How Close Are the Nats to Contention? Just Ask the 2010 D’backs!


Nationals fans, the time is finally here.  Coming off an 80-win season, General Manager Mike Rizzo has  not been shy about how close he thinks this team is to contention.  Yet many think the next jump, from 80 to 90 wins, is the hardest to accomplish.  For some of us numbers folks, it would be nice to see how a team of similar build to the 2011 Nats has made the jump from pretenders to contenders.

I’m going to offer the comparison of the 2010 Arizona Diamondbacks, a team that mirrored the Nats’ style last year and went on to run away with their division this year.  This is by no means to say that the two teams were identical or that the Diamondbacks are the only blueprint for success.  Plenty of factors are random, such as the strength of the division a team plays in.

However, it is difficult to overlook how alike the 2010 Arizona Diamondbacks were to the 2011 Washington Nationals.  First the coincidences: each club began the year with Adam LaRoche as their everyday first basemen, and both underwent managerial switches late in the season’s first half.  Neither of these two occurrences really played a role in the similar styles of play, but it does add to the mystique of these two teams.

Let us begin the real investigation by taking a look at both clubs’ offenses.  The 2010 Diamondbacks struck out at a historic rate, setting a major-league record by punching out 1,529 times.  It would be irresponsible if I didn’t give some credit for the Diamondbacks record-breaking season to former D’Back great Mark Reynolds, the Greek god of strikeouts, whose swing-and-miss ability leaves mere mortals in awe.  He is without peer when it comes to Ks, and will not be mentioned further for fear of incurring his wrath.

The 2011 Washington Nationals were not quite as inept, but still managed to whiff a 2011 major-league leading 1,323 times.  Each team had especially poor contact rates from their middle infield tandems.  The 2010 D’Backs pair of Kelly Johnson and Stephen Drew led all middle infield combinations with 256 strikeouts. The Nationals 2011 double-play duo of Danny Espinosa and Ian Desmond surpassed this mark with 305 Ks between them.

Moving on, we see that each club had stellar performances from young catchers in limited at bats.  In 2010, 27 year-old Diamondbacks’ backstop Miguel Montero recorded 9 home runs and 43 RBI, good for a .770 OPS in 297 at bats.  Wilson Ramos, as a 24-year old this year, had 15 homers and 52 RBI, posting a .779 OPS in 389 plate appearances.  Similarly, both teams face-of-the-franchise, homegrown talents had down years by their standards.  Justin Upton and Ryan Zimmerman each had less than 500 at bats, and Upton ended 2010 with a .797 OPS while Zimmerman finished this year with a .798 mark.

In the case of pitching staffs, Arizona’s 2010 squad left much to be desired.  Right-hander Ian Kennedy, at the age of 25, led Arizona with 9 wins, although his 3.80 ERA and good K/BB rate suggested he deserved a better fate.  Sound familiar?  This season very much resembles Jordan Zimmermann’s 2011 campaign, where as a 25-year old, he pitched to a 3.18 ERA yet managed only 8 wins despite good control numbers.

Both teams had cagey veteran starters who served the role of innings eaters.  For Arizona, Rodrigo Lopez was the only starter to reach the 200 innings plateau, hitting it exactly, going 7-16 with a 5.00 ERA.  Livan Hernandez would have reached 200 innings in all likelihood had he not been ousted from the rotation for the young guns at the beginning of September.  He ended up throwing 175.1 innings of 4.47 baseball, good for an 8-13 record.

Joe Saunders, a mid-season acquisition from the Angels, became a reliable lefty veteran starter for the Diamondbacks in 2010 similar to what John Lannan is to the Nationals right now.  And lastly, although it’s not a perfect comparison, Daniel Hudson, who had 5 major league starts to his name before being acquired in a mid-season trade, lit up the NL in his last 11 starts of 2010, with a 7-1 record and 1.69 ERA, much in the same way that Stephen Strasburg has dominated in his brief 2010 and 2011 stints with the Nationals.

We all know how 2011 turned out for the Diamondbacks.  They cut back on their strikeout rates, trading players like Reynolds, and letting others go via free agency, like Laroche.  Montero got almost 200 more at bats and finished the year with 18 homers and 86 RBI.  Upton put up MVP numbers for much of the year, carrying the team for extended periods and finishing with a near .900 OPS.  Kennedy, one year older and more experienced, turned into a legitimate ace and received enough run support to win 21 games.  Lopez was let go after 2010, and sadly I foresee the same fate for Livo and the Nats this year.  Saunders went on to make 33 starts, going 12-13 with a 3.69 ERA, and Hudson became an excellent number two starter, going 16-12 with a 3.49 ERA.

Yes, everything went right for the Diamondbacks, and it doesn’t hurt that they played in an arguably easier division.  But, they won only 65 games in 2010, 15 less than the Nationals in 2011.  One statistic I found that should not be overlooked was that all starters who pitched in the 2011 Diamondbacks magical season not named Kennedy, Hudson, Saunders, or Josh Collmenter (a pleasant surprise who rose through the minors, cough cough Brad Peacock) threw a combined 197 innings to a 5.53 ERA.  To provide prospective, the lowest-qualifying ERA in the National League this year was Bronson Arroyo (5.07), almost a full half-run lower than anyone not in the top four of the D’Backs rotation.

I understand there is a reason that number five starters are number five starters.  I just want to point out that the Diamondbacks had horrendous number five starting from their pitching staff this year and still went on to win 94 games.  The Nationals are working with a better base to operate from than the 2010 Diamondbacks were.  It is not out of the question that Ramos has a Montero-like season next year or that Zimmerman reverts back to his .900 OPS form.  Nobody would be stunned if Zimmermann got better run support and Strasburg continued to dominate.  Steady performances from Lannan and the rest of our pitching staff would not be out of the question either considering the Nats finished 8th in ERA this year.  By no means are the Nationals a flawless team, we have problems just like every other team, but this jump may be a lot closer than some people think.