The Washington Nationals were as close to a unanimous pre-season favorite to win their division as baseball has seen in 20 years. Despite the Braves’ splashy two-Upton winter, Washington got the plaudits from the punditry. Multiple major prognosticators had them winning 100 or more games. Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated drew a strained comparison to manager Davey Johnson’s 1986 Mets, who won 108 contests.
That’s not going to happen. The race for the NL East title is far from over, but the Nationals are 48-52. Their core includes no truly short-term solutions. Selling is not really on the table. But the new number to aim for is 90 wins, and even that would take a tremendous finish.
The defense has been just okay and the pitching has fallen slightly short of its near-historic expectations, but neither of those things is the problem. The problem is the Nationals’ .290 OBP. The problem is that only the Marlins have scored fewer runs per game, among NL teams. The offense has been atrocious, a nightmare, and that’s what has held back the Nationals.
Injuries played a role in the problem for a significant part of the season. The two best hitters on the roster, Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth, each have missed roughly 35 percent of the season so far. Wilson Ramos also missed a big chunk of time. Ryan Zimmerman missed time. A part of the problem, however small, is that the Nationals were relying on shock troops for a while there.
But that’s far from all of it. Danny Espinosa played hurt early in the season, and was an utter disaster. He struck out in 47 of 167 plate appearances. He walked four times. After finally hitting the DL and recovering somewhat, he was mercifully banished to Triple-A. Denard Span has no home runs in 406 plate appearances. Kurt Suzuki, Roger Bernadina and Steve Lombardozzi, who had some promise and were praised entering the season as perhaps the best bench corps in the National League, were and are unmitigated drains on the roster, gobbling up outs and delivering nothing, no power, no speed, no defense, nothing.
None of those players or units, though, are as big a problem for Washington as this: In 314 plate appearances against left-handed pitchers, left-handed Nationals batters are hitting .165/.234/.250. Even at a time when the platoon split for lefty-lefty matchups has spiraled out of control, that line is abominable. It’s untenable. Span has controlled the strike zone okay, but is hitting .140 with a .160 slugging average against left-handers. Harper has faced lefties 83 times, and is hitting .169/.268/.296. Adam LaRoche has been their best lefty-mashing lefty: .178/.235/.311.
Getting Span off the field has been tricky, because the Nats’ fourth outfielder, Bernadina, bats lefty himself. Harper isn’t the kind of guy one would platoon by instinct, and Scott Hairston has failed to fight his way into the lineup. LaRoche is the guy you might try to sit, but Tyler Moore’s struggles have made that virtually impossible.
I mentioned that the platoon split for left-handed batters is growing on a macro level. It’s true. Here are some numbers, admittedly a week or two stale for 2013, but numbers nonetheless, that illustrate the way the platoon balance has shifted:
League Platoon Splits, 2009-13, by K:BB and tOPS+
|2013||v RHP||v LHP|
|LHB||2.10, 108||3.51, 82|
|RHB||3.12, 95||2.19, 104|
|2012||v RHP||v LHP|
|LHB||2.05, 107||3.27, 79|
|RHB||3.04, 94||2.18, 108|
|2011||v RHP||v LHP|
|LHB||2.00, 106||2.96, 83|
|RHB||2.71, 93||1.96, 109|
|2010||v RHP||v LHP|
|LHB||1.83, 106||2.76, 88|
|RHB||2.67, 95||1.87, 104|
|2009||v RHP||v LHP|
|LHB||1.70, 107||2.61, 88|
|RHB||2.52, 93||1.72, 105|
Magnitude of Platoon Split, 2009-13
|Season||(K:BB w/platoon adv)/(K:BB w/o), LHB||Same for RHB||Ratio of Columns (i.e., K:BB split for LHB/K:BB split for RHB)|
I focused most closely, in the above numbers, on strikeouts and walks. I think that’s where the intrinsic, irreducible portion of the platoon advantage lives. But batted-ball outcomes matter, too, and there’s pretty strong evidence that–whether by dint of defensive shifting affecting lefties disproportionately, or because benches are getting thinner and platoon players are getting exposed, or because the lefty strike-zone bias is forcing them to reach for the ball more, or because there are more and/or better lefty match-up men in bullpens than ever before–lefty hitters are also losing their ability to get hits when they put the ball in play:
|Season||BABIP as LHB|
And it’s particularly pronounced when it comes to lefties facing lefties. This season, the league’s BABIP in those matchups is .276, about 10 points below historical norms.
Now, Washington is not having the strike-zone management issues that have driven lefty production against lefties over a cliff league-wide. Their 70:25 K:BB in 314 plate appearances comes out to a league-average walk rate and just slightly more than the average strikeout rate. The Nationals’ problem has been a .199 (!) BABIP in lefty-lefty face-offs. So whatever is driving the plunge around the league, it may be that Washington is fighting a different battle.
In fact, the Nationals may not be fatally afflicted by anything, really. They may just need to wait it out. A .199 BABIP in a sample of barely over 200 batted balls falls far short of statistical reliability, even if the stat is compiled by many players instead of one. I’m inclined to think the problem is real: Span has just two extra-base hits against lefties all year, Harper’s OPS is worse than halved when a lefty takes the mound, it seems impossible to explain away with variance. Of course, that’s baseball’s favorite trick to play on people.
I will note that LaRoche and Span, who had over 2,000 career plate appearances against lefties entering 2013, entered it with career OPSes of .734 and .724, respectively, in those matchups. That their fortunes have taken such a sharp downturn might indicate that the league-wide shift is real, and based on something mechanical about the game, not about allocation of personnel. It’s not like either was ever platooned, even lightly, before this season, so they aren’t suddenly being overexposed. They’re just being eaten alive.
It may be that lefty hurlers are better than ever. It could be that bullpen specialization is starting to outrun opposing batters’ adjustments. It could be that shifting and general positioning steal that many more hits from lefties than righties. Whatever the reason, though, the Nationals are finding out the hard way that it’s harder than ever to left-handed in this right-handed world. Hairston probably was too low a target; the Nats might want to consider Alex Rios or even Carlos Quentin. If the problems Span, Harper and LaRoche are having are systemic, not personal, they’re likely to continue, and platooning has to become an option.
One last tangent about this, getting away from Washington and their issues. It seems to me that, more than at any period of time in my memory, young, toolsy players are showing up and having immediate, sensational success. Yasiel Puig really made this trend jump the shark, but it started before him, and it continues after him (Junior Lake, a 23-year-old mess of a baseball player but tremendous athlete, is hitting .545 with two home runs in his first five career games).
I know we all want to think Mike Trout is simply a once-in-a-lifetime, generational talent, a future contender for the title of the greatest player of all time, and you know what? I think he probably really is. But it’s weird, that his stunningly immediate and historically out-of-joint success should come at a time when guys like Puig, Lake, Paul Goldschmidt, Manny Machado, all are doing what they’re doing. Remember when Will Middlebrooks looked like the next Kevin Youkilis?
Jose Iglesias, whom no one was sure could hit enough to carry the best glove in affiliated ball at the most important defensive position on the diamond, is currently hitting .348. Adam Jones is a star whose recent binge of walks has brought his seasonal strikeout-to-walk ratio to 81:14 (two of the walks were intentional).
Of the Chicago Cubs’ six-pack of very good positional prospects, only one (Arismendy Alcantara) ever takes the plate left-handed, and he’s a switch-hitter. The Milwaukee Brewers and Chicago White Sox are near-historic in the imbalance of their rosters, leaning toward right-handed hitters. I’m plucking facts more or less at random, you’ll note, and maybe I’m creating a connection between them that does not actually exist.
But something seems to be going on here. Exploding platoon splits. Radical shifts in the way teams align their defense, and use their bullpens. Thinner benches. Sudden success, and success without the prerequisite of any strike-zone control whatsoever. Guys who can throw sliders north of 90 miles per hour. Strikeout rates double what they were 35 years ago. Singles nowhere to be found. It’s a miracle, really, that offense hasn’t collapsed worse than it has. It’s a miracle that anyone gets a hit anymore.
Not that lefties, at least, and lefties on the Nationals, especially, are getting all that many.Next post: What’s Next for the Brewers
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