Somewhere I heard that championships are built up the middle. Maybe it was on television. Say Tim McCarver. Perhaps Jim Palmer but he meant himself. Probably it was on a placard in my high school weight room, and it related to football. High schools really love football. Go, fight, win.
Working under the premise that yes, certainly, baseball teams should be strong up the middle, where do the Nationals rank when it comes to quantifying value compared to other NL and MLB contenders?
For the sake of this argument, I have determined value based upon fWAR, and by middle I refer to a team’s shortstop, second baseman, and centerfielder. I use fWAR since Fangraphs allows me to filter down to the position and value is determined by both defense and offense. For a team’s middle three, I selected the players who have played the majority of a team’s games at a given position (for the Nats, Danny Espinosa is the second baseman even though Anthony Rendon was the original starter) or, if the starter is uncertain (the Orioles optioned Steve Lombardozzi to Norfolk for example), the player providing the most value.
Ugh. How’s that for analytical analysis? If there were a better way to describe the current state of the Nationals middle fielders, without invectives, I’d love to say so. In all of MLB, only Toronto and San Diego rank lower. The Padres have produced sub replacement, -1 in fact, which means that Jedd Gyorko, Everth Cabrera, and Will Venable have produced less than 10 runs of value compared to three random Triple-A players. Both the Texas Rangers and Toronto Blue Jays sit at 0.3, and the Nats are only nominally better at 0.5.
There are, of course, a few reasons for the Nats poor showing. Early in the season Ian Desmond was a train wreck defensively, booting grounders and throwing away the ball on a seemingly nightly basis. Even though he’s improved significantly since the first twenty or so games of the season, those early games still count. His early struggles at the plate have continued however.
In the field Espinosa has made three errors already, and his bat has been mediocre at best, flashing signs of occasional power, but his ability to get on base, never a real strength of his, has hit rock bottom. In fact, his .228/.267/.431 horror show makes him an offensive dynamo compared to Denard Span’s .235/.286/.331. His BABIP sits at .267 and is at a career low at the Major League level, and at 30 years of age you wonder if Span’s bat is slowing down. His BB% is only slightly better than last year’s career low, which indicates a trend not a speed bump.
Desmond, 226/.275/.431, is the likeliest of the three to turn his season around. His K% is at an all time high, 27.5%, but his BB% of 6.6% is holding steady to what he did last season. You can attribute his decline to a career low in BABIP of .286, which seems downright heroic compared to Span and Espinosa.
But, not to pile on the Nats solely, how about those Padres? In contrast, the Padres are putting up such absurdly low numbers that I’m not sure it’s even fair to compare the two teams. Gyorko (.161/.219/.292), Cabrera (.252/.279/.321), and Venable (.188/.248/.263) hit so poorly that the best OPS+ of the three is Venable at 48. You’ve heard of video game numbers? The Padres hitters are the computer controlled team on Rookie level. Move along. It’s too depressing.
If Zimmerman ever heals, a Rendon return to second will resolve some of these issues, and eventually, one of these days, Desmond is going to remember that he’s an All Star. While Span is a talented center fielder, and he derives most of his value from playing the field, his poor showing at the plate is a growing concern. Light hitting outfielders with good gloves provide real value, ask the Cardinals about Peter Bourjos sometime, you typically don’t bat them leadoff. That’s a different argument altogether and seems like an excellent idea for another column.