Washington: Not The Worst?

Everyone knows the Washington Nationals are the worst team in baseball, right? They are the only club around with less than 40 wins on the season, and they’ve been the brunt of every joke about baseball for the last few years. However, right now, they might just be putting a better team on the field than the Kansas City Royals.

When the Nationals traded Lastings Milledge and Joel Hanrahan to Pittsburgh for Nyjer Morgan and Sean Burnett on July 1st, they were 23-54, sporting a .298 winning percentage that made them a virtual lock for the top pick in the 2010 draft. Since Morgan’s arrival, however, he’s significantly upgraded the team the Nationals put on the field, posting a .396 wOBA and +7 UZR in 30 games with the team.

Not surprisingly, the Nationals have played significantly better since the deal, winning 13 of 31 games for a .419 winning percentage. They’ve thinned out their glut of 1B/OF by dealing Nick Johnson and DL’ing Austin Kearns, which lets them go with a regular outfield of Willingham-Morgan-Dukes/Harris, with Adam Dunn taking his defensive butchery to first base. This gives the Nats their best defensive outfield to date, and with Morgan getting on base for the three big hitters in the middle of the line-up, they can actually score some runs.

The bullpen is still a disaster, but the current version of the Nationals are quite a bit better than the team they were putting on the field to start the season.

So if the Nationals aren’t the easiest team to beat in the game anymore, who is? How about the Kansas City Royals? Since starting the season 23-23, they’ve won just 18 of their last 61 games. Gil Meche and Coco Crisp has landed on the disabled list, taking two of the Royals better players off the field. Yuniesky Betancourt has been brutal since coming over from Seattle, continuing to make shortstop a massive hole on the roster. Even Zack Greinke has come back to earth a bit, walking 13 batters in his last six starts, all of which have ended with a Royals loss.

The reversal of fortune for these two clubs have actually given the Royals a decent chance at passing the Nationals for the worst record in baseball. They are 5 1/2 games ahead of the Nationals in the standings, but if they keep playing .295 baseball like they have for the last two months, they’ll finish with a record of 57-105. The Nationals, if they keep playing at the .419 clip they’ve put up since Morgan arrived, would finish with a 58-104 record.

Okay, so neither of those performances are likely to continue. But it’s kind of impressive, for lack of a better word, that the Royals have been able to collapse to the point where it’s even a race to the finish.




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Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.


49 Responses to “Washington: Not The Worst?”

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  1. Kevin says:

    I think there’s a case to be made for the Padres.

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  2. Joe R says:

    NEW RAYS!

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  3. Bryce Harper says:

    Hi.

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    • Joe R says:

      Smoke some pot or something so you can drop to the Red Sox due to character issues.

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      • GhettoBear04 says:

        This would be a fun top 10 list. “Top 10 ways to scare away bad teams with fake character issues”

        Twittering, public intoxication, twittering about public intoxication…

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  4. mike says:

    Smiling…Man you love to hound the Royals.

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  5. Kampfer says:

    It would be a win for the Royals if they sink to the bottom though. The evil plan of the Nationals to draft the two best prospects ever will be ruined.

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    • Joe R says:

      In good Bryce Harper news, in 90 PA’s for his HS in 2009, he walked 22 times. SSS aside, 24.4% in HS is a pretty good sign.

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      • JH says:

        Or nobody’s pitching to him because he’s Bryce Harper.

        SSS isn’t even an issue. It’s high school stats. They’re meaningless regardless of sample size.

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  6. David A says:

    I second the vote for the Padres. During the Braves game the other night they put up a stat showing their team OPS. It was like 650. For the whole TEAM.

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    • Joe R says:

      Thanks to playing in an airport hangar named Petco Park, they’re still 12th of 16 in the NL in OPS+. The killer is being dead effin last in ERA+ (3rd highest team ERA in the NL despite Petco). According to OPS+ and ERA+, they are way worse than the Nats (4th! and 15th in the NL).

      To be honest, the Nationals aren’t as bad as their record says. They’re 8(!) games below their pythag, which is still 44-64, but they’re playing like a 66 win team and on pace to finish with 54 wins.

      The Nats actually have a good OF now, Dunn’s defensive badness may not matter so much at 1B, Zimmerman at 3rd, Strasburg coming, Lannan’s still good. Washington still obviously has a way to go, but they’re just a few solid signings away from at least being a WC contender.

      That’s probably too ambitious on my part, but even going 13-18 in the last 31 is below their pythag (151 RS, 153 RA, almost dead even). Too bad Manny Acta isn’t going to be around for it, he didn’t deserve to be canned.

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      • Slick says:

        You are only saying that about Acta because he uses ‘baseball science’ as one of his managing tools.

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      • Joe R says:

        Of course I am.
        No one does well with the messily inserted roster the Nationals had to start the season, though. Give a good manager and a bad manager a badly constructed roster, and they’ll both probably end up the same way: doing poorly.

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      • Joe R says:

        And like I said, on top of being bad, this team has been brutally unlucky in 2009.

        Probably due to bullpen struggles, teams with good bullpens tend to outperform their pythag, and vice-versa.

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  7. pm says:

    The Nats Bullpen is not a disaster anymore. They have a 3.39 ERA in the second half of the season well below the NL average of 4.04

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  8. Sky says:

    Justin makes a case for the Reds being the worst team in the majors:

    http://www.beyondtheboxscore.com/2009/8/5/979115/btb-power-rankings-through-tuesday

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    • Joe R says:

      Dusty is killing that offense. T-minus 2 more seasons before Jay Bruce is permanently effed up.

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    • David A says:

      I thought the Reds would be pretty decent this season, but yeah, they suck lately. Outside of Votto and Phillips, not too many bright spots in that lineup. Taveras is absolutely killing them in CF.

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      • Joe R says:

        HE CAN RUN AND PLAY DEFENSE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
        Dusty Baker batting order template:
        1) CF
        2) SS
        3)
        4) 1B
        5)
        6)
        7)
        8) C
        9) P

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  9. rizzo says:

    I’d go Pads, then Reds. Speaking of the Reds ‘offense’ check out Taveras slash line since May 13th:

    .201/.221/.226

    No joke. Willy has really embraced Dusty’s philosophy regarding not ‘clogging the bases’

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    • Joe R says:

      Also of note:
      13 SB, 5 CS, 72.22% SB rate.

      So even if you wanna Dusty it up and add his 13 steals to his total bases, and take the 5 away (cum difference of 8), and turn his 5 CS’s from hits to outs, you get:

      244 PA – 47 Hits – 6 BB + 5 CS = 196 outs: 196/244 = .197 adj OBP
      53 Bases + 13 SB – 5 CS = 61 adj TB = .261 adj SLG

      = .457 adj OPS.

      Process that crap from your leadoff guy.

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      • Brett says:

        Getting caught stealing adds more to losing than a successful steal adds to winning. So the straight math of subtracting CS from SB isn’t the best way to go. The break even point, the point where your SB% is worth nothing, positively or negatively, is somewhere in the neighborhood of 66%. He’s still adding a positive contribution, it’s just not the same contribution as someone who stole 8 bases and hasn’t been caught.

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      • Joe R says:

        I’m full aware. If you want to say every 1 point of OBP lost is like 2 points of SLG lost (aka -1 OBP = +2 SLG), Taveras is actually hurting his value even more in the running game, unbelievably.

        Even if you only say, like, 1.7, he’s hurting his value. Truly a lesson in futility.

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  10. Lawrence says:

    Who cares about their records for the last 30 or even 60 games. These are stupidly small sample sizes to draw conclusions like these from.

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    • Big Oil says:

      The conclusion Dave is drawing, of course, is that the worst team in the league may no longer be the Nationals. Given the fact that win-loss record plays a (significant) role in helping to assess talent on the field and ability to win baseball games, it stands to reason that assessing baseball teams incrementally — especially when moves have been made to the active roster — can be quite relevant. In that way, these are not “stupidly” small sample sizes; they are evidence only for the conclusion that the Nationals may not be the worst team in the league at this point.

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  11. theron says:

    Morgan has been good, but I think the Nats have improved mostly due to Willingham finally getting full time playing status. The guy has been en fuego during the Nats’ “ascent”.

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    • Big Oil says:

      And beyond what he has done with the bat, he is an upgrade over Dunn in the field. Nick wasn’t playing fantastic 1B this year if you believe UZR is meaningful over this season, so Dunn, while in all likelihood worse, may be less bad relative to difference between his ability in LF and Willingham’s.

      I am concerned about Zimmermann’s elbow. Even after his rehab start, which went well, there were still some complaints about “tightness”. MRI showed nothing of note, which makes me worry more. In any event, if there is any doubt, they should shut him down.

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  12. Jamesian says:

    I’m glad this post was made. I took a look at the Nationals lately and decided this team is not all that bad. At least, not as bad as you might expect. I think the biggest problem the Nats have is the fact that they forgot that defense is a part of the game. They decided to field a beer league defense and play three DHs in the field and until recently were arguably below average at eight of nine positions with only Zimmerman being above average.

    The poor young Nationals pitchers are watching flyouts turn into doubles and their defense turn outs into hits at an alarming rate.

    Many 100+ loss teams have had dramatic improvement just by improving their defense. I think the Nats could improve by 20 games if they can figure this out.

    The interim GM seems to have had this dawn on him with the Morgan trade and starting Dukes. I’m sure the ownership will not stand for it and fire him.

    Why this teams keeps going with a black hole at 2B when they could have a respectable platoon of Willie Harris/Anderson Hernandez is beyond me. The Nats have an amazing inability to evaluate the talent right in front of them.

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  13. Dave Davidson fan says:

    It’s interesting that the Pirates haven’t entered this discussion even after selling off their whole starting lineup. That current lineup could really tank in the last two months.

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  14. Jamesian says:

    I’ll agree that Hernandez is not any good. But he does beat the crap out of lefthanded pitching. At least he has so far. Harris could play 2B fine if they put him there and hit a little against righthanders. He wouldn’t be any worse than what they have now. I’m not saying that combination would be any good. Just better than the mess they are putting out there. Not a high hurdle.

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    • Jim M. says:

      Honestly, in a pretty similar sample size, Alberto Gonzalez (getting the bulk of the playing time at 2b for the past month) has hit lefties even better than Anderson Hernandez has:

      Gonzalez: .356/.412/.533 in 49 PA
      Hernandez: .292/.358/.458 in 53 PA

      Admittedly, the return for Hernandez (Veloz) doesn’t look like a whole lot. Still, I think it’s a positive moving forward. One of the big things Riggleman said he wanted to do when he took over the club was give Gonzalez a closer look and see if he had a future. He’s been roughly as good with the glove (though most of his defensive numbers for the year are at SS…. simply put, he doesn’t have a SS’s arm) and a little better (.269/.312/.363 vs. Hernandez’s .251/.310/.320) with the bat. He has a little less service time under his belt, and his minor league production indicates that he could stick as a solid defensive middle infielder who’s a slight minus with the bat. Ideally, he’s a utility man down the road, but he’s better than Anderson Hernandez.

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  15. Jamesian says:

    Hernandez getting traded is just another example of the Nats being unable to evaluate their own talent. He was a useful spare part as a .300 lifetime hitter against LHP with some pop. But they would only play him against RHP which he couldn’t hit to save his life.

    They just gave him away for two guys that are completely useless. Bet the Mets are smart enough not to play him against RHP. The Nats got snookered again even if it doesn’t amount to much.

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  16. R Y says:

    So the Nats might screw up the chance to get Bryce Harper. I might not be too thrilled if I’m a Nats fan by their better recent play.

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    • BX says:

      Eh. They were able to throw the last few games last year to make sure they got the #1 overall pick to grab Strasburg. The M’s sweeping the A’s to end the season also helped.

      Just bench Zimmerman, Morgan, Willingham, and maybe Dunn for like the last few games of the season. Oh. And make sure Zimmermann’s innings are limited.

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  17. Stickler says:

    “reversal of fortune… HAS”
    “Gil Meche and Coco Crisp HAVE”
    “current version… IS”

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  18. Jim M. says:

    I realize Acta had a lot of supporters, including both fans of the Nats and people who could honestly care less. As a fan, watching his game and bullpen management (and seeming lack of passion) day in and day out for the past two and a half years, I was both waiting for and calling for him to be canned since the end of April. It’s an extremely small sample size, but it’s certainly worth noting that the Nats’ performance under their two managers this season are as follows:

    Manny Acta: 26-61
    Jim Riggleman: 11-11

    Now, admittedly, Riggleman has had the benefit of having Morgan in CF for his entire tenure. He’s had the benefit of seeing the bullpen implode enough times so that some of the problem areas (read: Hanrahan, Joel…. Tavarez, Julian…. Cabrera, Daniel [even if he did only make 1 relief appearance… the fact that he’s gone is a plus], Wells, Kip to name a few) in the later innings are history. Some of the keys to the improved bullpen play are Sean Burnett (whose actual performance continues to defy his indicators a bit), Tyler Clippard (who was looking like a failed prospect, but has found new life in the bullpen both in Syracuse and Washington all year), and Mike MacDougal (who hasn’t been stellar, but has converted 10 of 11 save opps).

    The Nats won their fifth straight today, coming back from down 6-0 against the Marlins (who had beaten them ten straight times prior to the Nationals’ sweep… coincidentally, Nick Johnson has now lost the past 13 Nats-Marlins games). Yes. Chances are that the luck was going to even out at some point, both against the Marlins and against the rest of the league after having underperformed their run differential as badly as they have. Still, I think Riggles deserves some credit here.

    My main complaint with Manny Acta was the lack of accountability:

    – The Milledge incident at the start of the year, where he missed the team meeting and was still the leadoff man on Opening Day. His poor play to start the year wasn’t taken care of by Acta (dropping him in the order… benching him… etc.). It had to be handled by Rizzo.

    – The Dukes incident when he was late for a game may not have been Acta’s fault (he benched him, but replacement Roger Bernadina was hurt in the second inning), but Dukes should probably have been benched the next day.

    – The constant non-chalant efforts in the field (particularly by Cristian Guzman) where players would either fail to try to get to a ball or try and make it look effortless (yes… again, Guzman) and turn an easy play into a two-base error.

    As for Guzman, the Nats comeback win today was completed when that noted hacker came to the plate to lead off the bottom of the eighth in an 8-8 game. After quickly falling behind Luis Ayala 0-2, Guzman actually did something I’ve never seen HIM do in years of watching the Expos/Nats franchise. Guzman worked the count, eventually taking it from an 0-2 count to his eleventh walk of the season. After Morgan moved him over to second, Belliard singled him in, and that was it. I doubt Riggleman has had nearly enough time to help get his players to improve their approach at the plate, but I don’t see Guzman having that good of an AB under Acta. I just saw him give too many AB away when Acta was running the show, knowing that Acta would just shrug it off like he did everything else.

    I bear no ill will towards Manny Acta, and wish him the best. I’m sure he’s a very smart baseball man and a fine person. The fact of the matter is that it looked like he had lost the team. It was absolutely the right call for the club to let Acta go, and the results have shown on the field.

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    • Joe R says:

      Point taken. I attribute some of his flaws more to managerial growing pains than the blissful ignorance of other currently unsuccessful managers, though, like Dusty Baker and Jerry Manuel (Ozzie just keeps on winning, even though I don’t think he sucks as much as the FJM guys did. He’s never had Thome bunt in a close game, right?)

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  19. Bellylard says:

    I think this is likely the high point of the season for Riggleman’s record.

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    • JRoth says:

      Boy, this comment hasn’t held up well over the past few days….

      Oh, and the comment above was right: how are you guys not talking about the abysmal Pirates? Due to rookie rawness, they’re underperforming even their meager talent level. The next clean game this lineup plays will be its first.

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  20. Mike says:

    Acta refused to change the lineup. It was always the same stagnant one. Riggleman changed it towards the end of last month, and their run total shot back up to nearly 6+ runs a game.

    Morgan, Guzman, Zimm, Dunn, Johnson, Willingham.

    Guzman was always batting late in the order, even when his hot under Acta. He consistently showed he could get on base and now that he is batting 2nd, makes for nice RBI totals for Ziimm.

    It is currently Morgan, Guz, Zimm, Dunn, Willingham, Dukes. That makes for an excellent batting order and has showed it this August.

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  21. Longgandhi says:

    Acta was a good man – and that’s one of the reasons people liked him and the Nats were reluctant to fire him – and he’s a good coach. But like Ray Miller and many others before him, just because you’re a good coach does not mean you’ll be a good manager. And Acta was one of the worst. Sure, the Nats had some bad luck at the end of games early on, but this team was undisciplined, they ran the bases poorly, they were sloppy on defense (even the good glovemen), Acta was brutal when it came to managing the bullpen and did little to build the confidence of his players. In fact he often blamed them for losses that were due in large part to his poor judgment. As for the offense, they were in the top 5 in the NL during much of his tenure so it’s not as if they’ve discovered some new run scoring magic. Changing two guys on the roster is not the reason the Nats went from playing .320 ball to playing better than .500; they were 3-8 under Acta even after “the trade”. Dumping Acta, even for someone as mediocre as Riggleman, is.

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  22. I’m guessing that if you adjust for superiority of the league the Royals might still be a bit better, but they are horrible…

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