What makes a winning team? This is a question all baseball executives and fans have been trying to figure out since baseball was first played in the Elysian Fields in New Jersey. There is an old saying that claims the key to winning is pitching, defense, and timely hitting, and for most of the history of baseball that was what executives chased, but then the age of free agency began and there were big market and small market teams. The small market teams had to analyze players better and they discovered that stats like runs and RBI were not good indicators of performance in their own right but often a symptom of being in a good line-up.
Other stats then became the focus like OBP and SLG. Pitchers that could get ground balls were recognized as being undervalued when compared to strikeout pitchers. So while the big money clubs payed for aging players that had once put up a lot of homeruns and RBI the smaller market teams looked at the numbers behind those numbers. The game has continued to evolve and now teams are looking at the numbers behind the numbers behind the numbers. Stuff like line drive rate, the speed of the ball off the bat, plate coverage, and a larger emphasis on the importance of defense. Which ultimately brings me to my point.
Think of the best offenses in the game. The current top five run producing clubs in baseball are the Red Sox, Tigers, Cardinals, Indians, Orioles. Four of those five get to use the DH, but let’s ignore that for a second. There is something that they all have in common. They all get offense from non-traditional offensive positions. There is another old saying in baseball about power at the corners, defense up the middle, and when building a club that is what an executive should focus on, but if a team can get an up the middle player that can also hit then they have a real find on their hands. Think of the best all around players in baseball right now, and when you start naming guys like Andrew McCutchen, Buster Posey, Robinson Cano, or Troy Tulowitzki you’re naming great offensive players that happen to play up the middle positions. That combination of offense from an unexpected source and defense is rare and makes for the best players in the game.
Since you are on a site the happens to be named Citizens of Natstown I am going to bring this full circle and close the loop. The Washington Nationals have struggled to get production out of a lot of spots this season, but when Ryan Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche, Jayson Werth, and Bryce Harper are all in the line-up they have guys that can produce average to above average offense from the corner positions. The real boost to the Nationals offense has been coming from their sudden production at second base, the continued break out of Ian Desmond, and the improving numbers of Denard Span.
Since returning to the majors and being handed the position of second base Anthony Rendon has hit .324/.355/.476. To put that in perspective those numbers would make him the second best hitting second baseman in the NL behind only Chase Utley (.282/.349/.521) and ahead of Brandon Phillips (.269/.324/.427). It is still early in the career of Anthony Rendon but his approach at the plate is one that looks so advanced it is hard to imagine the league adjusting to him to such a degree that he doesn’t make it as a star hitter at the MLB level.
Ian Desmond last season was the best power hitting short stop in baseball, but that was only due to the fact that Troy Tulowitizki was on the DL. When listing regression candidates for the Nationals Ian Desmond’s name was first and foremost. Not very many people believed his breakout season was really a breakout and that he was too much of a free swinger for it to last. And while Ian Desmond hasn’t matched last season’s number his .829 OPS isn’t that far off from his .845 OPS of 2012 and there is still plenty of season left for him to match or even eclipse those numbers.
In 2013 Denard Span has put up numbers below his career average in every category. He isn’t getting on base as much as he should or even hitting for the minimal power he has shown in his career. Lately Span has been coming around. He was working on a small mechanical change in his swing to get back to the player he was before the concussion he suffered in 2011. Over the last 14 days his numbers have been closer to what the Nationals wanted as he has batted .292/.333/.417 in that time span. If Span can continue to hit like that and play the excellent defense he has shown in center field he will be one of the best players on the Nats over the course of the second half of the 2013 season.
The final up the middle position is catcher, and the Nationals haven’t gotten much out of it, but that is due in large part to the injury to Wilson Ramos. Kurt Suzuki was hitting better when he split time with Ramos, but when Ramos went on the DL with his second hamstring injury Suzuki tailed off and the Nationals weren’t getting much out of the position. Ramos returned to the line-up yesterday and provided a spark as he went 3-4 with a homerun and five RBI. Ramos’ power at the bottom of the line-up is something they have missed. When Ramos went on the DL Suzuki had two homers on the season and when he came off Suzuki had three homers on the season. That extra bit of thump at the bottom of the line-up and providing Suzuki with needed rest between starts may end up making Ramos one of the most valuable additions to the Nationals line-up during the second half.
If the Nats are going to make the six game they have to on the Braves to win this division they are going to need a lot of things to go right, and one of thing that should go right is offense from unexpected sources. With Desmond, Rendon, and Ramos the Nationals should get above average offensive production from three of the four up the middle positions and if Span can get back to being the quality OBP player he has been for most of his career then the Nationals offense should start to click to an even higher degree. Since coming off the DL and hitting a homerun in his first at bat Bryce Harper has been searching for his timing. He has a couple should be doubles that were robbed by Carlos Gomez, but he will find his stroke as LaRoche, Zimmerman, and Werth already have. With those four performing like corner players should and Desmond, Rendon, and Ramos providing above average production from up the middle positions the Washington Nationals offense is going to have a much different look in the second half of the season.