For months, the sight has become a familiar one with these Washington Nationals. An inning ends with flipped bats and tossed helmets. Frustrated and blank stares glaze over batters’ faces. Ill-timed strikeouts, flyouts and groundouts sabotage scoring chances. All of them wasted opportunities.
This Nationals season has descended into frustrating misery for many reasons, but none may be more at fault than the offense. Hopes of staying alive in the division race were all but dashed when the Atlanta Braves outplayed and swept the Nationals at home this week and dropped them 151 / 2 games behind in the National League East race. They are nine games behind the Cincinnati Reds for the second wild-card spot with just 48 games left to play.
“Time is definitely ticking,” said center fielder Denard Span, one of the Nationals’ many underperforming hitters. “We definitely feel like we haven’t hit to our capability. Hopefully we get it going before it’s Sept. 31.”
Two and a half weeks ago, the Nationals fired longtime hitting coach Rick Eckstein with 64 games left in the season, a move that Manager Davey Johnson protested. Yet General Manager Mike Rizzo believed the team needed a new voice so he turned to then-minor league hitting coordinator Rick Schu. Fifteen games into Schu’s tenure isn’t enough time to evaluate his impact, but it’s still clear the Nationals have much work ahead to improve a season-long spiral.
“We’re in a battle here to compete and grind and win ballgames,” said Schu, a former major league infielder, and later a hitting coach with the Arizona Diamondbacks. “Hopefully we can get hot and win a lot of games in a row with the pitching we got. We just need to get the big hit. That’s the biggest thing: getting the big hit.”
As of Thursday afternoon, the numbers remained grim. The Nationals average 3.68 runs per game, better only than the rebuilding Chicago White Sox and Miami Marlins. The Houston Astros, the worst team in baseball, have scored 15 more runs than the Nationals. Washington’s on-base percentage of .299 is third worst in the majors. Its collective OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) of .684 is on pace to finish lower than any Nationals team since baseball returned to Washington in 2005, and that span includes two 100-loss teams.
Not only can the Nationals not hit well, they also can’t in crucial spots. Given their lack of base runners, this isn’t surprising: they have baseball’s fewest number of at-bats with runners in scoring position (824). And they have hit .236 in those spots, the fifth-worst mark in the majors. Even with Wilson Ramos and Bryce Harper playing nearly every day since July 4, the team is averaging only 3.8 runs per game.
When Schu first arrived, he noticed a lot of tenseness. He wants hitters to minimize the situation and relax. He plays music for them in the indoor batting cages and tells players “goofy stuff,” according to Span. But for Schu, the biggest problem so far is the lack of timely hitting.
“For me, it’s just hard to win ballgames when you gotta rely on homers all the time,” he said. “And if we do the little things like we’ve been doing with swinging at strikes and hunting our pitches, aggressive in our zone, using the whole field and not just going up trying to hit home runs, then all of a sudden now it’s more runs without the home runs.”
Of the seven non-rookie regulars in the Nationals lineup, four are hitting above their career averages. Jayson Werth has been one of baseball’s hottest hitters with a .317 average and .908 OPS, but doesn’t qualify among league leaders because he missed 31 games with injuries. Harper, the Nationals’ home run leader with 17, has missed 38 games. Ramos has homered every 18.7 at-bats yet has only played 37 games. Ian Desmond has played a team-high 112 games and has a .789 OPS with 15 home runs and a team-leading 104 strikeouts.
Two of Rizzo’s biggest offseason moves have yet to pan out at the plate: Adam LaRoche and Span. Whether it is because of decreased bat speed, bad timing or weight loss, LaRoche still hasn’t hit his trademark second-half surge. Span, with a career .357 on-base percentage entering this year, has battled his swing all season and posted a .312 on-base percentage. In addition, Ryan Zimmerman, the Nationals’ $135 million third baseman, has 12 home runs through 100 games. After a hot start by rookie Anthony Rendon, opposing pitchers have adjusted to him and he has a .704 OPS — still an upgrade over demoted Danny Espinosa’s .465 OPS.
“For a player to struggle and not have a good season is understandable,” Rizzo said over the weekend. “It happens. But to have a group of players struggling at the same time and not have the continuity is a little bit puzzling.”
The bench, which has accounted for 18 percent of the Nationals’ plate appearances, has struggled mightily. Three of the team’s regular fill-ins — Roger Bernadina, Tyler Moore and Chad Tracy — are hitting under .200. Now backup catcher Kurt Suzuki is hitting .218 and utility man Steve Lombardozzi has improved to .252 but with a .580 OPS.
Schu has worked with the bench players often during early batting practice. He uses a FlipCam to record their swings from a side angle and pores over the footage on his computer. On Monday, Suzuki, Lombardozzi and Tracy used an iPad to film each others’ swings. Schu then e-mailed the clips to each of them to watch later on their own iPads.
The Nationals are struggling against left-handed pitching, hitting a major league worst .215. They also have been among the worst at hitting fastballs. According to FanGraphs.com the Nationals are third-worst in the majors at hitting a fastball, scoring 39 less runs off that pitch than the average team.
“For me it’s more going in without much of a game plan,” Schu said. “You gotta be able to hit a fastball for a living.”
Barring any roster changes, if the Nationals are to make a difficult run at a wild-card spot, or at least finish the season with dignity, the current lineup simply needs to improve.
“Just waiting for a little momentum to build,” Johnson said. “That’s what you need, a momentum shift. That’s why sometimes you use different lineups. Maybe the relationship between different hitters and they feel comfortable and they feel more relaxed and they perform better. That’s about really all you can do.”