The past week plus has revealed a few cracks in the Nationals juggernaut, particularly when it comes to the injury front. While Yunel Escobar’s back, Anthony Rendon’s knee, and Drew Storen’s bizarre hamate bone injury all provide some level of concern for the Half Street hopefuls, I posit it may be the injury to lead-off man Denard Span that could cause the biggest hiccup in the march to the NL East crown.
As you can see in this table from Baseball Reference, Span really shouldered the lead off load in 2014:
The easiest answer for who will replace Span in the Nationals roster is Michael Taylor, whom Baseball Prospectus lists as the #3 prospect in the Nationals’ system. Taylor can certainly fill in for Span in center field, where his plus speed really plays, allowing him to “cover both gaps” with “plus range” according to BP’s evaluation. This speed can also translate to the offensive side of the game, but he has shown throughout his minor league career that he has contact issues. Keith Law over at ESPN thinks it might take two MLB seasons for Taylor to post “adequate” OBPs.
This is what troubles me: While Taylor seems to have a lot of upside at the plate and on the bases (most pundits peg him as a 20/20 candidate with a full seasons of MLB PAs) every season of his professional career, except for 2013, he has more SOs than hits (and 2013 he only had 3 more hits and a healthy 131 SOs). Across his three levels of competition last year Taylor had 161 SOs and a 30% SO rate. Even worse, at the MLB level he has a 40% SO rate, although over a tiny sample size.
Ignoring the older assumptions about needing speed at the top of the lineup, most statistically minded people today look for high OBP at the top of the line up (so someone is on base to be driven in by the middle of the order). I know, I can hear all of you that just looked up Taylor’s stat line from last year and saw he had a .396 OBP at the AA level. That combo of speed, defense, and time spent on the bases screams for a lead off center fielder type right? Well…
The problem with Taylor’s “breakout season” last year (don’t read the air quotes as me thinking he didn’t make significant progress by the way) was that his BABIP of .421 in AA Harrisburg, where he put up the majority of his numbers, is .086 higher than he previous career best BABIP. The .333 BABIP he put up in the majors sits exactly between the .331 and .335 BABIPs he put up the previous two seasons, giving weight to that being much closer to his career norm. Although this might not be a complete explanation, his abnormally high BABIP last year could be a clear indicator that some of his increased production was due more to luck than to a skill increase or approach improvement.
To me, Taylor can be the short term answer in 2015 for the Nationals in center field until Span is back from his abdominal issues, but not in the lead off spot. He could fit nicely in the 7-hole where his pop and speed, but low contact rates, don’t leave so many empty bags in front of the Nationals big bats.
So what is the solution to the Nationals lead off conundrum? I think there are two answers, with one being slightly more problematic than the other: Anthony Rendon and Jayson Werth.
Let’s start first with Rendon, who last year had a really special season and finished 5th in NL MVP voting. Rendon has very solid on base skills, as displayed by his .351 OBP and his NL leading 111 runs scored. He also is very sneaky fast, not only did he have 17 steals last year, but his 85% success rate shows that he not only runs, but he’s smart when he runs and rarely gives away chances on the base paths. Rendon spent that vast majority of the 2014 season in the two hole, and was excellent in that role. He passes the old school “bat control” test for the two hole hitter, but also has solid on base skills and has the ability to drive the ball to all fields. Personally, I feel his opposite field gap approach he regularly displayed last year really served him well at that spot in the line up.
The issue with Rendon in the lead off spot is…he’s no longer in the two hole spot. In all seriousness I think he could do quite well at lead off, but he just slots so well in the second spot in the line up that moving him out of that position starts to create a domino effect that weakens the middle of the Nationals lineup with everyone else moving a spot further up.
As for Werth, he in my mind really stands out as the best solution at lead off until Span is back. Over the last three years he has averaged a .393 OBP, easily the tops on the Nationals. During the 2012 campaign, Werth had 170 PAs in the lead off spot, and posted a .388 OBP during that span. Last year that would have been thirty two points higher than Span’s OBP in what was a career year for the thirty one year old. In the past Werth has stated he has a clear preference for not being the lead off hitter, yet what he has done in that spot is hard to discount.
Of course there is also an issue with slotting Werth into the lead off position for Opening Day: He’s hurt as well. Recovering from surgery on the AC Joint in his shoulder, Werth has just begun a throwing program and light hitting work and is questionable for Opening Day.
In the end, the best lead off hitter for the Washington Nationals is the one the planned to enter the year with: Span. With him occupying the top spot, all the other Nationals bats can slot into a more ideal position in the order, but until he straightens out his abdominal issues I think you’re more likely to see Rendon in the lead off hole, and Matt Williams has said it probably comes down to Taylor, Rendon, or Nate McClouth. I think I have shown though that it will take something Michael Taylor has not yet displayed in the majors to have him perform as the table setting engine that drives the Nationals’ car towards an NL East crown.
Statistics taken from Baseball Reference and Baseball Prospectus.