Washington Nationals: what to worry about and what not to

The Post Sports Live crew discusses whether the Nationals bullpen woes, Ryan Zimmerman’s throwing errors and Wilson Ramos’s injury are reasons to worry. (Post Sports Live)
Thomas Boswell
Columnist April 18, 2013

For many people, the central pleasure of being a baseball fan is that everything that matters is in plain sight, waiting to be understood. Yet the game remains not just mysterious, but deliciously, infuriatingly confounding.

The reason the sport’s enormous appeal is essentially regional, with fans riveted to the fortunes of local teams, rather than national like the NFL, is because, when you watch a team constantly, you think you grasp it. You believe you almost know what will happen next. The passion for anticipating the next pitch, game or chapter of a player or team’s life is addictive.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

Yet that appetite for the next data point constantly deceives us. The hardest thing to know when watching baseball over a short period of a few days or weeks is what matters and what doesn’t. In the long run, you get all the answers. But who wants to wait for that?

Right now, anyone watching the Washington Nationals is itching for answers. I’ve seldom seen a high-quality team that also has so many fascinating early-season questions. Are the 9-6 Nats, a .600 team again, not much different from the .605 team of last year? Or, after losing five of six games to the contending Reds and Braves by a combined 45-15, are they just lucky so far?

The Nats’ most pressing problems concern those men who suddenly cannot throw the ball where they are aiming it: starter Dan Haren, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and relievers Rafael Soriano and Tyler Clippard.

Any Haren improvement could have the most immediate impact because he has been so awful that his 16 runs allowed in 131 / 3 innings has warped the whole feeling of the early season, leading to 15-0 and 10-3 losses.

“Dan Haren’s ‘plus’ pitch is his command,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said in spring training after signing him for $13 million for one year. Then he added that if Haren’s velocity moved back up from 88.5 mph last season toward his 90.6 mph level in 2011 and 2010, the Nats might have a steal.

One possibility didn’t occur to Rizzo, Haren or anybody else: that Haren would start throwing 89-to-91 consistently, hitting 90 or 91 a total of 27 times in his last start — yet his legendary command would disappear.

Suddenly, a pitcher who has been able to put four different pitches into a teacup his whole career is leaving them all in the middle of the strike zone. The logical assumption is that his command will return. Maybe he’s even trying to throw too hard to prove he’s “back.” Why would his main gift disappear? If he starts painting corners, April (and March) will seem like a bad dream.

But if Haren keeps leaving the stuff he has now over the plate, he’s going to keep getting waffled. One question: Why has Haren gone from far more cutters than fastballs in recent years to a primary reliance on fastballs?

The Zimmerman mystery, tormenting for any fan to watch, will simply have to play out. He has played hurt and fiddled with his throwing motion so much in recent years that his muscle memory is probably as tangled as a cat’s cradle. He has had shoulder surgery. His arm doesn’t hurt and has gained strength. He has reworked his homely ’12 mechanics; though Braves radio broadcasters now say he looks like “a mechanical fly-casting machine.”

All you can do, except wait, is wish him well. He’ll have months to work out his issues because there is no tenable Plan B this season. The Nats signed Adam LaRoche for two years to play first base. So, realistically, a position switch isn’t open to Zimmerman. Third base prospect Anthony Rendon, 22, has a .467 on-base percentage after 12 games in AA, but he shouldn’t be rushed. No, Zimmerman and third base are married.

The Nats can’t allow themselves to use Zimmerman’s errors as an excuse, something their slumped shoulders in a sweep by the Braves might have indicated. In 1978, Red Sox slugging third baseman Butch Hobson had so many loose bone chips in his elbow that he had to rearrange them after every throw. He had 43 errors and fielded .899, yet Boston still won 99 games, their best record in the previous 62 years. Errors are no excuse not to win.

The Nats’ third nettlesome problem — the bullpen — might have been solved already. During the first two weeks, Soriano’s sliders and Clippard’s change-ups were AWOL. On Wednesday, both pitches reappeared with Soriano fanning back-to-back hitters on sliders diving below the knees.

Long-term concerns over the Nats’ bullpen simply deny logic. Other problems may be real, but not this one. Here are the career ERAs of Drew Storen, Clippard, Ryan Mattheus and Craig Stammen in their years as Nats relievers: 2.95, 2.90, 2.89 and 2.95. Soriano’s career mark is 2.81 and was 2.26 last year. Such long-term track records obliterate April blips.

A team’s poise, or lack of it, often starts with its bullpen and defense. When those are shaky, everybody gets the jitters. That was the Nats’ undoing in the ’12 playoffs, and it was the source of their rattled three-game sweep at the hands of the Braves. When a 4-1 eight-inning lead was blown last Friday, the improved Braves grabbed their opportunity.

Soon, the Nats will probably face their toughest extended schedule of the whole season. Starting next Monday, the Nats will play 25 of 38 games against some of the tougher teams in the game: the Reds, Braves, Cardinals, Tigers, Dodgers and Orioles. At such times, the key to most teams’ fates is their starting rotations.

Amid the countervailing trend of these early weeks, that still seems to be the Nationals’ strongest suit. And it may now be stronger than ever. Have the Nats found a new star in southpaw Ross Detwiler? He has been gaining momentun since the second half of last season. Now the pattern is too clear to miss.

Over his past 256.1 innings, including his stellar playoff start, Detwiler has a 3.09 ERA. That compares to Stephen Strasburg’s career mark of 2.94, Gio Gonzalez combined 3.12 since the beginning of ’10 and Jordan Zimmermann’s 3.02 since the beginning of ’11. As long as they stay healthy, if you have four starters that good, what else really matters?

At the moment, Detwiler is one of the few pitchers anybody can remember who can have a 0.90 ERA while throwing 90 percent fastballs and sinkers — hard and harder. In his win Wednesday night, 75 percent of his pitches were strikes. With each of his starts this season, his average fastball velocity, rounded off, has actually gone up from 92 to 93 to 94. In beating Miami, he touched 96.6 mph. Easy gas, indeed.

The Nats are fortunate to be 9-6. The left side of the infield has been scary bad on defense with nine errors. They’re running the bases, at times, like their heads were cut off. The Braves clobbered Gonzalez. Yet they’re intact.

In some sports, 15 games is almost an entire season. In baseball, we’ve just heard the overture. Now the music starts to build.

For more by Thomas Boswell, go to washingtonpost.com/boswell.

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