The Awakening of the Nats Offense

After winning games by the score of 5-4 and 6-2 there are suddenly stories about how the Nats offense has awakened. There will be those that want to credit the team meeting that Davey Johnson called for before the Nats game Saturday against the Pirates and then there will be those that want to credit the return of Ryan Zimmerman to the line-up. The latter is more apt than the former, but I have a different theory.

In their previous twelve games starting with the St. Louis series and ending with the loss to AJ Burnett the Nats averaged 2.5 runs a game, but they also faced starting pitching with an average 2013 ERA of 3.25. The average starting pitcher goes just about 6 1/3 innings a start and that converts to 2.3 runs allowed, or almost the exact amount the Nationals scored during that time frame. The three pitchers that they hit well in that time frame, Arroyo, Leake, Teheran, also happen to be the worst of the twelve starters the Nats faced in that time frame. The answer to why the Nats offense woke up may have nothing to do with the Nationals at all, but with the quality of the starting pitching they are facing.  

There are factors within the Nationals. Adam LaRoche, Danny Espinosa, and Ryan Zimmerman were not going to not produce for the entire season. So far in 2013 the MLB average wOBA is .315. In April the Nationals had four hitters with more than 20 games who could be considered above average. Since the calendar turned to May Adam LaRoche, Danny Espinosa, Ryan Zimmerman, and Denard Span have joined that bunch. A couple of the other guys have cooled off, but having more batters producing than not is always a good thing, but it doesn't hurt that over the last two games the Nats faced Jeff Locke and Wandy Rodriguez.  

Even after facing the Nationals Locke has a 3.21 ERA, but a 5.12 FIP. The reason for this is that Locke walks too many batters, doesn't strike anyone out, and allows too many homeruns. Locke didn't allow a single homer to the Nationals but he did walk three, hit one, and strikeout only three all while failing to see the sixth inning. It was not a good starting pitching performance and the Nationals were able to take advantage of all the free base runners as two of the four runs Locke allowed were on base via walk or hit by pitch.

Wandy Rodriguez's performance was more classically bad. He didn't give up as many runs, went six innings, struck out more, walked less, but he gave up more hits and many of them were hard hit including a two run Danny Espinosa homer that put the Nats up for good. Danny Espinosa is almost a microcosm for what has gone wrong with the Nats offense up to this point in the season and what is starting to go right.

In April, Danny Espinosa had a bad approach at the plate. He wasn't striking out as much but he was swinging at pitches out of the strike zone putting them in play weakly. These weak grounders and pop-ups were easily converted into outs. The worst part of this is that Espinosa wasn't just making outs too frequently he wasn't making the pitcher earn the out. He was hardly seeing any pitches per plate appearance and even worse he wasn't driving the baseball. A good at bat isn't so much about working the pitcher as it is waiting for a pitch that can be driven somewhere and then doing so. There is no such thing as a good two strike hitter in baseball. The MLB average OPS for a batter with two strikes against him is around .500. In other words while it is good to get deep into a count it isn't good to bat with two strikes.

Good at bats end when either the batter gets the pitch he is looking for and makes hard contact, doesn't get that pitch and is patient enough to give the walk that is offered, or fouling off several quality pitches raising the pitch count and forcing the pitcher to earn his out. Danny Espinosa wasn't doing any of those things during April. His walking to the plate was as much as conceding an out. Watching him, and the rest of the Nats offense, they are no longer doing that. Against the Pirates there were several hard line drives that happened to be outs, the Nats walked more, and when the pitcher wasn't throwing balls and quality pitches they made him earn his out. The Nats were facing two pitchers worse than any they had faced in the previous 12, but they took advantage and had a much better approach.  

If the Nats can continue that type of offensive approach with Werth back in the line-up, and Harper continuing to heal plus facing Porcello and the Cubs in four of the next five then the Nats may be about to see an offensive outburst. After it is all said and done the credit shouldn't go all to the Nats. The approach has gotten better and against Locke and Rodriguez they rarely took themselves out of an at bat by swinging at a bad pitch early in the count, but when it is all said and done the Nationals scored the amount of runs they should have against the good starting pitching they faced and the amount they should have against the bad. The real turn around will come when and if they can score a fair amount of runs against a good starting pitcher. Tuesday will provide a good test as Anibal Sanchez is 8-0 with a 1.97 against the Nationals.

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