At six games under on August 8th, the game has changed. It's now a fight for .500 and if they happen to reach that sooner than the end of the year, we can check out where they are in the WC standings. New rule. You don't get to .500 you don't get any playoff play from me. Sorry.
The Nats have been an unquestionably big disappointment and the question of why remains on everyone's mind even though we figured it out a while ago. As Boz writes in his column :
Their bench, strong last season, has been horrible, with six key players combining for an abysmal .521 on-base-plus-slugging percentage through Tuesday night in more than 1,000 trips to the plate. Their fifth starter was a disaster for 100 games. Their second baseman’s career imploded. General Manager Mike Rizzo’s biggest team-tweaking decision, trading for Denard Span, proved misconceived, subtracting offense from a team that has plummeted in scoring.You think that would be enough, or at least it would be enough if you also realized, ZNN, Gio, Detwiler, Stammen, Mattheus, Storen, Duke, Zimm, Desmond, and LaRoche have also played worse this year, from minor setbacks (Desmond) to outright abject failures (Storen). There you go, end of story. Except of course it's not. Not when there are two months to fill and cliches to cover.
I'm not going to kill Boz for the column he wrote. It's human nature that when you are looking for something, you'll find it. Boz, and many, many others, want to see something explicit on the field they can grab on to to explain the dramatic turnaround. Yes Haren was bad for a while and Espy's career died on the surgical table he never got on, but just two players and a bench? That's not enough! So a missed bunt here and an error there becomes not the minor issues that they are, but symptoms of a larger problem that explains why a good team has gone bad.
Rather than mock Boswell for this, can we simply explain it away? Using, you know, stats and stuff? Let's go back to the column.
"The Nats can’t sacrifice bunt or execute basic situational hitting."
This is easy enough to prove, thanks to baseball-reference. The Nats are on the low end of successful sacrifice bunts at 69%. However they aren't far from average. It would take only 2 of those failed bunts (in 61 attempts) to be successful to get the Nats to average status. To get to an incredible success rate the Nats would need 8 failures to be successes. How many games does 8 successful bunts change? They aren't going to score in all these attempts, and certainly not win all those games. More damning is taking a look at where the other teams fall. The only two teams worse than the Nats at sac bunting? Atlanta and Los Angeles. The best teams? Philadelphia and San Francisco.
BR also has a stat called "productive outs" which measures a mish mash of moving runners over and sacrifice flies and stuff. The Nats are not great here either, but again are not far off the average. They sit at 30% the NL average is 31% It would only have taken 4 or so failure to be successes (out of 366 times) for the Nats to be average. The best teams are only successful around 35% of the time. And again, two very good teams (Atlanta and St. Louis) are actually worse at this than the Nats, while San Francisco and Miami are in the Top 3.
One more thing - the 2012 Nats? Below average in both these stats.
The take away is that even though the Nats might be a little worse than they need to at these things, they really are not far from being average at all, and success in these things does not correlate with winning. Some good teams aren't any good at this. Some bad teams are very successful. It may matter, but it's a fringe thing. It's a win here and there, but not a major swing.
"...overanxious Adam LaRoche dribbled out to first base on a 2-0 fastball that was six inches inside and would have been ball three. That’s the Nats: neglecting what’s easy or trying too hard at what’s difficult."
But why was that at bat important? Because in the previous at bat Jayson Werth drew a walk. This doesn't seem to me to be a Nats problem. It seems to be an Adam LaRoche problem
On Monday, the Nats lost, 3-2, because Stephen Strasburg, who had fabulous stuff that night, allowed an uncontested steal of second that turned into a two-out run.
Now on one hand this is REALLY REALLY true. The Nats are OMFG Gossip Girl XOXO terrible at keeping the other team from stealing. 13% when the average 29%. But here's the thing, it's the organization's philosophy. Ignore the runner and get the batter out. Let him steal second but don't let him disrupt your pitching. You know who was also really bad at throwing runners out at 2nd? The 2012 Nats. 17%.
Personally I think this matters a bit more than the sac bunts and situational hitting because it's completely solvable and it's, you know, actually a problem, but again it's something on the margins that unless you have a superior catcher, would only save a few runs here and there.
He should be working on his craft before bad habits become ingrained. Maybe some of those commercials or styling in home run derbies can wait.
Now this paragraph was about Bryce Harper not being able to hit lefties. Completely true. He's been awful at it this year. But it's this sentence, and one he had earlier about practicing bunting more, that miffs me. This isn't thought, it's emotion. If a talented player is disappointing in some way it MUST be because he doesn't care enough. He's not putting enough effort into it. He's worried about other things. Could it simply be that he's no good at it? Or that it's actually really really hard to do?
Some guys can't bunt. Some lefty batters can't hit lefty pitching. If you want to call Bryce out about not practicing then I want some quotes. I want a batting coach saying "We told Bryce he needs more practice vs lefties but he went off for a photo shoot" That's fair. Just pulling out a stat and saying "well must be because he participated in the HR derby while everyone else in baseball was in a batting cage working out kinks" is something an angry fan writes on a message board.
It’s time for Zimmerman to find out where his arm strength stands and stop playing shallow
Again - Yes. But again, not a huge deal in terms of Ws and Ls. Remember how the Nats were way leading the league in errors? Not anymore. 77. Still above league average but not that far above it.
Actually there is a problem with defense but it's not a fundamentals problem (outside of Zimm maybe putting himself too shallow). LaRoche is getting old. Werth is getting old. Bryce is probably just a mediocre fielder getting by on athleticism. The best fielding player on the team was sent to the minors because he couldn't hit. The fielding is getting worse, but it's not lack of fungo drills that's causing it.
I want to wrap this up by going back to the productive out number. The Nats did allright there percentage wise but let's look at the raw number of times when they were in position to make a productive out. The Nats could have done it 366 times, last in the NL. 40 fewer times than league average, 100 fewer times than the best of the best. This is what matters. The Nats could be above average in getting these productive outs and still be 13th in the NL in the raw number. It's not a failure of executing with men on base, it's a failure to get men on base.
Boswell could find a genie and make the Nats the best bunting team, the best situational hitting team, the best team at throwing out baserunners, the team with the fewest errors and you know what? They might be .500. The Nats need to hit better and pitch better and field better across the board in order to get back to the team they were last year. Picking at the little things is fine, a game or two can matter, but worry about them when the big things are solved.