With the conclusion of the four game series against the Cubs at Wrigley Field, the Washington Nationals have officially reached the halfway point of the 2014 season. It’s been everything you expect from a baseball season, with the team going through plenty of ups and downs, and more than their fair share of injuries.
In spite of all that, though, the Nats have managed to stay close in the race for the NL East crown. Through 81 games, the Nats are 43-38, one game back of division-leading Atlanta and four games up on Miami, who appears to be fading rather quickly. But where exactly does the team stand now, and how has each unit of the team performed through the first leg of 2014? I’ll break it all down for you in the paragraphs below.
With Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister, Stephen Strasburg, and Tanner Roark looking solid, and Gio Gonzalez starting to round into form after being derailed by injuries, the starting rotation for the Washington Nationals has been impressive. The Nationals feature one of the best sets of starters in the National League, as evidenced by the numbers. The starters’ ERA of 3.37 and WHIP of 1.22 both rank 5th in the NL, and opposing hitters are currently hitting at a line of .255/.304/.381 (9th, 6th, and 4th in the NL respectively). The Nats starters are also doing a great job at not handing out free passes; their 117 walks through the first half of the season ranks first in the senior circuit.
In spite of all those numbers, though, the win-loss record for the starters is less impressive. Halfway through the year, they sit at only 30-27. However, the pitching can’t shoulder all of the blame. The run support for starting pitchers is 13th in the league, thanks to a struggling offense (which I’ll discuss more later). In short, the rotation has been good, but, without mentioning names, I certainly think there’s a bit of room for improvement as well.
As remarkable as the starters have been, the bullpen has been even better. The relievers don’t rank outside of the top five in any major category. Their ERA of 2.49 ranks second in the NL, with opposing hitters hitting .222/.295/.310 (4th/3rd/2nd). Opposing hitters aren’t hitting against this bullpen, and when they do hit, it isn’t for power. Combine that with the fact that they have the second fewest blown saves in the league, and it’s easy to see the Nationals have something special.
It’s certainly nice to have that little tool for the back innings, especially if the Nats hope to make a deep run into the playoffs. With guys like Aaron Barrett and Tyler Clippard coming out of the bullpen to bridge the gap to Soriano, who’s been fantastic this season, the Nationals are certainly equipped to do that.
With all the debate over what the Nationals should do with their excess of position players, one would probably assume that the Nationals have an above average defense. Unfortunately, that’s not exactly the case. Defensive stats are much harder to quantify, but in some of the more widely used categories (UZR, fielding percentage, and defensive efficiency), the Nationals rank twelfth, near the bottom of the league.
Sadly, it’s not too hard to see why. Ryan Zimmerman still has a solid glove, but his arm is a liability when he plays third, which appears to be his home once again. Jayson Werth isn’t exactly the greatest in the field, either, despite the fact that there’s certainly no lack of effort. Even Denard Span is having a down year. Injuries have played some part, though; after all, the Nats have been without Bryce Harper and Wilson Ramos and even Anthony Rendon at times this season. With the lineup just now getting healthy, maybe we’ll finally start to see the Nats move toward being a solid, if not elite, defense.
As mentioned earlier, the Nationals’ bats have been a bit of a weak point this season. There have been games where the Nats have lit up the scoreboard, but for the most part, the offense has been streaky or nonexistent. Hitting with a line of .244/.312/.377 (10th/8th/9th), the Nationals have failed to menace their opponents offensively. They’re eighth in runs, eleventh in homers. If not for Adam LaRoche and the odd long ball from Ian Desmond, they might look pathetic rather than just mediocre. Desmond, with help from Danny Espinosa, has also helped the Nats put up the fifth highest strikeout total in the NL. The lone bright side is that the team is fifth in the league in walks.
The team hasn’t been aggressive in trying to produce runs, either. In spite of the fact that they lead the league in stolen base percentage (83%), they’re eleventh in total stolen bases. This, of course, begs the question: can the Nationals keep their success rate that high if they grow more aggressive, or is their high success rate a result of the fact that they only steal when they’re certain not to be thrown out? If it’s the former, it would certainly avail Matt Williams to take a few more chances. Of course, his lack of attempted steals may be attributed to the fact that his best base thieves (like Span) aren’t the ones leading the team in OBP, in which case it may be better to do what several fans and sportswriters alike have asked for and shuffle the lineup.
Overall, the Nationals certainly have a good team, and with their pitching staff (both starters and relievers), the team can certainly continue to keep the race for the division close. While the offense and defense have had their struggles, the team is just now starting to get back to full strength, and that fact will go a long way to getting the team over the hump.
All things considered, there’s no reason Nats fans shouldn’t be optimistic for this team to compete for a division title. However, if they want to finally live up to the potential that they’ve been wrapped in for the last three seasons, the Nationals will need to do more than just dethrone Atlanta. They need to take the division (and the league) by the throat and storm into October with a vengeance.
Will the Nationals be able to accomplish that? Only 2014′s second half will tell.