The Nationals are above .500 and they’ve done it with basically no help from their batters. A surplus of hits in the Sunday double-header raised the team batting average to a still-too-low .226, good (or should I say bad) for fourth-worst in the majors. The team slugging percentage is also fourth-worst.
How much of it is bad luck and how much can we attribute to just poor performance? Unfortunately, there’s not very much data to point to, so judgment for cold bench players like Alex Cora and Jerry Hairston Jr. (maybe he broke out on Sunday) will have to wait. Let’s instead look at the three Nationals with the most plate appearances, Rick Ankiel, Ian Desmond and Jayson Werth, who are all off to chilly starts.
Huge caveat alert: since we’re looking at averages and far less than 100 data points, a single play can swing the percentages much more than one point. For example, Jayson Werth has the second highest pop-up percentage in the majors, but three of them came against Chris Young and the Mets on April 10th.
Out of the three players mentioned, second-year player Ian Desmond actually looks poised to break out of his slump the soonest. He’s improved his approach at the plate. His problem seems to be that of making solid contact. The raw numbers look like Desmond hasn’t learned much from his rookie campaign. He only walks 6 percent of the time and strikes out in about 27 percent of his at-bats. If we look at his swing numbers, though, we find a much more patient hitter. He only swings at a quarter of pitches outside the strike zone, which is less than the league average and better than his numbers from last year by 8 percent. He also makes above league average contact inside and outside of the strike zone. Desmond just needs to square the ball up a little bit better and he’ll convert some of his flies into line drives. He sure could use it. He has the ninth-lowest percentage of line drives in the league.
Desmond should take notice that there is such thing as too much of a good thing. Jayson Werth’s famed patience actually seems to be contributing a little bit to his hitting slump. I’m not criticizing his eye. He knows the strike zone and is walking at a 13 percent clip, but he’s not pulling the trigger when the ball is in the strike zone. He’s only swinging at 47 percent of balls in the zone, second-lowest in the league and far below his career norm. He’d also like to turn more pitches he does make contact with into line drives; he could stand to convert some groundballs (over half of his balls in play are on the ground). The good news is that he doesn’t miss when the ball is in the strike zone.
Ankiel’s problems at the plate so far are different from the other two. He makes solid contact, but there are a ton of holes in his swing. He’s the poorest non-pitcher contact hitter on the team (72 percent of pitches in the zone). Although, he’s more aggressive at the plate than Desmond and Werth, he’s not a complete hacker. Ankiel does have a 9 percent walk rate, but whereas the other two players are fractions of an inch from making solid contact and breaking out of their slumps, Ankiel has some work to do on putting the bat on the ball.