September Natitude

 

September can be a fun month for baseball fans. In most seasons Washington Nationals fans were getting a glimpse of the future. This season feels like an inevitable march to the end. It remains unlikely for the Nationals to come back and make the post season, but if they do it should be a fun ride. Whatever happens though it is important to remember that baseball is supposed to be fun and what is more fun about baseball than stuff that just doesn't make sense.    

That brings us to one of the real joys of September baseball. Because it is the month of expanded rosters there are a lot of players in the major leagues that shouldn't be in the major leagues. We saw this on Tuesday night when the Phillies brought reliever after reliever out of the bullpen and none of them could find the strike zone. It was an interesting night, but combine the abundance of non-major league quality pitchers with the typical small sample size of a month and some real fun can happen. So let's look back through the eight previous Septembers the Nats have played to find the greatest September National. We are going to make some rules. If we went by raw numbers Rick Short would be the 2005 September Nat but his 1.429 OPS came in just 14 PA while Ryan Zimmerman had a .988 OPS in 62 PA. Somewhere around 50 PA seems about right as a limiter for one month, and Ryan Zimmerman is the best September Nat from 2005 (nobody said they'd all be crappy players). 

Moving forward to 2006 and it is another player that was really good for the Washington Nationals. Nick Johnson had a 1.055 OPS over 89 plate appearances followed by Ryan Church with a 1.013 OPS over 55 and Austin Kearns with .924 over 82 plate appearances. I think people forget how good Austin Kearns was when he first got traded to the Nationals. Before getting Kearns and Felipe Lopez the Nationals 2006 offense was putrid. It may have been the worst offense we've seen in Washington, but then suddenly they got those two and they were able to get on base. Felipe Lopez and Austin Kearns both wrote their own ticket out of town at a later date but in that first half season they helped the offense in a big way. It is just too bad that neither of them could do anything to save the Nats from Ramon Ortiz or Pedro Astacio.  

Ryan Church is the winner for 2007 and there is no one with enough plate appearances that is close to his 1.210 OPS over 52 plate appearances. As I set that as the limiter it disqualifies D'Angelo Jimenez and his 1.173 OPS even though that is the first real funny name we would have had. Church is almost a symbol for those early Nats. He is the player that everyone thought Bernadina was. Church destroyed right handed pitching and in limited and controlled playing time looked like a superstar. It just happened that when he got traded to the Mets and became an everyday player he got exposed. He suffered from some of the same issues as we've seen with some more modern Nats where he could never lay off the breaking ball in the dirt. Harper may only hit .190 against left handed pitching but he does get on base at an over .300 clip because he has started to lay off the pitches that Church couldn't.   

Now we should be getting into some years that could provide some comedy. 2008, 2009, and 2010 were when the Nationals were looking at guys and it may not look that funny that Cristian Guzman happens to be the 2008 leader with a .981 OPS but right below him is Elijah Dukes with a .943. There is a large part of me that wants to get a Dukes 34 jersey. Because it is Bryce Harper's number now it would cause mass confusion with the newer fans and the older Nats fans who were around to witness dukes would have a kind of hipster appreciation for it. Dukes was a fun player. He was full of talent and rage and refusal to admit he was anything but a superstar. He never let his natural talent take over and just play the game. He wanted to be a rock star and baseball for him was a means to an end. It was what he was talented at, but he never truly loved baseball and because of that he tried to have all the things a superstar has before he was a superstar and it destroyed him, but damn if I don't miss the chest pounding walk-off homers and the weird "softball girl" antics in the dugout.  

And here we go. This one isn't so funny because after being released by the Nationals and Yankees Justin Maxwell found a home with the Houston Astros and has since been traded to the Kansas City Royals. Maxwell has turned himself into a good platoon/bench type hitter and those are valuable commodities in the world of baseball as the Nationals have learned this season. Maxwell in September of 2009 edged out Ian Desmond with a .924 OPS to Desmond's .879. Maxwell will end up going down in Nationals history with the likes of Elijah Dukes, Lastings Milledge, and Wily Mo Pena but he doesn't deserve to. He was a local product who went to the University of Maryland and was a good person who was easy to root for. It is good to see that he realized who he was as a baseball player and embraced it. Lots of players have forged long careers by doing exactly that, and at least he will always have September 2009 when he was the best ball player on the Washington Nationals.   

2010 was a strange year for the Washington Nationals. They won 69 games so it was overall a bad year when it came to wins and loses but it was also the year that Stephen Strasburg debuted and Bryce Harper was drafted. It was the year that the foundation for 2012 and beyond was laid, and despite what the expectations say for this season if the Nationals finish over .500 2013 could be a blip on the radar that becomes just another year in some glorification of the team like, "The Nationals have finished over .500 for the past five seasons." Who knows where it ends, but where it began was in 2010. That was also the season that Michael Morse staked his claim to being the best Nat of September with a .858 OPS. That is also the lowest OPS to lead this thing and each season it has gotten lower and lower. The run environment was at an all-time low in 2010, but still in the small sample size of one month vs. not great talent it is more fun to see guys with an OPS up over 1.000. 

This is more what I am talking about. The leader of the 2011 September Nationals was none other than the Buffalo, Wilson Ramos. His 1.016 OPS crushed the next closest, Michael Morse, who managed an .802 OPS. I don't know how much I need to write about Ramos because he is still playing for the team, and I am sure most remember that the 2012 off-season was not a good one for him. He got kidnapped and then the 2012 season made it worse when he tore his ACL. When Ramos has been on the field he has been one of the best offensive catchers in the game, and there is no reason to expect that he can't continue to do that. The question really is can his hamstrings hold up for an entire season. I will say that if they do in 2014 the Nationals offense will look nothing like it has in 2013, or maybe it will but more like the 4.7 runs a game the Nationals have put up since the start of August than the closer to 3.0 runs a game they put up without Ramos. 

September of 2012 was a month where the Nationals scuffled a bit, but it wasn't because of offense. Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez appeared to wear down and Stephen Strasburg was shutdown. It was also a month that Adam LaRoche had an 1.057 OPS and Bryce Harper 1.043. They both ended up with post-season awards due in great part to their September offensive surges. LaRoche may end up being remembered more alongside the Elijah Dukes of the Nats than the Bryce Harpers, but he has had a good career overall. 2013 hasn't been kind to him. He had a very good May and June, but after that his best OPS for a month was .737 in August. This is a season LaRoche may like to forget, and we'll find out if he can bounce back in 2014 or if the Nats try and go outside the organization to replace him during or before that season. Either way LaRoche will always have 2012, and no one can take that Silver Slugger and Gold Glove away from him.  

I didn't look any of this up before I wrote it, and I was expecting more Justin Maxwell’s and Elijah Dukes. I was really expecting to see Wily Mo Pena come up at some point. The funny thing was that guys who were good in September for the most part ended up being guys who were actually good, and Elijah Dukes is the closest we came to a flame that sizzled out shortly thereafter. Small sample sizes can cause some funny things, but sometimes good players are good players and can be great for a month. Anyway in the interest of crowning a winner I am going to deem Justin Maxwell to be the best September Nat of all time, because why not? This was for fun after all and I once sat next to his parents at a P-Nats game.  

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