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Wednesday, August 18, 2010
Worth moving Werth to top of the order?

By Katie Sharp

Although the Philadelphia Phillies' Jimmy Rollins statistically is having one of the worst seasons in his career -- his OPS of .698 would be the second lowest in any of his 11 seasons -- manager Charlie Manuel continues to write Rollins' name at the top of the lineup card. Yet on Monday, Manuel did acknowledge Rollins’ struggles, noting that he is "waiting for him to get his stroke" and that "he's having a hard time finding his swing."

Last year, when Rollins was mired in an early-season slump (.199 BA and an OBP of .240 on May 15), his value as the leadoff batter was questioned by fans and reporters. When one writer suggested that Jayson Werth be moved to the top of the order, Manuel responded "I’ve thought about that", but insisted that he liked the balance the right-handed hitting Werth provided in an otherwise lefty-heavy hitting middle of the lineup.

The Phillies are on a roll right now. They’ve won 19 of their last 24 games, lead the National League Wild Card by a game over the San Francisco Giants, and are within two and-a-half games of the first-place Braves in the NL East. But Rollins continues to put up subpar numbers in the leadoff spot, and the offense has been inconsistent all season. Philadelphia has scored 10 or more runs 13 times, tied for the most in the majors. However, the Phillies also have been shut out 10 times, their most in a single season since 2003.

So here's a radical solution that could both shake J-Roll out of his offensive funk and maybe generate more runs for the Phillies as they fight for a playoff berth down the stretch: Put Werth at the top of the order and move Rollins to a lower spot in the lineup for the final six weeks of the season. (Werth did bat leadoff in one game this season, going 1-for-3 with a walk on June 2 against the Braves. while Rollins has hit third, fifth and sixth in a combined 11 games this season.)

The leadoff position usually is filled by a batter who works counts, gets on base consistently and aggressively advances on the bases to put himself in position to score. With that criteria in mind, let's put together a Tale of Tape comparing Rollins and Werth:

First, consider one of the most basic stats for a leadoff hitter -- getting on base when leading off an inning. While the sample sizes are small and may not be entirely predictive of how good of a leadoff batter the player may be, as shown in the chart, Werth owns a huge advantage over Rollins in on-base percentage when leading off an inning and with the bases empty.

Also, Werth has the clear edge in working counts and getting on base overall. In fact, he leads the league in pitches per plate appearance and ranks fourth in OBP.

In terms of baserunning, Rollins does have more stolen bases than Werth this season, but Werth has been more aggressive on the base paths, taking an extra base at a higher rate than Rollins. Remember, Werth has shown impressive speed in the past, having swiped 20 bases in both 2008 and 2009.

Stealing second isn’t the only way to put yourself in scoring position, though, as a double will do the trick with just one swing of the bat. Werth's 39 doubles are tied for the National League lead, while Rollins has hit just 11 in his 236 at-bats during an injury-shortened season.

Not only does Werth possess the key characteristics of a leadoff hitter -- and far superior numbers to Rollins -- but he's also really underperforming in his role as the five-hitter in the batting order, which is typically a spot that’s filled by a player who can drive in runners and clear the bases. Those are exactly the situations where Werth has been at his worst this season. As shown below, while he has excelled with the bases empty, Werth has really struggled to hit with runners on base and in scoring position.

Based on stats alone, it appears that Werth is the better option over Rollins to occupy the leadoff spot in the lineup. But the move also triggers other questions that Manuel will have address. First, how will Rollins, who has been the Phillies primary leadoff batter nearly his entire career, respond to being moved down in the order for an extended stretch of games? Second, who will step into Werth's role as a righty power bat in the heart of the lineup?

If the move works -- with Werth sparking the offense from the top of the order, Rollins proving to be an explosive weapon lower in the lineup and perhaps Shane Victorino protecting Ryan Howard in the five-hole -- and the Phillies make the playoffs, they can look forward to the chance to make history this postseason.

With back-to-back World Series appearances already in their pocket, the Phillies can become the first team from the Senior Circuit to advance to the World Series in three straight seasons since the St. Louis Cardinals did it from 1942–44, and just the sixth NL team since 1901.

The Phillies look to extend their Wild-Card lead over the Giants tonight at 7 p.m. ET in the first game of a Wednesday Night Baseball doubleheader on ESPN.