Big Improvements in 2012 – Part 2

Yesterday, we took at look at some of the things that were the biggest steps forward in 2012 for the pitching staff. I’m trying to concentrate on things that were both new and sustainable. Sustainability is subjective, but we’ll look at the stats enough to make at least me feel comfortable that the stuff highlighted here isn’t temporary. We’re looking at the position players here, so why not start with the most controversial one:

Believe it or not, Danny Espinosa can hit

You may remember his zero for April, or his zero for playoffs, and think I’m crazy. But he hit .247/.315/.402 this year – good enough for the middle of the pack among MLB 2nd basemen when ranking OPS. I give him a little extra credit on those numbers, considering just how bad his April really was, that means his May through October ranks among the best at the position. And he does it while playing exceptional defense, helping to make the Nats infield one of the best in the league. But on top of that, he’s only 25 years old. No, he doesn’t have the ceiling of Robinson Cano, but look at what this team’s other players did as they hit age 26. Gio, Desmond, and Detwiler all took significant steps forward. This isn’t a coincidence – age 27 is anecdotally considered the traditional “breakout” season. While most players don’t technically have breakout age 27 seasons, a large number do see big improvements around that age. He should continue improving for the next year or two, and improvements on what he is already doing will make him one of the better hitting second basemen in the league. It’s up to you to decide whether or not you can deal with strikeouts, which probably won’t get better. I, for one, am happy to have a top 10 MLB 2B, measured by OPS, no matter what the Ks look like.

Ian Desmond is What the Organization Thought He Was

Desi didn’t just suddenly appear out of thin air this year. He was invited to spring training way back in 2005, when he was only 19. They saw something in him, something that not everyone else thought was possible. He had power and range, but he swing at everything and had a tenancy to boot easy plays. Yet here we are, 7 years later, and at 26 years old he was the best shortstop in baseball. I’m not saying that because I’m just a fan of the guy, he actually had the highest OPS, WAR (according to Fangraphs) and most HRs of any SS in MLB. And that’s not all – he became a vocal leader of the team. He was seen heading to the pitcher’s mound and actually calming his pitchers down (most of them his age or younger) many times this year. He has been called the captain of the infield by several team members, which says something considering who stands over at third base. He may not have an .845 OPS every year, but he’s clearly a top line shortstop right now, and a team leader.

They’ve got a strong bench

Chad Tracy is a good player, and at the beginning of the year he really hit, but that’s not what I’m talking about. Their young guys – Roger Bernadina, Steve Lombardozzi and Tyler Moore – really make up a solid bench. These aren’t just players that can come in and pinch hit. They can fill in for weeks at a time in place of injured players without making you feel like the team is truly at a disadvantage. Moore had such a strong season that you wonder if there is an even bigger role for him. Lombardozzi starting out very strong, and although he only finished with a .317 OBP, at only 23 he showed an ability to hit that should get better as he matures. Even Bernadina, who many probably wrote off last season, looks to be a solid backup outfielder type that can fill in at CF and give guys days off. A good bench is often overlooked, but it’s important, and in 2012 the Nats were good in that department, perhaps for the first time ever.

Jayson Werth is still good – and he’s a leader

I can’t remember ever seeing such a turnaround, and I’m not talking about his numbers. Yes, he hit great this year, and showed that last year probably was a bit of a fluke (I pointed out many times in 2011 that while he was never great, he was a perfectly decent outfielder for the entire second half). But the big change was the way he was covered. He went from being a surly guy who would hide from cameras and give little or no time to the media, to a vocal rah rah team leader. Was this change all perception? I don’t know, it’s not hard to imagine some of his struggles early last year set his mood for much of the season. Either way, he is clearly a clubhouse and field leader. Will he hit .300/.387/.440 again next year? Probably not, but don’t worry – he’ll most likely deliver more value to the team. Unless he gets hurt, his WAR, the actual wins he contributes to the team, will be higher. Only playing in 81 games this year, his WAR was actually pretty low, if he plays in about 75% more games next season, it’ll certainly be higher.

This team has a star in Bryce Harper

Nobody really knew what to expect with Harper. Sure, he had killed the ball in the past, but his early stint in the minors this year wasn’t great. However, injuries, and a good approach at the plate (despite not great numbers), combined to bring him up to the big leagues. And he, like many talented youngsters, started out strong. But also typical – pitcher’s started to figure him out a bit, and he went through quite a swoon from the middle of June to the end of August, starting with an 0 for 7 night with 5 Ks at Yankee Stadium. He hit .214/.278/.327, and that brought his OPS down to a season low .730. After that, though, he did what good players do – he figured it out. He hit .341/.407/.690 after that point, and finished the season with a .817 OPS. He looks like the real deal, he doesn’t appear to have any of the personality issues that were reported and harped on by many in the national media. Instead, he looks like a humble, hard working player with incredible abilities. He looks like a superstar, and that was only after one season. It will be exciting to see what he can do in his sophomore season.

This team has a lot to look forward to in 2013 – but unlike this time last year, it’s no longer waiting for guys. Instead the guys are here, they are performing, and most of them will only get better. Will they win 98 games next season? Well, it’s a little early to think about that. But it’s hard not to think that they will be just as good if not even better.

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