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 Boston.com. 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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Paul
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Paul
3 years 3 months ago

Should there be an asterisk attached to this article regarding the small sample size we are drawing data from?

Cidron
Member
Cidron
3 years 3 months ago

if there is, it isnt a big asterisk.. A month into the season is plenty of time to spot trends (among those that have been able to play most of the month, that is). The exception would be trends among part timers/platoon people, especially those who have the “wrong” side of the platoon.

philosofool
Member
Member
philosofool
3 years 3 months ago

I disagree in general; one month is much. However, here are three things you would have said about the Nats, preseason:
-Watch out from big regression from Adam LaRoche.
-Watch out for injuries that take their toll on Ryan Zimmerman.
-Watch out for continued trouble with the strike zone in Danny Espinosa.

We’re seeing a lot of red flags for worst case scenarios in our Nations Capitol.

Well-Beered Englishman
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Well-Beered Englishman
3 years 3 months ago

Well, on the other hand, Detwiler and Desmond being flukes, Harper hitting a wall, Span not delivering on the OBP promise, and Suzuki returning to being a .210 hitter are part of the worst case scenario too.

philosofool
Member
Member
philosofool
3 years 3 months ago

Not sure I get you’re point. What I basically just said is that Zimmerman is part of the same pattern as always, Espinosa is part of the same pattern as always, and LaRoche is part of the same pattern as always (if you’re willing to look beyond last season.) So this isn’t really an issue of small samples at all.

KDL
Guest
KDL
3 years 3 months ago

If anything LaRoche is due for a regression to better numbers. Ones more in-line with his well-established career averages. LaRoche hits better than this. It’s well-established “before last year” that he hits better than this. The folks who expected the repeat of 2012 were wrong. But so are you for thinking what LaRoche is doing so far this year is “part of the same pattern as always”

Eric Garcia McKinley
Member
3 years 3 months ago

I can’t wait until it’s at the point in which “small sample size” becomes a self-evident qualifier.

nilbog44
Member
nilbog44
3 years 3 months ago

I love it when people completely ignore all warning signs and statistics and just chalk it up to “small sample size.” The SSS stuff is getting out of hand.

Scooter McFinch
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Scooter McFinch
3 years 3 months ago

Dan Haren broken?

I see 3 ER in his last 14 innings w/ 9 Ks & 1 BB, yielding 10 hits.

Not so bad. That’s my only quibble. Nice breakdown overall. Zimmerman moving off third seems crazy given his GG in 2009. But I guess things like this happen all the time.

philosofool
Member
Member
philosofool
3 years 3 months ago

Haren is a pitch to contact flyball guy right now; the result is an xFIP of 4.46. I’m not saying that he’s broken, but something does need to change for him to become effective.

John C.
Guest
John C.
3 years 3 months ago

Because of the small sample size problem, Haren’s stats are weighed down by the disaster in the Great American Smallpark. He gave up four HRs in that game, three of which were first row GAS specialties (two of which possibly should have been reversed). As Scooter McFinch points out above, Haren has been much better since. The reports of his demise have been greatly exaggerated.

Every team has a “doom” scenario. Despite all of their troubles, and having played a tougher schedule than the Braves (the Nats have played a total of 20 games against teams that were above .500 last year; the Braves have played 10), the Nats are just two games out of first place. It briefly looked like the Braves were going to run off and hide, but they have come back to Earth (surprise! Evan Gattis and Chris Johnson are not Babe Ruth and Lou Gherig).

Sure, the Nats are in trouble if LaRoche, Zimmerman, Espinosa and (to a lesser extent) Werth all continue to struggle all season. Span is just fine – he’s getting on base (.346) and playing excellent defense, which is exactly what the Nationals bargained for. Compare him with what the team’s top two rivals have done to address CF (B.J. Upton and Ben Revere) and Span looks GREAT.

Undocorkscrew
Guest
Undocorkscrew
3 years 3 months ago

Span’s numbers are greatly inflated by a scorching start. He has a .254, .286, .313 line over his last 16 games. I’m not reading too much into it, but it’s worth pointing out since we’re discussing SSS. And that’s still well above what Upton and Revere have been doing.

“surprise! Evan Gattis and Chris Johnson are not Babe Ruth and Lou Gherig”

Everyone knew Johnson was going to regress, but I don’t understand the Gattis mention. His first 4-5 games were obviously unsustainable, but he’s posted a .944 OPS in last 6 games, .822 in his last 11. He’s been pretty consistent so far and see no reason to assume that what we’re seeing isn’t far off from what he really is.

The Braves have their share of players under-performing as well. It’s not even remotely reasonable to expect B.J. Upton and Heyward to post wOBA’s in the .220-.230 range. Not unreasonable to expect a bit of improvement from Uggla and Simmons either. The only guy who’s really playing over his head is Chris Johnson(though Upton’s probably not going to slug .650). Freeman and McCann have just recently returned, and Heyward’s expected back in a week or so. They’ve been surprisingly right-heavy this season and it’s shown(.397 SLG against RHP, .474 SLG against LHP). Getting those 3 lefties back, combined with B.J. Upton’s likely improvement could prove huge. Of course that takes playing time away from Gattis, but a McCann/Gattis platoon should be quite potent.

John C.
Guest
John C.
3 years 3 months ago

I wasn’t really commenting about the Braves’ prospects going forward at all – just noting that while initially they showed signs of putting the Nationals in a hole that would have been very tough to climb out of (see, e.g., the Blue Jays and the Angels) the Braves futzed around enough in late April and early May to blunt the effect of the Nats’ uneven start. I don’t think that the Braves OR the Nationals are particularly likely to struggle all season. I still like the Nats starting rotation better and the Braves lineup better.

As for Gattis, he’s now at .260 with a .305 OBP. Nothing wrong with that, especially with the power that he has shown so far. But coming into this year he had a grand total of 9 home runs above A ball, and age 26 is a bit late for an impact player to show up in the bigs. Every now and then a player shows up relatively late and lights it up. Most often those players turn out to be marginal MLB players (Shane Spencer being the most spectacular example that I can think of). Occasionally they turn out to be something more (Michael Morse?). Color me skeptical on Gattis until he sustains it a few times around the league.

Well-Beered Englishman
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Well-Beered Englishman
3 years 3 months ago

Agree with you. Dan Haren seemed broken in his first couple games, but he has found a velocity where he is comfortable, and though he’s certainly not dominant he seems to be passable. I certainly desire gradual improvement from this point, but if he leans on the Nationals’ defense to get outs from mediocre contact, he should do fine the way Ross Detwiler is doing fine.

Cidron
Member
Cidron
3 years 3 months ago

Yeah, A-Rod’s line from 2009 isnt bad either.. Want him on your team ?

Hurtlockertwo
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Hurtlockertwo
3 years 3 months ago

Zimmerman looks to be the next Steve Sax, his throwing is very odd indeed.

kiss my GO NATS
Guest
kiss my GO NATS
3 years 3 months ago

Strasburg is not the same as last season. I suspect he has a nagging injury in his throwing shoulder that he is hiding, but I have no evidence other than watching him throw as proof. He has lost some of his command. He rotates his arm more often between throws. Maybe my imagination is getting the better of me, but he looks like he is much less comfortable throwing this season as compared to this time last year. He looked this way in his last 2 starts last season. So I perhaps he has an injury that he got last season that he thought would heal by now. Sure, I am speculating but the man deserves further observation for sure.

Phantom Stranger
Guest
Phantom Stranger
3 years 3 months ago

Strasburg’s arm looks ready to fail at any moment. The constant arm shaking after pitches is a very troubling sign. Everyone said his mechanics were unworkable in the long run and they appear to be right. If I were the Nats, he would be on the shortest leash possible in games.

Oasis
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Oasis
3 years 3 months ago

Lol your brain looks ready to fail at any given moment … I just laugh at all you dumbass armchair pitching coaches

Oasis
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Oasis
3 years 3 months ago

Lol I can’t decide who’s more moronic, you or Anon21.

Strasburg has had exactly one bad start. A game in GAB where he gave up 6 runs in a bandbox. All but one of his starts have been against above average offenses. Cin, Atl, Mets & StL just in case you’re too lazy to take 2 minutes to check the game log. Oh, and his walk rate is lower than last year …

TKDC
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TKDC
3 years 3 months ago

In the future I’d recommend separating out your posts that begin “LOL” so it isn’t apparent you are an 11-year-old girl.

Scraps
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Scraps
3 years 3 months ago

Oh, I think he’s a 11-year-old old boy. Doesn’t matter, really.

YanksFanInBeantown
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YanksFanInBeantown
3 years 3 months ago

I don’t think Denard Span is performing much below expectations. His job is, first and foremost, to get on base, and he’s done a pretty good job of that, even if he hasn’t hit for any power.

philosofool
Member
Member
philosofool
3 years 3 months ago

Yeah, a plus defending CF with a 90 wRC+ is a good player.

YanksFanInBeantown
Guest
YanksFanInBeantown
3 years 3 months ago

Especially one with a .350 OBP and 5 steals.

Anon21
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Anon21
3 years 3 months ago

Feel-good articles on a Monday afternoon are always welcome. May Davey Johnson, Bryce Harper, and Nationals superfans Wolf Blitzer and Lil Luke Russert taste nothing but ashes all the days of their lives.

Well-Beered English Nationals Superfan
Guest
Well-Beered English Nationals Superfan
3 years 3 months ago

If you were one of Edvard Grieg’s piano miniatures from the “Lyric Pieces” series, you would be “March of the Trolls.”

Anon21
Guest
Anon21
3 years 3 months ago

No, I can’t agree. Trolls are just looking to incite outraged reactions, usually with insincere provocations. I sincerely hate the Washington Nationals and all their works, and it’s from that place of sincere hatred that my posts are written. The ideal reaction, from my perspective, would be agreement, not argument.

Well-Beered English Nationals Superfan
Guest
Well-Beered English Nationals Superfan
3 years 3 months ago

Not to equate you, of course, this is a purely philosophical question; but aren’t Westboro Baptist sincere and yet trolls?

Anon21
Guest
Anon21
3 years 3 months ago

Well, I’ve read conflicting things on that subject. It’s a pretty small and insular group, but I’ve at least read some suggestion that their homophobia (or at least its depth and vehemence) is in some part exaggerated, and that one of their goals is to provoke people into suing them, win, and then force the justly offended party to pay their legal fees. (They generally represent themselves.) That goes a step beyond trolling, if that really is their racket.

scraps
Guest
scraps
3 years 3 months ago

I sincerely hate [any team]

Then you’re a child. And an ill-raised one. (Sincerely.)

scraps
Guest
scraps
3 years 3 months ago

I sincerely hate [any team]

Then you’re a child. And an ill-raised one. (Sincerely.)

Anon21
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Anon21
3 years 3 months ago

Be as sincere as you like; adult humans have been hating opponents of all stripes since the dawn of time. Perhaps our whole species is ill-raised.

scraps
Guest
scraps
3 years 3 months ago

It’s sports. If you sincerely hate your opponents, to the point of bringing it up every damned time the subject is raised, you need your priorities straitened. Or maybe you need to look up the meaning of “sincerely”.

keegs
Guest
keegs
3 years 3 months ago

The Nats have been good for 13 months. Who hates them? Focus on hating the Phillies and Yankees and Braves.

Anon21
Guest
Anon21
3 years 3 months ago

I hate the Phillies as well, don’t worry. The Braves I only hate when they lose, and the hatred generally passes quickly.

KM
Guest
KM
3 years 3 months ago

Let go of your hate, Luke.

Steve
Guest
Steve
3 years 3 months ago

Well… Werth is disconcerting, Haren is completely gone (as in, not good in the MLB anymore) and Espinosa and Span weren’t even very good hitting players in the first place. The Nats will still be good, but they might not match last year’s success. In fact, they probably won’t. Sorry, Nats fans.

John C.
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John C.
3 years 3 months ago

Meh

If they only win 92-94 games but win 2-3 more playoff series than they did last year – I’d be OK with that. :)

cass
Guest
cass
3 years 3 months ago

Did you even watch Haren’s last start? He sure pitched very well for someone who is “completely gone.” Against the Braves no less. Yeesh.

And Espinosa had more power than most other 2nd basemen last year. His game is defense and power and it works once he gets going. He’s a shortstop playing at 2nd, but one who can hit some dingers.

James
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James
3 years 3 months ago

*In before their 18-10 May

John C.
Guest
John C.
3 years 3 months ago

What’s hilarious is the baseball commentariat building up expectations for the Nationals, then getting mad when the team isn’t meeting the expectations that the commentariat created. I’ve seen a lot of “what’s wrong?” posts about the Nationals, but not nearly so much about the Blue Jays, Angels and Dodgers – all teams that were also popular with the commentariat and all teams that have really struggled in the early going (the Blue Jays and Angels in particular are in serious trouble).

Jason B
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Jason B
3 years 3 months ago

“but not nearly so much about the Blue Jays, Angels and Dodgers”

Methinks you haven’t been paying attention much, then.

El Vigilante
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El Vigilante
3 years 3 months ago

“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).”

That four game block against the White Sox and Braves consists of three separate occasions (9th&10th, 10th&11th, 11th&12th) of 4+ runs in consecutive games. The Nationals have scored 4+ runs in consecutive games four times, not two, this season.

BenRevereDoesSteroids
Member
BenRevereDoesSteroids
3 years 3 months ago

” And Zimmerman’s offense has lefty plenty to be desired…”

191 wRC+ against lefties.

Oasis
Guest
Oasis
3 years 3 months ago

Harper is dominant? How could anyone with a WAR lower than Starlin Marte, Ian Kinsler, Jean Segura & Kyle Seager be considered dominant?

Unless of course you overrate completely unreliable fielding and baserunning “stats” like Fangraphs does …

nobleisthyname
Member
nobleisthyname
3 years 3 months ago

The Nationals’ offense stunk last April too. The only reason they did so well was because their pitching had a historically good month that it didn’t matter. Call me when the offense is flagging in July.

nobleisthyname
Member
nobleisthyname
3 years 3 months ago

Derp, this was supposed to be a general commment.

Ruki Motomiya
Member
Ruki Motomiya
3 years 3 months ago

Zimmerman is better at 3B than 1B according to positional adjustments.

Cool Lester Smooth
Guest
Cool Lester Smooth
3 years 3 months ago

Not when you consider that he would probably be an elite defensive 1B, as opposed to the bad defensive 3B he is currently.

Ruki Motomiya
Member
Ruki Motomiya
3 years 3 months ago

I’m not so sure of that. 3B is +2.5 runs, 1B is -12.5, so he basically needs to make up 15.0 runs from playing 1B compared to 3B. His UZR is currently -2.5, so if he did this bad every month, it’d certainly be possible. If he instead does similiar to the past two years (-0.9 and -2.4), then he is by far better at 3B. In fact, he probably needs to be somewhere in the -7 to -8 range to be worth switching: There’s only been 4 10+ UZR 1B in the past three years (w/ 9.8 for Tex once) and only two repeats (A-Gon and Tex). So even as an elite defensive 1B, he’d probably need a good deal of negative runs to be worth switching, then ALSO be very good at 1B: And we have no idea how good he’d be at 1B considering that his 3B defensive play is declining.

McDoozle
Guest
McDoozle
3 years 3 months ago

His problem at 3rd is that he can’t throw, so he would likely be good on 1st. Seriously, it’s like the guy can’t see across the diamond these days. It’s horrifying

YanksFanInBeantown
Guest
YanksFanInBeantown
3 years 3 months ago

What McDoozle said. He’s not losing range, he’s just physically unable to throw the ball to first base.

He has more range than Youk did when he made the switch, so I think he’d definitely be as good, if not better than, Tex and A-Gon defensively, even if his glovesmanship is not quite as pretty,

John C.
Guest
John C.
3 years 3 months ago

Zimmerman’s throwing woes have been overblown. He’s certainly physically capable of throwing across the diamond – he’s still as good on the barehanded slow roller as any third baseman I’ve seen (going back to Craig Nettles and the latter part of Brooks Robinson’s career). On off balance snap throws he is excellent. Where he has gotten into trouble is the occasional routine play where his mechanics get out of whack for whatever reason. Even with that, he’s not at the “Butch Hobson in the late 70’s” level of awful throws.

Cool Lester Smooth
Guest
Cool Lester Smooth
3 years 3 months ago

Chuck Knoblauch, then?

McDoozle
Guest
McDoozle
3 years 3 months ago

The Nats will be fine. LaRoche is likely to pick up a bit, as are Werth and Gonzalez. All three are performing below their career averages and recent history (although a case could be made that, at his age, this is the Werth that will exist from here on out). Plus, their schedule has been fairly difficult. Look ahead to June; they have about 10-12 series in a row against weak competition all the way from June 2nd to the All Star break. That’s when they’ll boost their record up to about 25 above .500, get back in first and everyone will be back on the bandwagon.

Well-Beered Englishman
Guest
3 years 3 months ago

25 above .500? That’s kind of a lot. To be 25 games above .500 at the 100 game mark, the Nationals would need to go 45-23 until then.

75WasAgoodYearForBaseball
Guest
75WasAgoodYearForBaseball
3 years 3 months ago

I don’t think 2012 was a fluke for the Nationals…does anyone else here ? Are we able to agree that the 2013 Nationals will compete for, or win, the division again ??

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