Over at Nationals Journal this morning, Washington Post writer Adam Kilgore finally saw the light. Well, he got part of the way, anyway.
“Consider: The Nationals have scored 14 percent of their base runners – dead-on league average. As of Sunday morning, they had produced 2,343 base runners – the fewest in the National League.
Also consider: The Nationals are hitting .242 with the bases empty this year. With runners in scoring position, the Nationals are hitting – you guessed it – .242.”
This really isn’t news. In fact, if you’ve been reading this space for the past few years (first, thank you), you’ve known about this problem all along. I first wrote about it in May 2011, when the bulk of this team was still young enough to be capable of changing their approach.
“Rizzo and Riggleman are absolutely correct that the team isn’t hitting well with runners in scoring position. But as the statistics show, they aren’t hitting well period, hitting .230/.301/.361 overall (15th, 15th and 13th in the N.L.), and the difference between their numbers with RISP and not is, well, statistically negligible.”
I have to admit, it was kind of fun to go back and look at that article that quoted Jim Riggleman. Seems like that was forever ago. But the point still stands. Teams’ batting average with runners in scoring position is meaningless.
Anyway, I wrote it again earlier this season (May 31).
“This year, the Nats are driving in, you guessed it, 14 percent of their total base runners. The problem is that they are dead last in the league in putting runners on base.”
I don’t mean to single Adam out. He’s a terrific baseball writer and he’s so busy covering the team with his daily responsibilities that analysis can sometimes take a back seat to the daily grind. And good for him (and his much larger audience than mine) going beyond the narrative to try to find the root of the problem instead of taking a stock answer and running with it verbatim. I just wanted to use his post as a jumping point to what I think is the bigger picture.
It’s not just that the Nats are averaging 14 percent driving in their total base runners. Or even that the league average this season is 14 percent. The real thing to learn from this research is that across the 120 year history of professional baseball, league average for driving in total base runners is…you guessed it — 14 percent.
Every single year, the league average for driving in total base runners is statistically insignificantly different. Individual teams can fluctuate one or two percent from year to year as an expression of statistical outliers, but on the whole, that number stays what it is. Again, it’s not the how, but how many. The more runners a team gets on base, the more runs they will score and the more games they will win.
The best illustration for that concept can be found here. Notice any correlation? Of course you do. The best teams getting on base this season — as is the case every season — are the ones destined for the playoffs.
I wrote it in 2011 and several times since, including back in May, and I’ll write it again now: Collectively, this team isn’t very good at getting on base. And the single biggest tenet in all of baseball is that base runners equals runs equals wins. Not batting average with runners in scoring position. Not sacrificing or hit-and-running. Not the “little things.” Earl Weaver was right. “The key to winning baseball games is pitching, fundamentals, and three-run homers.”
Get runners on. Let your batters hit them in. That’s how to score runs and win baseball games.
And the Nats are not good at it. Not this year. Not last year. Not in the Rizzo era. Last year the Nats were able to slightly make up for the on-base problem by hitting a few more home runs. In fact, the Nats are on pace to hit 42 fewer home runs this season than last. Each of Ryan Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche, Ian Desmond, the second base position… almost to a man or position, they will hit fewer home runs this year than last.
Last year’s home run production masked the fact the Nats just don’t get enough runners on base to begin with.
Until the Nats either draft and develop hitters that have better on-base skills — or acquire them as big leaguers — they will have the same fundamental problem. Harper’s a start, at least against right-handed pitchers. Anthony Rendon will help too. But the core of this team — Zimmerman, Desmond, Espinosa, LaRoche, Werth, Ramos — have been here since 2011 and it’s the same problem now as it was then.
It’s who they are. Some as individuals are stronger than others, but as a whole this team has trouble getting on base. And as we wrote last week, they aren’t going anywhere.