- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Any discussion around who is hitting second for the Washington Nationals is, at its core, a reflection of the team’s enormous mid-August division lead.

In other baseball realms, the lineup of the day is often discussed and debated. In Washington, sports-talk radio has narrowed this focus to who is hitting second for the National League’s best offense. The starting pitching is stout, the bullpen has been patched, the Nationals are on their way to a division title. There’s just not much else to chew on.

The following exercise was not done to jump into the argument of who should be hitting second while Jayson Werth is on the disabled list. It’s not an attempt to counter the logic on either side. Rather, it’s a look at a premise that Nationals manager Dusty Baker, the winner of 1,830 games as a manager, the holder of a better winning percentage than Bruce Bochy or Jim Leyland, works off. Baker said he thinks players, particularly young players, placed in front of Bryce Harper or another established hitter, see more fastballs when hitting second.

Is that accurate? For the most part.

In Major League Baseball this season, 55.6 percent of the pitches have been fastballs, according to Fangraphs. That’s a starting point. Take that, and add caveats: Relievers throw fastballs at a higher rate than starters, being left-handed or right-handed will influence choices, as will past history against specific hitters and the sample-size of the ongoing season is not perfect, just something to analyze.

But, Baker’s thought process goes like this: If a veteran pitcher is facing a new player, particularly when hitting in front of a star, the pitcher is more likely to challenge the new player. That, in part, is because there is little information about the hitter. More important, is trying to keep that hitter from reaching base before the Harpers of the world come up. The last thing a pitcher wants to do in that situation is walk an unknown hitter in front of Harper or a player of that ilk.

Tanner Roark backs this theory.

“Attack ‘em,” Roark said. “I was watching MLB Network [Tuesday]. They were talking about guys in a lineup you would rather not face. Say, you don’t want to get beat by two guys [in the lineup]. I could have trouble with some other guy [than the three-hole guy]. If you walk the guys you don’t want to get beat by, that’s not a problem. But, if you get beat by the guys you don’t want to get beat by, that’s wherein lies a problem…. New guys coming up, for me, I’m going to see if you can turn on a fastball inside.”

Understand?

For the Nationals, we took a look at four players: Werth, Anthony Rendon, Brian Goodwin and Wilmer Difo. The idea was to have two veterans and two younger players. All were hitting either in front of Harper or Daniel Murphy, two lethal men waiting on-deck. And, a note about the counting: Cutters were not included as fastballs. The focus was on two-seam and four-seam fastballs.

Taking Baker’s premise and Roark’s from-the-mound activity, the assumption would be that Goodwin and Difo would face more fastballs in the No. 2 spot than Werth or Rendon, and more than the league sees on average.

In 17 games this season as the No. 2 hitter, Goodwin has seen 310 pitches. Of those, 150 were fastballs, or 48.4 percent, well below the league average of around 55 percent. He hit .212 when No. 2 in the lineup.

An outlier game helped influence Goodwin’s results. June 25 against the Cincinnati Reds, Scott Feldman threw Goodwin one fastball among 17 pitches. Feldman was mostly throwing cutters.

Difo hit .287 in 20 games as the No. 2 hitter this season, coming into Tuesday. He has seen 302 pitches, 175 of which were fastballs. That’s 58 percent, above league average. That also includes facing knuckleballer R.A. Dickey on April 20. Dickey threw Difo one fastball in 14 pitches.

To the veterans.

Werth, who would be the No. 2 hitter if healthy (with Adam Eaton out for the year, altering the top of the lineup permanently), hit second in 25 games. He had an .865 OPS in the position, by far the best among this foursome. Rendon, who hit second just nine times this season, has been the worst in the group. He has a .644 OPS in that spot. When hitting sixth, Rendon has a 1.035 OPS. Rendon was more successful in the spot when he delivered a .760 OPS in 2015.

Werth faced 482 pitches when hitting second. Of those, 273 were fastballs, or 56.6 percent, right in line with the league average (that’s when not counting a game against Dickey).

Rendon was delivered more fastballs than league average when hitting second. He saw a two-seamer or four-seamer 59.2 percent of the time. Yet, his results were dismal.

One other person to note: Adrian Sanchez. Overall, he has seen 60.9 percent fastballs during his first major-league season.

Piled together, Difo, Werth and Rendon all saw more fastballs when hitting second than the league does on average. Only Goodwin, who was well below the league average, saw fewer. Goodwin has proven one other thing: He’s much more successful when leading off. He has an .778 OPS as the first hitter of the game. It’s just .684 when he hit second.

Based on these four hitters, Baker is right that the players he put in those positions face fastballs more often. As Roark said, pitchers want to attack that spot. It appears they have against the Nationals.

— Josh Luckenbaugh contributed to this story.

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