A Season of What Ifs

 

With the Washington Nationals officially eliminated from the playoffs many will want to look back and figure out what went wrong while others will want someone to blame. The way I view the 2013 season is a season of what ifs. A lot went wrong, and some of which were things that go wrong with a young team. Some things just happen, or don't happen as the case may be. The Nationals essentially lived out the worst case scenario and still finished with a winning record. Werth, Harper, Ramos all missed significant time. Those three, by the way, are three of the top five OPS hitters on the Nats. No team is going to do well when it is missing three of its top five players at the same time. 

That is the first what if. All wrapped up into one nice burrito of pain. What if Jayson Werth hadn't pulled his groin, gone on the DL as soon as he did, or done it non-concurrent with the Harper and Ramos' injury? What if Bryce Harper hadn't run into any walls or what if his knee was treated right away? What if Wilson Ramos hadn't pulled his hamstring? These are quite a few what ifs and notice that some are of the controllable aspect. Werth wanted to try and play through the hamstring injury as Harper did his rib and knee injuries. Jayson Werth roared off the DL, but he was out for the month of May, and during that month Harper played sparingly due to his knee injury and finally went on the DL missing the month of June. What if they had both succumbed to treatment right away? Would they have been back sooner or would it have been the same amount of time missed only earlier? Again, what if?   

The injuries were one issue, and as I said before no team is going to do well missing three of its top five bats, but instead of inserting replacement level talent the Nationals inserted a .601 OPS catcher and a three way platoon of a .540, .539, and .478 OPS outfield. Three of the lowest OPS's in the major leagues. Well above average production was replaced with less than replacement level talent. This is the biggest what if of all because it isn't like any of the Syracuse bunch were proven. They all had their flaws, but what if they were tried in May instead of waiting all the way until September to use them as call-ups? What if Corey Brown had replaced Roger Bernadina, Zach Walters or Jeff Kobernus for Steve Lombardozzi, and the Hairston trade made sooner to replace Tyler Moore? It is a move that maybe should have been made, but this is the outcome that is the biggest mystery. It is known what Harper, Werth, and Ramos can do when healthy and a lack of injury or even mitigating the injuries sustained provides less mystery than what the Syracuse bunch could have done, but more still should have been done sooner to rectify the apparent issues on the bench.   

The pitching side isn't free of its issues. The Nationals pitching staff was thought to be better coming into 2013. Strasburg, Zimmermann, and Gonzalez all held up their ends of the bargain, but Dan Haren was not the Dan Haren of old or even the Dan Haren of 2012. Dan Haren was plain bad to start the season. He gave up 2.00 HR/9 and had the worst first half ERA of any starting pitcher. That isn't the entire story though. Haren took a trip to the DL and then came back and pitched like the Nationals thought he would. Since coming off the DL on July 8 Haren has a 3.57 ERA and has averaged 5.69 innings a start. Before the trip to the DL he had a 6.15 ERA and was averaging 5.46 innings a start. What if Dan Haren had pitched like he has in the second half all season? That is quite a few runs taken off the board, 24 to be precise. If you figure a win for every ten runs then that alone gives the Nationals two extra wins and they are still in the Wild Card chase as of this moment. Once more, what if?  

The final what if is more of a weird anomaly. The Washington Nationals for the 2013 season have averaged 4.10 runs a game, but 3.23 when Stephen Strasburg pitches. Strasburg has a 3.02 ERA, 9.6 K/9, 2.8 BB/9, and has averaged 6.06 innings a start up from 5.67 in 2012. In most aspects of the game Stephen Strasburg has been better in 2013 than he was in 2012, but in 2012 the Nationals won 68% of his starts and in 2013 they've won a measly 45%. That’s right, the Nationals have a losing record when their best pitcher is on the mound. The biggest reason is the complete and total lack of run support. Stephen Strasburg has allowed two or fewer runs 18 times and the Nationals have gone 8-10 in those games. Imagine how the Nationals would have done if they had scored their average amount of runs when Strasburg pitches. The Nationals have scored 93 runs in games Strasburg pitches and he has allowed 69. Add in a bullpen run per game and that takes it to 98, a losing record, about what it is, just under .500. Now instead of the 3.23 runs a game make it the 4.10 and the runs scored number jumps to 119. That is a .596 winning percentage or a 17-12 record in games Strasburg pitched instead of the 13-16 record of reality.  

All of these what ifs would have made a difference and the reality of what did happen in all scenarios is part of why the Nationals suffered a disappointing season. There are other factors that weren't included, or that I couldn't think of, but change any one of these things and the Nationals record today is different. The leash on Danny Espinosa is one a lot of people are going to talk about, but before the season I felt the leash should be two months, and that is what it ended up being, and up until that time there wasn't a viable replacement. Steve Lombardozzi wasn’t much better offensively than an injured Danny Espinosa and Anthony Rendon wasn't ready yet. Maybe that move should have been made sooner, but the way it played out was the way it should have played out given the circumstances. A better what if for Danny Espinosa would be what if he got shoulder surgery in the off-season? Steve Lombardozzi would have played so poorly everyone would have missed him and if he hit like he did in 2012 that would have given the Nationals an above average offensive second baseman and an elite defender at the position. Anthony Rendon has been most of that. His defense has been worth 6.5 UZR which is above average trending towards good, but it isn't the elite defense of Espinosa, but it is close enough that we kind of know what would have happened.    

The other one I didn't include was Ross Detwiler, and that is because of the likes of Taylor Jordan and Tanner Roark. The point of these last two scenarios should be that what ifs wouldn't be what ifs if other players had stepped up. In the case of Espinosa, Anthony Rendon stepped in just at the time Espinosa would have been coming back from surgery and performed to an OPS around Espinosa levels with defense marginally below what Espinosa would provide. Taylor Jordan and Tanner Roark both pitched a lot like Ross Detwiler. Sometimes going deep into games and sometimes not. A good amount of ground balls and every now and then a big strikeout. It kind of goes to show that the injuries that did hamper the Nationals season wouldn't have had nearly the impact they did if someone, anyone, would have stepped up. While it is wholly different asking someone to cover for Danny Espinosa or Ross Detwiler as opposed to Jayson Werth, Bryce Harper, and Wilson Ramos; some production would have been better than the less than zero production the Nationals received in their absence. All of these what ifs highlight two things: sometimes a good team can be put together, but if enough things do not go right the construction of the team doesn’t really matter and that the best improvements for Washington in 2014 are around the edges.

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