June 23, 2011
Prospectus Hit and Run
The National Nightmare
The Nationals were down to their final out on Tuesday against the Mariners, trailing 5-1, before a string of four straight hits, capped by Wilson Ramos' three-run homer, carried them to their ninth win in 10 games. Ramos' 432-foot walkoff shot didn't lift the Nats to .500, but Wednesday night's win did, giving the team their best mark (37-37) at this point in any season since 2005. Ramos, a 23-year-old catcher acquired from Minnesota for Matt Capps, is among a handful of youngsters showing signs that they can be cornerstones of the franchise's next winning team. The long Nationals nightmare may finally be over.
The Nationals came into 2011 forecast to win 71 games, a modest two-win improvement over last year, and one that would mark the franchise's first 70-win campaign since 2007. Ranked 13th in the league in scoring (4.00 runs per game) and 10th in True Average (.245)—all stats through Tuesday—the team has outdone itself more in spite of its offense than because of it. The good news is that the hemorrhaging may have stopped; while six of the team's 13 most-used hitters are at least 30 points of True Average off their PECOTA projections, suggesting significant regression is in store, the least-effective ones figure to receive a much smaller share of the playing time going forward:
LaRoche just underwent season-ending surgery to repair a torn labrum; his departure has created space for the surprising duo of Nix and Morse—the latter of whom has 13 homers, tied with the rookie Espinosa for the team lead—to both play regularly instead of sharing time in left field. Hairston and Cora are back in reserve roles after two months of overexposure while filling in for Zimmerman, who returned from abdominal surgery last week. Bernadina has wrested the center-field job from Ankiel, who just hit the disabled list for the second time. Ramos is receiving an increasingly higher share of reps behind the plate while Rodriguez moves into a mentor role.
The Nationals' positive run differential (+8) owes more to their pitching and defense than it does offense. Projected by PECOTA to rank 13th in the league in run prevention, they're instead fifth at 3.89 runs per game. They're not exactly blowing anyone away; the staff ranks second-to-last in strikeout rate (6.4 per nine), but sixth in unintentional walk rate (2.9 per nine) and fifth in home-run rate (0.8 per nine). They've gotten especially good work afield thanks to the keystone combo of Desmond and Espinosa, ranking third in Defensive Efficiency (.704), but their pitcher-friendly stadium has also helped, particularly in keeping the ball in the park; they have the fifth-lowest rate of home runs per fly ball.
The rotation is the most improved, which has kept the Nats in games far more often than not. A year ago, even with phenom Stephen Strasburg taking 12 mostly outstanding turns, the team recorded quality starts a league-low 43 percent of the time. This year they're at 58 percent, seventh in the league. Likewise, they've improved from 14th to seventh in ERA (4.61 to 3.88), and from 15th to seventh in innings per start (5.5 to 6.0), lessening the burden on a bullpen that has used the strong work of set-up men Tyler Clippard and Todd Coffey, as well as closer Drew Storen, to rank fourth in the league in ERA.
The top starter thus far has been Jordan Zimmermann, a second-round pick in 2007; he has posted a 3.08 ERA in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery. The 25-year-old righty isn't a dominating Strasburg type, but despite a middling strikeout rate, he's fourth in the league in home-run rate (0.4 per nine), seventh in walk rate (1.8 per nine), and 10th in K/BB ratio (3.5), and only Cole Hamels, Jair Jurrjens, and Roy Halladay have topped his 79 percent rate of quality starts. Jason Marquis has rebounded from injuries and survived a .323 BABIP to follow a similar low-walks, low-homers, low-strikeout recipe, and to some degree, so have John Lannan and Livan Hernandez. Now 36, the latter clearly has an affinity for the Nationals' red, white, and blue; in parts of seven seasons with Washington, his ERA is 3.92, compared to 4.69 elsewhere.
The starting five is rounded out by Tom Gorzelanny, the only starter whose ERA is worse than 4.00. The rotation doesn't figure to maintain its tidy performance, at least as far as PECOTA or SIERA are concerned. The weighted mean PECOTA forecast for the current starting five is an ugly 4.78; by WARP, they ranked second-to-last in our pre-season rankings. As for their collective 4.33 Skill-Interactive ERA, their strikeout, walk, fly-ball, and ground-ball rates again suggest tougher days ahead.
The irony of the Nationals' recent success is that it has nothing to do with the trio that has dominated the team's headlines over the past 24 months, namely Strasburg (not due back from Tommy John surgery until 2012), 2010 overall first pick Bryce Harper (raking in A-ball but not slated for a callup this year), and marquee free agent Werth, whose June (.164/.307/.311) has been his worst month to date. Those players will likely be key parts of the next winning Nationals team, and the good news is that youngsters like Ramos and Espinosa, and late-bloomers like Morse and Bernadina, are playing their way into the picture as well. They're no threatto make the playoffs, but the end of the Nationals' long nightmare is in sight.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .