October 28, 2020

Washington Nationals offense: Not as bad as you think?

Coming into the 2012 season, if you asked 10 different people what the Washington Nationals biggest challenge this season would be, at least nine of them would have said “scoring runs,” or words to that effect. It’s a legitimate concern, as the team finished at or near the bottom of the N.L. last season in nearly every single significant batting category. What’s more, GM Mike Rizzo spent much of the season upgrading the pitching staff, depending on improvements from within to the Nats offense.

So, 10 games in, how are the Nats doing in that regard?

Again, I think if you asked 10 people “How’s the Nats offense today?” they’d day, “Eh.” Visions of runners left in scoring position, strikeouts in big situations, poor execution in situational hitting; all these things are examples that folks might give you to describe what’s wrong with the Nats offense.

Allow us to shed a little light in a place that might seem dark.

It’s true, the Nats currently are in the bottom half of N.L. teams in runs scored per game, but just barely. After ten games, they are 10th in the N.L. at 3.90 RPG. Plenty of pre-season prognosticators would have told you that number (or even a little less) would probably be appropriate for the players on staff. Except, the Nats haven’t had that staff available. No Michael Morse. A .179 hitting Ryan Zimmerman. No Bryce Harper (yet). So at 3.90, things are going pretty good thus far.

How are they doing it?

Well, thus far your Washington Nationals are second in the N.L. in total hits. They are also second in the N.L. in bases on balls. I know, right? Add it up and the Nats are fourth in the N.L. in on base percentage (at .334). In fact, the Washington Nationals have had more total base runners than anyone else in the National League. Pretty remarkable, eh? Almost makes you feel sad for the rest.

Last year I wrote a column illustrating it not about “how” you get runners home, but “how many” runners you get on base.  In the National League, every team drives in roughly 14 percent of their total baserunners every year. This isn’t a number that varies. So far this season for the Nats, it really is the “how”. They’ve managed to cash in just 11 percent of their total base runners. As that number normalizes (as it inevitably will), if they can even approach maintaining current on base rates their runs per game average will explode. It’s simple math.

The best part? Out of the regulars, only Ian Desmond is really exceeding expected performance levels.

Ian Desmond at the plate during first home stand 2012 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

In his short career, we’ve already seen Desmond capable of carrying a hot streak for a couple of weeks, only to come crashing down when the hits stop falling in, since his OBP is almost entirely hit-driven (career 5.2 BB% — MLB average is 8.5%). On that last part, this year is no exception. He’s second in the N.L. in hits but has walked just twice. His OBP is almost entirely hit-driven (BABiP of .410), and he’s not going to hit .354 all season. How he adjusts his approach when he cools off will be critical.

A quick look around the division shows that the Nats are actually sitting pretty well so far in relation to their primary competition. Atlanta is the only team outscoring the Nats in the division. No one gets on base more. Only the Mets (the Mets?) are above N.L. average in OBP. In fact, the only place the Nats are struggling is in the power department, having hit just five homers in 10 games.

The pitching has been lights out so far, but it’s hard to imagine the team ERA staying under 2.00 though all season. If the Nats can hang on until Zimmerman gets hot and reinforcements arrive (Morse, Harper, maybe even Tyler Moore), and with the generally favorable April schedule, they could actually, really, make things interesting in the N.L. East race.

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. Dave, its great to see some optimism here. The last two games are particularly encouraging in the hitting department, but I’m concerned about how many of those hits have come against decent pitchers. The Cubs, Mets and Reds have pretty weak bullpens, and I’m only guessing, but I believe a pretty huge percentage of those hits and walks came against those bad bullpens (and against Homer Bailey on Saturday).

    Of course the results so far have been encouraging. It’s wonderful to start out strong in April for a change (with Houston coming to town, no less); but let’s talk in May after they’ve played some stronger competition, particularly within the NL East. If they’re keeping up the pace in a month, then watch out. The bandwagon will be rolling.

    • Dave Nichols says:

      You have to like the way the Nats are taking advantage of the April scheduling though!

  2. LTW – Getting hits against bad bullpens takes skill, because you have to get to the bullpens first. One thing that has struck me about this team is how long they have kept at bats going. According to Baseball-Reference the Nats are #2 in the NL in pitches per at bat at 3.97. They are #1 (by a large margin) in pitches seen, which is partly a result of the extra inning games we have played, but is also attributable to extending at bats. Forcing pitchers to throw a lot of pitches is a good thing: good pitchers tire, bad pitchers get brought in, bad match-ups are forced, and wearing out a bullpen has a cumulative effect over a three or four game series. Our pitchers have been very efficient, opposing pitchers have not been.

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