Time to Start Believing What You See

It’s June 1, it’s the day after Memorial Day, and it’s 2 months into the season. The Nats have played 26% of their season, over one quarter of their games. It’s time to start believing what you’re seeing. Whatever they’ve done up to this point is probably pretty indicative of the type of team they are. Here are a few observations on what we’ve seen:

Thanks to an offensive outburst yesterday, the team is no longer being outscored by a massive amount. They’ve allowed only 10 more runs than they’ve scored, so with a record of 26-26, they are only considered “lucky” by one game. Their pythagorean W-L record is 25-27, still impressive considering where this team has come from. It’s been my opinion that a team with an effective bullpen is likely to play better than their Runs Scored/Runs Allowed would indicate – and that seems to be what is happening with the Nats. They’ve lost a few blowouts that got out of control, but other than that, their bullpen has kept them in it, and they’ve won (and lost) their share of very close games.

The offense isn’t great, but it’s not bad. Guys are doing a pretty good job of getting on base, but they’re not scoring enough. The team is 6th in OBP, 7th in SLG and 8th in OPS, but all the way down at 11th in runs scored. Part of the reason is that they don’t have much power outside of the middle three guys. Desmond’s on pace to hit 16 HRs, not bad for a rookie SS, and Harris has hit a few as well. But other than that, you’ve got the middle three and nothing else. That’s pretty unusual these days. Most teams have another hitter or two that they can rely on for 20 homers. Basically, if people don’t get on base ahead of Zimmerman, Dunn or Willingham, it take alot to score a run. The value of getting on base was evident last night when Dunn hit a bases loaded double, and Zim and Maldonado each hit 3 run homers. 9 runs right there. So at least once this season, they got on base in the same inning people hit the ball far.

The middle of the lineup – and that includes Cristian Guzman – has all been playing well. Guzzie’s still on a tear, hitting .395/.425/.469 since May 2 and is leading the NL in batting average on the season. Zimmerman’s now at .308/.385/.603 for the year, putting him 2nd in the NL in OPS behind one Albert Pujols. Dunn’s hitting .274/.379/.547 – an incredible average considering how poorly he started, and has an OPS of 1.035 since April 23rd. Willingham, meanwhile, leads the NL in walks and OBP, and is 4th in the NL in OPS. Pretty good core to the lineup.

Unfortunately, there are a few individuals whose poor performances stick out considering how well the middle of the lineup is playing. Nyjer Morgan’s much talked about .257/.327/.347 is the most noticeable, although I think he’s making it over the hump. He’s finally stolen more than he’s been caught, thanks to now 3 in a row successful steals. 3 for 4 with a walk either was simply a good day that made his numbers look less atrocious or is the start of him coming back, only time will tell with that. Right Field is still an offensive chasm. Normally occupied by big time hitters like Jayson Werth, J.D. Drew, Michael Cuddyer or Jason Heyward, the Nats have played guys like Roger Bernadina (.241/.289/.410), Justin Maxwell (.121/.362/.242) and Willie Harris (.179/.278/.369) out there, none of whom are doing enough. A Bernie Maxwell Frankenstein monster of .241/.362/.410 would be enough, I guess, but that is actually impossible.

The pitching has been good, and they’ve slowly improved. The ERA is in the bottom half of the league. But they’ve eeked their way up the walks and WHIP charts, no longer the worst at either of those. 10th in runs given up, 11th in ERA and WHIP, 12th in walks. They’ve gotten good production out of Luis Atilano, an unheralded rookie who gets by on smoke and mirrors but is 5-1 with the team. They’re getting the best pitcher in the minor leagues in 8 days. The pitching has been pretty good, especially considering all the question marks in March.

Despite some decent pitching, the team isn’t striking anybody out. 16th in the NL, they’re 28 Ks behind the #15 team. Even the arrival of Strasburg won’t put them up to a respectable level. Their best starter so far this year, Livan, has a beautiful 2.15 ERA but only 27 Ks in 67 IP. Lannan, off to a horrible start but looking better in his last 3 appearances, only has 18 Ks in 55 2.3 IP. Other than Scott Olsen, who is currently on the DL, and J. D. Martin, who has only pitched 6 innings, there isn’t a starter currently on the roster with a K/9 over 4.3. And the guy at 4.3 is Craig Stammen, who has the worst non-Marquis ERA on the team.

The bullpen has been the saving grace of this team’s pitching staff, allowing them to compete at a level that maybe they shouldn’t. Tyler Clippard went through a rough patch but has gotten back to be a go-to guy once again. He’s struck out 40 in 34 2/3 innings and has an ERA of 1.82. Matt Capps continues to be very reliable as the closer, with 17 saves in 18 opportunities. Drew Storen, as everyone expected, has pitched very well, with a 1.59 ERA in 6 appearances. But perhaps not expected have been the performances of Doug Slaten (1.62 ERA), Sean Burnett (3.31 ERA), and even Tyler Walker (4.05 ERA), all good enough to give this team a pretty reliable bullpen.

The feeling has been Nats-tacular. It isn’t the best in the league, by any stretch of the imagination. But compared to the debacle that was 2009, it looks pretty damn good. Dunn has looked downright mediocre at first base, which is a complement of the highest order. It looks like a brilliant move to stick him there, as he was never as good as mediocre in the outfield. While his range isn’t great, it’s not bad, and he can pick the ball out of the dirt. The outfield is much better, despite a few gaffs by Morgan, especially since they’ve abandoned hitting in RF for glovework.

Overall, the team is a middle of the road team right now. They can score some runs, their middle of the lineup is great, but the rest of the lineup has been poor, so they aren’t at the top of the league in runs. Their starting pitching has been ok, it’s toward the lower-middle in the NL, and can’t strike anyone out, but has kept the team around to try and win it late. The bullpen has been very good, and has allowed them to come back and win games that maybe they would have ended up getting blown out in last year. For a team that has lost over 200 games in 2 years, this is a welcome change, and makes the team downright enjoyable to watch. The arrival of Strasburg on June 8 should make things even more exciting.

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