Is there hope for the Nationals’ offense?


Denard Span. (David J. Phillip/AP)

Several units of the Nationals have endured rough patches through the first six weeks of the season, but none more detrimental than the struggles of the offense. As it has been well documented here, the Nationals offense is head-scratchily ineffective. Here’s how where it ranks in major offensive categories entering Monday’s games: 28th in runs scored per game (3.52), 29th in average (.230), 29th in on-base percentage (.292), 28th in slugging percentage (.373), 29th in OPS (.664) and, stop us before you poke your eyes out, 28th in OPS+ (83), the useful stat that adjusts to the ballparks.

But this, however, isn’t meant to be doom and gloom. There should be a light at the end of the tunnel. Below are a few reasons the Nationals’ offensive fortunes should turn.

Fortunes will turn: The Nationals have a BABIP (batting average with balls in play) of .278, fourth-worst in the majors, and below the league average of .295. While bad hitting and approaches are more likely to blame, too, there’s reason to believe there’s some back luck at work as well.

Last season, the Nationals’ BABIP was .308, fifth best in the majors, above the major league average of .297. So what should the Nationals do? Well, make more contact. They have put a ball in play 65 percent of all plate appearances, fourth-worst in the majors. And after they accomplish, they can try to make better contact. The Nationals are 27th in line drive percentage (18.8), an indication of well-hit balls.

Get into better counts: The Nationals’ awful on-base percentage also appears to be a product of impatience. The Nationals have drawn 122 walks, a walk percentage of 7.7, 11th worst in the majors. They have struck out 23 percent of the time, third highest in the majors. (Last year, they maintained a high-ish strikeout percentage by hitting home runs at a higher rate.)

The solution may involve simple baseball logic: swing at better pitches inside the strike zone and fewer out of it. The Nationals have swung at 64.1 percent of pitches inside the zone, 11th lowest in the majors, and 30.5 percent of the pitches outside of it, 10th highest in the majors. Something closer toward the middle could help. Making contact, too, would help. The Nationals make contact on 85.4 percent of pitches they swing at in the strike zone, sixth worst in the sport.

– Hit the fastball: The Nationals have been fed the highest amount of fastballs, other than the Dodgers, in baseball. They have been thrown fastballs 59.5 percent of the time, according to Fangraphs.com, and somehow can’t seem to hit them. The Nationals have scored 28.3 fewer runs than average on the fastball, worse than everyone except the Marlins.

– Get healthy: Injuries happen. Teams with depth can withstand the rigors of the 162-game schedule. Injuries, anyway, historically are bunched up in the first month of the season. Bryce Harper, the Nationals’ best player, has played in 38 of 44 games. Jayson Werth has played in 34.

The Nationals haven’t had Harper, Werth and Ryan Zimmerman in the same lineup since April 17. Nor have they had their opening-day lineup all together since April 14. That’s nearly a month of makeshift lineups and re-configuring. And where backups like Tyler Moore, Roger Bernadina, Steve Lombardozzi and Chad Tracy excelled in fill-in roles last season, they have either struggled or failed to reach that standard again. When Harper and Werth can return and stay in the lineup, consistency should return as well.

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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Adam Kilgore · May 20, 2013

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