To Win, Nationals Need a Nyjer Morgan-Justin Maxwell Platoon in Center

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To Win, Nationals Need a Nyjer Morgan-Justin Maxwell Platoon in Center
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When Nyjer Morgan joined the Washington Nationals last July, the team was a moribund 23-55 and paralleling the record of the worst baseball team of all time, the 1962 New York Mets.

 

They couldn’t hit, they couldn’t pitch, and they certainly couldn’t field.

 

One new player—part time for most of his career—wouldn’t make a difference, right?

 

Wrong.

 

From Morgan’s first game through his last (when he broke a bone in his hand sliding into second in late August), The Washington Nationals had a record of 23-27 (.460). For the rest of the season, the Nationals were very a Mets-like 36-76 (.321).

 

So yes, he made a real difference.

 

This spring, Morgan is working on improving his game, particularly hitting against left-handers. Last season, he was just .175/.283/.223 against southpaws. For his career, Morgan is .200/.302/.284.

 

Since he first donned a major league uniform, Morgan has faced lefties 183 times and hit safely just 31 of those at-bats.

 

In other words, he can’t hit left-handers and probably never will.

 

He’s trying, though.

 

Every morning, Morgan takes to the batting cage to face left-handed coach Randy Tomlin who throws him hundreds of pitches.

 

Morgan recently told nationals.com’s Bill Ladson, "Basically, I kind of stunk up the barn last year hitting lefties. Basically, I killed righties. If I can hit the lefties a little bit, it's going to get me on base a little bit more. It will create a little more offense, too, for the club."

 

So if he works even harder and concentrates even more, he might increase his batting average by, what, 20 percent?

 

That would mean Morgan would “increase” his average against lefties to .185.

 

And that helps the Nationals how?

 

I don’t doubt Morgan’s efforts. He is one of the few true professionals on the team right now. But if he hasn’t learned how to effectively hit left-handers after three major league seasons, I doubt he ever will.

 

Perhaps Jim Riggleman should take a page from the managerial playbook of Ted Williams and learn the art of platooning.

 

In 1969, Williams platooned catcher (Paul Casanova, Jim French), first (Frank Howard, Mike Epstein), second (Bernie Allen, Tim Cullen) left (Howard, Brant Alyea) and right (Lee Maye, Hank Allen).

 

Only shortstop Eddie Brinkman, third baseman Ken McMullen, center fielder Del Unser and Frank Howard (playing two different positions) played everyday.

 

And it worked. Lee Maye batted .296 against righties but just .094 against left-handers. Brant Alyea hit .294 against lefties but hit just .144 against right-handers.

 

Williams took a bunch of flawed baseball players and hid their imperfections. The result was an 86-76 record from a group of players that just weren’t that good.

 

So why not platoon centerfield to hide Morgan’s problems against lefties?

 

Justin Maxwell would be the perfect complement to Nyjer Morgan.

 

Both Maxwell and Morgan are outstanding defenders. Both are base stealers. In 2009, Morgan stole a base every 13.3 at-bats while Maxwell garnered a theft every 16.8 at-bats.

 

Morgan, by his own admission, “kills” righties while Maxwell does a solid job of hitting left-handers.

 

Based on their 2009 numbers, this is how a Morgan/Maxwell platoon would look (based on 400 at-bats for Morgan and 200 at-bats for Maxwell):

 

Batting Average

Morgan: .344

Maxwell: .286

 

Hits:

Morgan: 138

Maxwell: 59

 

Doubles:

Morgan: 16

Maxwell: 11

 

Triples:

Morgan: 9

Maxwell: 2

 

Home Runs:

Morgan: 2

Maxwell: 10

 

RBI:

Morgan: 31

Maxwell: 30

 

Stolen Bases:

Morgan: 32

Maxwell: 11

 

On-Base Percentage:

Morgan: .395

Maxwell: .352

 

Slugging Percent:

Morgan: .434

Maxwell: .429

 

Combine the two and you have a tremendous two-headed center fielder:

 

Batting Average:

.327

 

Hits:

197

 

Doubles:

26

 

Triples:

10

 

Home Runs:

12

 

RBI:

61

 

Stolen Bases:

43

 

On-Base Percent:

.383

 

Slugging Percent:

.432

 

I have never understood why left-handed hitters who can’t hit left-handed pitchers are nonetheless trotted out there every day knowing that failure is the only possible outcome.

 

Further, why would players like Morgan (and there are many others like him) be willing to fail when there are other players who could and would succeed in their place?

 

Justin Maxwell doesn’t have a chance to make the team in 2010 as a starter. He is not going to supplant Morgan, Josh Willingham or Elijah Dukes. But he has nothing else to prove in the minor leagues.

 

Jim Riggleman would make his team better by playing Maxwell in center against left-handed starters (about 35-40 games). Morgan could then come off the bench as a pinch-hitter against righties or as a pinch-runner late in the game.

 

Maxwell has more power than Morgan and can steal almost as well. His defense is just as good, perhaps even a bit better.

 

The Washington Nationals are close to becoming a competitive team and they should do everything they can to shore up their remaining deficiencies.

 

Late in the game, managers often bring in a left-handed reliever to pitch to a lefty in the lineup. It neutralizes that batter. The opposing manager often pinch hits, bringing in a right-hander to again give his team the advantage.

 

If managers get the “big bucks” to make those decisions, then why is it acceptable to have someone like Morgan play everyday when he can’t hit lefties?

 

It makes sense to replace a player with a 17 percent success rate for another player with a 28 percent success rate, especially when the Nationals are zeroing in on that magical and mythical .500 mark.

 

This is a make-or-break year for the Nationals, and no stone should be left unturned in the quest for that first winning season.

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