Sherlock Holmes once solved a murder and the theft of a famous racehorse because he investigated “the curious incident of the dog in the nighttime.” But the dog did nothing in the nighttime, a Scotland Yard detective said. “That was the curious incident,” Holmes replied.
To find clues, you sometimes have to look for things that are not occurring. For example, the biggest cause for the Washington Nationals’ struggles this season is hiding in plain sight — a case of something that isn’t happening. Since their respective returns from a broken thumb, a broken hamate bone in the hand and a torn thumb ligament, Ryan Zimmerman, Wilson Ramos and Bryce Harper — all power hitters — have come to the plate 306 times and hit a total of just three home runs. Their power has simply disappeared.
Last year, this trio combined to hit a homer once every 23 times they stepped in the batter’s box. Since their returns, it’s now once every 102 times. The reason the Nats are 15th in runs per game is an unlucky double whammy. First, Zimmerman, Ramos and Harper — who batted 2-4-5 on Opening Day — have missed 159 games because of injuries. But when they returned they have hit with nearly the same lack of home run power as the Nats’ feeble pitchers who have one homer in 194 times up. It’s stunning subtraction.
“But we’re still [in a virtual tie for] first place,” Zimmerman said. “When all three of us are back to being ourselves, with the lineup we’ve got, it’s going to be fun and I mean really fun.”
That may be the cheerful way to bet. But it’s certainly not the only possibility. In 2012, Jayson Werth broke his wrist, missed three months, then conceded when he returned that he wouldn’t get his power back until the next year. To compensate, he batted leadoff and hit .312 after he came back. But he only hit two homers in the Nats’ final 59 games. (Oh, and one in the playoffs.) In 2013, after a winter’s rehab, he was a true power hitter again.
The Nationals haven’t advertised their problem, but they acknowledge it. Home runs have turned into doubles, and potential doubles into warning track outs. Last year, Zimmerman had 26 doubles and 26 homers. Since his return, he has 13 doubles and one homer.
“It takes some time for the power to come back for those guys,” Manager Matt Williams said Monday. “‘Bat strong’ is different than weightlifting strong. Power isn’t just getting your strength back, but it’s timing, too. It’s not easy to have it all click, especially after an injury to your hands or wrist.”
Zimmerman seems to have moved farther off the plate to keep pitchers from jamming him with fastballs that can buzz or bruise his thumb. He’s hitting .246 with a .690 on-base-plus-slugging percentage that is 137 points below his career norm.
“It takes a little while to get your hand strength back after an injury to your wrist or fingers. You think you’re swinging normally but you’re still not ‘letting it go,’” said Zimmerman. “I’ve started driving it a little bit better. But even in batting practice I can tell the power isn’t all the way back.”
Like Werth two years ago, Ramos has compensated by hitting for average — .303 in 122 at-bats — but with only two homers and roughly half of his RBI rate from 2013. Both Ian Desmond and Zimmerman have had the same surgery as Ramos. Desmond said his power came back quickly.
“It’s different for everyone — trusting that it’s back,” said Zimmerman, who had his hamate surgery in an offseason. “It’s not easy in the middle of a season. The pressure is there to get back to ourselves — not just the names in the lineup but the power and everything. [Ramos] has had some better ABs. [His power] is going to come back.”
Harper is hitting .167 with no homers in just seven games back. The raw power is there, as three homers in one minor league rehab game showed. But returns from long injuries are complex.
“I talked to Harper about it,” Zimmerman said. “When you first come back after a long injury you want to try so hard to help the team right away that you swing too hard. You hit home runs when you don’t try. It’s no different if you’re 21 [like Harper] or 30. I was guilty of it, too.
“Harp will be fine, but he’s got to play every day to get his timing back.”
Did the Nats, consciously or accidentally, rush their big hitters back? Williams made several comments about how much their return was needed and either said, or implied, timetables. This is a cheesy second-guess. Maybe protocols were perfect. But the first week back was useless for all three.
Is Zimmerman’s return to hitting form being affected by playing third base every game since Harper returned with daily concern about his weak, sometimes wild overhand throws? He certainly doesn’t think so, even after a toss to first base on Monday that was 10 feet wide.
“That’s what I am now,” Zimmerman said. “I’m going to make a bad throw once in a while. I’ve accepted it. It’s not for lack of effort or work [after various shoulder surgeries]. I’ve done everything. I’m giving it the best that I’ve got. And I think people realize that.” Which may relieve some pressure.
“Zim is close to breaking out” for power, Williams said. “Very close,” Zimmerman added.
What the Nats have lacked all season is the one thing it appeared their offense was certain to generate: homers. The career homer highs of their everyday players are 36, 33, 33, 25, 22, 16 and 8 with Anthony Rendon on a pace for 24. There’s power No. 2 through No. 8. In theory.
But not yet in reality.
If the Nats’ stymied trio gets back to its normal power ratios, the Nats may pull away in the NL East. But if those players don’t, baseball may spend the rest of the season marveling at how those injured, gritty Atlanta Braves are challenging those completely “healthy” Nationals.
Each of the three handcuffed Nats must pick a different lock to free his power. Who will, who won’t and when? Right now, the Nationals might even settle for “two out of three ain’t bad.”