What Went Wrong With the Nats in the First Half


Yesterday was when everyone else wrote their evaluations of the Nats first
half and part of me wanted to wait to see what everyone else had to say before
I said my piece, and another part of me wanted to have my TV fixed. Both got
accomplished and after thinking a bit and seeing what others said I know what I
have to say. We will start off with the stupid and trite grading system
everyone wants to use. Nats fan were asked in social media to grade the team in
the first half and many gave them an F because this season was World Series or
bust and the Nats failed to win the World Series before the All-Star Break. My
grade for the Nats first half is a C.

They are one game above .500. The Nats
get a C, same as the Phillies. Doesn’t matter that more was expected of the
Nats they get the same grade, but even though the grades are the same they
shouldn’t be viewed the same. The Nats are the smart kid in the front of the
class expected to get A’s and the Phillies are the stoner in the back of the
class whose parents are going to hang that C on the refrigerator instead of
grounding him a week for it. So
while the Nats are resting up in their timeout let’s look back at the first
half and figure out what went wrong.  

Injuries, under performance by the
bench, Zach Duke, Henry Rodriguez, and Dan Haren. The first two affected the
offense and the last three affected the run prevention. First we’ll start with
the injuries and under performance by the bench; to understand how much of a
negative impact they had we will look at runs scored over certain stretches of
time and the Nats record over those periods starting with the first 15 games
from April 1-17. The reason for using those dates is that April 17 was the last
game Ryan Zimmerman played for 15 days when he returned on May 3. Wilson Ramos
was also on the DL at this point and would end up returning on May 2. So with
most of their line-up intact for the first 15 games of the season the Nationals
went 9-6 and scored 4.3 runs a game.   

Then Zimmerman went down with a
hamstring pull. Without Zimmerman in the line-up the Nats went 6-8 over their
next 14 games averaging 2.6 runs a game, and just as Zimmerman was set to
return Jayson Werth injured his groin and went on the DL on May 3, the same day
that Zimmerman returned. The Nationals still had Harper in the line-up at this
point, but he had already crashed into the wall in Atlanta trying to rob a Tim
Hudson homerun. Harper wasn’t the same after that and even worse after crashing
into the wall in LA on May 13. From the time of the incident with the wall in
Atlanta until he eventually hit the DL on May 27 Harper hit .183/.315/.350.
With Harper struggling and Werth out of the line-up from May 3 until June 4 the
Nationals managed a record of 13-15 in those 28 games and averaged 3.4 runs a
game. Essentially from the time the Nats lost Zimmerman until they made the
massive roster overhaul on June 4 the Nats went 19-23 and averaged 3.2 runs a

The reason for this should be obvious.
The Nats bench wasn’t very good. No bench is going to be able to cover for
players the caliber of the ones the Nats were losing but combine the extreme
under performance of Danny Espinosa and Suzuki while Ramos was injured with
having two sub-.600 OPS corner outfielders and the 3.2 runs a game is easy to
understand. The Nats had a line-up that was full of holes. Five of nine spots
including the pitchers spot were essentially automatic outs. If Zimmerman,
LaRoche, Desmond, or Span had a bad day then the Nats offense didn’t go
anywhere, and Span hasn’t performed up to expectations either. So basically
from April 19 through June 2 the Nats line-up had on any given day three over
.700 OPS batters, five under .600 OPS batters, and Denard Span. That is no way
to score runs.    

Since Werth returned from injury and
Rendon replaced Espinosa at second base the Nats offense has returned to its
pre-April 19 form averaging 4.2 runs a game, with the Nationals having a record
of 20-18 over that time span. In essence, when the Nationals have been able to
field a healthy line-up they are 29-24 and are averaging over four runs a game.
If the Nats had played that way all season long they would be at 52 wins and
only two games back of the Braves instead of six. That is right. If the offense
was performing all season long the Nationals would still be two games back of
the Braves. That is because the Nats run prevention isn’t what everyone thinks
it is. Strasburg, Gonzalez, and Zimmermann are very good, but the Nats starters
as a whole rank thirteenth in baseball in fWAR, sixth in ERA, and fifth in FIP.
The ERA and FIP look perfectly acceptable, but they are bolstered by the
presence of the top three in the rotation.

This can be looked at in several ways.
The difference in runs scored on the season from 2012 to 2013 is .52 a game for
the Nationals. While that isn’t good, in all the complaints about the offense, lost
is the fact that the Nationals run prevention has increased by .38 runs a game
as well. Add that together and the run differential difference from 2012 to
2013 is nearly one run a game. The other and almost more telling way to look at
it is to look at total runs allowed by the starters and the bullpen. The
Nationals in 2013 have allowed 371 runs. Of those 371 runs 92 of them were
allowed by Dan Haren, Zach Duke, and Henry Rodriguez. Now obviously two of
those pitchers are no longer with the team, but the three of them together have
combined to allow 24.8% of the Nationals’ runs. A quarter of all the runs the
Nationals have allowed can be attributed to three pitchers. The Nationals have
used a total of 20 pitchers this season. Many of those have made only a couple
of appearances, and starters will allow more runs than relievers, Strasburg,
Zimmermann, and Gio are second through fourth in runs allowed with 45, 42, 42
respectively, but that gives some idea of the difference between a 3.13 ERA and
a 5.61 ERA.  

For the sake of argument here let’s
pretend that Haren had a 4.50 ERA. Not great, but better than what he does
have. That takes his runs allowed total from 62 down to 50 runs a game, and if
we also pretend that Zach Duke was beaten out in Spring Training by Ross
Ohlendorf that is an additional ten runs or more removed from the Nationals
runs allowed side of the equation, and if ten runs equals an extra win in the
standings then the Nationals would be even with the Braves if these changes
took place in the same alternate universe where everyone was healthy and the
Nats scored 4.2 runs a game.  

We of course do not live in that
universe. Those things went wrong and the Nationals are six games back of the
Braves, but the good news is that the line-up is now healthy, Dan Haren may be
able to be a 4.50 ERA pitcher in the second half, and Zach Duke and Henry
Rodriguez are long gone. At this point it is tough to say if 67 games is enough
to make up for the poor play of the first half, but the Nationals can do
nothing to go back and make everyone healthy from April 19 – June 2. What they
can do though is play like a team with six over .800 OPS bats in the line-up, a
first baseman who has an over .900 OPS since May 1, and a pitching staff with
three of the best starters in all of baseball. If the Nationals can do that,
then 90 wins isn’t out of reach, and if they can get to 90 wins they put
themselves in a good position to catch the Braves or Reds if one should happen
to fall within their grasp. It isn’t going to be easy, but no one ever claimed
it was.  



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One comment

  1. They must start hitting or forget about catching the Braves or grabbing a Wildcard spot. I can’t believe how long Davey kept Duke and Rodriguez around. Haren makes me a nervous wreck, but he has pitched better in his last two starts so I’m keeping my fingers crossed that he can actually be serviceable down the stretch. Another thing that has went against us is the 67 errors we’ve committed. I really think this 11-game homestand coming out of the break is going make or break us. We’ve got to come back re-energized and ready to roll right away.


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