Nationals (Almost) Quarterly Report

Quick Reminder: District Sports page has added their EndNF post, and you should go read it. You’ll also want to read our Get to Know NF post, The Nats Blog’s follow up post, a post from Patrick Reddington on Federal Baseball, and Matt’s Bats post as well.

With just over 20% of the games done, and the Nats on the road to the West Coast, I figured it was a good time to do a little spot checking as to how the Nats are doing so far this year. On the surface, they’re tied for first place with a record of 19-15, so that seems good. Still, there are bumps and problems and the team isn’t perfect, so any nervous fan can find something to nitpick about. Indeed. Let’s start with this little stunner. The Nats record through 34 games the last three years:

2012: 21-13 (When they won the NL East)
2013: 19-15 (When they missed the playoffs entirely)
2014: 19-15

Whoa, we need a sarcastic tweet to sum up how to feel about the fact the Nats are doing no better than last year’s “dog” of a team:

Yep. It’s true. Pack your bags kids, this show is over!

Of course it isn’t. Let’s just take a little deeper look here. How about Runs Scored vs. Runs Allowed?

2012: 115-97 (+18)
2013: 121-130 (-9)
2014: 143-129 (+14)

The wonderful thing about comparing years is that, even in these early stages, you can’t help but carry your impressions of the whole year over into the current season. The Nats as far as run differential (which tends to be an pretty decent predictor of final records) shows this team is playing much more like 2012 than like 2013. The two win difference could be completely accidental, chalked up to “that’s baseball.”

So the Nats are playing very well, despite a few key injuries (Zimmerman, Harper, Ramos was gone until yesterday, and Doug Fister hasn’t played either). You can certainly cite the bench as some of the improvement over last year’s team. Whether it is a much better bullpen (Zach Duke and Henry Rodriguez anyone?), or the actual bats off the bench (Steve Lombardozzi and Chad Tracy anyone?), the Nats have been able to replace their few injuries with much better players than last year.

Let’s bounce around a bit. How’s the offense doing? I’m sticking with wOBA through April (read about it here) for this one. Just think of it as “Super Batting Average” if you must:

2012: .279 (27th in league)
2013: .301 (25th in league)
2014: .325 ( 8th in league)

Keep in mind that the 2013 team still had Bryce Harper in April, despite losing handful of other players. The 2012 team, the one with the best record, was really struggling to hit the ball (evidence by the fact that they scored the least runs of those teams). 2014 has been, despite missing three key offensive weapons, a pretty good year so far for the Nats bats.

Let’s look at pitching, as a team:

2012 ERA 2.33 FIP 2.62 (This is absurd)
2013 ERA 3.8 FIP 3.81 (This was slightly worse than mediocre)
2014 ERA 3.16 (5th best) FIP 3.08 (2nd best)

Now, as David Huzzard rightly points out, these are full team stats. The starters are averaging closer to 10th best in the league, and the bullpen has been very good (Despite all your anger towards Tyler Clippard and/or Ross Detwiler and/or whoever you think is awful).

Also, reflect on the absolute video game numbers the Nats were putting up in 2012 for pitching. How do you score 18 more runs than your opponents when you’re third from the bottom in hitting? You put up an absurd (ABSURD) ly good pitching performance on the mound.

The Nats are absolutely not perfect though. The Nats are the 6th worst defensive team if you go by errors (a lovely 29, or just under one a game) or third from the bottom if you go by fangraphs defensive ratings (which has calculated they’ve given up just under 11 runs (or about 1 WAR) based on fielding). Nats fans need look no further back than Tuesday night’s debacle to see the full three ring circus in effect when the Nats take the field.

Also, while I plan to make this a seperate post, having new skipper Matt Williams going through the growing pains of learning how to be an MLB manager has certainly cost the Nats in spots. I’ve come around to the fact that his lineups need to be better (and they are a little better than those first few whack out jobs he did), but his bullpen and pitcher management is baffling. Getting guys up just to throw, sitting them back down, forgetting Ross Detwiler is on the team at all, not having guys up in case another one struggles… Matt Williams does not have a feel for these things at all. It doesn’t mean he can’t or won’t get better at them, and I’m certainly not ready to call him a “bad manager” by any stretch- but don’t kid yourself. The Skip has probably cost the team a game or two over the first month of the season.

Still, the prognosis going forward can only be sunny. I am going to put on a full “not trying to jinx it here” but there is something refreshing about being in a better place than last year waiting for key players to get back. We’re holding a paper towel on a cut while the nurse comes back with some band-aids rather than slowly drowning in quicksand waiting for a friend to come back with a branch. As well as the team has played (and we’ll do another post about particularly good players at the quarter mark) without Zim, Ramos and Fister it’ll be great to have them all back on the team again. The Nationals are a good baseball team with a lot of upside that doesn’t have to dig themselves out of a hole. There is both the room, and the means, to play better, but at 19-15 the Nats are almost playing with house money right now.

It’s a good spot to be in.

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