Were We Wrong About the Nationals

 

Back before the season started and everyone's predictions were coming out most had the Nationals winning the NL East and making a deep run in the playoffs. A majority of experts and talking heads picked the Nationals to play in and possibly win the World Series. The manager of the team declared it World Series or bust and every local blogger and beat reporter went right along with the national media picking the Washington Nationals to be very good, and in some ways all the things that were predicted have happened.  

It has been a very odd season for the Washington Nationals, but most of what everyone thought would be has been. Adam LaRoche regressed back to career norms and Ian Desmond took a slight step back from his 2012 numbers, but is still better than his overall career numbers, and that was about all that people saw going wrong. Dan Haren was a coin flip as to if he would be the Dan Haren of pre-2012 or if he would be 2012 Dan Haren once again, and that is almost the perfect analogy as to what has gone wrong with the Nationals. The two main offensive players people predicted to regress did, but they are still productive players because that is what their career averages say they are. The rest of the Nationals the underperformed didn't regress to the mean. Danny Espinosa, Roger Bernadina, Tyler Moore, Chad Tracy, Kurt Suzuki, and Steve Lombardozzi regressed to a dark pit far, far below the mean.    

After yesterday's blowout loss to the Dodgers I pulled out a spreadsheet I made before the 2013 season. One with the career average fWAR for all Nats players. The final number if everyone performed to their career average fWAR, which would include playing time, totaled 52. Considering a team of replacement level players would win 45 games that set the bar for the 2013 Washington Nationals at 97 games. With that I didn't expect everyone to play to career averages, but I expected that for every under performer there would be an over performer. That isn't what happened and when I readjusted the numbers to include the reality of Dan Haren, Danny Espinosa, and the bench the final fWAR number became 35 which would set the Nationals up for 80 wins. 

Is that who the 2013 Nationals are, an 80 win team? The numbers said they should have been much better, but the numbers were also if everyone performed to career averages, and the Nationals haven't gotten that. The Nationals have gotten a majority of players performing to career averages, but they have many more far below. The Nats don't have a single .600 OPS bat on the bench while the regular line-up has seven of eight position players with a higher than .750 OPS and five of eight with a higher than .800 OPS. The average OPS in baseball this season is .717. The Nationals have seven batters on a nightly basis that are better than average hitters, but yet can't score an average amount of runs.   

The Nationals overall season totals are negatively impacted by the time they spent from April 17 to June 4 when the line-up wasn't close to whole and on any given night two to three bench players and Danny Espinosa were part of the line-up, but since Harper came off the DL on July 1 the offense hasn't picked up at all, averaging 3.9 runs a game for the month of July. It is puzzling how the Nationals can have a line-up full of this many talented hitters all with good season stats and yet they look just as bad as a line-up with five spots, including the pitcher, having an under .600 OPS. It really makes no sense.   

It is almost comical how the expectations for so many individual players were correct and yet the Nationals have been sunk by the bottom of the roster. The under performance of the bench is startling and unexpected, but it is compounded by the near complete refusal of Mike Rizzo to make changes. Especially when the Syracuse roster is full of players that could replace the current bench and if they don't perform it is no different than what is happening now, and yet the only bench spot that has been shuffled is the right handed power bench bat which changed from Moore to Marrero, back to Moore and finally to Hairston.  

With how poorly the entire bench was performing and how obvious it was sixty games into the season that it was an issue something should have been done then and now that it hasn't with nearly 100 games played it is almost too late. If the Nationals call up Brown for Bernadina and Brown is no better, the trade deadline will come and go without a possibility of a move being made; and perhaps that is for the best in the long run. The Nationals are currently in no position to be buyers and shouldn't be sellers. Winning in 2014 is still a very real possibility, and selling players like Adam LaRoche and Denard Span could have a negative impact on that goal.  

The offense hasn't been the only issue with the 2013 Nationals. They wouldn't be two games under .500 if there was only one issue, but the other issues get lost in the nightly harangues about the offense. The Nationals team ERA of 3.62 is seventh in baseball which looks good on paper, but the Nationals starters are fifth in baseball with a 3.65 ERA while the bullpen is fifteenth with a 3.54 ERA. Being middle of the road is far less than what was expected for this bullpen. A back end of Soriano, Clippard, Storen was thought to be one that could shorten games, but that hasn't happened and as a result of that and the offense the Nats are 10-20 in close games.  

The Nats’ struggles in close games were on full display Friday and Saturday night against the Dodgers. The Nats starting pitching was excellent and countless times the Nationals had runners on base and even runners on third with less than two outs and couldn't score them. Then the game got into the hands of the bullpen and they blew out. On Saturday night the back-end of Storen, Clippard, and Soriano was handed a one run lead and they couldn't make it hold up. That is the second time in the Nats last five games that the bullpen was handed a lead and blew it. When a team is built around pitching and defense and built to compete in close games, it becomes much more difficult to win when those aspects fail. Think of the relationship of the Nats offense and the Nats bullpen as the relationship between a sky driver and his parachute. Ultimately it is the fall from the plane that kills him, but the parachute not opening certainly doesn't help.   

The bullpen is only part of the issue in close games. The other is the manager. Last Saturday when the game against the Marlins went into extra innings he double switched Ryan Zimmerman out of the game for Chad Tracy, because he wanted Stammen to be able to pitch more than one inning. Despite the fact that Stammen is a better hitter than Tracy, Stammen only pitched 2/3 of an inning in large part to Chad Tracy's error. Then this past Saturday against the Dodgers with the lead being blown and the game still well within reach Davey Johnson brought in the struggling Craig Stammen over the hot Ian Krol. Krol could have just as easily lost the game as Stammen but a manager’s job is to put his team in the best position possible to win the game and part of that is riding the hot bullpen hand and avoiding the cold one in high leverage situations.  

All of this has added up to make the 2013 Washington Nationals one of the most disappointing teams in baseball, but that doesn't mean we were wrong to predict that they were one of the best teams in baseball. That is what the numbers indicated and if the Nationals enter 2014 with a core of Harper, Strasburg, Zimmerman, Zimmermann, Rendon, Gio, Desmond, and Werth the numbers will say just that once again. Not a single one of the players listed above has been an issue and all have performed up to expectations. The issues have been with the bottom of the roster. The part of the roster no one really expects to be great, or even good, but when they are as poor as they have been for the Washington Nationals can completely sabotage a season.  

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