June 24, 2008
You Could Look It Up
Nats Bats Fall Flat
One of the more interesting chicken-and-egg questions you can pursue just now is, "Does the new Nationals' park show any bias for or against hitters?" To all appearances, the park plays right down the middle, but is that because it's fair, or because Nats hitters are incapable of hitting anywhere?
By any measure, by a combination of bad luck and poor planning the Washington Nationals have put together the worst offense in baseball. At this writing, the Nats are batting .238/.313/.359 in a league hitting .258/.330/.410. They've scored 3.6 runs per game in a league that's averaging 4.5. Their adjusted OPS is 820. Their team VORP is 17.5-last in baseball-and over 140 runs less than that of the major league-leading Cubs. The club's aggregate EqA is .239. To quote John Cleese, this is a dead parrot.
For our purposes, though, the question is whether this is a historically dead parrot? Does this offense rank with the most inert of all time? The answer-at least as of this moment-is that the 2008 Nats are probably a bit more potent than such illustrious predecessors as the 1920 Philadelphia A's, the 1930 Boston Red Sox, or the 1963 Mets. Instead, the Nats have to settle for being on the next tier down, with ballclubs like the 1999 Minnesota Twins and the 2004 Arizona Diamondbacks. Then again, the more recent clubs have a special distinction over the earlier ones cited: they have the virtue of being planned.
Consider the 1922 Braves, a team that lacked strong ownership or capitalization-a mortally ill Christy Mathewson was about to take over as a proxy for the enthusiastic but overwhelmed Judge Emil Fuchs. Despite playing in a park savagely favorable to pitchers (the outfield went on for miles, and a cold wind blew in off of the Charles River), adjustments do the offense no favors-the team's adjusted OPS was 79 and the EqA .220. They didn't pitch very well either, so the resultant 53-100 record was well-earned. With overall rates of .263/.314/.341, and an average of 3.9 runs scored per game, these Braves were something special in a league that hit .292/.348/.404 and averaged an even 5.0 runs per game. No Braves hitter had a season even 10 percent above the league average, with the exception of future Hall of Fame manager Billy Southworth, who batted .323/.392/.475. Unfortunately, he was limited to 43 games by leg injuries. Veteran catcher Hank Gowdy, who used to receive some Hall of Fame support, hit .317/.391/.389 in about half a season's-worth of at-bats. The best-hitting regular was center fielder Ray Powell, who hit .296/.369/.409, which translates only to a .272 EqA.
The 1963 Mets were just one season removed from their very first season, and from an expansion draft in which the franchise was charged exorbitant fees to collect the detritus of the National League. Worse, their best hitter of the inaugural season, Richie Ashburn, had been so disgusted that he retired. The '63 edition, which went 51-111, had a team VORP of -73.1 (worst in our database); an EqA of .226; batted .219/.281/.315 against league rates of .245/.306/.364; and averaged 3.1 runs per game against a league average of 3.8. Pursuant to a policy of bringing back as many old Dodgers and Giants as possible, the Mets bought Duke Snider from the Dodgers on April 1 of that year, and used him as a platoon player for the remainder of the season. His .243/.345/.401 doesn't look like much, but in context it was good for a .285 EqA. Second baseman Ron Hunt, a rookie that year, gave the team a .282 EqA on .272/.334/.396 rates (and Hunt's trademark 13 hit-by-pitches). After that, things got desperate quickly, with the likes of an 18-year-old Eddie Kranepool batting .209/.256/.289, and shortstop Al Moran batting .193/.274/.230 (.193 EqA).
These two teams had little choice as to how they were constructed. The Braves had no options financially, while the Mets had a Triple-A team in the majors. More recent examples owe something more to poor planning, though given the rarity of teams that hit as badly as the current Nats, a better argument can be made for good old bad luck. For example, a team close to the Nationals in makeup was the 1981 Toronto Blue Jays. Like the Nats, the Jays had players on their roster that had done better in the past, or who would do better in the future, but who combined to do very little in the year in question. Lloyd Moseby, Jesse Barfield, George Bell, and Willie Upshaw were present, but not quite ready. Ernie Whitt would show some nice power in the future, but he hit one home run in 195 at-bats. Otto Velez hit only .213, though his .363 OBP and .404 slugging made him an asset. John Mayberry still had punch at first base, batting .248/.360/.452, but the rest of the infield was spectacularly bad, ringed by Damaso Garcia (.277 OBP) at second, future NBA mainstay Danny Ainge (.258 OBP) at third, and the immortal Alfredo Griffin (.243 OBP) at short.
The Nats are more than a bit like this. Injuries to both Nick Johnson and Ryan Zimmerman have deducted the two players likely to have been their best bats. In the preseason, the outfield of Austin Kearns, Wily Mo Pena, Elijah Dukes, and Lastings Milledge looked terrific on paper. Putting aside Dukes' time lost to injury, he's been the best of the bunch, and he hasn't been good. What's most shocking up the Nats' offense has been that the best hitters have been completely unexpected: Christian Guzman at .312/.335/.435, and former Rule 5 pick Jesus Flores at .307/.373/.512 in 38 games. Flores was supposed to spend the year in the minors while Paul Lo Duca kept his seat warm, a miscalculation that the Nats were saved from by Lo Duca's injuries.
A lot of criticism has been aimed at GM Jim Bowden in recent weeks for the team's anemic lineup, but as with the 1981 Jays there is more here than meets the eye. Barring some weird contagion of physical problems that have permanently sapped the ability of such players as Zimmerman, Pena, and Kearns, the Nats will hit again-perhaps at some point this year. Even if the Nats don't have a future MVP candidate on their hands-or a potential breakout candidate-they don't need one right now, at least not as much as they need a regression to the mean.