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.
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.
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.