To say that the Washington Nationals have struggled since the all star break is an understatement. Washington is a frightening 10-16 since the All Star Game; the team is 24th in all of baseball in total runs scored (and the 6 teams below them have all played fewer games). And the Nats’ post-break average is a lowly .227 – just .001 higher than the 30th placed Oakland Athletics. The offense has been complete shit. In the past, I gave the Nationals offense a ton of excuses whenever it played poorly, mainly the fact that Jayson Werth, Anthony Rendon, and Ryan Zimmerman were all injured. That hasn’t been the case in the 2nd half, the team is mostly healthy but it just is not performing and that was never more clear than last night when the Nationals managed just three hits (2 by Michael A Taylor) in their 3-0 loss. Michael A Taylor by the way ALWAYS seems to come up with important or noteworthy hits but is still somehow hitting just .240 in the 2nd half.
The return of the triumvirate of injured stars has been underwhelming to say the least. Rendon has hit just .238/.329/.333 with only 3 doubles and a homer in his 17 games since his return from injury and his fielding gaffe last night cost the team two runs. Jayson Werth has played even more poorly, he has managed a whopping 8 hits in his 15 games back (.151/.175/.264) and has just walked 3.5% of the time (twice). If Blind Mike were given 57 plate appearances, I’m confident that he would be able to take his base at least as many times as the notoriously patient Jayson Werth. Ryan Zimmerman’s return has been much much smoother than the other two’s. Zimm has hit .309/.371/.655 bringing back memories of his glory years of 2009 and 2010. Zimmerman has hit four out of the park and knocked at least one batter home in eight consecutive games. There is so much room for improvement with regards to Rendon and Werth and they have demonstrated time and again that they have the ability to really dominate the game but, if the Nationals are to have any hope of overtaking the NY Mets (They’re 4 games back), Werth and Rendon are going to have to step it up quickly.
Typically when I mention anemic offense and Washington Nationals in the same sentence, SS Ian Desmond’s name is thrown in there as well – That is not the case in this situation. Desmond has been one of the bright spots in the team’s lineup and has managed to .267/.327/.544 since the break. Desmond’s walks are way up, he’s hitting the ball harder and to right and left field more often, and his batting average in balls in play is stable at .315 to indicate that it isn’t BABIP fueled luck. The 7 2nd half homers (matching his 1st half total in less than 1/3 of the games) won’t keep leaving the yard at such a break-neck pace but everything else seems fairly legitimate.
It would be a mistake to say a batter that is hitting .299 with a 10th best in baseball .430 OBP is slumping or to even say that he hasn’t met and exceeded al expectations but one can’t help but hope for more with the 22 year old Bryce Harper. Harper is that good. Thought Bryce has been getting on base at a ridiculous clip yet again in the 2nd half, he has just 3 homers since the All-Star Break and has hit 0 in his 11 August games.
The pitching has, for the most part, been adequate. One can hope for (and should expect) better from a team that, talent-wise, should absolutely win the division (performance has disagreed so far) but the pitching shouldn’t be as big a concern as the team’s post-break offense. Shifting Doug Fister to the ‘pen was a change that the team just had to make and I think we’re all very comfortable with Joe Ross as the #5 starter. Ross struggled last time out against the Dodgers, allowing 5 earned runs in just 4.2 IP but his 4 walks allowed marked just the first time in his 8 career starts that he walked more than one batter. Every young pitcher deserves a mulligan for a bad outing or two. Max Scherzer has not been his usual dominant self through his 5 outings since the ASB, having thrown to a 3.90 earned run average. Scherzer’s ERA since the start of June has been a very good but not unworldly 3.12. Jordan Zimmermann took the L against Kershaw and has a 3.68 ERA since the break but has managed to limit hitters to just .219/.261 leading me to believe that improvement is certainly on the horizon.
Gio Gonzalez who struggled a bit in the 1st half has turned over a new leaf here in July and August. He has pitched to a 1.88 ERA while striking out an extra batter per 9 (now up to 8.8k/9) and walking fewer batters. Despite Gonzalez’s recent dominant outings, he has still experienced some trouble with BABIP – hitters are reaching base 34.1% of the time when the ball enters play (compared to a .343 BABIP in the first half). If Gio can bring his BABIP down to about .300 or .310 in time for the playoff stretch, he could be even more dominant. Stephen Strasburg made a very triumphant return on the 8th: hurling 7 one run innings while allowing just 3 baseruners and setting 12 batters down by way of the k. Strasburg has now allowed just 3 earned runs over the 22.2 innings since his return from his first stint on the DL.
The Nationals’ bullpen is managed by Matt Williams so it has performed exactly how you would expect it to. Drew Storen has really really struggled in his past 3 outings (8 ER in 2.2 IP) but I really think that its just a handful of bad outings and he should be fine in the future. Jonathan Papelbon is a closer so he should only pitch in save situations, right? No, Matt Williams, you are an idiot. Pap has pitched just 4 times and has allowed 2 runs (1 er). He’s been fine when he pitched but he needs to be utilized in a much more effective way.
If the Nationals continue to struggle, one has to wonder whether Matt Williams will be on the hot seat. Of course, Williams is not the only problem with the team and the offense has been really ugly since the break but a pattern that I think we have all noticed throughout Williams’ tenure with the team is that it often does not perform to its potential. I agree with Brian Kenny’s analysis that when a team isn’t performing up to the sum of its parts, something must be wrong and, while Williams isn’t the only problem, he is one of the few constants between this team’s struggles and the Nationals’ inability to come through when it mattered in the past. Bright spots exist and I’m confident that this team can and should catch the Mets but they just have to perform better. Its as simple as that.