Some odd numbers behind the Nationals’ magical season

September 28, 2012
Nationals pitching
Batters tend to swing at and miss Edwin Jackson’s pitches. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Regardless of how it ends, the Nationals have enjoyed a magical season: this city’s first playoff berth since 1933, the best record in the sport, four all-stars selections, a rejuvenated fan base, national attention, breakout and career years from many players, and all the fun that accompanies winning. Behind it all, there are unique trends and situations that have lead to this point. Here are a few numbers behind the Nationals season:

Ian Desmond sees a small number of pitches: He sees 3.38 pitches per plate appearance, tied for the second-lowest total in the majors among qualifying players. He blossomed into one baseball’s elite shortstops, a rangy fielder, team leader and power hitter in his third full season in the majors. He has smacked a career-high 25 home runs (more than his previous three seasons combined) and driven in 72 runs — all while missing 25 games with an oblique injury.

Yet he has done so while still adhering to his swing-at-first-pitch approach at the plate, which he captured brilliantly in spring training: “I’m up there ready to party.” Sixteen of his 25 home runs this year have come by the third pitch of his at-bat; three on the first pitch. (He saw 3.64. pitches per plate appearance last season.) He is hitting .384 (43 for 112) on first pitch this season. Desmond swings at 54 percent of the pitches he has seen, the fourth-highest rate in the majors. Clearly, Desmond is succeeding at pouncing on the first hittable pitch he sees and pitchers continue to feed them to him.

Does Edwin Jackson have the best swing-and-miss stuff?: Batters struggle the most when swinging at the right-hander’s stuff. They miss 12.3 percent of the time they swing, the third-highest total in the majors. And he is tied for the major league lead with batters swinging at 76 percent of the strikes he throws. Batters find his array of tailing and biting fastballs and sliders inviting. The problem: hitters make contact only 73.5 percent of the time when they swing at Jackson’s pitches, the third-best rate in the majors. Batters are hitting .237 against him, 21st best in the majors. While opponents hit far worse against Gio Gonzalez, who leads baseball in that category, it seems Jackson could have best pure swing-and-miss stuff of the Nationals staff.

Adam LaRoche gets little to hit: Only 59 percent of the pitches he sees are strikes, the 11th lowest rate in the majors among qualifying players. The first baseman is having his finest power-hitting season in four years. It’s also a factor of where he hits in the lineup. With Ryan Zimmerman hitting in front of him and Michael Morse behind him, pitchers don’t want give him anything to hit. And yet, he has still done so, smashing 32 home runs and is two runs shy of his second 100 RBI season.

Jordan Zimmermann is best at handling damage: The right-hander, known for pounding the strike zone and his sharp command, is also among the best at preventing runners from scoring once they reach base. He has the fourth-best left0on-base percentage in the majors among qualifying pitchers at 79.9 percent. Part of the reason: his 17 double plays and 148 strikeouts. 

Chad Tracy hits in few chances: He is tied for the major league lead with 11 pinch-hit RBI – despite missing two months with a sport hernia. Nationals Manager Davey Johnson prefers having home-run hitting punch off the bench, and Tracy, a career .278 hitter, fits the bill. A year ago, Tracy was playing in Japan, wondering if his career could continue.

The Nationals win with the long ball: They are a home run-hitting team, there’s no mistaking that now. Their second-half power surge has lead to some eye-popping numbers. (They’re now second in the National League in home runs.) But consider this one the most valuable: They’re 41-8 in games in which they homer at least twice. Two home runs a game not enough for you? Well, the Nationals are 22-2 in games in which they smash at least three shots.

The Nationals also get punched out a lot, too: Given they’re a home run-hitting team, this is understandable. The Nationals are fourth in the majors in strikeouts. They have struck out at least 10 times in a game 46 times this season. Amazingly, they’re 25-21 in those games.

Is Roger Bernadina the most clutch?: It’s hard to quantify the quality, but looking at a handful of situations, the backup outfielder has driven in runs in tough spots. With a minimun of 50 at-bats, he leads the Nationals with a .351 average with runners in scoring position. With runners in scoring position and two outs, Bernadina again leads the team with a .414 average. When the team is behind, Tyler Moore has team-high .340 average, Desmond follows with a .324 average and, of course, Bernadina next, hitting .313. These situations are all tied to where the hitters are in the lineup and when they’re inserted into a game, but this small sampling shows Bernadina has played well in limited crunch time. 

James Wagner joined the Post in August 2010 and, prior to covering the Nationals, covered high school sports across the region.
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