November 20, 2018

If Nats are to improve offense, it has to be from within

Now that the Prince Fielder saga is over, we can turn our attention to the players that will actually take the field for the Washington Nationals in 2012 on offense.  For the most part, it’s the same players that were here in 2011 that finished the season hitting .242/.308/.383 as a team.

All last season we heard from team officials, players and media that the Nats main problem scoring was that they were coming up short with runners in scoring position.  But that notion is misleading.  The Nats finished 2011 perfectly league average with RISP at 50 percent.  No, the Nats biggest problem last year was simply getting runners on base.  It wasn’t the how, but how many.

It’s a fairly simple idea that many baseball fans either don’t — or won’t — understand.  The more runners you get on base, the more runs you score.  It’s an idea that has been out there for a while among sabermatricians, and was popularized in Moneyball, yet old-school baseball people and most fans still don’t quite grasp it, as logical as it seems.

Here’s the idea, boiled down to its most simple terms: In the National League, teams drive in roughly 14 percent of their total baserunners every year.  This isn’t a number that varies.  The American League typically runs around 15 percent due to the designated hitter.  Some teams may be decimal points higher or lower, but as a league there’s really not much variance. 

***Notice I didn’t say “runners in scoring position,”  because that statistic is simply immaterial.  RISP is a smokescreen, invented to try to quantify the elusive “clutch” aspect, when the concept is simply not germane to the discussion.  RISP fluctuates so wildly from year-to-year to be absolutely meaningless.

Anyway, back to the Nats. The Nationals averaged 3.88 runs per game last season, 11th in the league and below the N.L. average of 4.13 RPG.  They managed to finish that high in the standings by virtue of finishing seventh in the N.L. in home runs. 

They finished 13th in the N.L. in total baserunners last season, ahead of just the Braves, Pirates and Giants.  They were that low in total baserunners because they were next-to-last in total hits and 13th in walks; a lethal combination, leading to their 13th place standing in on-base percentage.  It’s the same at the top of the standings too: St. Louis was fifth in total base runners, first in runs per game.  Colorado was second in both.  The top five teams in total baseruners were in the top seven in runs per game.  It’s like this every year.

Since the Nationals haven’t made any acquisitions this winter to address the offense, any gains to be made will have to come internally, by players on the roster.  Where will those gains be made?

Well, 160 games from Ryan Zimmerman would be a start.  The Nats best hitter last season only compiled 440 plate appearances, a good 200 short of a full season.  His quantitative numbers (.289/.355/.443) were all reasonably within his career averages, so more playing time is all Zimmerman needs to accomplish what his team needs out of him.

After that, it gets dicey.

The Nats are depending on Michael Morse to replicate his career year from last season (.303/.360/.550).   He accomplished those numbers despite a 3.5 K/BB ratio, which over the long haul probably won’t hold up.  He also hits an inordinate amount of ground balls for a power hitter, making his success last season that much more surprising.  He also benefitted from an elevated BABiP.  His power is real, but if the underlying negatives catch up to his on-base average, he’ll be due a regression while still popping tape measure home runs.

With Fielder off to Detroit, Adam LaRoche and his surgically repaired shoulder slides back to first base.  Last year was a wash for the normally dependable LaRoche, but his dependable numbers are barely adequate for a power-premium position like first base.  Sure, his excellent defense will save a few base runners over the course of a season, but  not nearly enough to make up for the lack of offense.  But we’ll pencil in LaRoche’s lifetime .267/.337/.478 for now, but know that his shoulder surgery could very possibly limit his power for months.

Does Jayson Werth bounce back?  Will Danny Espinosa make more contact?  Will Ian Desmond finally learn some plate discipline?  Will the Nats start with a Roger Bernadina/Mike Cameron platoon in center field?  Or will they rush 19-year old Bryce Harper up to play right and slide Werth to center, further weakening an already shaky outfield?  Does Wilson Ramos take a step up?  Will there be any contribution from the bench?

There are more questions than answers right now for the Nats.  Maybe that’s why Rizzo ultimately decided to go conservative on the free agent market this winter, and at the last, bailed on Prince Fielder.  As desperately as Nats fans want to believe the team can be competitive for a Wild Card run this season, there are still way too many moving parts.

The Gio Gonzalez trade, along with 160 innings of Stephen Strasburg and a full season by Jordan Zimmermann should lower the number of runs the Nationals allow, but you still have to outscore the opposition.  The Nationals need a lot of things to go right for the offense to improve from last year.  If they are to improve, it will all have to come from within.

***All statistics used for this analysis were taken from the indispensible www.Baseball-Reference.com.

About Dave Nichols

Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Washington Nationals, Capitals, Wizards and Mystics. Dave also covers national college football and basketball and Major League Soccer for Associated Press and is a copy editor for the Spokesman-Review newspaper in Spokane, WA. He spent four years in radio covering the Baltimore Orioles, Washington Redskins and the University of Maryland football and basketball teams. Dave is a life-long D.C. sports fan and attended his first pro game in 1974 — the Caps’ second game in existence. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveNicholsDSP

Comments

  1. HalfSmoke says:

    Dave-

    Excellent analysis. Just wanted to correct one small mistake or misconception that I’ve also seen elsewhere. Morse’s BABIP for 2011 was not really “elevated.” It’s virtually identical to his career BABIP, accumulated over parts of six other seasons that together equal just over a season’s worth of PAs. His line drive rate was only slightly higher in 2011 than over his career as well.

    He’s always hit the ball hard. 2011 was just the first time he had a chance to do it over an entire uninterrupted season. To the extent he made any real leap forward in 2011 it was the rate at which he hit balls that exited the park, not teh rate at which the ones in the park were hit where they ain’t.

    • Dave Nichols says:

      granted. however, we’re talking such a small sample size in his six year career (’05-’10 total plate appearances = 685) that we could still be talking about his BABiP being inflated to the MLB norm. but the larger point is the K/BB ratio, and the full book pitching coaches have against him now.

      thanks for the input.

      • How many years does Morse have to hit before we stop worrying about him being exposed? It’s like the horizon – the more he plays, the farther away it gets. I don’t assume that Morse will equal last year’s production, but I don’t think he’s likely to collapse either. There is actually some chance that he will continue to improve with more opportunity.

        But for your point about more offense, remember that LaRoche isn’t replacing a first baseman in last year’s lineup; that guy was Morse, and he’s still in the lineup. LaRoche is replacing some combination of Roger Bernadina/Laynce Nix/Jhonny Gomes in the lineup – and his “normal” numbers are a significant upgrade from what the Nationals got from any of those players (Nix had two good months, but his final numbers were not impressive).

        I also question your assumption that it was doubt over 2012 that pushed Rizzo to “at the last, [bail] on Prince Fielder.” I don’t think that the Nationals were ever near the total (years OR $$) that the Tigers foolishly paid for Fielder.

        • Dave Nichols says:

          thanks for the comment. i understand LaRoche will be replacing the left field production. I just think the jury’s out as to what level his production will be.

          • Dave Nichols says:

            as for Morse, last year was his first full season in the Majors. his previous five seasons he accumulated roughly one season’s worth of stats. i think it’s still fair to question the repeatability of Morse’s production.

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