Aug 11, 2013; San Francisco, CA, USA;Baltimore Orioles left fielder Nate McLouth (9) connects at the plate during the first inning in a game against the San Francisco Giants at AT

Washington Nationals: Use of the Bench


October 2, 2012; Washington, D.C., USA; Washington Nationals left fielder Steve Lombardozzi (1) singles in the first inning against the Philadelphia Phillies at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports

During the 2013 season, the lack of production from the Nationals bench was a clear problem. This was a stark contrast to the bench production in 2012, which was a key reason the Nats won the NL East. The bench players were pretty much the same guys in both years. What was the reason for the difference?

It comes down to a decent amount of playing time enjoyed by the bench in 2012, versus a meager amount of regular playing time for the bench in 2013.

In 2012, due to the early season injuries to Michael Morse and Jayson Werth, Roger Bernadina got a chance to play in the outfield early in the season on a regular basis. The Shark appeared in 129 games in 2012. He had played in 82 of those games by the end of July, with a good mix of starting and pinch-hitting appearances. His batting average was .284 on July 30th, which was amazing considering at the end of April it was .167 and at the end of May it was .230. Bernadina got enough at bats to work through his traditional slow start at the plate at the beginning of the season so that when he mostly pinch hit toward the end of the season (with a decent amount of starts mixed in) he was an effective pinch hitter. He ended the season with a .291 average. He made 41 complete game appearances.

By contrast, in 2013 Bernadina appeared in 85 games until he was let go by the Nationals on August 17th and signed on with the Philadelphia Phillies, 11 less games than the same date in 2012. He only had 25 complete game appearances for the Nats in 2013, which compares with 36 complete game appearances by August 17th of 2012. Bernadina started cold at the plate in April and May as he always does, but was mostly called on to pinch hit and never got enough time at the plate early in the season to get his stroke down. He never recovered and left DC with a .178 batting average.

There were many more playing opportunities for Bernadina in 2013. Bryce Harper played injured and should have been sat sooner than he was. Even when a left fielder was needed, Davey Johnson was putting Steve Lombardozzi in left field more often than Bernadina, which made little sense because Bernadina is known for his fielding.

Tyler Moore is another bench player who was mishandled by Johnson in 2013. In 2012, Moore was called up to the majors on April 29th. He appeared in 75 games after missing the first month of the season. He played no complete games in May 2012, and ended the month with a .158 batting average. In June 2012 he played in 8 complete games and ended the month with a .339 batting average. In July 2012 he played in 3 complete games and 4 in August, and his batting average at the end of those months were .293 and .285 respectively. Seeing the trend here? Moore was making a fair amount of pinch hitting appearances scattered among the complete games, but obviously needed more playing time to produce at the plate.

May 28, 2013; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Nationals outfielder Tyler Moore (12) hits a two run home run during the fourth inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Moore started 2013 as a pinch hitter only. He made his first seven appearances as a pinch hitter or substitute, and his batting average was .000. He didn’t get a hit until his first complete game on April 15th, when he went 2 for 5. He managed one pinch hit in 11 pinch hit appearances in April. And so it went for Moore. He didn’t get enough playing time to get his stroke, and went from June 9th to June 26th without getting into a game at all. At the All Star break he was hitting .157 and was sent to the minors to work on his hitting. Six weeks of consistent playing time at Syracuse produced a player who was hitting .318. Moore returned to the Nats on August 17th and finished the year with a .222 batting average, usually hitting well in complete games and not producing much as a pinch hitter.

There are very few players who can just appear in a game after riding the bench for days and not playing in the field and produce a hit or get on base with a walk. Most bench players need some regular playing time to keep their hitting skills intact.

A good manager of a team can find consistent playing time for one or two backup outfielders and infielders without too much trouble. Looking at the Nats roster, I can see plenty of opportunities to get the bench into the act in 2014 to get them more playing time. If this team intends to make a run at the playoffs, Matt Williams has to plan for keeping players fresh into October and not burn out the starters by September by not giving them adequate time off.

If Adam LaRoche continues to struggle against left handed pitching this season, then he and Moore should be platooning the first base position since Moore is right handed. LaRoche should be getting one game off a week at any rate no matter how he is hitting.

Ian Desmond cannot continue to play every game in which he is not injured. He needs a game off at least every two weeks, and if Danny Espinosa is a bench player for this team, he can play shortstop.

Jayson Werth should never play in April or May when the game time temperature is below 45 degrees. He also should not play on a wet field or late at night when the grass gets a heavy dew on it. Werth has lingering groin and hamstring problems and there is no point in getting him injured on a wet field or during cold conditions early in the year. These are perfect opportunities for Nate McLouth and Scott Hairston to get playing time.

Wilson Ramos cannot catch every day. Johnson about killed Ramos at the end of last season for no good reason. The longer Wilson’s every day playing streak went on, the faster his batting average sunk. Ramos needs at least every third day off, and the team needs to let Jhonatan Solano, Sandy Leon or whoever is the backup catcher play a third of the games. Otherwise, Ramos will be worth nothing at the plate in October.

If Danny Espinosa is the utility infielder, he can spell both Desmond and Anthony Rendon to give them a break and get playing time for Espinosa to see if he is capable of fixing that hole in his swing.

Someone will have to be able to take Ryan Zimmerman’s place at third at least every two weeks. Who that will be remains to be seen. I am not sure that the Nats won’t promote a young infielder or sign another bench player to give them more flexibility on the infield. Espinosa is not incapable of playing at third every two weeks. Harper also needs to be made to take a day off every two weeks just to stay fresher and have the opportunity to study the entire game from the dugout, which is an important learning experience for young players. Bryce could also get some pinch hitting opportunities that way.

With a regular system of days off for the starters, a utility infielder could get two to three games a week, and utility outfielders could get two games a week. This is enough playing time and at bats to keep your bench player’s bats active so that when they are needed to pinch hit they are capable of doing so.

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  • Windy

    Oh Darlene, you got the first part of your analysis correct, that the Nats’ bench was superb in 2012 and horrific in 2013, but then the wheels fall off. Both Moore and the Shark had more at bats by the end of June in 2013 than in 2012. The difference is that both were hitting up a storm by June in 2012 but were anemic in 2013. Even the overly patient Davey Johnson couldn’t keep putting them out there. And when there were injuries to the regulars and their help was especially critical, they failed to step up to the plate, unlike 2012 when the bench often outplayed the starters.

    I actually hope the bench doesn’t get regular at bats because that means there are injuries to the starters or that one or more of the starting eight is under performing. Having the starters play 150 games and hitting well is much more of a critical success factor for a successful 2014 than is Scotty Hairston getting enough ABs. And if our best hitter in 2013 is riding the bench in April and May because it is a bit chilly, hoo boy, have we got trouble. I also hope Wilson is playing three games out of four and not two out of three. The Nats will be better off if Ramos is playing 120-130 games rather than 100-110.

    Obviously, if needed, the hope is the bench performs like the 2012 cast but because, by definition, bench players aren’t all-stars, it is always a crap shoot any time a backup has to replace a regular. Basically, I’m just hoping for adequate (.250-.260, a dollop of pop, some SBs, and good defense) from the Goon Squad in 2014. Anything above that is gravy.

  • Darlene Langley

    Moore had more at bats by the end of June in 2013 than he did in 2013 because he missed the entire month of April in 2012. The types of at bats were the issue. Moore does better when he is playing complete games. He is a miserable pinch hitter. That is not a skill he has acquired. He is a better pinch hitter when he has had some regular complete games to build off of. The issue is not number of at bats. The issue is how do you keep your bench players fresh so that when they are asked to pinch hit or play because of injury they are not routinely going 0-4.

  • Windy

    Sorry, wrong again. The Shark had plenty of ABs in May and June 2013 and hit near the Mendoza line. Tmo had 71 Abs in May and was beyond terrible. Davey gave them ample opportunity and time (too much in my opinion) to get their swings right. The issue is NOT how to keep bench players fresh so that they are not miserable when they pinch hit or sub for a regular. The issue is acquiring players who can thrive as bench players.

    By definition, subs are not as good as regulars. Therefore, in order to stay in the Bigs, they have to be flexible. That means pinch hitting, playing the late innings at one position and subbing for three weeks at another or maybe not playing at all for a week or two at a stretch. If a weak fielding Tmo can only function if he replaces a Gold Glover Adam LaRoche on a regular basis, then it is time to get a new backup.

    More than likely, the subs will get plenty of at bats in 2014 due to injury and hitting slumps. Unfortunately, even with their share of Abs, it will be anybody’s guess which bench shows up in 2014: the Goon Squad of 2012, the dregs of 2013, or something in between. Utility players are generally subpar in some way and often inconsistent from year to year. Sometimes they step up and have career years and make the manager look like a genius, other times, not so much. I trust the starters will stay relatively healthy and productive, but if they don’t, we don’t really need, nor can we expect, the bench to be the Goon Squad of 2012. We just need our subs to possess the skills and the flexibility to be adequate whenever and wherever needed. This would be a huge improvement from last season.