At 48-47, 6 games back of the Atlanta Braves, with 58.6% of the season over, many Nationals fans are wondering-what the hell is going on here? A team that, on paper, was better than last year’s 98 win club is going to have to put on the afterburners just to make 90 wins-and that might not be enough.
Over the next three days I’m going to take a look at just what seems to have happened to the Nationals, if there is a way (or anything at all) to fix on the Nationals, and what going forward might look like. Leave your narratives and prejudices at the door: You won’t hear any “will to win”, “team chemistry”, “needs more grit” or “something to prove” baloney from me. The answer to the question of what is happening to the Nationals is a lot more bland and unfulfilling. What is happening to the Nats? Baseball is happening to the Nats.
The first half of the 2012 season suffered from some unlucky breaks, some self inflicted wounds (both literal and figurative) and, frankly, a little bit of expectation bias. Let’s talk about how bad it was, first.
Let’s stick to some very simple numbers. The Nationals are currently second to last in the NL in runs per game. (3.76). The NL Average is 4.07. They are 5th in runs given up per game (3.91) which out of 15 teams is just a tad over league average 4.1. Comparing this team to 2012 is a fool’s errand, really, but let’s do it anyway. The Nats averaged 4.51 runs per game last year giving up only 3.67.
That’s a huge swing. not quite 3/10th of a run more given up, and 3/4 of a run per game down. If you remember in 2012, though, the first few months featured much better pitching and much worse hitting-but the result was the same. The Nats were on an astoundingly (unsustainable) pitching/defensive pace which let them win games they had trouble scoring in. Both of those trends reversed (the hitting quite a bit) and the Nats won a lot of games. The Nationals in this instance, however, have had very good but not lights out pitching. They’ve fallen off the face of the earth with regards to hitting. By all rights, the team ought to have a losing record-it’s a bit of a miracle they don’t.
On the whole, I tend to blame the hitting more. Want to know why? Here’s my case in point: Dan Haren. Yeah, that Dan Haren. Mr. Boo pants. Although boo him all you want (actually, no don’t), but go through his starts here and pretend the Nats scored 4 runs a game in his losses. There would be 5 more wins for the Nats right now. With an average offense, keeping all his terrible pitching in tact, Dan Haren has a 9-8 Win/Loss record, and the Nats are 1-2 games back of the Braves, not 6. For me-that says everything about the year.
But what is going on here? Let’s start with the easy stuff:
Injuries out the wazoo: For a good chunk of the season the Nationals, at any one time, the Nationals were missing three position players-guys relied on to be very potent bats. Of the 95 games this year only Ian Desmond, Adam LaRoche and Denard Span have played more than 85 of them. Ryan Zimmerman (81) missed two weeks, Jayson Werth (64), Bryce Harper (58) each more than 30 games. Wilson Ramos (23) has missed at least 30 of the starts he was supposed to split with Kurt Suzuki, and second base has been a nightmare of injury from the get go. Danny Espinosa’s undisclosed/it’s not so bad/okay it’s kind of bad injury fiasco cost the team dearly at the outset.
There is no universe in which an outfield of Bernadina (187/252/288 wOBA .240) and Lombardozzi (234/ 246/293, wOBA .235) is going to perform like one featuring Werth (297/363/466 wOBA .360) and Harper (264/371/522 wOBA .381). I know fans like to cut these favorite bench players a break, but the MLB doesn’t give credit for likability-that is a huge drop off in production. If those two guys play 85 of the games this year, I’m pretty sure they make up the difference between the awful run production and average run production all by themselves.
But, the ardent fan cries, don’t give me that! The Nationals had injuries last year too, and they still won lots of games. I’m getting there, don’t worry. Let me finish painting the picture though.
Self Inflicted Wounds: And I’m not just talking about Ryan Mattheus breaking his pitching hand. Few folks support Danny Espinosa more than I do, but given that the extent of his injury seemed to be far worse than what it was, this is the fault of the team for letting him continue to play. Now, don’t go overreaching here-it wasn’t as if Anthony Rendon was in the wings in May, ready to play second base. Steve Lombardozzi didn’t really do much to fill in at 2B, and it wasn’t as if anyone thought there were better options available. Rendon’s ascent to a good 2B is kind of mind boggling-a rarity to be sure. So don’t pretend like you knew he could transition to the other side of the field just like that-no one knew that.
Espinosa, however, is just one example of that. Ross Detwiler has been on the DL twice, and Dan Haren probably should have had a DL trip sooner than he did (even if he wasn’t really injured). He’s pitched well in the last two games since his return, but some damage was done in the first part of the year that might have been avoided.
Probably the most glaring is the bullpen. Zach Duke stayed on the Nationals at least a month too long, and Henry Rodriguez got exactly the leash I thought he would-end of May. Those are two guys that needed to be out sooner, especially with some of the pitching stars from the minors (Ian Krol, Fernando Abad) who’ve come up to pitch in replacement. Recognizing some of this stuff sooner might have saved a game or two for the Nationals, and every win counts right now.
Expectation Bias: Now look, I know Davey said “World Series or Bust” but let’s be honest here: If he hadn’t said it, the Nats would have still been on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and picked by several magazines to win the World Series. Every fan who had been following the team would have still expected the Nats, who we were assured (and I still believe) got better in the off-season to be better than a 98 win team and compete for a world title.
So please, can we stop hanging a manager who believed in his team out to dry for something a lot of other people were saying anyway? Something we all wanted him to be thinking anyway?
Good teams struggle, bad teams play well and, at the end of the day, no one can really explain why. The fact that we all thought one thing and it turns out to be another complicates the situation. I still believe that this team is better than the 2012 team. As it happens sometimes teams with less talent etc. catch more breaks and finish better than teams with more talent do. It’s not always because of “something” or some story we tell ourselves. It just happens over the course of a season sometimes.
Narratives like “The Nats had something to prove in 2012” (as if they somehow, don’t have something to prove when they’ve been picked to win the World Series), or they will point to team make up and chemistry (even though there hasn’t been a question of the team arguing, or bickering, and pretty much everyone the Nats replaced from 2012 is either injured or not performing as well as last year).
None of that is the case. Or at least there isn’t any evidence except a poorer performance to hang that hat on-and the truth about baseball is sometimes the poorer performance just happens. Or really, what I think, is that 2012 was an outstanding performance far outstripping what the Nationals should have done. It was a best case scenario, where as 2013 has been an average to slightly below average scenario. This is how it usually goes.
In 2012 the bench was outstanding-but it also didn’t have to replace nearly as much as it does now. It helps when you have a Bryce Harper to call up and replace lesser players. It’s a lot harder to have lesser players come up and try and replace Bryce Harper. It’s a much better starting lineup, which is why it is much harder (unlike 2012) to replace those injuries (see, I told you we’d get there).
Let 2012 go. It’s over. It was a great year. It has nothing to do with 2013. If you played 2012 over a 100 times, and you played 2013 over 100 times-how many times do you really think last year’s club would get 98 wins and this year’s club would be hoping for over 90? How many times out of 100 (as in 2012) would the Nats not have a starting pitcher miss a start due to injury? How many times out of 100 would the Nats (as in 2013) have as many errors as they do now?
As they say, sometimes Sh*t happens-and that’s been the first 58% of 2013 for the Nationals.
Tomorrow and Wednesday we’ll look and see if there is a way to make it any better and what the last 42% of the year holds in store for the Nats.