Despite Harper’s Dominance, Nationals Offense Is Flagging

Plenty has gone wrong for the Nationals in the early going. Dan Haren is basically broken, Gio Gonzalez might be and Stephen Strasburg — while pitching well — has not kept up the star pace expected of him in the early going. The offense might be just as concerning, however. Despite Bryce Harper’s continuous blossoming, a combination of injuries and underperformance has conspired to make the Nats’ offense one of the worst in the game.

As we sit here this afternoon, Harper — who sports a .312/.400/.633 slash line, with a .434 wOBA and 180 wRC+ — has been one of the 10 best hitters in the game, and Washington has needed every bit of his production. As a team, the Nats’ 83 wRC+ is 27th overall, and over the past 14 days they have sunk even further, to a 61 wRC+ that is dead last in the game. Things don’t improve if you take pitchers out of the equation, as their standing raises only to an 89 wRC+ that is sixth-worst and a 68 wRC+ that is still dead last, respectively.

Unfortunately, the list of culprits here is not only long, but also distinguished. Adam LaRoche is a chief culprit. After putting together the best season of his career in his age-32 season in 2012, LaRoche has plopped back to earth thus far in ’13. His strikeout rate has jumped, perhaps partially thanks to the fact that he has stopped swinging at pitches. His 38% swing rate is 13th-lowest in the game, and represents a four percent drop from last season. His contact rates have also dropped a bit, particularly on pitches out of the strike zone. LaRoche’s batted ball profile remains largely the same, and he is sporting a fantastically low batting average on balls in play, so there should be a rebound coming. However, until it does he is going to be a sinkhole in that lineup, especially considering the fact that he has hit fourth or fifth for the most of the season.

Another reason that LaRoche looks like such a problem is because the question of whether or not Ryan Zimmerman should move across the diamond from third to first is slowly becoming not an “if” question, but rather a “when” question. Once one of the best fielders at the hot corner, Zimmerman is knee deep in his third straight season of being below average with the leather. Whether by DRS, UZR or the Fans Scouting Report — where his overall score has dropped from 79 in 2010, to 75 in ’11 and then to 66 last season — Zimmerman can simply no longer be considered an asset defensively. If LaRoche wasn’t around, moving him over to first wouldn’t be a big deal, as Anthony Rendon’s very healthy on-base percentages both at Double-A and in his brief major league trial show, he probably isn’t going to need much more seasoning in the minors. However, having LaRoche under contract for both this year and next at the very least creates a logjam.

We were talking about offense though, weren’t we? I think we were. And Zimmerman’s offense has lefty plenty to be desired, as well, though hopefully he will pick it up now that he has returned from his hamstring injury. It’s worth noting though that Zimmerman seems to always be battling a nagging injury of some sort, so it’s not like we should be expecting him to start being pain-free. Others in this constantly pained group include right fielder Jayson Werth, center fielder Denard Span and second baseman Danny Espinosa. All have battled something or other in the early going, and none is producing offense at a league average rate just yet.

Espinosa is particularly concerning. He was diagnosed with a torn rotator cuff in his left shoulder before spring training, and then in April he missed a week with a right wrist injury, as well. The two have conspired to leave him as a literal zero — he’s at 0.0 WAR through his first 26 games (98 plate appearances). His .257 wOBA is 17th worst out of 194 players with at least 90 PA thus far. He homered yesterday, so perhaps he will turn the corner soon, but his outlook isn’t exactly robust. Playing through one injury is tough enough. Playing through two could be downright debilitating. Espinosa seems to be overcompensating, as well, as he is swinging at even more pitches out of the strike zone than last year, and he swung at plenty of pitches out of the zone last year. At the moment, only five players (min. 90 PA) are swinging at more pitches out of the zone than is Espinosa. And while some players can get over with that approach, Espinosa is not one of them — his contact percentage is more than four percent below league average.

This is not just an isolated thing that has been due to one or two injuries, either. In 19 of Washington’s 32 games this season, they have scored three runs or less. Only the Mariners and Marlins have tallied more of these games so far. They have only scored four-plus runs in consecutive games twice — April 9-12 against the White Sox and Braves (games started by Jake Peavy, Gavin Floyd, Dylan Axelrod and Julio Teheran) and in their past two games against the Pirates (Jeff Locke and Wandy Rodriguez). Harper and Ian Desmond have been doing their share (though Desmond’s BB/K is scary), as has Wilson Ramos in his limited playing time, but others need to get the bats going.

The Nats were one of the prohibitive favorites entering the season, and while I did pick them to take the National League East, I was not convinced that the division was Washington’s birthright. More than a month into the season the team faces several questions, and while they’re only two games out of first place, they need to find some answers.

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Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for He has written for The Boston Globe, ESPN MLB Insider and ESPN the Magazine, among others. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.

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