The Nationals rank sixth in the majors in strikeouts after Friday night’s 14-K whiffapalooza, and as Davey Johnson surely knows, it will take more than “manning up” for them to snap out of their offensive funk. Set aside his most pointed bromide, and Johnson got to the nature of the Nationals’ issue.
The Nationals rank second-to-last in the National League with a .669 OPS, and only two major league teams are scoring fewer runs per game. They have far too much talent, on paper, for that to happen. Their problem boils to the most elemental pieces of hitting: They are letting too many strikes go and swinging at too many balls.
“We’ve got good hitters, but we are striking out more than we should,” Johnson said. “I don’t know if it’s not being aggressive enough early in the count. We’re not making them throw it over the plate. We’re trying to make too much happen.”
The Nationals, in short, are not controlling the strike zone. Per FanGraphs.com, the Nationals have swung at 30 percent of pitches thrown out of the zone, which ranks 10th in the majors. They have offered at 63.6 percent of pitchers inside the strike zone, which ranks 22nd.
Neither figure by itself sticks out. But the Nationals are swinging at more balls AND watching more strikes than league average. Only two other teams, the Astros and Blue Jays, rank in the bottom third of both categories. In tandem, it has helped sink an offense loaded with talent.
Johnson gave special mention to the Nationals’ willingness to spit on strikes early in the count. Opposing pitchers have started the Nationals with a strike 62.6 percent of the time, the third-highest rate in the majors, behind only the Angels and Brewers. More often than not, Nationals hitters are starting in a hole.
There is one reason for hope. Last year’s Nationals offense, which in the second half carried them to 98 wins, was scarily similar to this year’s offense through 30 games. In 2012, the Nationals scored 102 runs and had a .664 OPS after 30 games. This season, the Nationals have scored precisely 102 runs with a .669 OPS.
So, yes, the Nationals can turn it around. First, even more importantly than manning up, they need to control the strike zone.