ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — There was a chance the Washington Nationals’ 60th plate appearance with the bases loaded could have been different from most of the first 59. And when that didn’t happen Tuesday night, there was still a chance the 61st could have been different from the 60th, depending on whether Josh Bell could connect with one of Ryan Thompson’s fastballs.
When he couldn’t, with Thompson having struck out Ryan Zimmerman and Bell with seven total pitches, the two at-bats fit a neat and troubling narrative about these Nationals. They have baseball’s worst offense when there is a runner on each base. It is close with one team and not particularly close with most others.
“We don’t need a 900-foot home run,” Manager Davey Martinez said after a 3-1 loss to the American League-leading Tampa Bay Rays. “We don’t need a five-run homer. We just need to put the ball in play.”
Martinez’s next thought was important for his club: “Just give the same at-bats with runners on base.” It is hard to decipher why, in the game’s biggest moments, the Nationals have wilted over and over. Each situation is different — a different batter-pitcher matchup, a different inning, a different way the sun is reflecting off a slab of metal near the batter’s eye in center field, perhaps obscuring the ability to see a pitch. And any psychological factors are incredibly hard to quantify. But the Nationals’ overall hitting profile does change with the bases loaded, most notably shown by their team contact percentage.
With the bases loaded, they have made contact on 67.2 percent of swings, ranking 26th in MLB. In all other plate appearances — with the bases empty, one runner on, two — their contact rate is 74.8 percent, ranking third. That’s part of how they wind up with a .468 on-base-plus-slugging percentage with the bases loaded, worst in MLB. Eighteen of 30 teams are at .727 or higher. Only the Nationals, New York Mets, Milwaukee Brewers, San Diego Padres, Miami Marlins and Pittsburgh Pirates are below .600.
So what changes for the Nationals? Why do they have 20 strikeouts in 61 plate appearances? Why does their strikeout rate jump to 32.8 percent, fourth highest in the majors, when they have the sixth-lowest rate (22.8) in other situations? Third baseman Starlin Castro recently offered that because the offense is struggling players may be pressing to compensate for the batter in front of them. Otherwise, this doesn’t add up.
“Any situation you’ve got Zim and me coming up, I think everyone’s on the edge of their seats, expecting something to happen,” Bell said Tuesday night. “But I feel like in that moment, you’ve just got to tip your cap. That dude out there was making some pretty good pitches. Eventually mistakes will be made. Eventually we’re going to start driving the ball. Eventually we’re going to start putting crooked numbers up there.”
“Eventually” is a tricky word on June 9. Entering Wednesday, the Nationals are 24-33, stuck in last place in the National League East. They have turned early into late. But Bell’s logic is backed by a couple of trends. The Nationals do have a hard-hit rate of 44.4 percent with the bases loaded, the fourth best across the sport. Their batting average on balls in play (.200) is the second lowest. Both those numbers indicate bad luck. They are often making solid contact, and the major league-average BABIP with the bases loaded is .317.
A number higher than that suggests future regression to the mean. A number lower suggests natural improvement across a full season. But here is the catch with the Nationals: Hard-hit percentage and BABIP only account for batted balls. To smooth out their luck with the bases loaded, they will have to put more in play. It also could help to lower a groundball rate of 44.4 percent.
“I mean, the line drives evening out is always a nice thing to say,” Zimmerman said. “You have to do better than just having hard-hit balls fall in because that happens to everybody. It’s frustrating when it happens, and when you’re not scoring runs it seems like it happens more than when you are scoring runs.”
Here is how each Nationals starter has fared with the bases loaded (ordered by total plate appearances):
Josh Bell: 3 for 9 with four strikeouts
Starlin Castro — 0-for-8 with one strikeout
Ryan Zimmerman — 1-for-7 with two strikeouts
Victor Robles — 0-for-5 with two strikeouts
Kyle Schwarber — 0-for-4 with three strikeouts
Trea Turner — 1-for-4
Juan Soto — 1-for-2 with a walk
Yan Gomes — 0-for-2 with a walk
Josh Harrison — 1-for-2 with the team’s only grand slam in 2021
Of the Nationals’ eight hits with the bases loaded, they have Harrison’s homer, two doubles and a single for Bell, a double for Turner, then singles for Soto, Zimmerman and Andrew Stevenson. And of those eight, seven have come in the first five innings, indicating that the Nationals have had trouble with opposing bullpens. But even just the breakdown of these plate appearance points to a structural issue with the lineup.
Soto and Turner, their two best hitters, are often on base with the bases loaded, leaving Bell, Castro, Zimmerman and Schwarber with the opportunities. On Tuesday, when Rays Manager Kevin Cash brought in Thompson with one out in the eighth, Robles was on third, Turner on second and Soto on third. They had all walked.
Bell has turned around a rough start in the past three weeks. Castro and Schwarber have yet to, and their combined 0-for-12 with the bases loaded is a harsh microcosm of their seasons. As a team, the Nationals have to tilt their contact percentage toward its normal levels, especially because with less than two outs a deep flyball will score a runner from third. As individuals, they have to be better with the bases loaded to lift their overall production, which has them 16th in the sport in OPS (.699) and 26th in runs per game (3.79).
There is no magic way to choose who bats with three men on, when the opponent is supposed to feel the pressure. And it is no coincidence that, of the six teams with a bases-loaded OPS lower than .600, five are averaging fewer than four runs a night.
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