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Improved lineup has keyed late-season surge

Sep 6, 2013, 6:00 AM EDT

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The Nationals spent the better part of four months trying to figure out why they haven’t been as successful a ballclub as they (and everyone else) expected they’d be in 2013, and mostly emerged with no clear-cut answer. Was it the lack of clutch hits? An unproductive bench? An erratic bullpen? Bad defense? All of the above.

Well, over the last four weeks, the Nationals have managed to hit the reset button and play their best baseball of the year. Since getting swept by the Braves August 5-7 to fall 15 1/2 games back in the NL East, they’ve gone 17-8 and made a last-ditch charge to participate in a pennant race before this whole thing is over.

There’s still plenty of work to be done. The Nationals enter the weekend 7 games behind the Reds for the final Wild Card berth in the NL, with only 23 games to go. But if they can play their final 23 games the same way they played their last 25, they should at the very least make this thing interesting.

Why have they been so much better in the last month? The answer actually is quite simple: They’ve made a dramatic improvement at the plate.

Let’s compare the Nationals’ offensive stats from their first 114 games (through that sweep at the hands of the Braves) versus their stats from their last 25 games…

HITTING
       Before 8/9   Since 8/9
AVG          .240        .292
OBP          .299        .366
SLG          .384        .440
OPS          .683        .806
R/G           3.7         5.2
H/G           8.0        10.4
BB/G          2.7         3.9
SO/G          7.5         7.4

The difference is fairly staggering. The Nationals have improved by leaps and bounds in nearly every category. They’re getting more hits. They’re putting more men on base. They’re hitting for more power. And, most importantly, they’re scoring more runs.

And it’s not only one or two players keying this offensive surge. Improved production has come up and down the lineup.

Since August 9, Jayson Werth is hitting .333 with a .955 OPS. Denard Span is hitting .354 with a .402 on-base percentage. Ryan Zimmerman is hitting .307 and slugging .505. Bryce Harper has a .411 on-base percentage and .854 OPS. Ian Desmond is hitting .347 and slugging .531.

Perhaps the surprising aspect of this August-September surge has been on the pitching side. The Nationals’ staff has put up nearly identically numbers over the last 25 games as it did over the first 114 games…

PITCHING
       Before 8/9   Since 8/9

ERA          3.73        3.70
OPP AVG      .252        .246
OPP OBP      .310        .304
OPP SLG      .388        .389
OPP OPS      .698        .693
R/G           4.0         4.2
H/G           8.6         8.6
BB/G          2.6         2.8
SO/G          7.6         7.9

Rarely do stats tell such a clear-cut story, but it’s hard to dispute them in this case. For four months, the Nationals had one of baseball’s least-productive lineups and struggled because of it. And for the last four weeks, they’ve had a far more-productive lineup and played far better because of it.

In all likelihood, it’s too little, too late. But it is perhaps comforting on some level to know this team really was talented enough to hit all along. It just took them until August to show it.

  1. NatsLady - Sep 6, 2013 at 6:48 AM

    We need one of the three NL Central Teams to do this and keep doing it–

    …the Rays lost for the ninth time in their last 12 games.

  2. ArVAFan - Sep 6, 2013 at 6:54 AM

    Re: Hitting. Wonder how much of the improvement should be credited to Schu? Certainly Denard Span gives him credit for his improvement. As mentioned in the article linked on the previous blog page, Werth credits a change he made after looking at video of Harper. But it’s not just those two.

    • Sec 309 - Sep 6, 2013 at 9:27 AM

      Werth made his adjustment after watching Harper video in early June, long before Schu arrived.

  3. timjoebob - Sep 6, 2013 at 7:02 AM

    On July 22nd, Schu replaced Eckstein. Add two weeks for the players to adjust and buy-in, and Voila! I’d be very interested to see Desi’s numbers since then. I believe the approach of the batters has changed — they changed their approach based on who is pitching. If aggressiveness is called for, they’re aggressive. If patience is needed, they’re patient.

    Now… if LaRoche could get hot….

  4. Hiram Hover - Sep 6, 2013 at 7:46 AM

    How much of this is the luck of facing lousy pitching?

    Since 8/9, the Nats have faced only two teams with a good pitching staff (Braves, best in the NL by ERA; Royals, ditto in AL). Phils (whom they’ve faced twice) are worst in the NL. Cubs and Giants are also in the bottom 5. That’s 13 of 25 games against some of the worst teams in the league.

    I’m happy to see our guys feasting on bad pitching, but they’re still the same guys.

    • Ghost of Steve M. - Sep 6, 2013 at 10:35 AM

      I was thinking the same thing as that has to marginally improve things but I do see a better situational approach although that could just be credited to confidence.

    • Eugene in Oregon - Sep 6, 2013 at 11:08 AM

      Fair point, but Nats also faced some mediocre — even bad — pitchers in the first 100 games and they couldn’t them either.

    • Section 222 - Sep 6, 2013 at 11:58 AM

      How much? Unfortunately, most of it. The fact is that the Nats have played well, and hit well, against bad teams. They have played poorly, and hit poorly, against good teams. That is why they are, essentially, a .500 team this year. I predict that the hot streak will come to an end when they play the Braves next week and the Cards and the D-Backs at the end of the season.

      We are what we are.

      • naterialguy - Sep 6, 2013 at 12:34 PM

        I don’t agree with that assessment. We were making rookie unheard of or just plane poor pitchers look like Cy Young during the first half

  5. Doc - Sep 6, 2013 at 8:02 AM

    As for the delayed reaction, as Davey stated, ‘Some of them are slow learners’.

    Let’s see if this ‘new found’ courage is applicable to beating the Braves next week. Even at that, the Reds have better pitching at the moment, and we can only hope they take the nosedive over the next 3 weeks that they didn’t take over the previous 3 weeks.

    Hoping for the best, expecting the worst.

  6. Sec 3, My Sofa - Sep 6, 2013 at 9:08 AM

    I’d be satisfied to go with “Same guys, different opponents” except for the few remarks Schu made right after he got here, regarding what he considered inexplicably bad approaches at the plate.

  7. willllllll - Sep 6, 2013 at 9:08 AM

    This isn’t so much about Desmond, Werth, Zimmerman or Harper batting well. They’ve been decent-to-good all season. For example, on August 8, Werth was hitting .308 with a .908 OPS, Zimmerman was hitting .270, slugging .427, Harper had a .366 OBP and .894 OPS, Desmond was hitting .270 and slugging .462. Not too shabby. Only Span has actually turned his season around, the others have had moderate improvements (and Harper has actually played worse).

    The difference is that Rizzo has finally forced Davey’s hand and prevented him from starting terrible baseball players. No more of Kurt Suzuki’s .593 OPS and inability to catch basestealers. No more of Danny Espinosa’s .193 OBP. No more crappy at bats from Bernadina. Unfortunately, Rizzo and Davey are still inexplicably infatuated with Hairston, so there’s still some room for progress.

    • bowdenball - Sep 6, 2013 at 10:31 AM

      Hear hear.

      It’s not about “facing lousy pitching.” It’s not about “a bunch of guys with talent not using it for four months.” It’s not about replacing Eckstein with Schu. It’s about removing the dead weight from the lineup. Suzuki was awful at the plate. Espinosa was awful. Bernadina was awful. Tracy was and is awful. Moore and Lombo were awful, although they seem to have picked it up a bit . Collectively those guys haven’t had a lot of plate appearances for the Nationals since August 9, after appearing pretty regularly prior to that.. Amazing how much better an offense performs when you remove the automatic outs.

      • Hiram Hover - Sep 6, 2013 at 10:52 AM

        Man, Danny E is the gift that keeps on giving.

        He’s been gone since early June, and folks are still saying his departure explains a “turn around” that began less than a month ago.

        I’m glad some of the dead wood is gone, and in some case I wish it had been pruned earlier. But marginal players like Bernadina and long-gone players like Danny E weren’t what was dragging them down in July, when they went 11-16 and saw their playoff hopes all but disappear.

      • bowdenball - Sep 6, 2013 at 11:44 AM

        HH-

        It doesn’t matter that Espinosa has been gone since June- the comparison is between before August 9 and after August 9, and there are a LOT of games before August 9 that featured the since-departed players, including Espinosa.

        You’re right that Espi and Bernadina weren’t the problem in July … because the offense wasn’t a problem in July after they left. July was the Nationals highest-scoring month at that point, with 106 runs scored despite the ASB. The problem in July was run prevention and bad luck, not the improving offense that was starting to see the benefit of the improved lineup.

      • Hiram Hover - Sep 6, 2013 at 12:31 PM

        bowendball

        Well, both pitching and offense were a problem at various points in July, which is what made it so horrible a month. But the offense gets plenty of blame.

        Because of some blowouts (10+ runs scored in 3 different games), the monthly total obscures how badly the offense performed in many individual games.

        In 27 games, the offense managed:

        0-1 runs scored – 9 games, 0-9 record
        2 runs scored – 6 games, 1-5 record
        3-4 runs scored – 2 games, 1-1 record
        5+ runs scored – 10 games, 9-1 record

        So that’s 15 games in which they scored 0-2 runs, and they lost 14. Pitching would have to out of the world to win of those games.

      • Section 222 - Sep 6, 2013 at 1:33 PM

        Um, Bernadina didn’t leave until August 17.

        The Nats had 4176 PAs before August 9. Bernadina had 164 (.039), Espi had 167 (.040), Tracy had 106 (.025), Moore had 113 (.027), Lombo had 224 (.053). I wouldn’t call that appearing regularly. And three of them are still on the team. Out of the team’s 1019 PAs since August 9, Lombo has 41 (.040). So he’s playing about as regularly as before.

        I don’t think the difference in playing time for this deadwood (and I totally agree that it was, and still is, deadwood — why is Chad Tracy still on the team exactly?) is the explanation for the Nats recent improvement, nor do I think they are responsible for the our terrible play just before and after the ASG. That’s when the season was lost in my opinion.

  8. Theophilus T.S. - Sep 6, 2013 at 10:12 AM

    I don’t know how you can “take comfort” in a bunch of guys with talent not using it for four months.

    I also note Zimmerman’s recent comment, reported in WaPo, to the effect that if he gets hot and hits 5-6 HR in the last few weeks he’ll have had an OK season. Different face of the same coin.

  9. Faraz Shaikh - Sep 6, 2013 at 10:16 AM

    I would be interested in seeing Nats stats for 3 intervals; opening day to the day Werth joined in June, from that day to Eckstein firing, and from there to now. For last two intervals, I want to see it with and without Werth’s stats included in team stats. I am hoping these cutoffs are more meaningful.

    • Section 222 - Sep 6, 2013 at 1:57 PM

      See my effort to provide these numbers in the most recent post.

      • Faraz Shaikh - Sep 6, 2013 at 5:53 PM

        Thank you Section 222. I am guessing you are referring to your 1:33 PM post.

        I also tried to pull some stats via BBref for aforementioned intervals. Here are the links:

        First 57 Games

        Games 58-97

        Games 59-Present

        One obvious correlation as Mark also pointed out from his numbers is runs per game and Nationals record. When they scored 3.5 runs per game for first 57 games, their record was 28-29. Once that jumped to 4.1 runs per game for next forty games, record does not improve significantly (20-20). In last 42 games since Eckstein has left, Nationals have scored 4.5 runs per game and managed a 23-19 record. However if you look at number of contenders faced, we have 10 series (of unequal games per series obv) in first stretch, 3 in the second stretch, and 5 in the last stretch. I think I agree with whoever said that quality of opponent might have something to do with our recent improved hitting.

      • Faraz Shaikh - Sep 6, 2013 at 5:54 PM

        I could not find team stats without Werth’s numbers for last two intervals because I just don’t know where to look.

      • Faraz Shaikh - Sep 6, 2013 at 5:56 PM

        One final comment I would make about numbers since Eck’s departure is that I refuse to believe a spike in numbers is due to coaching unless we know for a fact that the hitting coach has gotten rid of any bad habits player was committing or introduced any good habits.

  10. Theophilus T.S. - Sep 6, 2013 at 10:20 AM

    While hopes remain the Nats will somehow catch somebody and be able to claim they are a playoff team, the stench of the first two-thirds of the season will remain until at least next April. Even if by some Applegate-inspired miracle they were to win the whole damn thing. The fans have two jobs: (1) accept the late-arriving stretch of viewable, enjoyable baseball as a sort of 2013 going-away present and hope somehow they win 18-19 more games; (2) pray that in the off-season they hire a manager who will insist on their best, most-focused efforts starting on Opening Day and continuing throughout the 2014 season.

  11. Section 222 - Sep 6, 2013 at 10:23 AM

    The Nats finally hit their stride right after that disastrous Braves series at Nats Park where they lost 2 one run games and then in the third had a bullpen meltdown in the 7th and 8th and had winning run at the plate in the 9th but couldn’t come through. Maybe at that point they realized they just aren’t as good as the Braves this year and have no chance to catch them. So they just relaxed, stopped pressing, and figured what will be will be.

    There’s a lot of talent on this team, and they’ve shown it this month. Unfortunately, the baseball season is a marathon not a sprint. And they fell way too far behind over the first 24 miles.

  12. Hiram Hover - Sep 6, 2013 at 10:37 AM

    I have no problem with Schu–I’m sure he’s helped individual hitters in some ways. But I’m skeptical that much of this is about him.

    As others have pointed out, Werth heated up before Schu arrived, and Desmond’s hottest month was in fact June. And in Desi’s case, I don’t see any fundamentally different approach at the plate–in fact, I see too many guys, overall, who still lack a plan, and (for example) take senseless 3-0 hacks.

    I’m not blaming Schu for their mistakes–I’m just skeptical that he gets much credit for their successes either.

  13. Section 222 - Sep 6, 2013 at 11:04 AM

    HH, thanks for being the voice of reason on Schu. It just seems far fetched to think this turnaround is his doing. That you have to arbitrarily pick two weeks as the time it took for his message to “sink in” underscores that point. Correlation is not causation folks.

    • Ghost of Steve M. - Sep 6, 2013 at 11:19 AM

      I agree with you but whatever the reasoning the overall numbers improved and this is a what have you done for me lately business. I just know I have been complaining less about approach.

      Schu is the guy here right now and by default will get the bulk of the statistical credit or blame whichever way it happens to go just like Eck.

      Now with that said, fix LaRoche!

    • Faraz Shaikh - Sep 6, 2013 at 5:57 PM

      Oops I missed this post.

      I completely agree with you.

  14. Ghost of Steve M. - Sep 6, 2013 at 11:08 AM

    If Schu can turnaround Hairston I will be impressed. I’m still amazed that Rizzo’s first trade in July was for another Mendoza guy. Hitting coaches need quality in to send quality out.

  15. Theophilus T.S. - Sep 6, 2013 at 11:35 AM

    Hairston — hopefully — won’t get enough ABs the rest of the year to turn it around. That depends to some extent on Harper’s health but I’d much sooner see Moore or Brown — one LH, one RH — get Harper’s rest days. I too don’t get the magical thinking that led Rizzo to go after Hairston — who has a contract for next year — on the basis of one mildly impressive season in an otherwise undistinguished career. If the Cubs couldn’t use him, who could?

    The Nats need to spend money on their 2014 bench and one of the best ways they could spend money would be to forward Hairston’s paychecks to his mailbox at home or wherever he’s sitting, waiting for a phone call.

    In a “What have you done for me lately” sport, why are teams — the teams who have financial resources — so reluctant to admit their mistakes and move on?

    • Mrsb loves the Nats - Sep 6, 2013 at 11:42 AM

      Not just the bench… but the BP/SP too…

      But my solution is to move Det to the BP, get another LHSP, Rid Matheus, Rid Abad, get another RHP…

      that is just off the top of my head…

      • Section 222 - Sep 6, 2013 at 11:55 AM

        Your dedication to the Det to the bullpen idea is admirable, but it’s just not going to happen. Lefty starters who can throw 93-95 don’t grow on trees. Det will be traded before they’ll stash him in the bullpen. He just needs to get healthy.

  16. Mrsb loves the Nats - Sep 6, 2013 at 11:43 AM

    HH said ‘I see too many guys, overall, who still lack a plan, and (for example) take senseless 3-0 hacks.’

    =====

    The bane of my existence… I complain each and every time… The green light shouldn’t automatically be given, if ever….

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