Nats and the OBP Decline

The Nats are finishing up a relatively strong month, despite starting off a road trip 1-3, and remain in first place in the NL East by a healthy 3 1/2 games (it’s the biggest lead in the majors at the moment). But all is not well in DC, as this has been almost solely on the strength of pitching and defense, while the offense has been quite lacking. Last night’s 2 run loss in Colorado seemed to stir up emotions about how it is a microcosm of poor offense.

This is silly, nobody would have mentioned the offense if Roger Bernadina‘s liner had been hit about 5 more feet towards CF. One game just isn’t enough to tell you what any team is about. Texas leads the world in runs scored, they play in what Baseball Reference indicates is the best hitter’s park in the AL over the last three years, yet they only scored two runs last night against Rick Porcello, who entered the game with a 4.95 ERA… Oh my god, Texas can’t hit!

The Nats, on the other hand, have more going on than just one bad game, and it’s ridiculous to talk about one game like it means more than one game. It makes more sense to look at all the games, and when you do that, well, the Nats REALLY make the case that they aren’t performing. Here is what the team’s On Base Percentage and Slugging Percentage have done this season, relative to today’s league average (click to enlarge):

Before talking about the OBP, let’s get into the SLG. The general trend line in slugging is declining since about June 1, but since it is markedly better than it was April and May, it isn’t such a big deal. And the slugging shouldn’t be the biggest concern. Their team .387 is below the average mark of .398, but the range goes all the way down to .351, and they’re ranked 10th in the NL. It’s a much better situation than what I wrote about in mid-April, when they had shown almost no power (but actually were getting on base), at least from the perspective of slugging.

On Base Percentage, however, is another story altogether. The have seen a general, slow, and remarkably consistent downward trend for over a month now. They have fallen to the bottom of the league, sitting right around today’s average in the the fourth week of May, to 14th in the NL today. And the OBP spread is much tighter than slugging – the league average is .319, the Nats are at .304 and the 15th place team is at .302. The Pirates are significantly lower at .286, but since the distribution is so uneven, the Nats are, for the most part, about as bad as you can reasonably assume a team could be.

Getting on base is considered to be the most valuable skill for an offense, in relation to scoring runs. It is more important than slugging, which is why alot of sabrmetricians aren’t entirely comfortable with OPS – they say it weights SLG too much, that OBP should be counted as more important. And the Nats seem to reflect this pretty well. They are doing bad but not awful with the power, and yet they are awful at scoring runs, and that comes directly from their inability to get on base in the first place.

Edit: The night I wrote this, the Nats scored 12 runs and upped their OBP to .307 and their SLG to .396, so I’m glad this was motivation. Unless they keep it up, though, the issue remains. Below I’ve added a chart highlighting the OBP decline in particular over the last 6 weeks. The scale on the y-axis is zoomed in for an extra-frightening effect.

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