Nov 18, 2013, 6:00 AM EST
Pose the following question — What was the biggest reason the Nationals underperformed this season? — and you’d probably get various forms of the same answer: They didn’t hit enough.
Which leads to obvious questions about the possibility of upgrading the lineup this winter in hopes of fielding a more offensively productive group in 2014.
But do the Nationals actually need to make changes to their lineup? It should be noted that all eight regulars are already signed or under team control, so any addition would have to also include a subtraction of some type.
Truth be told, the eight guys who filled out Davey Johnson’s regular lineup during the second half of the 2013 season were productive enough to win. And should Matt Williams be given the same eight guys in 2014, there’s ample reason to believe they’ll not only be productive enough but should be even better.
Though it’s easy (and not necessarily incorrect) to say the Nationals didn’t hit enough this year, their regular lineup actually did. When healthy and on the field.
Using the stat OPS+, which normalizes a player’s on-base-plus-slugging-percentages for ballparks, six of the Nats’ eight regulars were above-average hitters while the other two were just a tick below average.
An OPS+ of 100 is considered the league average. Every point up or down from there is one percentage point above or below average. So, Jayson Werth (with an OPS+ of 154) was 54 percent better than league average this year. Bryce Harper (133), Ryan Zimmerman (121), Ian Desmond (114), Wilson Ramos (111) and Adam LaRoche (102) all rated above average as well. Yes, even LaRoche, despite a major drop-off from his fantastic 2012, still rated slightly better than average in 2013.
Anthony Rendon (99) and Denard Span (94), meanwhile, came up just a bit below average, though hardly by a significant margin.
What to make of this? Well, obviously Werth and Harper were beasts at the plate when healthy. Zimmerman, Desmond and Ramos were all very good. And LaRoche, while sub-par by the career standard he has set for himself, was productive enough to at least function as an average big-league offensive player.
Rendon and Span each struggled at times but each showed flashes of what they can be, and there’s reason to believe each will show marked improvement in 2014. Rendon, because he’ll have his first big-league season under his belt. Span, because he’ll be more comfortable with NL pitching in his second go-around and because he made some key tweaks to his swing and his approach during the season’s second half.
Those eight guys weren’t collectively responsible for the Nationals’ offensive woes in 2013. The guys who came off the bench, however, were.
It’s not unusual for bench players to rate as below-average hitters — that’s why they’re on the bench in the first place — but the Nationals’ reserves were absolute bottom-feeders this season. Nine other players received at least 36 plate appearances in 2013, and not one posted an OPS+ better than 69. That means even the best guys on the Nats’ bench (Steve Lombardozzi and Scott Hairston) were 31 percent worse than league average.
And don’t get started on Danny Espinosa, whose OPS+ sat at a pathetic 27 when he was banished to Class AAA Syracuse in early June, fourth-worst among all NL players with at least 100 plate appearances.
Point is, if the Nationals are hoping to improve offensively in 2014, they may not need to improve their starting lineup. They do, however, desperately need to upgrade their bench. And then hope their starters actually remain in the lineup through the full season.
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