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The Nationals can win without Adam Eaton

Adam Eaton is down for the season, but the Nationals can win without him. It’s time for Michael A. Taylor to step up and adjust his approach at the plate.

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Washington Nationals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Two weeks ago after an offseason filled with doubt, I wrote an article admitting Adam Eaton might have been worth what the Nationals gave up for him. Today, because the universe is cruel in its irony, Adam Eaton was diagnosed with an ACL tear that ended his season. Into those tiny (yet already beloved) shoes will step perpetual strikeout victim Michael A. Taylor. Can he improve upon his dismal numbers and does the Nationals lineup have enough power to survive such a downgrade in center field production?

Taylor has not impressed at the plate. His career average is .224 and his career strikeout rate is 32.1 percent. Is it worth putting someone in center field who has a wRC+ of 67? Even Dusty Baker is exhausted by MAT’s inability to take advantage of his extended opportunities to start.

We’ve seen Taylor make some fabulous plays out in center field. According to FanGraphs’ Inside Edge fielding data, he converted 98.2 percent of the routine plays in 2015 (220 opportunities) and 99.1 percent in 2016 (116 opportunities). For the Nationals, it’s always been a struggle between the desire for a consistently above-average defender versus the desire to avoid an inept hitter. His high strikeout rate renders him particularly ineffective because he’s not even moving runners — something which is extremely important considering the time he spends batting 8th, ahead of the pitcher. Washington Post reporter Tom Boswell said it rather well:

“Michael A. Taylor [has] big four tools, but fans WAY too much, [could] tap his talent and be a shocker. Each year that goes past his chances are worse. But if he ever figures it out and makes enough contact ... I wish I had a buck for every player I've heard that said about. But it's still true.”

Taylor’s 2017 numbers, a .095 average and 39.1 percent strikeout rate, are too dismal to sustain. FanGraphs’ ZiPS and Steamer projections have him batting .222 and .231 for the rest of the season, with a 68 and 72 wRC+, respectively. That’s not just below average, that’s well below average, yet somehow it's an improvement from where he is now.

Taylor has a career BABIP of .310, although that's negated a bit by his high strikeout rate, since he puts the ball in play a lot less than the average hitter. But if he struck out less and put the ball in play more often, he could put his speed to good use and have the potential to move runners. Making contact is key for Taylor, and if he improves it will pay off big time for the Nats.

Take a look at his average versus his whiff rate:

He bats right-handed, so his problem area is up and in. That upper-left part of the zone and the square directly above it are his two most glaring weak spots. He swung and missed at 23, or 27 percent, of all 85 pitches in that part of the zone. Of the 24 times he made contact with one of those pitches, only one resulted in a hit. Naturally, the suggestion would be to not swing at pitches up and in. Even when he makes contact, it’s almost never successful.

Since he strikes out so often, I checked out his whiff rate against certain pitches. He is most prone to fanning against four-seam fastballs and sliders. In that upper-left portion, Taylor swung at seventy percent of sliders and four-seamers, while forty-eight percent of those pitches resulted in a swing and a miss. He gets swing-happy at pitches that are up and in, so he just needs to lay off.

But what if he doesn’t? What if the projections are right and he’s going to struggle to stay over .200 and strike out once every three plate appearances? Do the Nationals have what it takes to overcome the lack of production from their eighth-place hitter, and a reduction in whoever takes the second spot from soon-to-be leadoff hitter Trea Turner? I took a look at the order’s statistics and used FanGraphs’ splits leaderboards to gauge the team's production compared to the rest of baseball.

Spot in the Order OBP wRC
3rd .537 (1st) 33 (1st)
4th .396 (3rd) 24 (1st)
5th .423 (1st) 24 (1st)
6th .310 (12th) 9 (17th)
7th .253 (24th) 5 (22nd)

The Nationals 3/4/5 hitters are owning right now. Is it sustainable? Maybe not. But this lineup has had its fair share of switcheroos this April. So here are some interesting tidbits that make me feel a lot better about the Nats’ offense and its potential:

  • Bryce Harper has the third-highest walk rate in MLB (17.2%)
  • Ryan Zimmerman has the second-highest ISO in baseball (.468)
  • Bryce and Zimm have the first- and second-best batting averages in baseball (.405/.392)

The sixth and seventh spots in the order are a little cause for concern. But Jayson Werth primarily bats 6th and he is having an odd April. Right now he ranks #31 in the NL in pitches per plate appearance at 3.98. Last season he led all of baseball with 4.6 p/pa, in 2014 he ranked seventh (third in the NL) with 4.24, and in 2013 he ranked fifth (first in the NL) with 4.24. That seems to indicate his timing being off at the plate, along with some bad luck. His wRC+ is already at 112, and if his timing returns to normal, Werth’s bat will likely improve over the course of the season.

The Nationals are on a pace that may very well be unsustainable. But early on, all the signs are there that this lineup can still hit for power, get on base, and create runs without the presence of Eaton. There will be games where it’s not enough to overcome a lack of offense in the seventh and eighth spots, but most games it will be enough.

It all comes down to whether Taylor can improve on his career numbers and prevent enough runs to counterbalance what he doesn’t bring to the plate. The Nationals manager, Dusty Baker, sums it up best:

“Strikeouts are acceptable in baseball now, but they’re not acceptable to me necessarily. It’s when you strike out, it’s not striking out, it’s when you strike out and it’s a matter of swinging at strikes or being aggressive in the strike zone. ... You’ve got to hit for yourself, because when you’re in that box, you’re in that box all by yourself, because when you go to the bank, you go to the bank by yourself ... So we’ll see.”