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Little did fans know it at the time, but as Trea Turner crossed home plate in Philadelphia on July 28th, it was a surprise end of the All-Star’s reign at shortstop for the Washington Nationals.
Just after the game started, the Nats received word that Turner had tested positive for coronavirus, so he dashed straight down the tunnel and had to self-isolate. Then just two days later, he was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers before his isolation was complete.
Shifting over to shortstop after Turner departed was Alcides Escobar, the veteran who the Nationals picked up at the start of July due to a rash of injuries to their middle infielders.
Since joining the team, Escobar has rolled back the clock a bit and put together one of his best seasons on offense. In 49 games, the veteran shortstop is slashing .282/.336/.381 with two home runs and a wRC+ of 95, the second-highest wRC+ of his career.
What’s been particularly interesting about Escobar’s tenure with the Nationals though has been where manager Dave Martinez has placed the 34-year-old veteran in the lineup.
In his first two games with the team, Escobar hit seventh and sixth in the lineup. Then with the Nationals desperately trying anything and everything to replace Kyle Schwarber after he went down with a torn hamstring on July 1st, Escobar was promoted to the top of the order — somewhere, Ned Yost was watching and smiling at the attempted revival of #EskyMagic.
The trade deadline came and went leaving Martinez to essentially construct a new lineup with a handful of players departing. That new lineup had Victor Robles leading off and Escobar bumped down a spot to hit second in front of Juan Soto and Josh Bell.
In the new look, Turner-less lineup, why did the Nationals skipper decide to hit Escobar second?
“He knows how to play the game,” Martinez explained this weekend. “(He) moves the ball. Guy on second base, he’ll play the game, whether he thinks he needs to hit the ball the other way, or he’ll bunt for a base hit or sacrifice. He moves the baseball, and I like that about him.
“He understands the game. And he does whatever he’s — he’s not going to take a whole lot of walks, but he’s going to put the ball play.”
For Martinez, that’s the sort of hitter he saw hit there when he was growing up in the game.
During Martinez’s playing days for the Montreal Expos, as an example, he was someone that hit second in the order frequently. Or in his final season north of the border, Marquis Grissom hit second for most of the year for the Expos.
While Grissom and Martinez were different players, they fit a similar mold. They had good contact skills, didn’t strike out a ton, generally played sound baseball, had at least good speed — Grissom had elite speed in his younger days, but they didn’t hit for much power.
Escobar is very similar in that regard. Relative to the rest of the league, he doesn’t strike out a lot and puts the ball in play, even if he isn’t racking up extra-base hits or walks.
Lately in baseball though, teams are moving away from that way of thinking. Now, there’s research that suggests teams should have one of their better hitters hitting second the lineup.
Shohei Ohtani has hit second the most for the Los Angeles Angels. Freddie Freeman hit second for the Atlanta Braves most games before the deadline. When healthy, Fernando Tatís Jr. has hit second frequently for the San Diego Padres. The Cincinnati Reds have split it between two of their better hitters in Nick Castellanos and Jesse Winker.
The idea behind it is that the higher up the lineup a player is, the more plate appearances they will get over the course of a week, month, or season than any spot below them.
So, it’s better to not waste those extra plate appearances on one of your average hitters as opposed to a player who makes a big impact while also balancing potentially getting someone on-base in the leadoff spot ahead of them to create more runs.
Escobar has been a lot of good things to this team. He’s been a good mentor to the team’s young infielders and a good fielder at shortstop, giving confidence to its young pitchers.
But is he really one of the Nationals’ best hitters? Unfortunately, no.
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Among position players on the active roster, Escobar’s 95 wRC+ ranks seventh behind Soto, Bell, Lane Thomas, Riley Adams, Carter Kieboom, and Yadiel Hernández. There’s also the likes of Ryan Zimmerman and Keibert Ruiz who are considered to be better hitters too, even if the wRC+ doesn’t show it right now.
With plenty of young hitters in that group, have the Nats considered someone else at two?
“I’ve thought about it,” Martinez told reporters. “But like I said, I’ve got a guy that’s doing well, Escobar has done well up there, he’s hitting .280+ and like I said, he’s doing well.
“And I’m trying to get some guys up there that can get on base for Juan and Bell who are swinging the bat really well, so he’s one of those guys.”
Hmm, alright then. He mentioned getting people on base for Soto and Bell, but points to Escobar’s batting average instead of his .336 on-base percentage, which is only seventh on the team.
Even if we go along with Martinez in that Escobar is the player who suits the role best for the Nationals, we’re talking about a player who turns 35-year-old at the end of the year and is out of contract after this season.
He’s almost certainly not going to be part of the next contending Nats team.
So, the other argument against Escobar hitting that high in the order comes back to the greater number of plate appearances it gets.
Theoretically, those extra plate appearances would be better off going to a younger player to help their development.
Kieboom filled in at second in the order when Escobar missed a game through injury last week and has done well offensively recently. Ruiz, who hit second frequently at Triple-A, projects to be a high-contact, good-on-base, and solid power hitter long-term, even if he’s struggled initially.
Those two would be prime candidates to see at-bats further up the order if the Nationals did want to shake things up and give younger players more opportunity near the top of the order.
However, the way the manager sees it is, it’s his job to put out the best lineup whenever possible in order to get the younger players used to winning games, and that’s why Escobar should remain second in the batting order for the foreseeable future.
“We’re playing Major League Baseball,” Martinez said. “Part of it, they’ve got to learn to win as well.
“Development, like I said, we don’t develop major league players up in the major leagues. These guys got to be ready to play and willing to play and willing to win, so that’s part of it.”
Maybe it’s nit-picky given the current state of the Nationals, but in a new school baseball world, Escobar hitting second for the team is following a very old school way of thinking…