The Washington Nationals are getting a lot of ink lately regarding their struggles against left-handed pitching. It’s on the front burner since the first three games of the four-game set with the Phillies, with two losses so far, are against lefties. Monday, the Nats were completely dominated by former teammate John Lannan. Tuesday, it was Cole Hamels that held the Nats hitless for five innings until scratching a few hits out in the eighth.
Wednesday, they face the stiffest competition of all, Cliff Lee, who is 10-2 this season so far with a 2.73 ERA and limiting left-handed batters to a .268/.318/.341 slash line.
What looked like a grand opportunity after sweeping the Padres over the weekend and getting to four games behind the Braves now looks like an impending disaster, as the Braves have won both their games this week to be back to six games ahead of the Nats, and it’s all due to their ineffectiveness against left-handed pitching.
The Nationals are an N.L. worst against lefties, with a team slash line of .215/.281/.336. For a reference point, that’s not much better than Livan Hernandez’ career hitting line of .221/.231/.295. Reminder: Livan was a big, slow pitcher. And they’re doing that as a team.
GM Mike Rizzo went on the radio Wednesday and tried to explain his team’s utter failure to hit lefties. “We just haven’t done it,” Rizzo concluded. “We haven’t gotten it done. And against left-handed pitching, it’s your right-handed part of your lineup that’s got to get it done.”
But is that the case? Are the Nats RHBs really not getting it done? A quick glance at the numbers doesn’t support Mr. Rizzo’s assessment, despite particularly bad at bats by Ryan Zimmerman (0-for-4 with 2 Ks vs. Hamels) and Jayson Werth Tuesday with the bases loaded in the eighth inning.
This first table we’ll look at the Nats RHBs with the largest sample sizes, and the guys Rizzo counts on to drive in runs. We’ll examine their overall 2013 slash line and compare their 2013 vs. LHPs against their career numbers vs. LHPs.
Upon inspection, I don’t see any of these three players suffering any statistically meaningful drop-off from their career norms against left-handed pitching. Werth’s OBP has dipped about 40 points, but his slugging is better. But even then, not much change.
Now, let’s examine the Nats left-handed batters against southpaws this season, using the same data.
Across the board, the three left-handed batters that, to this point, have stayed in the lineup when facing a LHP are all hitting significantly worse than their career averages against lefties. Span’s on-base is over 100 points lower than his career norm, his slugging almost 200 points. It’s no wonder Rizzo went out and traded for Scott Hairston to give Span the day off against lefties in the future.
Hairston’s career .269/.318/.499 isn’t all that much to write home about, but he does deliver some pop against left-handed pitchers and is a capable defensive outfielder, opposed to Tyler Moore or Steve Lombardozzi, the Nats other options for a right-handed bat in the outfield.
Harper’s sample size, obviously, is the smallest, but might be the most troubling. He’s 50 points down in average and almost 100 points in slugging. At least his OBP is hovering around the same, so he’s being a bit more selective, drawing more walks against LHPs but making less contact and weaker contact.
There’s nothing that can be done about LaRoche. His on-base is 50 points lower and slugging 100 points lower that career norms. The Nats have to hope he rebounds as the summer chugs along. There is no viable replacement for him, unless they sacrifice a relief pitcher to bring Chris Marrero back up and institute a platoon.
What’s the bottom line? With all due respect, I disagree with Rizzo’s assessment that it’s the Nats right-handed bats that are letting the Nats down against left-handed pitching. The players the Nats count on are all performing according to their career morns.
It’s the left-handed bats that are killing the Nats, more than normal: their prized off-season trade acquisition “everyday” center fielder, the aging first baseman who signed a two-year deal, and the phenom 20-year old. They seem to have accepted Span’s shortcomings in the Hairston acquisition, but Harper and LaRoche are on their own to figure things out.