Trea Turner already had established himself as one of the best leadoff hitters in baseball. Then over the course of 60 dominant games in 2020, the Nationals shortstop established himself as one of the best offensive players in baseball, period.
Don’t believe it? Look at the numbers. Last season Turner ranked fifth in the majors in batting average (.335), fifth in runs scored (46), first in hits (78), third in total bases (137), sixth in extra base hits (31), 12th in slugging percentage (.588), 11th in OPS (.982) and third in offensive WAR (3.1, only one-tenth of a point behind Freddie Freeman and Juan Soto).
And yet the Nats didn’t feel like they fully maximized Turner’s production, for one simple reason: He didn’t have as many opportunities to drive in runs as you might expect for a typical hitter of his caliber.
Turner came up to bat with runners in scoring position only 58 times. That ranked a mere 60th in the majors. The National who had the most plate appearances with runners in scoring position? Asdrúbal Cabrera, who ranked 24th in baseball with 67.
Therein lies one of Davey Martinez’s biggest dilemmas entering the 2021 season. How does he make the most of Turner? Can the Nats manager continue to bat him leadoff and hope he produces enough at the top of the lineup? Or does he need to find a way to move him down and potentially get more opportunities to bat with men on base?
As he ponders his options, Martinez acknowledged Sunday there are scenarios in his mind in which Turner does not bat leadoff this season.
“Possibly,” he said from West Palm Beach, Fla., during his daily Zoom session with reporters. “Yeah. Like I said, we’re running a lot of different lineups, different numbers, talking to a bunch of our analytical people.”
There are all sorts of ways to compute lineup optimization, but here’s one fairly telling stat from 2020. Given the abbreviated nature of the season, the sample size perhaps isn’t as large as you’d like, but it does paint an interesting picture nonetheless:
In 40 games batting leadoff, Turner had 22 RBIs. In 19 games batting either second or third, he drove in 19 runs.
Proponents of advanced stats, of course, will bemoan the use of RBIs in any statistical analysis of consequence. But ultimately you win games by scoring more runs than the opposition, right? And your best chance to do that is to give your best hitters the most chances to drive in runs, right?
It’s one thing for Martinez to contemplate moving Turner into the No. 2 or No. 3 slot, with Soto occupying the other. The problem is, none of this works if the Nationals don’t have someone else to hit leadoff and set the table for the big boys.
That’s why the most intriguing player in camp this spring might well be Victor Robles. The 23-year-old center fielder was bad in 2020, there’s no debating it. His .220/.293/.315 slash line was deeply troubling.
But Robles is the only member of the Nationals’ projected everyday lineup who profiles in any way as a leadoff hitter. He hit atop the lineup throughout his journey through the organization’s farm system and boasted a .392 on-base percentage across 1,699 minor league plate appearances. He’s even had success the few times he’s led off in the big leagues: a .306/.362/.518 slash line in 21 games.
That’s why Martinez has long been intrigued by the possibility.
“Honestly, I would like to get Robles up at the top of the lineup, even if it’s just against left-handed pitching,” the manager said. “So we’ll see how that plays out. I’d like to get Trea somewhere second or third maybe, but we’ll see how it plays out this spring.”
A 1-2-3 of Robles-Turner-Soto - or possibly Robles-Soto-Turner - would potentially create more RBI opportunities for the team’s two best hitters. It would also allow newcomers Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber to slide down to the fourth and fifth slots they’re perhaps better suited to occupy. After that, it’s Starlin Castro, Yan Gomes and Carter Kieboom.
A lot of things have to happen for this to work, chief among them some major progression from Robles in his third big league season. But if it works, it’s probably the best-case scenario for this Nationals lineup.
Martinez has until April 1 to figure this out. Don’t be surprised if he tries out that combo sometime this spring.