I’m not saying Rick Schu didn’t help. I’m saying it is amazingly clear how much of a drop off there is w/the bench.
— Nationals 101 (@Nationals101) September 19, 2013
The above is a tweet and chart I made last night after reading another article positing that Rick Schu, the new hitting coach of the Washington Nationals, was the main reason the Nationals are hitting better than they were earlier in the year. That discussion has been conflated (in my mind at least) with the question of whether injuries to starting players qualifies as “an excuse” (an opinion I’ve been sent 1000x via the tweeter) or a valid reason that explains why the Nationals struggled to score runs. So I explored that question. Spoiler: I don’t have a definitive answer, but some worthwhile information to look at. You should read it anyway cuz while last night’s chart was easy, today’s chart isn’t much bigger but took me all day to do. Have Mercy!
The chart above isn’t much, and it certainly has a lot of flaws-but it is only intended to give a rough idea of how the Nationals starters do as compared to the Nationals bench players with regards to some of the basic hitting categories. So there you have an average of the Nats 8 starting bats (Span, Werth, Harper, LaRoche, Rendon, Desmond, Zimmerman and Ramos) for the slash line-Batting Average, On Base Percentage and Slugging. I could have gone and done the wOBA too-but most people “speak” slash line, so there you go.
The rest of the bench players listed have all played in at least 50 games. It is not shocking that the Nationals starters would play better than the bench, but it is telling that Steve Lombardozzi is the only guy who comes within .025 of the starters average-and only in average. So just from a “is anyone on the bench lighting it up?” perspective, the answer is no.
But what about the question of whether Rick Schu has anything to do with the resurgance? Or if the injuries were as bad as I think they were? Or if the team getting healthy was the cause of the turn around and not, say, a switch at hitting coach. To figure that out I need a few things:
- First: What’s a “Healthy” team anyway? For this I decided the Nationals needed their “Big 6” in the lineup (Zimmerman, Desmond, LaRoche, Span, Werth, Harper). Given the team intended to have either Ramos or Suzuki in as the catcher, If either of those guys played I considered the team Healthy. Lastly, the team needed to have either Anthony Rendon or Danny Espinosa at 2B to be healthy. September is not finished so I did not include it here. So the green numbers feature figures from games (April-August) where the big 6 PLUS Ramos/Zuk AND Espi/Rendon all started the game. The only exception is for a double-header where the difference in roster was clearly due to the double duty of the game.
- So What’s an “Injured” Team then? Any game from April to August that doesn’t fit that criteria. If one or more starter is out, it goes in the Red column. I didn’t bother to weed out platoon switches, or if a guy was just getting a day off. If one of the Big 6, Ramos/Zuk OR Rendon/Espi wasn’t playing, it was an “injured” team.
- But was Danny Really “Healthy?” The problem with listing Espi in the injured column was that a.) he was supposed to be the second baseman and b.) they knew he was injured and kept running him out of there. That said, there were only 10 games where the lineup was full including him at second base. I created a third category INJ +ESPI that takes all the games from the Injured column and adds those 10 games into the injury total.
- Even if just one guy was out? I also included totals from just May and June (When the Nationals were consistently missing at least Harper, Werth and Ramos and often times Zimmerman as well) and compared them to these first 18 games in September. These numbers are purely comparing the Nats hottest (and healthiest) month vs their worst two.
- But What About Schu? Lastly, I compared the numbers from when Rick Schu was put in as the batting coach. It’s hard to compare given the small sample size, particularly with the injuries that plagued the first part of Eckstein 2013 campaign. As such, I included 2012, a full year of Eck’s “work” if you will. There were plenty of injuries in 2012, but Eck also gets the benefit of a slightly better bench to offset it, plus more than a few healthy games. It’s probably a fairer representation of what he might have done with a healthy 2013 team.
The result is what follows, and I assure you the work that went into it was a lot more than its puny size would indicate. (YOU go through 135 game logs comparing lineups and…oh never mind).
While I wouldn’t say anything is conclusive, there are a couple of things of note here:
- Compare the “Healthy” team to last year, and you’ll see that even when everyone is in the lineup it hasn’t quite been last year. While averages might only be slightly off, half a run per game adds up to more than a few wins that are missing this year.
- Rick Schu certainly has been at the helm of the most productive versions of the team, but 54 games is a pretty small number of games to base anything off of. Further, it doesn’t answer the “Schu vs. Healthy” debate because he basically has headed up the team at its healthiest. Remember-most of the guys only got back at the beginning of July. Conventional wisdom would say they wouldn’t be in top form when they got back, and a few days off for the All-Star Game wouldn’t help them get back into the swing of things. As such, his timing is impeccable-he got the job just as everything was just as likely to get going anyway.
- The Nationals have had a hot September. Comparing that to May and June is just laughable. Comparing “Schu” to May and June, however, is a bit fairer if you are looking for the “Team Healthy” vs. “Team Injured” question-Again, the Schu games all coincide with the team at its healthiest (Pretty much August and September). It’s the same number of games, it doesn’t discriminate based on line-up specific choices- It is exactly 1/3 of the season in both cases. Nearly 1.2 runs per game difference. .143 wOBA points. If that doesn’t smack you in the face, I don’t know what will.
- The just “healthy” team is an above league average offense (barely). The difference between the “healthy” and “injured” offenses is the difference between 6th in the NL and 13th in the NL. A more than big enough swing to account for losses. In fact, it’s amazing the Nationals played nearly .500 ball like they did through June.
As I said in my tweet: I’m not saying Rick Schu hasn’t helped. I’m certainly prepared to say he hasn’t hurt the offense, and I don’t have any real evidence that it was a mistake to fire Rick Eckstein. But I am wary of the Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc argument that since he got hired they’ve hit better, THEREFORE it must be BECAUSE he got hired they are hitting better. While I’m perfectly willing to accept he may be part of the solution, pretending like this is not a different offense healthy as opposed to injured is madness.
Politicians often talk about how many new jobs they will create, and the savvy member of the populace knows that these numbers often come from projections about how the economy will grow regardless of who is in charge. I don’t know if the Nats would have the same offense under Eckstein as under Schu, but I think the team coming back healthy was going to push all the numbers way up even if a monkey was in charge of hitting at Nats Park.
As to whether it is “an excuse” or not, I can’t bring myself to expect the Astros to play like the Nationals-and frankly the Nationals bench, at times, was basically the Astros. From an organizational point of view, absolutely there is no excuse for not improving the bench in the future. In fact, the additions made in the last few months have already been a huge boon over the dreck that played Occupy Half Street through July.
To simply sit back in disgust and anger, however, simply expecting guys to play far above their talent level is willfully ignorant. In 2012 you were replacing Rick Ankiel with Bryce Harper. In 2013, the Nats were replacing Bryce Harper with Roger Bernadina. That’s bad in and of itself-but then sub in Tyler Moore or Steve Lombardozzi for Jayson Werth, Chad Tracy for Ryan Zimmerman, Extended periods of Kurt Suzuki over Wilson Ramos. These guys may not be as bad as many (or even I) make them out to be, but one thing is for sure: They aren’t the starters they were replacing. Short stretches of play by these guys, or only one at a time with the rest of the lineup would not have affected the offense. The fact is, however, from the third week in April right through July, the Nationals were without at least two (often three, sometimes four) of these players at any one time. Teams are built to sustain some injury, not to open triage in the dugout.
While there are currently places to improve this team, I think 6 of the 8 hitters are in good shape going into next year, and the other two can be lived with. Finding quality replacements for injuries will be key, particularly since some players will likely be heading to greener pastures in years sooner rather than later. No matter who heads up the Nationals, or is in charge of how they hit, they have a good team with plenty of talent that can produce for them. Keeping them on the field will be the key.