Nationals Baseball: Trouble at the start

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Trouble at the start

In their first 18 games of this season, the Nats went 14-4 and were cruising.  Obviously this was unsustainable (they weren't going to win 125+ games), so a dip was expected.  Maybe the Nats go 11-7 in their next 18, or 10-8.  Well in the next 18 the Nats went 8-10.  That's not terrible, but after that fast start we'd kind of expect to find the Nats over .500 in any long stretch of games. What happened?

The easy answer is injuries killed the offense. Werth has gone down.  Zimmerman missed some time.  Ramos is now out.  But that doesn't explain everything or even most of it. LaRoche came up in game 12 and has crushed the ball.  Desmond has bounced back recently.  Werth and Ramos before they went down were doing pretty good. Bryce Harper is up (though not doing all that well... SHHHHHH!)   The offense averaged 3.78 runs in the first 18 games.  They averaged 3.44 runs in the next 18. A little dip but not enough to explain the swing we saw. In fact they've actually been league average in May.

The real story is the pitching has gotten much worse.  Now, to be fair the pitching was PHENOMENAL. They gave up 2.67 runs a game during those first 18.  But they've been very mortal in the last 18 with an ok 3.83 runs per game. They've gone from far and away the best pitching in the majors to an average squad in the National League.  Ok you say. I get it. I've seen H-Rod blow those games in the ninth. It's gotta be a relief issue. Nope. It's the starters and it's worse if you look at just May.

Starter ERA April : 1.78   May :  3.81
Relief ERA  April : 3.48   May : 3.71

Although Henry Rodriguez's failures have been so... hard to ignore, the relief pitching has been fairly steady.   Stammen, Mattheus, Clippard, Burnett, even Gorzelanny have had good to great Mays and have offset some of the other failings. The starters though - they've gotten universally worse. On one hand, what could we expect? Four of them had ERAs under 2.00 to end April. That's crazy.  On the other, you really hoped for a gradual return to form, with maybe a couple guys continuing to be phenomenal.  Gio's hung on to being great, and ZNN has slipped back to normal (which is still pretty good), but Detwiler and Jackson are pitching kind of like you'd have expected them to on April 1st, and Strasburg has been, well, blah. I'm assuming Strasburg's situation is just a blip and he'll bounce back, but Gio isn't going to keep up these types of numbers either. They should get better but is a 4 & 5 of Detwiler and Jackson best in the league like was thought at the end of April, or are they merely typical 4 and 5 starters?

This highlights again the problem for the Nats we've been talking about all year.  Unless their pitching is great, not good, but great, this offense cannot generate enough runs to win games. Their pitching was "best month ever" in April and that helped hide the offensive failings.  Their pitching is average in May and that makes the Nats no better than a .500 team. For the pitching to be great, it really needs Detwiler and Jackson to be better than 4.00+ in ERA, and the other three to pitch up to their expectations. 

I know what you are thinking - if the offense is league average in May, then it should be fine going foward once Morse is back. That's true, if you believe LaRoche will keep hitting like an all-star and Bernadina and Lombardozzi can keep up their hitting, and Desmond doesn't slump again.  Sure we like Zimmerman to get hot at some point, but there's a lot more going unexpectedly right for the Nats than wrong on the offensive end since May 1st and they still can only manage league average. The answer isn't Morse alone. Maybe when Werth comes back, that will be enough to get them to league average. Maybe.  But it's a long way between now and then.  Let's hope the starting pitching goes back to being 4 Bob Gibsons and a Bob Welch.


Anonymous said...

"there's a lot more going unexpectedly right for the Nats than wrong on the offensive end since May 1st and they still can only manage league average"

This is a joke, right? One of the most ridiculous things I've ever read. Let's see: Zim being injured & hitting poorly, no Morse, Ramos going down, Espinosa struggling early, Werth going down.

You really think there have been more things going right than wrong? Wow.

Harper said...

Anon - I mean with the people in the lineup day after day. Obviously the offense is hurt with Werth, Morse and Ramos out but since May started really only Zimm has been a major disappointment (I'd say Danny is a minor one because this type of start didn't come out of the blue) While LaRoche, Bernadina, Desmond, Tracy and Lombo are all hitting better than you'd reasonably expect.

With this team as the Nats have right now, having more go right than wrong offensively with these players, they can only get to average. This is what the Nats have to play with for the next 3+ weeks. Unless the starting pitching bounces back, they are going to keep losing more games then they are winning in this time period.

When Morse comes back we re-evaluate whats reasonable to expect.

Donald said...

It's not going to help that the schedule is getting tougher. The good news is that the competition isn't looking so hot either, with the exception of Atlanta.

Harper said...

Donald - yeah that's the column for Friday...way to steal my thunder.

Ben said...

Probably worth noting that the defense has seemingly (I am too lazy to actually look it up) been worse over the completely arbitrary set of the last 18 games, and bad defense leads to more earned runs too.

Also, and I am not being facetious, would you be writing this article if H-Rod (with a little help) didn't crap the bed twice and the Nats were 10-8?

Jeff Hayes said...

I agree fully with Ben's remarks. I'm not going to argue with the statistical evidence that indicates the starters have been less effective recently, but those three (not 2) blown saves (the Kemp walk off homer in LA, the Barajas walk off homer in Pittsburgh, and the Votto Grand Slam walk off in Cinninnati) weren't the starters' fault. And he barely avoided a fourth blown save against the Padres).

Harper said...

Ben - possibly... probably. I'll go with probably. The starting pitching stats would still be much worse though the tenor would be more "thankfully the bullpen is saving their asses - but for how long?"

Now would you be complaining I was too light on the Nats is JJ Putz didn't stink and the Phillies managed to score in the 8th of that extra inning game and the Nats were 6-12?

Jeff - I don't know - is the argument we shouldn't bring up the starters pitching being worse because they would have won some other games anyway? Do I get to say we should have lost Detwiler vs the Padres because he wasn't very good?

JDBrew said...

I think you make a good point but the 18 game set is a little arbitrary. I'm not gonna start worrying about the pitching yet. But I see where you're coming from. Although you start to lose me when you more has gone right then wrong. Yes, Chad Tracy, Bernadina, and etc. might be hitting better than expected. But nobody expected them to be starters. Right now there are 10 players currently on the injury report. 5 of them are starters. Granted I'm counting CM Wang and Drew Storen, but they were supposed to be starters. Storen > H-rod without a doubt. Anyway, with Ramos, Morse, Werth, and Zimm all missing extended periods of time there's no way to judge what the offense could be. I mean I once saw a lineup this season where the first 4 hitters were batting under 250. And it was because 3 of them were not and are not suppose to be everyday players. I'll give the offense a little bit of a pass so far, in this 36 game set. Now if they don't pick it up in the next 36 game set...

p.s. Is anyone as worried as I am about the upcoming O's series? I know lots of O's fans and as a general rule I consider them stupid for liking a team that hasn't tried to be good since 1998. But this year feels like a little bit more than a fast start. I'm kinda afraid of the ridicule I'll face if the Nats don't shut them down.

Harper said...

JDBrew - the 18 game set is just because it happened to both be the half way point of the Nats season so far and the Nats highwater mark (of 14-4). In reality the pitching didn't start to get demonstrably worse until game 22 or so. (which is why I switch to "May" in the middle of the column.

Like I responded earlier - when I say "more right than wrong" I really mean - look at who's playing right now and how they are doing. In that sense the Nats have been getting lucky. They should be crashing hard with an offense that can't score runs and a pitching that's slumping (to average - but for them that's a slump), but because the subs have gotten hot at the right time they are hanging on. Of course grand scheme - more things have gone wrong than right.

Jeff Hayes said...

I am a little worried about this weekend against the Os. We've had one series so far against a team at the top of their division - the Dodgers - and we were swept. Our strength of schedule is 16th in all of MLB. The Os is 5th. Granted, the Reds are doing okay and we've taken 5 out of 7 from them, but they're only a game over 500. But each game is played seperately. ZNN pitches tonight so Jackson, Detwiler, and Strasburg will pitch against the Os. Here is how they match up against the Os pitching: Jackson (3.71) agianst Arrieta (5.21); Det (2.75) against Hammel (2.68); and Stras (2.25) against Chen (2.45). We're at home, although for the Os, it isn't much different. Still, I like the Nats to take 2 of 3 giving the way our offense has woken up. Keep in mind - I'm an eternal optimist.