What is Wrong with the Nationals

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity. --WB Yeats The Second Coming

No one needs it to be said anymore that it is still April, but it is only still early until it is too late, and five games down in April is nothing. If the Nationals win tonight they will have the same record through 22 games as the 108 win 1975 Reds. There is still plenty that can happen in the season and giving up on it now and discussing rebuilding and trading Strasburg for Hamilton and Pujols or Harper for Profar and Olt would be silly, but to ignore the issues is also silly. The Nationals have lost this season for a variety of reasons.

At first it was the defense making errors and the bullpen giving games away or putting them out of reach. The Nats could have won their Sunday game against the Reds in Cincy that was tied 3-3 heading into the sixth, but Davey relied on Strasburg one inning too long, and the Nats should have won their Friday game against the Braves when they were up 4-1 heading into the eighth, and they even could have won Sunday in New York or any of the three against the Cardinals. When a team allows 3-2-4 runs in a series then they should manage to win at least one of those games. So far in 2013 teams have a winning percentage of .750 when allowing two runs and .585 when allowing three.

The Nats are not scoring runs. In the few games when the offense has clicked it has looked nice. Men have gotten on base and been driven in by the powerful middle of the order, but the offense has been inconsistent. Combine inconsistent offense with poor defense and relief pitching and you have the Nats early losses. The pitching and defense has picked up, but the offense has gone into a deep slumber. Over the last seven days the Nationals are hitting .169/.242/.291. The only teams worse are the White Sox and Padres. The real bad news is that if Bryce Harper and his .316/.458/.737 line were removed from the Nats offense they don't have any regulars producing. A collective offensive slump like this will happen during the course of the season, but it is compounded by the fact that the Nats record has no cushion in April.  

While the fun thing to do has been to demand Danny Espinosa be removed from the line-up in favor of anyone else. His .490 OPS isn't the Nats biggest problem. It is well below average for what a second baseman should be able to produce, but second is a defensive position and any offense from that spot is a bonus. If Espinosa continues to slump this poorly something will be done, but the more troubling problem is that the offensive corner positions are not producing. The Nats are getting a .604 OPS from first base and .589 from third base. Those are two positions a team needs to produce offensively if they want to score runs. As those two positions are manned by veterans Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche there is little to do but wait from them to come around and the best news of all about this is that streaks in baseball are not predictive. Players will all eventually return to their career averages, and for Zimmerman and LaRoche those averages are very good.

The final issue with the Nationals is that their starting pitching isn't performing up to what it should. Detwiler and Zimmermann have looked fantastic, but the other members of the rotation have struggled to varying degrees, and while it would be nice to write off Strasburg's 1-4 start with a 3.16 ERA as nothing but poor run support that isn't entirely true. Sure there have been errors made behind him, but Strasburg has still allowed four un-earned runs to score, he allowed six all last season, and Strasburg has given up eight first inning runs. It would be nice to say when the runs are given up doesn't matter but when trailing after the first inning teams have a winning percentage of .305 in 2013 and .300 in 2012. In other words putting the offense in an early hole helps no one. Suddenly the game isn't about working the count and trying to wear down the opposing starting pitcher, but instead playing catch-up.  

In 2012 the Nats had a .678 winning percentage in games Strasburg pitched and .750 when Gio Gonzalez was on the mound. So far with those two on the mound the Nats are 4-5. You want to look for a reason for why the Nats are under .500. There it is. They aren't winning the games they are supposed to win. The games with their top two starters on the mound. In interesting enough fashion the Gio Gonzalez story is the opposite of the Strasburg one. He hasn't pitched as well but the Nationals are 3-1 in games he has started. Gonzalez's run distribution has been more spread out, but he has given up too many runs, and if that continues then the Nationals won't have a winning record in his starts anymore. For the previous few seasons Gonzalez's walk rate has been on the decline, but so far into 2013 it is back on the rise and up to 5.0 BB/9. That is unacceptable, and it is going to have to come down or Gonzalez will end up not getting deep enough into games and putting too much pressure on the bullpen. 

The Nationals were not predicted to be the best team in baseball for nothing, but now they find themselves under .500 and looking to get back above water against the tough part of their schedule. If they get hot and play like they can then no one can beat them, but they haven't done that recently. First they were losing because they were making too many mental mistakes in the field and on the bases and the bullpen was letting them down, and now that the pitching and defense are playing well they can't score. This is how long losing stretches happen and the Nats are in the midst of one. If they don't pull out of it soon they could find themselves entering June with a losing record and considering selling at the trade deadline. That is something that no one expected from this season, and with the way this roster was constructed and the talent on it patience is the only solution for most of the Nats problems. 

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