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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