The 2012 Washington Nationals won 98 games, the most in baseball. They did it behind a great starting pitching staff, and with a few able relievers, but also with the help of an above-average offense. The Nationals were 10th in baseball in scoring last season, fifth in the National League, and first in their division. When people analyzed them before this season, Washington's predicted finish often centered on the health of the pitching staff. If Strasburg, Gonzalez, Zimmermann et al. stay healthy, so the thought process went, they would be effective because they are Strasburg, Gonzalez, Zetimmermann et al. And if they are effective, the Nationals would once again lay waste to the National League East. The offense was assumed. Maybe they'd be a bit better, maybe a bit worse, but they'd sink or swim on the quality of the pitching.
We're almost a third of the way through the season and, as sometimes is the case, the pre-season guess appears inaccurate. The Nationals have struggled, but it hasn't been the fault of the pitching. The pitching has been there. Maybe not to the standard set last season, but the Nationals are seventh in ERA, fifth in FIP, tied for sixth in FRA, and ninth in earned runs allowed. So why are the Nationals, the team many picked to win the World Series, hovering a game over .500 and 4.5 games behind Atlanta? In a word: offense.
So, question: If you were the Washington Nationals offense, where would you hide? Behind the couch seems too obvious. In the attic is too creepy. You'd think the Nationals would have checked both places, too. My mom always said, when you lose something, retrace your steps. Where did you have it last? The problem is the Nationals last had their offense in 2012, so unless General Manager Mike Rizzo is eschewing the draft for a time machine (debatably a better expenditure of his time), that won't work.
This season they're averaging 3.38 runs per game. Last season they scored 4.51. That's a difference of [insert abacus joke] more than a run a game. Over a full season it's a difference of 183 runs. Last season, it was greater than the difference between the first place Texas Rangers and the 26th place Los Angeles Dodgers. That's a lot.
So, okay, the Nationals offense has been worse. Fine. I get it. But why?
Good question, italicized voice. I'll answer that, but it's easier to start at "why not?" The answer to that is Bryce Harper. I wrote about Harper here before the season and about the difficulty in predicting the play of such a supreme, but young, talent. A third of the way through the season, we appear to have our answer. Harper is the only full-time National with an OPS above .900. In fact, he's the only National with an OPS above .800, too (Ryan Zimmerman's OPS is now exactly .800). But semantics aside, Harper has been the Nationals' offense. That's a lot to put on Miguel Cabrera, let alone a 20-year-old in his first full big league season, but Harper has handled it perfectly so far. It's hard to write about Harper without saying things like "He's amazing" and "He's incredible" and "He's really, really good." So I won't say those things (I just said those things), but I will say that he's going to need some help if the Nationals are going to make their World Series appointment in October.
So far he hasn't received much. Last season, the Nationals had five players finish the season with over 300 plate appearances and an OPS of at least .800. In addition to Harper (he's so unbelievable!), those players were Jayson Werth, Ian Desmond, Adam LaRoche and Ryan Zimmerman. Zimmerman has had throwing problems, and hasn't hit for much power, but has offset that with a very good on-base percentage. It's not ideal, and the Nationals are paying him to be a star third baseman (not a DH with on-base skills), but at least Zimmerman hasn't been the main problem -- so far.
The core of Desmond, LaRoche and Werth is where we start to see why the Nationals haven't been scoring runs. Desmond had one of maybe the most unappreciated seasons last year, hitting .292/.335/.511 with 25 homers as a shortstop. Because of that slash line, the 2012 Nationals had one of the best shortstops in baseball. This season has been a different story. Desmond hasn't exactly fallen off a cliff and it's still early, but there has been regression in his on-base skills and his power. It wasn't hard to see this coming (Baseball Prospectus projected similar numbers), but it's been a step back in production for Desmond. Still, like Zimmerman, that's a smaller portion of the problem, not the core.
In 2012, Adam LaRoche ended up with a Desmond-like line of .271/.343/.510 with 33 homers. After much off-season wrangling, he re-signed in Washington and has so far (so far!) been a bust. To date, LaRoche has lost 50 points of batting average, 40 points of on-base percentage, and 126 points of slugging percentage. It's not fair to expect LaRoche to replicate his excellent 2012 season, but so far he's been awful at the plate and a big reason why the Nationals have failed to keep pace with their run scoring last season.
Jayson Werth is in the LaRoche camp as well. The Nationals are already paying Werth huge dollars (a highly debatable contract at the time) and right now that big dollar player has a smidge over a .700 OPS. In fairness to Werth, he has battled injuries, so that is probably part of the drop in hitting. Both Werth and LaRoche are probably better players than they're showing right now -- same with new center fielder Denard Span. Span is hitting worse than his fellow paragraph members (a .661 OPS) but the good news is that, like LaRoche and Werth, there is potential to bounce back toward a career norm (.740 OPS). That should comfort any Nats fans looking for a couch to hide behind.
Less comforting are the situations at second base and catcher. Starting catcher Wilson Ramos came back from injury and promptly got hurt again. Kurt Suzuki has replicated most of his performance, but is starting to backslide into Kurt Suzuki-dom. Wilson has a hamstring strain that has put him on the 15-day disabled list. If he's able to recover soon, the Nationals won't burn Suzuki out, but if he's out a while, Suzuki could end up over-exposed and his production will start to fall even further.
The Nationals don't need another black hole in the lineup, as they already have second baseman Danny Espinosa. Espinosa put up a perfectly adequate .717 OPS last season. Not great, but just fine from a second baseman. This season, his OPS has fallen a bit to .4 and, actually, you don't need the rest of the number. When your OPS starts with a four there are all kinds of problems. The backup second baseman, Steve Lombardozzi, has been only marginally better (OPS beginning with a five) so he's not any kind of solution.
At the end of the story, there is good news. It's still early in the season and the Nationals have a few bounce-back candidates in their lineup whose increased production could help push their offense out of the weeds. But there is also bad news in that some of this drop is probably here to stay. Ryan Zimmerman is battling injuries and his throwing yips can't be helping his hitting any. Jayson Werth is better than this, but at 34 and with constant injury issues of his own, asking how much better is more than fair. LaRoche is the same age and while he isn't this bad, expecting 2012 again is asking to be let down. The second base situation doesn't figure to improve more than marginally, and catcher could quickly become a black hole as well.
Last year, the Nationals rode their pitching staff to the best record in baseball. This year the pitching staff will have to lead the way again, and likely with less help from the lineup. The Nationals offense is out to lunch, or maybe behind the couch, or possibly hiding in the basement. They're somewhere, and they're probably not coming out till at least the trade deadline and maybe much longer.