Spring training is all about trying things out and seeing who or what works best, so it's not uncommon to see a manager shuffling his lineup in early games (especially after the addition of a new leadoff hitter). Even so, it looks like Davey Johnson and the Nationals might be doing more than experimenting.
With the addition of the left-handed-batting Denard Span to the top of the lineup, reports out of Nationals camp say that Johnson is thinking of moving no-longer-a-teen phenom Bryce Harper down from the second spot in the batting order (where he excelled in 2012) to the third, sliding in right-handed hitting Jayson Werth between the two lefties. Speaking to reporters about the choice, Johnson said this:
"I think he thinks (the No. 2 spot is) where I want to hit him, because that's where I hit him last year. With the addition of a left-handed bat leading off, I like to vary it. This spring is going to be kind of a test to see where I think they fit the best. It’s all about making harder choices for the opposing manager on his matchups."
Since then, Harper has played in four games and batted third in three of them. His first start as the second hitter came on Wednesday. Referring to the conversation he had with Johnson following the posting of the lineup, Washington Post beat writer Adam Kilgore wrote:
"He gets on every time, so I figured I might as well get him up earlier," Johnson said. "No, just fooling around."
Johnson joked with reporters that he had seen Harper penciled into second in some of their lineups. He asked me if that’s where I had him, and I told him no, I had figured on Werth hitting second and Harper batting third. "Well," Johnson said, "you’re a smart son of a [gun]."
Maybe it's just me, but that sounds like a man who has decided where he wants to write Harper's name for 162 games this season.
If Johnson does turn Harper into a number-three hitter, how much will that affect Harper's ability to get on base? We already know that each spot lower in the lineup gets fewer at-bats than the one immediately above it (The Book lists the difference between the first and second spots at 0.11 PA/game or roughly 15 PA a year), but what does that look like in practice? Let's try a real world example.
In Derek Jeter's 17-year career, he has appeared in the first or second spot in the lineup in 2,291 games (for 10,696 plate appearances and 9,485 at-bats). That leaves 294 games in spots lower in the batting order. Of those, 128 games were in the third spot in the order, where he averaged 4.47 plate appearances per game. If we take those 2,291 games at the top of the order and assume that Jeter batted in the three-hole instead (maintaining his 4.47 PA/G average), we find that he would have lost 460 plate appearances (and 406 at-bats) over his career. That's more than half a season's worth of at-bats! Translating this all out, a strictly third-hitting Jeter would have 125 fewer hits (and 176 fewer times on base) than the identical Jeter batting above him. That may not seem like much considering his 3,304 career hits, but it would have been enough to keep us from seeing the Captain pass the 3,000-hit mark until 2012.
What's more, The Book also finds that the number two hitter should actually be better than the number three hitter. The Yankees, then, were actually giving themselves a better shot by batting Jeter higher in the lineup all of these years. What a surprise!
Davey Johnson is smarter than me when it comes to managing a baseball team, I know, so there is likely a very good reason to move Bryce Harper down a spot in the order. But let's not lose sight of the fact that there is a measurable impact on Harper's ability to contribute if that does happen. It's not big—probably only a few runs at most over the year—but it is real. Harper will get fewer at-bats and, unless he amasses a markedly higher batting average in that position, it guarantees that he will have fewer hits. Davey Johnson is a very successful manager and knows what he's doing, but this move absolutely does change Washington's bottom line. That's before considering other effects it might have, like altering Harper's base-running approach if he is afraid to get thrown out stretching a single to a double or even just leaving first base open in front of the clean-up hitter.
Johnson must weigh all of those possible consequences over the next month before he decides whether breaking up the lefties at the top of the order is worth it.