Jordan Zimmermann shook his head and grimaced, trying to come up with an answer that has evaded the Washington Nationals. The easy thing is to describe what has happened: Their hugely anticipated season has deteriorated into a mediocre performance, backfiring offseason splashes and baseball’s inherent variance turning against them.
It is far more difficult to explain why.
“You guys keep asking the question. And we don’t really have an answer,” Zimmermann said. “I think we’re better than everyone out there. It’s not showing.”
In the spring, experts predicted a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, and scouts scoured the Nationals’ roster for a weakness without success. In the first week after the all-star break, the Nationals lost six straight, a hitting coach lost his job against the manager’s wishes, an 11-0 loss followed a rousing victory and a clubhouse staple lashed out at management.
The Nationals entered Saturday 50-54, only one game closer to the first-place Atlanta Braves than the last-place Miami Marlins. To match last year’s win total, the Nationals would have to finish an absurd 48-10.
“It just shows you that it’s not easy to be good,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “People shouldn’t take that for granted. People should understand how good of a year we had last year. A lot of guys last year had really good years all in the same year. It’s not easy to do that, year in, year out, no matter how good you’re supposed to be on paper.”
The reason behind their crash has vexed players and officials inside and outside the Nationals’ clubhouse. “They should be scoring more than they have,” Los Angeles Dodgers starter Zack Greinke said after he shut the Nationals down last week. General Manager Mike Rizzo has been just as baffled.
“We’re in the midst of trying to assess that,” Rizzo said. “We still think we have two months to figure it out. . . . I still like this ballclub. I still believe in it.”
Some answers skew intangible. “I don’t see the fire and inspiration with the club right now,” said one Nationals official, who was granted anonymity in order to speak freely. “That may go along with not winning. It’s frustrating for us.”
The notion of crumbling under expectations seems too cliche to factor into the answer of why the Nationals have sunk. But “to totally discount it is not telling the truth,” Zimmerman said.
“This year, we weren’t going to surprise anybody,” reliever Tyler Clippard said. “They were kind of gunning for us. That’s how you want it because you can definitely use it to your advantage. But we have to learn how to do that. And I don’t think we’ve done that yet. That’s just a process of figuring out who we are.”
In some regards, the Nationals have been playing worse, not better, as the season has worn on. The pressure from high expectations has turned into pressure to snap out of their malaise — they’re running in quicksand, leading to bad at-bats, especially in the clutch.
“Trying to go up there and hit a three-run homer with nobody on base, over-swinging at times,” center fielder Denard Span said. “I think our approach at times, offensively, I think we’ve put more pressure on ourselves than we’ve needed to.”
In the quest to determine why the Nationals have unraveled, such generalities won’t satisfy exasperated fans. But no singular answer will, either. Rather, five specific shortcomings (with all statistics through Friday) have combined to turn a season of promise into — thus far — months of frustrations.
The Nationals’ offense overall has been an albatross — if not for the Marlins, they would rank last in the National League in runs per game (3.66), on-base percentage (.299) and on-base-plus-slugging percentage (.682). Almost every regular player in the lineup has stepped back from last year or produced below his career norm. Steady contributors like Zimmerman (who has his lowest OPS since 2008) and Ian Desmond (whose OPS is down from .845 to .791) may not be disappointments, but their collective regression has chipped away at high expectations.
The Nationals fundamentally changed their offense, moving away from a reliance on thunder in the middle of the lineup when they swapped out Michael Morse for a prototypical leadoff hitter in Span. “The loss of Morse is greater than they will admit,” one NL scout said.
But the greatest lack of production has come from their left-handed hitters. Manager Davey Johnson has frequently pointed to his lefty regulars as primary culprits in the flagging offense. Adam LaRoche and Span, Rizzo’s key offseason re-signing and biggest trade acquisition, have been replacement-level hitters.
Span has been dropped to seventh in the lineup in the middle of his worst offensive season, hitting .258 with a .314 on-base percentage and a .348 slugging percentage. Johnson pushed the Nationals hard to re-sign LaRoche in order to provide more left-handed balance. In the first year of his two-year, $25 million deal, LaRoche is hitting .240/.324/.418.
Bryce Harper could have alleviated the Nationals’ left-handed hitting woes, but since leaping into the outfield wall in Atlanta in late April, his production has flagged. He valiantly played through injury before he landed on the disabled list and has not recaptured his otherworldly start to the season. In 40 games since the crash into the wall, Harper has hit .219/.333/.380.
Collectively, Nationals left-handed batters have been abominable against left-handed pitchers, hitting .168/.235/.231 in 321 plate appearances. As a team, the Nationals have hit .211 against lefties, by far the worst in the majors.
The other offensive scourge has been the Nationals’ bench, which last year was one of the greatest strengths. Like last year, a rash of early injuries led to the Nationals leaning on their reserve players. Unlike last year, they have scuffled.
The Nationals’ seven most frequently used reserves — Steve Lombardozzi, Roger Bernadina, Tyler Moore, Chad Tracy, Jeff Kobernus, Chris Marrero and Scott Hairston — have taken 17.9 percent of the team’s non-pitcher plate appearances. In those 627 plate appearances, they have hit .196 with 36 extra-base hits, 30 walks and 141 strikeouts.
Aside from the trade for Hairston, who effectively replaced Moore, the Nationals’ bench has remained static all season. Rizzo has been steadfast in his belief the group will rise to its prior level, although he intimated Sunday he may try to upgrade. Either way, last year’s excellence from the bench can hardly be counted on.
“Not to say they can’t do that, but it’s hard to have people do that off the bench like that,” Zimmerman said. “That’s pretty much unheard of. When we had those same kind of injuries this year, we didn’t get that much production. That’s not their fault. You don’t expect that from people who don’t play every day.”
With little fanfare, Rizzo chose to let John Lannan walk away and did not extend Edwin Jackson a one-year, $13.3 million qualifying offer. (That decision still mystifies many around the league, who believed there was no chance Jackson would accept the offer. The move cost the Nationals a first-round draft pick and the draft pool money that would have come with it.)
Rizzo filled the fifth starter spot with Dan Haren, perhaps the most accomplished starter available in free agency. By the numbers — a 5.79 ERA and a league-leading 21 homers allowed — he has been perhaps the worst starting pitcher in the majors this season.
Haren’s struggles have been compounded by injuries to Ross Detwiler. The Nationals have gone 15-27 in games started by anyone other than Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Zimmermann.
“The talent is here,” Haren said. “Everyone knows that. It’s just a matter of performing. There’s a lot of guys on the team that need to be better – mostly myself.”
Free agent Rafael Soriano has been a fine closer, saving 25 games in 29 chances. But the Nationals’ reconfiguration of the bullpen still has led to a series of small calamities, culminating with the demotion Friday of Drew Storen, a 25-year-old former first-round pick who once saved 43 games.
Rizzo has admitted the mistake of beginning the season with Zach Duke, who was more accustomed to starting, as their lone left-handed reliever. The call-ups of Ian Krol and Fernando Abad have stabilized the left side of the bullpen, but their presence can’t erase two months of blowups.
Johnson’s usage of his relievers has been questionable in some ways. Despite Storen’s struggles, he leads the team with 47 appearances. Clippard clearly has been the Nationals’ best reliever, but in crucial spots Storen has more appearances. Clippard has pitched in 46 games, and only 18 appearances have come in high-leverage situations, according to Baseball-Reference.com.
The Nationals were expected to have one of the best defenses in the majors. They have instead been one of the worst. The Nationals rank 23rd in UZR, the catch-all defensive metric used by FanGraphs.com, and their 73 errors are tied for the fourth most in the majors.
Zimmerman’s throwing has improved from an early-season crisis, but he leads the majors with 11 throwing errors, and his 16 total errors are one off the league high. LaRoche, a Gold Glover in 2012, has been below average — FanGraphs rates him 23rd out of 25 first basemen to play at least 500 innings.
The root of the shortcomings has been difficult to find. During one rough defensive patch over the weekend, one scout who follows the Nationals texted, “When did they start playing like the Bad News Bears?”
The best explanation also may be the simplest: The Nationals haven’t met expectations because the expectations were set too high.
Despite the constellation of young stars and reliable veterans on their roster, few had elite track records. Only two players — Gonzalez and Haren — had been selected to multiple all-star teams. Only LaRoche and Jayson Werth had finished top 10 in a season MVP voting.
In the spring, the incandescent memories of the second half of 2012 still held prominence. They scored 4.8 runs per game in the second half of the season, riding career performances from LaRoche, Desmond, Kurt Suzuki, the entire bench — too many hitters to name. It may have been asking too much to duplicate a charmed confluence.
Even if the Nationals can’t say why they’re at this point, they now must figure out how to pull themselves out. Two months remain, and the weak National League East has kept alive their chances to crawl back into contention.
“The longer that we struggle, the more pressure we’re going to put on ourselves, the more that we have to fight to get out of it,” Haren said. “Time is running out. We were saying months ago that we’ve got plenty of time. But the games are dwindling.”