While the Nats keep winning, and their pitching has been spectacular, they are winning close games. It doesn’t take Bill James to figure out if your pitching is great and you’re winning close games, your hitting is sub-par. Starting out as the statistical voice of reason here, it’s important to note that their hitting actually has been good. They have the 7th best OBP in all of baseball, 3rd best in the NL. Getting on base is the most important step in scoring a run, so you know that this will eventually translate in to runs.
They haven’t hit that well when guys have been on base, but unless you believe that this team is a bunch of nervous nellies who are decidedly ”un-clutch”, that should be more luck dependent than anything else. Eventually, the numbers even out, and these hits and walks will come with more people on base, and everything will be fine, right? Well, not so fast. I did a quick check of some OBP ranks versus runs per game ranks over the last 3 years, and teams have wide variations. In the 3 seasons prior to this one, there were 30 teams that had a differential between where their OBP ranks and their R/G over 3 (if they were #1 in OBP and #3 in runs/game, their differential would be 3-1=2).
That seemed like poor correlation, so I checked another very easy stat to find, OPS. The differential in OPS to R/G greater than 3 spots was a much more reasonable 16 teams over 3 seasons. And it’s not just the count that’s different, it’s the amount of differential. In 2009, only 3 teams had a OPS-R/G diff higher than 3, and two of them had it at 4, while one had it had 9. Whereas, the 11 teams with an OBP-R/G diff higher than 3 had a 14, a 12, two 10s and three 7s. Similar outcomes happened in 2010 and 2011.
This isn’t exactly robust statistical analysis – 3 years is a short time frame to look at team numbers in MLB, and I’m doing simple arithmetic not real regressions or anything to find correlation. But it hopefully gives us a good indication of what’s going on. And it’s not anything more than what should be obvious – getting on base is nice, but getting on base AND hitting for power is much more important. It’s completely intuitive – walking and singles are helpful, but you have to string a few of those together just to get a run. A couple of hits and a home run, or even a double, gets you more runs.
And that’s where the Nats problems show up. Yes, they are doing quite well at getting on base, but it isn’t the un-clutchness that’s killing their run productions, it’s their lack of power. They are ranked 23rd in OPS for all of MLB, despite being 7th in OBP. This puts them 11th in the NL, which isn’t the bottom of the barrel, but it certainly doesn’t look like their 3rd place OBP. As you probably imagined, their SLG is also horrendous, ranking 11th in the NL and 24th in MLB. They also are tied for 26th place with only 6 HRs (although this isn’t surprising, what might be is that they’re tied with Philly and Cinci – two teams with power hitters in small ballparks).
Some of this lack of power has to do with the makeup of the team, sure, but some of it is just the guys who are doing well. Ian Desmond has started off hot, but he doesn’t have much power. Jayson Werth has hit very well, but hasn’t provided too much power either. Adam LaRoche has been the only real source of power so far. Zimmerman and Espinosa, two guys who hit over 20 HRs last year, aren’t hitting yet. Same with another guy who has some pop, Wilson Ramos. If people thought they missed Mike Morse before, this should only increase those beliefs.
So normally, you’d think with their ability to get on base, this team has just seen some bad luck and will start scoring runs. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. But fortunately, things should correct themselves as the season goes on and guys hit like the numbers on the back of their baseball cards.
But it’s not because they’re already getting on base anyway and the luck needs to even out. It’s because they most likely will start doing more than just walking and hitting singles.