3 Key Stats Behind the Nationals' 11-11 Record
The Nationals came into this season the favorites to win the NL pennant, fresh off a season where they produced the majorsâ€™ best record. The off-season promised even more improvements in the form of Denard Span, Dan Haren, Rafael Soriano, and full seasons out of Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper.
Yet four weeks into the season, the Nats sit at 11-11, and thanks to the Bravesâ€™ scalding start, are already staring down a 4.5 game deficit in the East. This certainly was not the plan. So, while keeping in mind that evaluating a team in April is always risky business, why have the Nationals been playing poorly?
The Starters Arenâ€™t striking Batters Out
Last year, the Nationals rode their dominant starters to a sterling 98-64 record. The staff, which features two, maybe three Cy Young candidates depending on how you feel about Jordan Zimmermann, specialized in striking hitters out at absurdly high rates. This year thereâ€™s been a drop off across the board.
Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Zimmermann, and Ross Detwiler have all seen their K/9 rates fall from last yearâ€™s marks. Dan Haren, who replaced Edwin Jackson in the rotation, is actually striking batters out at a rate roughly similar to his predecessor, but heâ€™s also giving up a whole bunch of home runs, hence his unsightly 7.36 ERA. Strasburg and Zimmermannâ€™s strikeout drop offs have been the most severe; Strasburgâ€™s otherwordly 2012 rate of 11.13/9 is down to a mere above-average 8.04 and Zimmermannâ€™s 7.04 is down to 5.00 this year, a very pedestrian rate.
The result of these falling K rates is an increase in FIP. Fielding Independent Pitching places special emphasis on strikeouts, since those are some of the most fielding independent plays in baseball. (Homers and walks are the others.) Strasburgâ€™s FIP is up half a run to 3.32 and Gonzalezâ€™s rose over a full run, from 2.82 to 3.85. These numbers are still pretty good (for reference, R.A. Dickey posted a 3.27 FIP in his Cy Young-winning campaign last year) but a drop off for a team predicated on its dominant starting pitching.
The Bullpen Has Been a Disaster
After Drew Storen melted down in the playoffs, the Nats brought in Rafael Soriano ostensibly to close, which theoretically left the team with three dominant late-inning guys in Storen, Soriano and Tyler Clippard. So far, the trio has underperformed, along with about everyone else in the â€˜pen not named Craig Stammen. The bullpen as a whole has a 4.41 ERA, which isnâ€™t that far off of Milwaukeeâ€™s trainwreck of a 2012 bullpen, which sported a shiny 4.66 ERA.
The route to such a terrible bullpen ERA is paved with walks â€“ lots and lots of them. The Natsâ€™ bullpen as a whole has walked 3.44 hitters per 9 innings this year, which isnâ€™t great for late inning specialists. Henry Rodriguez is back to doing Henry Rodriguez things (walking guys left and right) and sports an impressive 6.48 walk rate per nine, which would lead the league by over a full batter if heâ€™d pitched enough innings. Clippardâ€™s walk rate spiked this year to 6.00 which is really bad. He has always been prone to walking batters â€“ his career rate is right around 4.00 â€“ but this increase, if it continues, would seriously limit his productivity.
The Offense Has Been Unlucky
The Nationals as a team are hitting .240 this year, down from .261 last year and their OBP has correspondingly dropped from .322 to .303. This is mostly attributable to a team-wide drop in BABIP, from .308 last year to .276 so far this season. A 30 point drop is significant, but it is likely to even out over the course of the season, and the Nats should see an uptick in team batting average and OBP.
The biggest victims of bad luck have been Adam LaRoche and Danny Espinosa, who have microscopic .194 and .180 averages on balls in play, respectively. A BABIP that low is unsustainable â€“ especially for hitters as good as those two. LaRoche has a career .307 mark, Espinosaâ€™s is right at .300. Look for them to bounce back, and buy low on them in your fantasy league.
Overall, the Nats donâ€™t have a whole lot to worry about offensively. The Nats arenâ€™t a .500 team; theyâ€™re much better than that. But the bullpen issues are legit, and the team better hope Clippard, Storen, Soriano and crew return to form to have any chance of being serious contenders.