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Posted at 09:53 PM ET, 04/30/2011

The Nationals’ offense will improve, but will the great pitching keep coming?

One month into the season, the Nationals have stayed afloat despite playing without their best player and despite one of the least productive offenses in the majors. One hit, in any number of moments today, could have pushed their record to .500. Instead, they sit at 12-14. That’s still a record the Boston Red Sox would trade for at the moment.


Their expectation-surpassing starting pitching has sustained Nationals, who are 9-9 without Ryan Zimmerman, but their offense has been stagnant. The Nationals, as a team, are batting .226 with a .305 on-base percentage and a .353 slugging percentage. Up and down the lineup, just about every hitter is struggling. Cleanup hitter Adam LaRoche is batting .193/.297/.318. Jayson Werth is batting .221 with a .321 on-base percentage. Michael Morse – .211/.253/.268.

“We’re right there,” Werth said. “A little luck sometimes goes a long way. We’re on the wrong side of it right now. Our pitching has been outstanding. We’re just not getting the hits to win the games right now. At some point, something is going to click.”

Their hideous numbers are sure to improve, to climb back closer to their career track records. And it’s easy to say that once the offense gets humming, the wins will follow. But it’s not quite that easy.

The Nationals’ pitching has been tremendous – since Zimmerman went down, Nationals starters have a combined 3.30 ERA. Their starters have been the primary, if not sole, reason the Nationals’ April was not a disaster. It’s also easy to assume that will continue. But it’s not quite that easy.

The Nationals’ rotation has surpassed what was expected of them, and they deserve mounds and mounds of credit for having pitched so well. But this is still the same rotation that made the Nationals’ front office spend their winter trying to find an ace. Every starter currently has an ERA lower than their career ERA, more than 2/3 of a run lower in the case of Tom Gorzelanny, Jason Marquis and Livan Hernandez. That’s to be commended. It also warns of a potential correction.

The Nationals’ pitching has perhaps been fortunate in other ways. Only 5.2 percent of their fly balls allowed have turned into home runs, the lowest rate in the league. Pitchers, of course, have some control of how many homers they give up. But a rate like that is simply not sustainable – the lowest in the league is generally around 8 percent.

The Nationals have a 3.65 staff ERA, relievers included, which ranks in the top third of the league. But, according to FanGraphs.com, their xFIP is 4.21, which ranks 25th in the majors. It’s just theory, but what that means is that the Nationals pitchers, with a typical defense and with a normalized home run, are predicted to have a 4.21 ERA this year. That’s a fancy way of saying, Nationals pitchers are probably not going to continue to pitch as well as they have.

The Nationals’ offense must improve, but their pitching will also have to continue its current pace for them not to fall far out of contention as Zimmerman sits the next six weeks. Only one of those things appears likely. It’s easy to say that the Nationals will start winning once their offense gets going. It seems more accurate to say the Nationals’ wasted a stretch of stellar pitching they will be hard-pressed to duplicate for the next five months.

By  |  09:53 PM ET, 04/30/2011

 
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