Midterm Grade Reports
Roughly one third of the way through the season, the 2014 Washington Nationals find themselves in a similar position to the 2013 team. A bevy of injuries, at times inconsistent pitching, and sometimes perfunctory managing has overshadowed the good things the team has done. The end result is a mostly underwhelming season so-far. If this level of play persists, there will be serious questions about this team’s ability to contend in 2014. At this juncture, it is not too early to evaluate some individual players performances, and hand out some grades in the process.
Jayson Werth, B
If Werth had any luck on line drives, he would be posting impressive numbers. His .284/.363/.399 is right around his career norm, aside from a nominal dip in SLG, and effectively leading the Nationals. However, his isolated power numbers dropped to its lowest point of the season after 52 games, and his fly-ball percentage has ballooned to the highest mark of his career. That being said, he has carried an offense that currently ranks ninth in the National League in runs scored. At 35 years old, he is still a very productive player, and when the lineup is healthy, will be one of the most important hitters in the middle of the lineup.
Adam Laroche, A-
What a difference a year makes. Hitting behind Werth in the cleanup position for most of the season, Laroche has been an important part of the team’s offense. The team’s scoring took a noticeable downturn when he went on the disabled list, and has had a nice up-tick in the six games since his return on May 25. In 36 games before his injury, the Nationals scored 135 runs (3.75 R/G). In 14 games without him, the team scored 48 runs (3.43 R/G). While other injuries contributed, the loss of the team’s cleanup hitter contributed to a 30 point drop in average runs scored. Laroche should remain in the middle of the lineup for the rest of the season, and looks to be well on his way to a very nice bounce back season.
Craig Stammen, A-
A few years ago, Stammen was roster depth. He had an ERA over five after 38 career starts at the end of the 2010 season and spent most of the 2011 season at Triple-A Syracuse. He has been a revelation since, posting 190 strikeouts and a 2.2 fWAR in 190 innings since the start of the 2012 season. Pitching exclusively in relief, Stammen has been called on to throw many innings on consecutive nights. He has been the unsung hero of the bullpen for the last several years, and while his strikeouts are down in 2014, he is on his way to another fantastic season, during which manager Matt Williams will count on him to spare the bullpen on nights when the starting pitcher exits the game early.
Tyler Clippard, A-
Historically a slow starter, Clippard got off to a rough start in 2014. However, he posted a ERA of zero in the month of May, and is leads the team in appearances by a pitcher with 28. He has become Williams’s primary set-up man, and is on his way to another dominating season. At some point soon, the question of his viability as a closer is going to need to be addressed, either in Washington or somewhere else.
Drew Storen, A-
After holding opposing hitters to an impressive .097/.125/.194 in the month of April, Storen has seen his strikeouts drop and his slugging percentage against raise 71 points. He is still posting suffocating numbers for the season, and has only given up three earned runs after 19.2 innings. Williams is using Storen much more selectively than Clippard, but is having great success. He has been a fundamental part of the Washington bullpen, which leads the major leagues in ERA. Storen appears to have put last season's struggles behind him, making him an excellent set-up arm and the closer of the future.
Stephen Strasburg, B+
For all of the criticism Strasburg receives, both fair and foul, he quietly had a fantastic second month of the season. After striking out 53 hitters in 34 innings in April, a month he finished with a 4.24 ERA (2.24 FIP), he had a 2.23 ERA (2.62 FIP) in 40.1 innings in May. The strikeouts were down, but he was markedly better: going at least seven innings in five of his last seven starts. Strasburg made the attempt to pitch to contact more often last season and was unsuccessful. He seems to be having more success this year, is pitching more efficiently, and looks more comfortable on a major league mound. He is still having trouble pitching around bad defense, most recently versus the Texas Rangers this past weekend, but continues to make strides as a pitcher. This may yet be his year.
Tanner Roark, B+
Roark, more than anyone else on this list, is going to be graded by a different rubric. As the fifth starter, he has much less to live up to than the other names. Because of injuries to start the season, competition for the fifth position in the rotation continued into April, with Roark battling Taylor Jordan for the job. Roark’s success late last year continued into April, notably three starts lasting into at least the seventh inning, including a complete-game shutout versus San Diego. While Roark is not displaying the masterful control he had last year, he is inducing a high number of groundball outs to go with noticeable strikeout numbers and a .232/.294/.375 against. He is not going to blow anyone away, but has quietly posted a 3.25 ERA (3.88 FIP), good for 23rd among National League starting pitchers.
Doug Fister, B
With the exception of his first start of the season in Oakland coming off six days rest, Fister has been very good for the Nationals. He has come as advertised: generating a high amount of ground balls and pitching deep into games. It is early, but Fister looks to be on his way to having another excellent underrated season. At 30 years old, he looks to be the steal many industry experts thought he would be when Washington acquired him in an offseason trade with the Detroit Tigers.
Danny Espinosa, C- After a fantastic start to the season, Espinosa has slumped badly. He saw his batting average drop by 163 points during the month of May, and now has 57 strikeouts in 51 games. The saving grace for Espinosa, as always, is his gold-glove caliber defense at second base. Digging deeper, Espinosa’s batting average when he pulls the ball (from both sides of the plate) is an excellent .317, and he is posting a 1.188 slugging percentage on line drives; he simply isn’t seeing the ball well enough to consistently hit well. Despite being a superior defender at second base, he will likely lose his everyday job when the lineup is healthy sometime next month, if not sooner.
Gio Gonzalez, C
After Gonzalez’s start on May 17 versus the New York Mets when he left after three innings, it was revealed that he had been dealing with shoulder discomfort for some amount of time but that he would likely only spend the minimum amount of time on the disabled list. He has now been inactive for 18 days, and appears likely to miss at least another week. While Gonzalez was not having a terrible year, he had a 7.98 ERA (5.11 FIP) in the month of May. That aside, his walk and strikeout ratios were virtually identical to that of his last two years, suggesting he can return to form when he returns to the mound later this month.
Denard Span, C
After 49 games, Span is hitting .281/.324/.386, which has the Nationals in 16th place in the major leagues in OPS from the leadoff position. The team’s offense has been scoring when he gets on base, and not when he does not. In 45 games before this past weekend series against Texas, Span’s OPS was .676. While he seems to be getting hot, a lot of the lineup's struggle to score rests on his shoulders. When the Nationals are finally healthy, he is going to need to produce more consistently or face being moved lower in the lineup.
Anthony Rendon, C+
Similar to Span, when Rendon does not hit, the Nationals struggle to score. Rendon has mostly hit in the second spot in the lineup so far, for mixed results. After hitting four home runs and posting an OPS of .864 in the month of April, he cooled off considerably in May, hitting .212/.292/.323 with only five extra base hits. He has still flashed his offensive potential that made him a sixth overall draft pick, and has been a significant upgrade over Ryan Zimmerman defensively at third base. But still very green, he is struggling to consistently hit well, and currently has league-average offensive numbers. Like Span, he is hurting the offensive production when he runs cold.
Jordan Zimmermann, C+
Make no mistake, the most consistent pitcher for the Nationals over the last three seasons has not been anything but in 2014. His ERA sat at 4.07 after 11 starts, 61 points higher than his career average. Before Tuesday's scoreless eight inning effort he had put a shocking 90 runners on base in only 59.2 innings, and his OPS against had ballooned to .789. There is no reason to suspect injury, as he is still reaching the same velocity he has for his career, and his BABIP against has gone up to an unsustainably high .369. Combine that with the at times suspect defense, and it is easy to explain how he could be struggling after a third of the season. As the team around him gets healthy, there is no reason to suspect he will not return to form. Looking for a big payday in the near-future, Zimmermann has all the motivation to elevate his game.
Ian Desmond, C+
It is hard to be critical of Desmond, arguably the Nationals de facto captain for the last several seasons, but he has been as inconsistent as anyone early in 2014. He was porous defensively early, and while he has settled down in recent weeks, he has 13 errors after only 56 games, a career high. Desmond's high career first-pitch swing percentage of appears to be catching up to him this season, as he is hitting .225/.295/.413, and currently has his lowest OPS since posting a .656 in 2011. That being said, he is on pace for a career-high 32 home runs, has played every game this season, and has hit in every position from fourth to seventh. As the lineup returns to health, his on base numbers should return to normal.