What's Gone Wrong for the Washington Nationals?
Washington's performance has been tremendously disappointing.
While there's an easy joke about Congress to be made here, I'll skip that and just mention that the performance of the city's baseball team has also been poor.
The Nationals are 8-13 with a minus-19 run differential, and while there is no reason for fans to panic given we are so early into the season, our projections here at numberFire have soured slightly on Washington.
We project the Nationals to go 77-64 for the rest of a season (a 54.6% winning percentage or roughly 88 wins per 162 games), while we had them winning 91 games before the season. Our numbers have Washington as a better team going forward than the Mets (who are projected to win 49.6% of their remaining games), but since New York already has 15 wins secured, the model sees both teams having almost identical chances to win the National League East (Washington has a 41.6% chance, while the Mets are at 41.0%).
Washington started this season as the second-most likely World Series champion according to our projections, with its 15.0% odds trailing only the Dodgers. Their championship odds have since fallen to 3.8%, now tied for the fifth-most likely team to win it all.
They almost certainly won't continue to play like a sub-.500 team, but they have been bad enough so far to warrant a closer look at what's going wrong.
The Nationals' run prevention has been subpar, but its offense has been weak as well, as the Nationals rank 20th in runs scored per game (3.9) and 22nd in wRC+ (85).
Washington's non-pitchers have posted a collective slash line of .234/.307/.388 (for a 93 wRC+, tied for 20th in baseball), and are tied for 21st in strikeout rate (21.4%).
The offensive ineptitude has come in spite of Bryce Harper's hot start, as he has a .261/.422/.507 slash line (150 wRC+) and five home runs.
Harper is not exactly helping with the team's strikeout problem (posting a K-rate of 30.0%) but has more than compensated with a big-league best 22.2% walk rate and a .246 ISO.
Newcomer Yunel Escobar (118 wRC+), rookie Michael Taylor (120 wRC+), and Danny Espinosa (123 wRC+) have also gotten off to good starts, joining Harper as the Nationals who have hit above the league average so far.
Zimmerman's overall swing, contact, walk and strikeout rates are all in line with his career averages, and while a 14.9% line drive rate is presumably driving a .231 BABIP, both figures are noisy in small samples, so we should certainly expect positive regression going forward.
Ramos, a high-contact hitter with a career walk rate of 6.3% and strikeout rate of 16.0% has shown a more extreme side of himself so far this season. His walk rate has declined to 1.5%, while his strikeout rate has improved to 13.6%. His contact per swing rate (79.0%) is comparable to his career average (79.7%), but he is swinging more frequently (on 56.9% of his pitches faced, versus a career mark of 53.7%).
Ramos, Zimmerman and Werth won't keep performing like below average hitters, but the latter's struggles are most extreme and perhaps most interesting.
Werth's Early-Season Slump
Werth, a 5.0 fWAR player who posted a 141 wRC+ in 2014, has seen his ISO plummet from .163 last year to .042 this year (he has just two doubles and no other extra base hits).
Some, if not most, of this is a small sample size fluke, but it is notable that Werth has seemingly changed his approach at the plate, becoming considerably more passive on pitches inside the zone while chasing a higher rate of pitches outside of it.
At the same time, Werth is seeing a much lower percentage of pitches inside the strike zone (a 42.8% zone rate versus his 48.9% career mark). Also, his contact rate on pitches outside the zone has shot up to 86.2% (his career o-contact rate is 65.4%), so we can infer Werth is chasing bad pitches and generating weak contact.
His grounder rate is actually significantly lower than his career average (27.0% vs. 38.5%), and his line drive rate is a strong 29.97%, but exit velocity data supports the hypothesis he is not hitting the ball very hard.
Among players who have put the ball in play at least 20 times, Werth ranks 196th in average batted ball velocity (85.96 miles per hour) according to Baseball Savant. Among players with at least five ground balls, his terminal velocity on grounders is 12th from the bottom (77.63 miles per hour) and on fly balls, he ranks 85th out of 188 players (90.56 miles per hour).
Even Werth's line drives, generally the ideal form of contact, have been comparatively weak, with an average velocity of 92.50 mph, which ranks 141st out of 242 qualifying players.
While the sample is very small, all this weak contact could tie back to Werth's swings outside the strike zone. On pitches out of the zone, he ranks 202nd out of 244 batters in terminal velocity (78.00 miles per hour), while on pitches inside the zone, he ranks 116th (92.79 miles per hour).
Laying off a higher rate of pitches outside the zone, while becoming more aggressive inside of it, would seemingly help him return to his career norms and perform in line with his projections. Whether or not he changes his approach and/or comes close to sustaining his atypical contact rate on pitches out of the zone are certainly things to keep an eye on.
Washington's pitchers are not blameless either, as the Nationals rank 26th in runs allowed per game, but while their 22.0% line drive rate allowed is less than ideal, we should expect their 101 ERA- eventually to fall in line with their 90 FIP- (subpar defense has not helped either, as Washington ranks 26th in UZR/150 and 29th in DRS, but there is an extra lot of noise in small-sample defensive metrics, and the Nationals were above average in both stats last year).
The Nationals will also get a boost from the return of Anthony Rendon, who we project to hit .280/.354/.456 with 17 home runs when he returns from an injury (though he did miss two rehab starts to begin the week).
Our projections are also bullish on Zimmerman (.289/.367/.451 for the rest of the season) and Ramos (.268/.326/.454).
And while the decreased zone swing rate and increased contact rate outside of the zone could explain much of Werth's early season struggles, we don't have enough data to conclude he will continue to take this approach at the plate.
We project him to hit .289/.389/.465 for the rest of the way, so our numbers certainly don't see a drop off in his true talent.
These three players are essentially microcosms for the Nationals as a whole: while Washington has buried itself into an early season hole, there is certainly enough talent here to expect the team to pull itself out.