Washington Nationals Report Card: April and May 2014

We’ve seen just over one-third of the Washington Nationals’ games this season, and with a 27-28 record, this certainly isn’t the position many expected the Nats to be in at this point. That said, we must remind you, and occasionally ourselves, that baseball has a preposterously long season. Despite playing 55 games already, there are still 107 to go.

Still, after two months worth of baseball, it’s probably not a bad idea to take a look at the Nats performance after the first trimester. We’re going to break down the successes, mediocrities, and failures we’ve seen so far and attempt to give each facet of the team a fair, statistically-driven letter grade for the 2014 campaign through today.

Starting Pitching: B+

There has been quite a bit of talk that the Nats starting pitching has performed below expectations this season. Stephen Strasburg, statistically one of the best pitchers in baseball this season, and Jordan Zimmermann, who has admittedly had some uncharacteristic command issues, seem to be the reason for that. But the Nationals starters have a 3.50 xFIP, fifth best in baseball, and a 4.8 WAR, tenth-best in the league. They also post strong ground ball (47.2%, tenth) and strikeout (8.19 K/9, third) rates, which seems both counterintuitive and impressive.

The one thing keeping the starters from an A- is innings pitched. They’ve thrown just 313 innings this season, which is fourth-lowest in baseball.

Bullpen: B+

The Nats relievers have been extremely effective this season in their 174.1 innings pitched. They have a 2.1 WAR (eighth) and an above-average 3.58 xFIP (tenth), but what stands out to me is their left-on-base rate at 79.7%, or fourth-best in baseball. While some of these stranded runners were actually put on base by the same relievers, it speaks well to their effectiveness to come into a game and not allow runners to score, which is one of the most valuable things a reliever can do.

Offense: C-

A low grade was pretty much expected here. The Nats have seen three (Ryan Zimmerman, Bryce Harper, Adam LaRoche) of their best four hitters spend time on the disabled list this season, and in the cases of Zimmerman and Harper, it’s been significant time. It’s hard for an offense to work through those types of losses. Still, most of their stats are around the middle of the pack, like WAR (18th), wOBA (14th), and wRC+ (15th).

The real issue is being able to drive in runners that have already reached. They have scored just 12% of base runners, which is dead last in baseball. With a runner on third an less than two outs, only 43% of those runners have scored, which is also worst in the league. They’ve also advanced just 43% of runners at second base with none out, which is second-worst. So, it’s the situational stuff that gives them a C- rather than a C.

Defense: F

It’s gotten a bit better lately, but in short, the Nationals’ defense has been absolutely atrocious. If you like the standard defensive stat, the Nats lead the NL with 46 errors and only the Indians across baseball, who have 55(!).

If you like advanced numbers, the tale isn’t any better. The team-wide UZR/150 rate, which tries to give an idea of runs saved or lost over the course of 150 games, is grim. It says that the Nats’ defense has cost their team almost nine more runs than average, ranking them 28th out of 30. The FanGraphs Defense stat shows that they’ve given up 12.4 more runs than average, ranking them 24th.

So, for all of the griping about the offense, maybe everyone should’ve been looking here for the real source of the problem all along. That’s a lot of free runs thrown away.

Manager: C

Matt Williams is a rookie manager that certainly had some learning to do on the job, and I think he’s doing that well. We’ve seen significantly fewer random lineups lately, which is probably due more to fewer viable starting options than anything, but it’s still good to see. It’s hard to deny that Williams was dealt a tough hand to start the season.

It’s often mentioned that he’s had his Opening Day lineup for just the first seven innings of the season before Wilson Ramos left that game with a broken bone in his hand, and Williams has been struggling to get consistent offense from his team ever since.

My biggest point of contention with Williams’ decisions so far this season is bullpen use. And no, I’m not talking about who is closing games; I think it’s pretty clear that Rafael Soriano deserves that spot for now. Jerry Blevins and Tyler Clippard have each pitched in a preposterous 27 of the 55 games this season, and Aaron Barrett warms up just about every single day, even if he doesn’t come in to pitch that game.

While the relievers are still pitching well, over a 162 game season, they’re going to break down quickly. Part of this is a product of needing the starters to go deeper into games, but another is Williams needing to spread the load among his capable relievers.

All stats are from FanGraphs or Baseball-Reference.

Joe Drugan

About Joe Drugan

Joe is the Managing Editor of The Nats Blog and host of the Nats Talk On The Go podcast. He's been blogging about the Nationals since 2010 and with The Nats Blog since 2011.