Nats’ Bats the Biggest Problem

Through the first 30 games of this season, the Washington Nationals found themselves sitting right at .500. That’d be a fine start for a lot of teams, but not for Davey Johnson‘s club. After winning 98 games in 2012, general manager Mike Rizzo added starter Dan Haren, closer Rafael Soriano and outfielder Denard Span to a roster that was already bursting with talent. Consider as well that they’d get to reap the benefits of full seasons from Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg, and it’s not difficult to see why the Nationals were the consensus choice to win the National League East, and seen as a potential World Series winner as well.

Though they’d won three in a row through Wednesday after dropping to .500, things still haven’t fully come together yet for the team, as it treads water behind the Atlanta Braves in the division. If you ask the average fan why that is, in all likelihood he or she would reply “Strasburg.” Most of the attention so far has been focused on the struggles of the Nationals’ young ace, as he’s battled inconsistency and right forearm tightness that at one point put his availability in question; in the seven games Strasburg has started, Washington has won just two. But for all the concern over his situation, he’s still struck out nearly a man per inning and has an adequate-if-not-quite-electric 3.45 ERA. Overall, Washington’s pitching has been fine, with a total 3.69 FIP that places the Nationals within the top 10 in baseball.

While Strasburg demands the lion’s share of the attention, the problem in Washington isn’t on the mound. It’s at the plate, where a group (excluding pitchers) that had a .331weighted on-base average last year (eighth-best in baseball) has now tumbled all the way to .302, better than only the woeful Seattle Mariners, Chicago White Sox and Miami Marlins.

That would be a surprising drop for any team, but it’s especially shocking for a roster that returned six of eight starters, cleared anchors from last year like Rick AnkielMark DeRosa,Jesus Flores and Xavier Nady, and has seen Harper blossom into arguably the most dangerous young hitter in baseball.

Johnson and Rizzo came out of the winter expecting to enjoy a productive offense — but so far, it just isn’t working.

What’s gone wrong?

It’s difficult to have a hitter as dynamic as Harper (.437 wOBA) and still rank so poorly as a team, and the only way that can really happen is if nearly the entire group around him is struggling. As you’d expect, that’s exactly what’s happened so far. Ten different Nationals had at least 100 plate appearances last year, and just two have managed to equal or better their wOBA from last season — Harper and catcher Kurt Suzuki.

Nowhere is this trend more noticeable than in the infield, where first baseman Adam LaRoche, second baseman Danny Espinosa, shortstop Ian Desmond and third baseman Ryan Zimmerman combined to form one of the better quartets in baseball last season. Between them, they combined for an even 100 home runs in 2012, and three of the four — Espinosa excluded — finished among the top seven at their positions in wOBA.

This year? Of the four, only Desmond is providing anything close to positive value, and even he has seen his wOBA drop from .362 to .326 thanks to a strikeout percentage that has jumped five points and a walk percentage that has been cut in half. His double-play partner, Espinosa, has been even worse — it’s difficult to paint a .200/.238/.379 line in a positive light — and while a .226 batting average on balls in play indicates poor luck that should even out, a line-drive rate down from last year shows that part of it is that he’s simply not hitting the ball as well. It might be as simple as pointing to the shoulder and wrist injuries he’s dealt with so far, but those are also difficult problems for a hitter to play through with success.

Yet it’s really on the infield corners where the serious problems are. LaRoche had one of the best years of his career in 2012, gaining some MVP support as he hit a career-high 33 homers to go with a .361 wOBA. So far this year, he’s been nothing short of a disaster, dropping nearly 100 points off his wOBA to go with an ugly .184/.283/.306 line.

LaRoche was hampered for part of April by a sore back, and he’s been hurt even more by a .238 BABIP. (You’ll see this is a recurring theme for the early-season Nationals.) LaRoche probably won’t repeat last year’s success, but at least in his case there’s a lot to like about what’s to come. He’s been more selective than ever, swinging at fewer pitches than in any full season of his career, and the balls he has gone after have led to a career-high 25 percent line-drive rate. We’ve been able to see the effects of that already, because after an atrocious April, he’s turned it on in May, reaching base 13 times in the first six games.

Zimmerman also missed time in April due to injury, but unlike most of his teammates, BABIP isn’t a huge issue for him. He’s just been flat-out bad, striking out nearly a quarter of the time, which would be by far a career high if he keeps it up all season long. His swing rates are largely unchanged, but he’s just not making contact as he once did, and when he does hit the ball, it ends up on the ground more than half the time.

While his April injury was to his hamstring, he’s also coming off offseason shoulder surgery. As we’ve seen with Adrian Gonzalez and Matt Kemp recently, shoulder woes can often affect a hitter’s production long after the procedure. That goes double for his once-excellent defense, which has seen throwing problems so serious it has raised questions of when — not even if — he’ll move off third base to first to make room for prospect Anthony Rendon.

In fact — and not to completely terrify Washington fans — the Nationals’ offense as a whole looks surprisingly like another highly touted group that’s struggled to live up to expectations. That would be the flailing Toronto Blue Jays, profiled here by Insider Dave Cameron last week.

 

Big disappointments

The Nationals and Blue Jays were supposed to be offensive juggernauts, but both have floundered. (Stats through May 8.)

BA OBP SLG wOBA BABIP BB% K%
TOR .238 .304 .410 .311 .273 8.2 21.5
WAS .239 .302 .393 .302 .281 8.0 21.3

 

The two offenses are very similar, and being compared to a team that has more losses than anyone in baseball other than Miami and the Houston Astros is not exactly what the Nats had in mind headed into the season.

They’re in luck

Fortunately for the Nats, their prospects are brighter than those north of the border. Unlike the Jays, who have more than likely already cost themselves a shot at the playoffs as they sit in last place in the American League East, Harper and the pitching staff have more than kept the Nationals in the race. They’ve bought time for the offense to come alive, and that might be all the team needs, given that it’s incredibly unlikely that a group with this much talent is going to be saddled with such a poor BABIP all season long.

While it’s not as cut and dry an answer as many would like to hear, this does seem to be largely a result of some really atrocious batted ball luck, along with some health concerns that are keeping players like Zimmerman, Espinosa and the constantly banged-up Jayson Werth at less than 100 percent.

Washington isn’t likely to get back to last season’s offensive levels, and that’s partly by design as the club essentially swapped the extraneous Mike Morse for the defensively-talented Span. But the Nats might not need to regain their 2012 offensive form — even a simple bounce back to their established normals should be enough to support Harper and a rotation that features Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and the underrated Jordan Zimmermann. Considering how lousy their batted-ball luck has been so far, that doesn’t seem like an unreasonable expectation.




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Mike Petriello lives in New York and writes about the Dodgers daily at Dodgers Digest, as well as contributing to ESPN Insider. He wrote two chapters in the 2014 Hardball Times Annual as well as building The Hardball Times and TechGraphs, and was an editorial producer at Sports on Earth. Find him at @mike_petriello.

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