The similarities between 2013 and 2014 are somewhat alarming to many. The Nationals were 9-6 after 15 games in 2013 and have the same record after 15 games in 2014. The Nationals in 2013 made a lot of errors early in the season and have done the same to begin 2014. And finally the Nationals were slugged with early injuries in 2013 and the same has happened in 2014. There are promising signs for the 2014 Nationals that didn’t exist for the 2013 Nationals. Though the Nationals have the same record as they did in 2013 they have outscored opponents by 11 runs whereas in 2013 the Nationals had been outscored by 7 runs. In other words the 2013 Nationals were a bit lucky to start the season where the 2014 Nationals are right where they should be.
If we dig deeper into the stats there are some other promising trends. Keep in mind all of this is a small sample size and early season stats lack a bit of meaning, but it is still good to see these trends popping up. Let’s start with the Nats late inning heroics that were on display again last night when the Nats broke the tie against the Marlins bullpen and won by three runs. The Nationals in the seventh inning or later are hitting .297/.370/.517 and in 2013 in those innings they hit .230/.292/.359. A lot of this has to do with the Nats improved bench, but the improvement of the bullpen also cannot be ignored. Too often in 2013 it was the Nats bullpen that was failing to hold ties whereas in 2014 the Nats bullpen has outperformed the starters thus far into the season.
Looking specifically at the bench Nats pinch hitters in 2013 hit a paltry .208/.250/.358 and to start 2014 Nationals pinch hitters have improved to .286/.444/.429. It is a very small sample size with only 27 pinch hit plate appearances but it is a promising trend even if the overall numbers are unsustainable. Add to that the Nationals numbers against relief pitching were awful in 2013. The Nats .728 OPS against starters in 2013 isn’t much different than their .734 OPS in 2014 and neither number is far off from the 2013 league average of .715 OPS against starting pitchers. The improvement against relief pitching is dramatic as the Nationals in 2013 hit .236/.303/.371 against relievers and the 2014 Nationals have hit .303/.378/.513.
Most of this is the bench. The combination of Lombardozzi, Moore, Bernadina, Suzuki, and Tracy didn’t hit all season, and of those five players only Moore has gotten a plate appearance with the 2014 Nationals. The main improvement to the bench has come from the late Spring Training signing of Kevin Frandsen and the resurgence of Danny Espinosa. Outside of those two players no bench player with more than 20 plate appearances has an OPS over .700. The other big addition is that the call-ups have performed better, Tyler Moore among them. Zach Walters start to 2014 has seen him hit two home runs in four plate appearances, and Tyler Moore filled in for Adam LaRoche against left hander Brad Hand and collected two extra base hits.
These are very little things, but they are things the Nationals didn’t see in 2013. The Nationals were never able to mount much offense against reliever pitching and the bench both couldn’t pinch hit or provide any sort of safety net for injured players. The start of 2014 has seen these issues resolved. If it stays that way is uncertain, but a promising trend is better than a disappointing one. As far as a few other promising trends one has to be that while the Nationals starting pitchers have the fourth worst ERA in baseball they are leading all of baseball in K/9. When their .342 BABIP and 1.22 HR/9 normalize the ERA will drop and the Nats starters will look like the dominate force they were expected to be.
The pitching for the Nationals will be there. The early struggles are simply early struggles. The promising trends with the offense are far more important to the long term success of the club than a few hiccups by the pitching staff. If the offense can keep doing what they have, even if not to the same degree, when the pitching comes around then we’re going to see the Nationals rail off a number of wins in a row. In 2013 the big winning streak was never able to come because the Nationals couldn’t add on runs when they had the lead, be the first team to break a tie, or mount a comeback against relief pitching. The Nationals may have the exact same record as they did in 2013, but there are a lot more promising trends at the beginning of 2014 than there ever were in 2013.