Of the seven non-rookie regulars in the Nationals lineup, four are hitting above their career averages. Jayson Werth has been one of baseball’s hottest hitters with a .317 average and .908 OPS, but doesn’t qualify among league leaders because he missed 31 games with injuries. Harper, the Nationals’ home run leader with 17, has missed 38 games. Ramos has homered every 18.7 at-bats yet has only played 37 games. Ian Desmond has played a team-high 112 games and has a .789 OPS with 15 home runs and a team-leading 104 strikeouts.
Two of Rizzo’s biggest offseason moves have yet to pan out at the plate: Adam LaRoche and Span. Whether it is because of decreased bat speed, bad timing or weight loss, LaRoche still hasn’t hit his trademark second-half surge. Span, with a career .357 on-base percentage entering this year, has battled his swing all season and posted a .312 on-base percentage. In addition, Ryan Zimmerman, the Nationals’ $135 million third baseman, has 12 home runs through 100 games. After a hot start by rookie Anthony Rendon, opposing pitchers have adjusted to him and he has a .704 OPS — still an upgrade over demoted Danny Espinosa’s .465 OPS.
“For a player to struggle and not have a good season is understandable,” Rizzo said over the weekend. “It happens. But to have a group of players struggling at the same time and not have the continuity is a little bit puzzling.”
The bench, which has accounted for 18 percent of the Nationals’ plate appearances, has struggled mightily. Three of the team’s regular fill-ins — Roger Bernadina, Tyler Moore and Chad Tracy — are hitting under .200. Now backup catcher Kurt Suzuki is hitting .218 and utility man Steve Lombardozzi has improved to .252 but with a .580 OPS.
Schu has worked with the bench players often during early batting practice. He uses a FlipCam to record their swings from a side angle and pores over the footage on his computer. On Monday, Suzuki, Lombardozzi and Tracy used an iPad to film each others’ swings. Schu then e-mailed the clips to each of them to watch later on their own iPads.
The Nationals are struggling against left-handed pitching, hitting a major league worst .215. They also have been among the worst at hitting fastballs. According to FanGraphs.com the Nationals are third-worst in the majors at hitting a fastball, scoring 39 less runs off that pitch than the average team.
“For me it’s more going in without much of a game plan,” Schu said. “You gotta be able to hit a fastball for a living.”
Barring any roster changes, if the Nationals are to make a difficult run at a wild-card spot, or at least finish the season with dignity, the current lineup simply needs to improve.
“Just waiting for a little momentum to build,” Johnson said. “That’s what you need, a momentum shift. That’s why sometimes you use different lineups. Maybe the relationship between different hitters and they feel comfortable and they feel more relaxed and they perform better. That’s about really all you can do.”