ups and .208 versus sliders. That fact hasn’t escaped pitchers as he’s seeing sliders and change ups 30% of the time.

To find the games Taylor should be playing, we are looking for pitchers who rely on fastballs and curveballs or avoid change ups and sliders. Given those requirements, Taylor should definitely sit in the Nationals upcoming games against Carlos Martinez of the Cardinals (41.5% change up + slider usage), Tyson Ross of the Padres (43.9%), and Adam Conley of the Marlins (37.2%). Andrew Cashner (Padres) and Tom Koehler (Marlins) haven’t impressed much with their fastballs, so I would target those two games for Taylor to get a start and give Werth a day off. This gives Taylor the best chance at the plate and boosts the outfield defense considerably.

Going my route, getting Espinosa as much playing time as possible and trying to maximize the situations where Taylor’s value on defense can outweigh his struggles offensively, isn’t easy. It means sitting some veterans. It means not using the same lineup every day. So far, these seem like things Matt Williams isn’t crazy about doing. But desperate times call for desperate measures. A run here or a run there might just make the difference in this playoff race. Then again, no amount of tweaks will make an ounce of difference if the Mets score 14 runs a game.

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