Too Early to Pass Judgement

I made a mistake yesterday; I did the one thing on the internet that one should never do. I ventured into the WaPo comments section and let me add that I am lucky I got out of there alive. The thoughts of some people are profoundly confusing and the conclusions reached based on a six game sample size even more so. The main conclusion was that the Nats offense is going to be inconsistent, rely on the homer too much, and miss the power of Michael Morse. If just looking at the stats, that seems to be the case as the Nats so far this season are averaging 3.50 runs a game which has them ranked ninth in the NL. Meanwhile in Seattle Michael Morse has clubbed five homers in seven games putting him on pace to hit 115 this season. There is not nearly a large enough sample to draw any type of conclusions from either set of data and because one is a positive and the other a negative, neither is given an edge. The Nationals offense has yet to score as many runs as they are capable of, but there are some clues which should be encouraging.

The Nationals line-up is built around OBP at the top and power at the bottom with a middle of balanced hitters that can provide both. The Nats don't have a Prince Fielder or a Jose Bautista who is going to club close to 40 homers in a season, but 2-7 should be good for at least 20 each, and if the two homers Saturday from Ramos and the one Sunday from Suzuki are any indication the eighth spot could be good for around 20 as well. Getting 20 homers from seven of eight defensive positions isn't just good, it is great, and it is how Mike Rizzo built the Nationals.  

Let's examine the line-up further and look at what they are designed to do. First off is the newly acquired Denard Span, who has seemingly lived on first base this season with an early .444 OBP and a career OBP of .358. Second in the line-up is Jayson Werth who has already clubbed two homers after having five in all of 2012. The real reason Werth is batting second though is to get on base which so far this season he hasn't done as he has yet to draw a walk and has only a .240 OBP. That won't last and shouldn't be expected from a hitter as patient as Jayson Werth. He does after all have a career OBP of .361 and knows what he is batting second for.

The homers are an encouraging sign that the wrist is healing and the Nats could indeed be getting a 20 homer Jayson Werth which would be big from the number two spot in the order. The other dimension that Span and Werth add to the top of the order is they see a lot of pitches. For his career Span has seen 3.86 pitches per plate appearance and Werth 4.44. So by the time the middle of the order comes up the starting pitcher will have thrown on average eight pitches letting Harper and Zimmerman see what he has for that day before they even step into the batter’s box.  

With Span and Werth getting on base and working to wear down the pitcher that is where the Nationals middle of the order comes in. Harper had a very good rookie campaign and is off to a hot start in 2013 with a .360 OBP and .760 SLG. Harper has yet to draw a walk but as pitchers begin to be more careful with him due to his power, the walks will come. What Harper represents is what the Nats have in the middle of their order: batters that can both get on base and hit for power. So far in his short career Harper has a .341 OBP and .489 SLG. After Harper comes Zimmerman who up until this season was the Nats number three batter, but has made room for Harper and will be the new clean-up hitter. Zimmerman is much the same story as Harper with a career .353 OBP and .478 SLG. Zimmerman both gets on base and hits for power so he can both drive in runs and keep the line moving for the batters behind him. After Zimmerman is LaRoche; who has yet to record a hit and has missed the last two games. LaRoche is a notorious slow starter and there should be little to no worries about his offense. He isn't as good as getting on base as Harper or Zimmerman, but that is why he is batting fifth with his career .337 OBP and .481 SLG.

The advantage of having a middle of the order that can both get on base and hit for power is that it will set up the bottom of the order. Neither Desmond nor Espinosa are on base machines, but both have above average power for middle infield positions. Ian Desmond, after a breakout 2012, has a career SLG of .424 to go along with his lackluster OBP of .314, but his job at the bottom of the order is to swing hard in case he hits it. The Nats bottom of the order could produce 60 homeruns and those homeruns will be made even better if there are men on base. The job of the six and seven hitters in the Nats order is to drive in the middle of the order even if they do not get on base themselves.

Danny Espinosa is a more patient hitter than Desmond, but because of poor contact skills he has produced the same .314 OBP to go along with his SLG of .409. Again this is the same story as Desmond. Espinosa exists at the bottom of the Nats order to surprise a pitcher who may be thinking that by getting through Harper, Zimmerman, and LaRoche they are in the clear before being ambushed on a first pitch get me over fastball. Rounding out the Nats line-up is the catching tandem of Wilson Ramos and Kurt Suzuki. Suzuki is much the same as Desmond and Espinosa with a low OBP by high slugging for the position and can ambush pitchers that underestimate him due to his hitting eighth in the batting order. Ramos is the better hitter of the two and could be the full time catcher as soon as May. Ramos also has an ability that’s important in a number eight hitter; he’s willing to take a walk. Even if it comes with two outs it is important, because it will allow the Nationals to turn the batting order over and get Span to lead-off the following inning instead of the pitcher.  

So far in 2013 we have only seen glimpses of the potential of the Nats batting order. Adam LaRoche has yet to get going, Werth hasn't drawn a single walk, and Ryan Zimmerman has yet to display his full power potential. It is early. Too early to worry about the Nationals offense having only scored 3.5 runs a game. The offense will come around. It is only April and the Nats happen to be 4-2. This offense is going to work like it is supposed to and while the Nats line-up isn't the best in the NL it is still really good and is going to score a lot of runs. Take whatever happens in April with a grain of salt. Remember last season when the Nats finished fifth in the NL in runs a game at 4.51 but only averaged 3.36 runs a game in April. It is too early to draw any conclusions from the stats and way too early to worry about the Nats offense. The Nats season is only six games old, and the line-up Rizzo put together is going to work really well together. Wait and relax, and you'll see, WaPo comment guy.   

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