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Who should be the Nationals’ left fielder in the postseason?

Assuming the Cubs win the NL Central and Bryce Harper returns, who should the Nationals start in left field for the Division Series? Well, it depends on the starter.

Washington Nationals V Milwaukee Brewers Photo by Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

Assuming Bryce Harper rejoins the Nationals’ lineup for the postseason, the Nats will find themselves with an outfield logjam. Michael A. Taylor is penned in at center just as Bryce will be Sharpied into right field. That leaves Jayson Werth and Howie Kendrick to battle it out for the chance to start in left. When I was first posed this question, I answered without hesitation. Jayson Werth is a seasoned postseason veteran. He “sets the tone for the whole organization,” so what would it say if he was out of the starting lineup? Removing emotion concerns from the equation, though, is it really best to have him start over Kendrick in the Division Series?

There isn’t a single insurance agency that would cover the Washington Nationals’ outfield. Everyone has landed on the DL at one point. Once, in a game in which Bryce Harper was ejected, they ran out of outfielders. And that was before Bryce landed on the disabled list. It necessitated the Nationals’ acquisition of Howie Kendrick. Compare his 2017 season to Jayson Werth’s:

Kendrick and Werth in 2017

Kendrick 299 8 .162 .327 .381 128
Werth 238 9 .175 .243 .340 99

If you’re just looking at average, Howie Kendrick starts without question. I imagine, looking at the batting average, there is temptation to call it quits and put Jayson on the bench. It only increases once you factor in the wRC+, which puts Kendrick at 28 percent above the league average offensively and Werth at basically average. Take a look at their on-base percentage, though, and you’ll see the disparity shrinks significantly. (This is because Jayson Werth has a 12.6 percent walk rate, while Howie Kendrick hovers at 7.0 percent.) When it comes to actually getting on base, these two are pretty even.

If the season ended today, the Nationals would play the Cubs in the Division Series. As the Cardinals fall further away (yet somehow still keep hope alive) and the Brewers clamber toward the top, the Cubs are holding on. The Nationals have won the season series 4-2, which is a good sign, but it takes more for a team to advance to the Championship Series.

Normally, batter stats against individual pitchers aren’t particularly meaningful. But the margin between Werth and Kendrick is so small that we might as well look for any edge the Nationals can get. Look at the career stats of both hitters against each of the probable pitchers in this matchup:

Jake Arrieta

Jayson Werth has nine career plate appearances against Jake Arrieta, with two hits and a walk. One of those hits was a homer. This is a bit deceptive, however, since neither of those hits has come since 2013. Jake Arrieta wasn’t this Jake Arrieta back in 2013, so that .222 average turns into .000 over his most recent five plate appearances (and we get into extreme small-sample territory).

Howie Kendrick has eight career plate appearances against Arrietta since 2010. He only has one hit and, like Werth, it wasn’t this Jake Arrieta back when he got it in 2012. He worked two walks and has one stolen base. That’s a .167 average and Howie did not see him at all in 2017.

My pick: Jayson Werth. The average is slightly higher with a comparable number of plate appearances. Neither of them have good numbers recently, so I go with Werth because of history. There’s not much to go on, though.

Kyle Hendricks

Werth has five plate appearances versus Kyle Hendricks, all from the 2016 season, and does not have a hit. However, he did work two walks against Hendricks. That is his specialty, anyway: foul off pitches and don’t bite at the borderline ones. Howie has only seen Hendricks three times this season, but he has two hits and a stolen base.

My Pick: Howie Kendrick. He has only ever seen Hendricks this season, but he’s two-for-three and I like those numbers.

Jon Lester

All of Werth’s at bats against Lester came in 2008 and 2009. In six plate appearances he worked two walks and has two hits, but since it was nearly a decade ago I’m not sure how much weight that really holds. Clearly he had something figured out back in the day, but will it happen in 2017?

Talk about a sample size! Howie Kendrick has stepped in to face Jon Lester thirty-six times! He hasn’t gotten a hit off him since 2015, though. Overall he has seven hits, four of which were doubles, and two walks. That makes for a .206 batting average which does not inspire a lot of confidence. He has only struck out six times, though, so he can be counted on to at least put the ball in play.

My Pick: Howie Kendrick. His familiarity with Lester will be a significant asset over Werth’s ‘08/’09 experience.

John Lackey

Here is where we have a significant Jayson Werth sample size! In twenty plate appearances against Lackey, he has four doubles and a home run included in his seven hits. None of those hits came in 2016, though, when Werth last saw action against the Cubs. In his career, he bats .389 against Lackey. Not bad, not bad at all.

Howie isn’t too poor against Lackey, either. Since 2010 he has five hits, all singles, and no walks. That’s a career average of .238 over 21 plate appearances. He does have two stolen bases off Lackey, but those came in 2010 and 2011 when he was speedier and a bit more lithe.

My pick: Jayson Werth. That .389 average gives me hope, much like Howie’s familiarity with Jon Lester. Come October, I think it’s incredibly valuable to understand how a pitcher will approach you. The more history, the better.

I believe the left fielder should vary based upon who is pitching for the Cubs. Howie Kendrick has a higher average but Jayson Werth hit more homers in fewer plate appearances. They get on base at comparable rate and neither have plus outfield arms. It comes down to their familiarity with the pitcher. (This assumes the Brewers don’t overtake the Cubs and the Cardinals don’t make a ridiculous comeback.) Varying the starters (and giving them each some rest) could work in Werth’s favor since he is battling a sore shoulder after a hit-by-pitch during his rehab assignment.

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Audrey Stark is a Contributor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow her on Twitter @HighStarkSunday.