Offense to blame for Nationals' losing record

Greg Fiume

The pitching hasn't been stellar, but the offense is the real problem in Washington this season.

The 2013 Major League Baseball season is more than a third over, and the Washington Nationals have a losing record. This is not how their season was supposed to go. Just looking at the staff predictions from SI.com and Baseball Prospectus, the Nationals were the overwhelming favorites to win the National League East, a division they currently trail by seven games, and the most popular choice to win the World Series, as well. So, what has gone wrong?

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Well, Gio Gonzalez and Dan Haren have been disappointments in the starting rotation, and the bullpen has been rather ordinary. As a team, however, the Nationals are still allowing runs less often than league average. Yes, the decline in run prevention relative to last year has contributed to their inability to repeat last year's success, but it hasn't been the primary cause.

The real culprit has been the offense. The Nationals have scored just 3.46 runs per game this season, the third-worst rate in baseball, ahead of only the miserable White Sox and the historically awful Marlins. To put it another way, the Nationals rate of runs scored per game is just 85 percent of the league average. Last year, the Nationals opponents' rate of runs scored per game was 86 percent of the league average -- the Nationals hitters are making the rest of the league's pitchers look like last year's Nationals pitching staff, the one that had everyone so convinced of Washington's ability to repeat a 98-win season and win the World Series.

Or try this: even if the Nationals' pitchers were as effective this year as they were last year, the Nationals would still have a negative run differential due to their inability to score. Conversely, if you revert the Nationals' offense to last year's roughly league-average run-scoring rate (107 percent of league average to be exact) and leave this year's pitching staff as is (allowing runs to score at 95 percent of the league average rate), the Nats would have a Pythagorean winning percentage of .550, still a disappointment, but hardly as troubling as their current position.

So, what happened to the offense? Where did the runs go? As stated above, the 2012 Nationals' lineup wasn't a world-beating one. It was just a tick above league average, but it was deep and consistent, producing at a roughly league average or better rate almost all the way around the diamond, the only significant exceptions being catcher and left field, where the Nationals had an OPS+ of 84 and 81, respectively, relative to league average at those positions. This year, however, the Nationals have an sOPS+ (adjusted OPS compared to the league average in that split) of 82 or lower at four positions: catcher, center field, right field, and second base. Last year, they had a sOPS+ of 110 or better at four positions (shortstop, first base, center field, and third base). This year, they are meaningfully above average only at shortstop, and even there Ian Desmond has taken a step back from his breakout 2012 performance.

Photo credit: Greg Fiume

The short version of that is that at almost every position the Nationals have taken a significant step back relative to last year with regard to run production. The exceptions are catcher, which is underperforming similarly to last year, and third base, where Ryan Zimmerman is largely repeating his production from last year but missed 14 games due to a hamstring strain. The only Nationals regular to improve over last season is Bryce Harper, which is precisely why Harper's recent injuries and current disabled list stay are so damaging to the Nationals' performance. Through Sunday, the Nationals were 2-8 with less than three runs scored per game in the ten games Harper has missed since running into the outfield wall at Dodgers Stadium on May 13.

Here's a look how the Nationals are producing position-by-position relative to last year using sOPS+ (again, comparing the Nationals' OPS+ in a given split to the same split across the league, so third basemen measured against third basemen only, etc.) and sorted by the size of the decline:

Pos

2012 Starters

sOPS+

2013 Starters

sOPS+

change

2B

Danny Espinosa/Steve Lombardozzi

99

Espinosa/Lombardozzi

49

-50

CF

Bryce Harper

120

Denard Span

77

-43

1B

Adam LaRoche

129

LaRoche

93

-36

SS

Ian Desmond

143

Desmond

114

-29

P

various

162

various

136

-26

RF

Jayson Werth/Bryce Harper

93

Werth/Harper/Roger Bernadina

77

-16

3B

Ryan Zimmerman

110

Zimmerman

102

-8

C

Jesus Flores/Kurt Suzuki

84

Suzuki/Wilsom Ramos

82

-2

LF

Mike Morse/Lombardozzi

81

Harper/Tyler Moore/Lombardozzi

98

17

Even the pitchers are underperforming at the plate!

Harper's breakout season is buried in the above data because he has split time left and right field this season but spent most of last in center. Perhaps it would be more fair, then to compare last year's center fielder's to this year's left fielders and this year's center fielders to last year's left fielders. If so, we get this:

Pos

2012 Starters

sOPS+

2013 Starters

sOPS+

change

CF/LF

Bryce Harper

120

Harper/Tyler Moore/Lombardozzi

98

-22

LF/CF

Mike Morse/Lombardozzi

81

Denard Span

77

-4

That's less damning for Span, but doesn't do Harper's improvement any justice, in part because of the injuries which have undermined it. Yes, injuries have been a factor, but remember the Nationals lost Jayson Werth for three months due to a broken arm last year, didn't have Harper in April due to his late promotion, and Ryan Zimmerman spent almost the exact same two weeks on the DL last year that he did this year (last year it was due to a shoulder injury which eventually required offseason surgery).

Ultimately, looking at the top table above, it appears that the Nationals' struggles at the plate come down to three players: Danny Espinosa, Adam LaRoche, and Ian Desmond. In the latter two cases, we probably should have seen this coming. In fact, I believe we did see it coming, we just chose to ignore it.

Desmond was a .262/.304/.387 career hitter in two-plus seasons before hitting .292/.335/.511 with 25 home runs (more than his previous career total) last year in his age-26 season. Thus far this year, his batting average, and thus his on-base percentage, have regressed to near his previous career marks, though he has maintained the extra pop in his bat. That shouldn't be surprising to anyone.

LaRoche was a career .267/.337/.478 (112 OPS+) hitter in seven-plus seasons before hitting .271/.343/.510 (129 OPS+) last year at the age of 32 with a career-high 33 home runs and 100 RBIs. That production wasn't wildly out of line with his career rates, but he was clearly more likely to regress than repeat, and this year he's right back with a 116 OSP+. To be fair, LaRoche has managed to hit .327/.413/.606 since May 1, so while his April still hurt the Nationals, he wasn't a problem in the last month-plus -- whether he continues to hit going forward is another question, though.

Then there's Espinosa, who opted not to have the torn rotator cuff he played with last season surgically repaired over the winter and has been playing with a bone chip in his right wrist since being hit by a pitch on April 15. Espinosa's offensive game has collapsed completely. He is currently 4-for-his-last 51 with one walk, no extra-base hits, and 22 strikeouts over his last 14 games -- all starts -- and hitting .158/.193/.272 (28 OPS+!). Espinosa's collapse has been so dramatic that it deserves its own column. At this point I can't see any reason for the Nationals not to force him to the disabled list, even if backup second baseman Steve Lombardozzi has been struggling at the plate as well (.231/.246/.298, 51 OPS+) and forced into duty in left field in place of Harper's initial replacement Tyler Moore, who is hitting an Espinosa-like .151/.200/.269 (29 OPS+).

Here we get into another major source of the Nationals' struggles. Adding in outfielder Roger Bernadina, who is hitting .161/.215/.264 (33 OPS+) and backup corner infielder Chad Tracy, who is hitting .151/.196/.208 (13 OPS+), the Nationals have a group of five players who have been a collective 3.4 wins below replacement level at the plate (using Baseball-Reference's oWAR) to this point this season. Collectively Espinosa, the Nationals' starting second baseman, and Lombardozzi, Moore, Bernadina, and Tracy, the four most frequently used players off their bench, have combined to hit .176/.213/.271 in 544 plate appearances thus far, and in the wake of Harper's knee injury, the Nationals have started three men from that group in each of the last seven games, going 2-5 with 3.4 runs scored per game over that span.

Something's got to give. These bats should come around to some degree, and if they don't, the Nationals can't continue to play them. The whole concept of replacement level is based on the fact that performances such as these need not be endured. Jayson Werth is expected to return to the lineup tonight. Anthony Rendon is learning second base in Triple-A. Things should improve, but Desmond and maybe LaRoche are not likely to be among them, and given his injuries, Espinosa may not be any time soon, either. Don't count the Nationals out completely, but a lot of damage has already been done, and that improvement, while somewhat inevitable, has yet to begin.

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