What Went Wrong With the Nats in the First Half

 

Yesterday was when everyone else wrote their evaluations of the Nats first half and part of me wanted to wait to see what everyone else had to say before I said my piece, and another part of me wanted to have my TV fixed. Both got accomplished and after thinking a bit and seeing what others said I know what I have to say. We will start off with the stupid and trite grading system everyone wants to use. Nats fan were asked in social media to grade the team in the first half and many gave them an F because this season was World Series or bust and the Nats failed to win the World Series before the All-Star Break. My grade for the Nats first half is a C.

They are one game above .500. The Nats get a C, same as the Phillies. Doesn't matter that more was expected of the Nats they get the same grade, but even though the grades are the same they shouldn't be viewed the same. The Nats are the smart kid in the front of the class expected to get A’s and the Phillies are the stoner in the back of the class whose parents are going to hang that C on the refrigerator instead of grounding him a week for it. So while the Nats are resting up in their timeout let's look back at the first half and figure out what went wrong.  

Injuries, under performance by the bench, Zach Duke, Henry Rodriguez, and Dan Haren. The first two affected the offense and the last three affected the run prevention. First we'll start with the injuries and under performance by the bench; to understand how much of a negative impact they had we will look at runs scored over certain stretches of time and the Nats record over those periods starting with the first 15 games from April 1-17. The reason for using those dates is that April 17 was the last game Ryan Zimmerman played for 15 days when he returned on May 3. Wilson Ramos was also on the DL at this point and would end up returning on May 2. So with most of their line-up intact for the first 15 games of the season the Nationals went 9-6 and scored 4.3 runs a game.   

Then Zimmerman went down with a hamstring pull. Without Zimmerman in the line-up the Nats went 6-8 over their next 14 games averaging 2.6 runs a game, and just as Zimmerman was set to return Jayson Werth injured his groin and went on the DL on May 3, the same day that Zimmerman returned. The Nationals still had Harper in the line-up at this point, but he had already crashed into the wall in Atlanta trying to rob a Tim Hudson homerun. Harper wasn't the same after that and even worse after crashing into the wall in LA on May 13. From the time of the incident with the wall in Atlanta until he eventually hit the DL on May 27 Harper hit .183/.315/.350. With Harper struggling and Werth out of the line-up from May 3 until June 4 the Nationals managed a record of 13-15 in those 28 games and averaged 3.4 runs a game. Essentially from the time the Nats lost Zimmerman until they made the massive roster overhaul on June 4 the Nats went 19-23 and averaged 3.2 runs a game.  

The reason for this should be obvious. The Nats bench wasn't very good. No bench is going to be able to cover for players the caliber of the ones the Nats were losing but combine the extreme under performance of Danny Espinosa and Suzuki while Ramos was injured with having two sub-.600 OPS corner outfielders and the 3.2 runs a game is easy to understand. The Nats had a line-up that was full of holes. Five of nine spots including the pitchers spot were essentially automatic outs. If Zimmerman, LaRoche, Desmond, or Span had a bad day then the Nats offense didn't go anywhere, and Span hasn't performed up to expectations either. So basically from April 19 through June 2 the Nats line-up had on any given day three over .700 OPS batters, five under .600 OPS batters, and Denard Span. That is no way to score runs.    

Since Werth returned from injury and Rendon replaced Espinosa at second base the Nats offense has returned to its pre-April 19 form averaging 4.2 runs a game, with the Nationals having a record of 20-18 over that time span. In essence, when the Nationals have been able to field a healthy line-up they are 29-24 and are averaging over four runs a game. If the Nats had played that way all season long they would be at 52 wins and only two games back of the Braves instead of six. That is right. If the offense was performing all season long the Nationals would still be two games back of the Braves. That is because the Nats run prevention isn't what everyone thinks it is. Strasburg, Gonzalez, and Zimmermann are very good, but the Nats starters as a whole rank thirteenth in baseball in fWAR, sixth in ERA, and fifth in FIP. The ERA and FIP look perfectly acceptable, but they are bolstered by the presence of the top three in the rotation.

This can be looked at in several ways. The difference in runs scored on the season from 2012 to 2013 is .52 a game for the Nationals. While that isn't good, in all the complaints about the offense, lost is the fact that the Nationals run prevention has increased by .38 runs a game as well. Add that together and the run differential difference from 2012 to 2013 is nearly one run a game. The other and almost more telling way to look at it is to look at total runs allowed by the starters and the bullpen. The Nationals in 2013 have allowed 371 runs. Of those 371 runs 92 of them were allowed by Dan Haren, Zach Duke, and Henry Rodriguez. Now obviously two of those pitchers are no longer with the team, but the three of them together have combined to allow 24.8% of the Nationals’ runs. A quarter of all the runs the Nationals have allowed can be attributed to three pitchers. The Nationals have used a total of 20 pitchers this season. Many of those have made only a couple of appearances, and starters will allow more runs than relievers, Strasburg, Zimmermann, and Gio are second through fourth in runs allowed with 45, 42, 42 respectively, but that gives some idea of the difference between a 3.13 ERA and a 5.61 ERA.  

For the sake of argument here let's pretend that Haren had a 4.50 ERA. Not great, but better than what he does have. That takes his runs allowed total from 62 down to 50 runs a game, and if we also pretend that Zach Duke was beaten out in Spring Training by Ross Ohlendorf that is an additional ten runs or more removed from the Nationals runs allowed side of the equation, and if ten runs equals an extra win in the standings then the Nationals would be even with the Braves if these changes took place in the same alternate universe where everyone was healthy and the Nats scored 4.2 runs a game.  

We of course do not live in that universe. Those things went wrong and the Nationals are six games back of the Braves, but the good news is that the line-up is now healthy, Dan Haren may be able to be a 4.50 ERA pitcher in the second half, and Zach Duke and Henry Rodriguez are long gone. At this point it is tough to say if 67 games is enough to make up for the poor play of the first half, but the Nationals can do nothing to go back and make everyone healthy from April 19 - June 2. What they can do though is play like a team with six over .800 OPS bats in the line-up, a first baseman who has an over .900 OPS since May 1, and a pitching staff with three of the best starters in all of baseball. If the Nationals can do that, then 90 wins isn't out of reach, and if they can get to 90 wins they put themselves in a good position to catch the Braves or Reds if one should happen to fall within their grasp. It isn't going to be easy, but no one ever claimed it was.  

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