Bench the Bench
Back in May I wrote about the struggles of the Nationals bench and how their negative performance was affecting the team and things needed to change. For fun here's the bench at the time of that post and now, with the player's WAR listed alongside.
Roger Bernadina (-0.1 WAR)
Chad Tracy (-0.3 WAR)
Steve Lombardozzi (-0.3 WAR)
Tyler Moore (-1.1 WAR)
Roger Bernadina (0.0 WAR)
Chad Tracy (-0.7 WAR)
Steve Lombardozzi (-0.9 WAR)
Scott Hairston (-0.2 WAR)
So the only change that was made was to remove the worst player, Tyler Moore, and they let him accumulate -0.3 more WAR before finally sending him away. Otherwise the Nationals have moved at a glacier's pace to remove two players who are almost a win worse than some scrub who could be picked up off the waiver wire. Roger Bernadina is the only bench player who isn't well below replacement level, but don't be fooled, he's being helped by some far too generous defensive statistics, as indicated by his 50 wRC+. So not only were no changes made when the bench was already at a level that warranted changes, it's been allowed to get even worse.
Some may be saying at this point that they're only bench players, they can't have that big of an effect and before looking into this more I would've agreed, but that just is not the case. The Nationals' starters, defining both Wilson Ramos and Kurt Suzuki as starters, have put up a slash line of .266/.333/.431. That OPS of .764 would be good for third in Major League Baseball, just ahead of the Baltimore Orioles.
Now that's a bit unfair since those numbers include every other team's bench; so let's compare to another team's starters only. To make it interesting let's look at the Nats' division rival, the Atlanta Braves, who are 10th in Major League Baseball in team OPS at .735. With just their starters, including Evan Gattis since he has significant starting time, the Braves have hit .253/.330/.428, good for a .758 OPS. You may notice that a .758 OPS is eight points below the Nats' starters.
The team as whole however has posted a .240/.300/.383 slash. That's good for a .682 OPS, 28th in baseball and an 82 point drop from the starters’ only line. The starters have been good, we've just shown that, but the bench bats are killing the Nats, taking them from middle of the pack, to downright awful.
As you know I have a proclivity for advanced stats, so let's take a look at what they say. Quickly here's a list of teams who have two or less starters with an OPS+ below 100, or league average:
Tampa Bay Rays
St. Louis Cardinals
San Francisco Giants
End of list. That's not a bad list to be on and you can see that the Nats' starters have been performing at a high level individually.
Let's get even more advanced. Fangraphs tracks a stat called RE24, essentially it measures a player's impact on run expectancy taking into account the runners on base and the number of outs in the inning. In other words it is a direct, context neutral, measure of how a player contributed to his team scoring runs, where an average player will have an RE24 of zero. The five bench bats listed at the start have combined for -39.37 RE24, so they have taken away about 40 runs from the Nats. Think the Nats could've used those 40 runs? Just for fun their Pythagorean record with those extra runs would be 51-47. It's not as simple as that, but it gives you an idea of what they're missing.
Because of injuries the Nationals bench has had a significant impact on the team. While it's just a handful of plate appearances here and there, that adds up and the five bench guys have combined for 571 so far. All five have performed dreadfully and that is being reflected in the Nats' big picture stats. I won't go so far as to say they're the whole reason the Nats have struggled, but it is clear that they play a large role in that. What's really disappointing though is that this isn't that difficult a problem to solve. Guys like Corey Brown, Zach Walters, Jeff Kobernus or Chris Marrero could be alternatives from the minor leagues.
But that misses the bigger picture; all five of the Nationals are at or below replacement level, with Moore, Tracy and Lombardozzi significantly below. Replacement level is defined as a player who takes no marginal value to acquire, or someone who could be signed for the MLB minimum of $400,000. Finding upgrades to this group should be the easiest problem in baseball. We aren't looking for another Strasburg or Desmond; we're looking for a Vernon Wells or Mike Moustakas.
Some will say the Nationals have had systemic offensive issues and since Rick Eckstein was just fired Mike Rizzo likely agrees with them. But the statistics being put up by the starters show that to be categorically false. The Nationals have a bench problem and they've had it since April, but almost nothing has been done to address it. That's disappointing.