The days of the Nats doing anything interesting in free agency may be over. Right now they are looking at Kris Benson for god's sake. So the pegged 74 win or so team that we see now is going to be the most likely outcome. I'm sure that is enough for some after back to back sub-60 win seasons, but others will want more. Others will want to scrape .500. Well my friends, to do that the Nats are going to need a little bit of unexpected good fortune. There are a lot of ways that this can happen pitching wise, but offensively I only see one place where the Nats might get pleasantly surprised, with Elijah Dukes.
The Nats could, in theory, get a boost from anywhere but let's be real, at pretty much every other spot we know what the Nats are going to max out with. Zimmerman, Dunn, and Willingham all had their best offensive seasons in years in 2009. These are seasons I think they can roughly repeat at, but not surpass in any signficant way. In the middle infield, we're going to see alot of Guzman and Kennedy, who at best are going to be average with the stick, meaning at best another small improvement. At catcher, you'd have to believe in a Pudge renaissance at 80 or Flores coming back at the top of his game (and playing a lot) to get a significant offensive boost. Perhaps in center the Nats could get a nice jump, if Morgan plays at the All-Star level that he showed in his few months as a Nat last year, but I am going to err at the side of caution there. So unless the Nats get 3 or 4 of these minor improvements and no disappointments, there isn't going to be great offensive improvement over last year from 7 out of 8 spots in the lineup.
The 8th spot is held by Elijah Dukes and how he swings is the most likely difference maker next year. Here are his lines from the last 2 years
2008: .264 / .386 / .478
2009: .250 /.337 / .393
It was a total collapse in 2009. The patience dropped and the power went away completely. Dukes went from a nice bat in the lineup to an easy, non-threatening out overnight. How'd it happen? It doesn't seem like he was missing the ball more often. His K numbers actually dropped, from 79 to 74, in roughly 100 more at bats.
The fancy stats show a decrease in BABIp, from .326 to .294, but the latter is about expected. This might account for the difference between .265 and .250 but it wouldn't really account for either the power or the patience disappearing like they did.
The first clue might be the change in the types of hits he was getting. His LD% and GB% both dropped (18.1% -> 16.2%, adn 47.2% -> 43.6% respectively) in favor of more flyballs (34.7% -> 40.2%). That in itself isn't terrible but you also see an increase infield flies. (5.8% -> 9.4%). This kind of leads me to believe that Elijah was getting fooled more often rather than trying to drive pitches over the fence and falling short. Was he swinging at more bad pitches?
In a word, yes. Elijah's swing percentage on pitches outside the strike zone went from 20.3% to 26.6%. Worse yet his contact on these types of pitches went down from 48.1% to 46.3%. He was chasing something and not hitting it. That's a guy swinging at more bad pitches. Not only that he was swinging at far more pitches overall. Seems to me this is was a guy off balance. Did something change in him or did pitchers just figure him out?
Unfortunately it seems the latter. Last year you saw a big drop in fastballs fed to Elijah and a jump in offspeed stuff with movement. (I won't bore you with more percentages - it's all at his fangraphs page if you are interested) Elijah did a very good job of hitting fastballs in 2008 so he saw less in 2009 and was unable to correct for that. As Elijah grew more frustrated he started swinging at more pitches outside the strike zone. He's a good enough hitter than he could turn some of those into hits, but he couldn't turn any of it into power hits. You can see that if you look at his monthly splits. The power keeps dropping .500 -> .432 -> .333 -> .409 -> .325. Even if you disregard the .333 as mainly a function of a bad luck month (.230 BABIP), and looked at the isoSLG, the drop in power remains.
Of course there are other explanations. Maybe Dukes first started swinging more from day 1 (his OBP wasn't great to start) and pitchers took advantage of that to pitch more and more out of the zone. Either way, pitchers or Dukes forcing the issue, I don't think it matters. By the end of the year Elijah showed that he could identify balls and strikes still, with a .398 OBP in Sept/Oct. But at that point he wasn't swinging hard at anything, that .325 SLG is horrible. That's not a player working through a slump, that's a player being super defensive and just trying to make it through another month.
What does this all mean? It means, I don't see Dukes having that breakthrough year because I think that he's been figured out. They know he can hit fastballs, so they've given his less fastballs, and Dukes cannot hit the off speed stuff well. There is a glimmer of hope in that last month - he hasn't lost his ability to identify balls and strikes - so maybe he can get into more favorable counts and force pitchers to throw him more fastballs. That didn't seem to work last season, but it was the end of a terrible year, so I wouldn't hold fast to that .325 SLG.
If Dukes doesn't either learn to hit the offspeed stuff better or force the pitchers to throw more fastballs, it's going to be another off year for Dukes. Probably not as bad as last year, but probably still below average. And another off year for Dukes would mean the Nats would face an uphill climb in improving their offense more than a little bit and reaching that mystical magical .500 record would remain well out of touch.