Earlier this week the Washington Nationals threw a curveball at Major League Baseball by moving Bryce Harper into the leadoff spot.
Four games into the experiment, we’d say it’s working pretty well.
With a pair of home runs in Washington’s 7-3 win against the Phillies on Friday, Harper now has four homers overall since manager Dave Martinez elevated him into the leadoff spot. More importantly, the Nationals have four victories and are back over .500 for the first time since April 5.
Obviously, a lot goes into winning baseball games at the major league level. The Nationals pitching has been outstanding during this stretch, which has now produced a six-game winning streak overall. But Harper’s insertion atop the order has clearly provided the spark the Nationals offense desperately needed.
Before moving Harper to leadoff, Washington had scored seven or more runs only four times in their first 29 games of the season. In the four games since, they’ve done it three times.
Clearly giving your best hitter the most plate appearances can have a real impact. Harper has set the tone in two of those games by leading off the first inning with a homer. In one of the other games, he homered in the third inning. In the three games Harper has homered from the leadoff spot, Washington’s offense has looked like the dominant force we’ve seen them be before, and envisioned them being this season.
Whether the move sticks long-term is another question, but it’s probably not one manager Davey Martinez is considering right now. The idea wasn’t just to get Harper to the plate more often, it was to hopefully get Harper more pitches to hit so that he can get a rhythm at the plate. As Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said following a game in Washington this week, teams “probably won’t start the game with an intentional walk” regardless of who the hitter is.
That means Harper should have a chance to lock in right away, see some pitches he can work with, and in a perfect scenario give Washington a quick scoring opportunity.
So far, that’s exactly how it’s playing out for Washington.
It’s not unlike 2013, when then manager Davey Johnson had Harper hit leadoff in 16 games. Harper flourished during that stretch, hitting .317/.419/.603 with four homers and four doubles.
As Harper has continued his development into one of baseball’s most feared hitters, he’s settled into the middle of Washington’s lineup, which is where hitters of his caliber usually hit. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the only place he can hit, or that a stagnant Nationals offense couldn’t benefit from such an unusual change.
It’s a move a lot of managers wouldn’t be willing to make, especially a manager less than 30 games into his career. Martinez clearly isn’t like most managers. He’s already showing a willingness to think outside the box. Perhaps that’s something he developed while coaching under Joe Maddon. The Cubs manager is willing to put just about anyone on his roster in the leadoff spot. That included Anthony Rizzo earlier this week with the Cubs seeking an offensive spark.
Regardless of what motivated Martinez, his first landmark move as Nationals manager is netting positive results and giving fans hope that he’s the right man to steer the ship.
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