The Awakening of the Nats Offense

After winning games by the score of 5-4 and 6-2 there are suddenly stories
about how the Nats offense has awakened. There will be those that want to
credit the team meeting that Davey Johnson called for before the Nats game
Saturday against the Pirates and then there will be those that want to credit
the return of Ryan Zimmerman to the line-up. The latter is more apt than the
former, but I have a different theory.

In their previous twelve games starting
with the St. Louis series and ending with the loss to AJ Burnett the Nats
averaged 2.5 runs a game, but they also faced starting pitching with an average
2013 ERA of 3.25. The average starting pitcher goes just about 6 1/3 innings a
start and that converts to 2.3 runs allowed, or almost the
exact amount the Nationals scored during that time frame. The three
pitchers that they hit well in that time frame, Arroyo, Leake, Teheran, also
happen to be the worst of the twelve starters the Nats faced in that time
frame. The answer to why the Nats offense woke up may have nothing to do with
the Nationals at all, but with the quality of the starting pitching they are
facing.  

There are factors within the Nationals.
Adam LaRoche, Danny Espinosa, and Ryan Zimmerman were not going to not produce
for the entire season. So far in 2013 the MLB average wOBA is .315. In April
the Nationals had four hitters with more than 20 games who could be considered
above average. Since the calendar turned to May Adam LaRoche, Danny Espinosa,
Ryan Zimmerman, and Denard Span have joined that bunch. A couple of the other
guys have cooled off, but having more batters producing than not is always a
good thing, but it doesn’t hurt that over the last two games the Nats faced
Jeff Locke and Wandy Rodriguez.  

Even after facing the Nationals Locke
has a 3.21 ERA, but a 5.12 FIP. The reason for this is that Locke walks too
many batters, doesn’t strike anyone out, and allows too many homeruns. Locke didn’t
allow a single homer to the Nationals but he did walk three, hit one, and
strikeout only three all while failing to see the sixth inning. It was not a
good starting pitching performance and the Nationals were able to take
advantage of all the free base runners as two of the four runs Locke allowed
were on base via walk or hit by pitch.

Wandy Rodriguez’s performance was more
classically bad. He didn’t give up as many runs, went six innings, struck out
more, walked less, but he gave up more hits and many of them were hard hit
including a two run Danny Espinosa homer that put the Nats up for good. Danny
Espinosa is almost a microcosm for what has gone wrong with the Nats
offense up to this point in the season and what is starting to go right.

In April, Danny Espinosa had a bad
approach at the plate. He wasn’t striking out as much but he was swinging at
pitches out of the strike zone putting them in play weakly. These weak
grounders and pop-ups were easily converted into outs. The worst part of this
is that Espinosa wasn’t just making outs too frequently he wasn’t making the
pitcher earn the out. He was hardly seeing any pitches per plate appearance and
even worse he wasn’t driving the baseball. A good at bat isn’t so much about
working the pitcher as it is waiting for a pitch that can be driven somewhere
and then doing so. There is no such thing as a good two strike hitter in
baseball. The MLB average OPS for a batter with two strikes against him is
around .500. In other words while it is good to get deep into a count it isn’t
good to bat with two strikes.

Good at bats end when either the batter
gets the pitch he is looking for and makes hard contact, doesn’t get that pitch
and is patient enough to give the walk that is offered, or fouling off several
quality pitches raising the pitch count and forcing the pitcher to earn his
out. Danny Espinosa wasn’t doing any of those things during April. His walking
to the plate was as much as conceding an out. Watching him, and the rest of the
Nats offense, they are no longer doing that. Against the Pirates there were
several hard line drives that happened to be outs, the Nats walked more, and
when the pitcher wasn’t throwing balls and quality pitches they made him earn
his out. The Nats were facing two pitchers worse than any they had faced in the
previous 12, but they took advantage and had a much better approach.  

If the Nats can continue that type of
offensive approach with Werth back in the line-up, and Harper continuing to
heal plus facing Porcello and the Cubs in four of the next five then the Nats
may be about to see an offensive outburst. After it is all said and done the
credit shouldn’t go all to the Nats. The approach has gotten better and against
Locke and Rodriguez they rarely took themselves out of an at bat by swinging at
a bad pitch early in the count, but when it is all said and done the Nationals
scored the amount of runs they should have against the good starting pitching
they faced and the amount they should have against the bad. The real turn around
will come when and if they can score a fair amount of runs against a good
starting pitcher. Tuesday will provide a good test as Anibal Sanchez is 8-0
with a 1.97 against the Nationals.

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