Are the Nationals on the verge of breaking out?


Jun 4, 2013; Washington, DC, USA;Washington Nationals second baseman Steve Lombardozzi (1) is congratulated by teammates after driving in the game winning run in the ninth inning to beat the New York Mets 3-2 at Nationals Park. Was this a turnaround moment in the 2013 season? Mandatory Credit: Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

By just about any metric, the Nationals are in a bad place. Warning: numbers barrage incoming. They are 28th in MLB with a .235 batting average, 27th with a .293 OBP, and 27th with a .668 OPS. They have committed the second most errors, 49, and have the worst fielding percentage in baseball with a .980. They are 22nd in stolen bases with 26 and have been caught a ridiculous 16 times. Basically, the Nationals can’t hit, they can’t field and they can’t run.

That would not appear to bode well for the rest of the season, but there are causes for optimism.

Let’s first examine the errors. Ryan Zimmerman is responsible for 11 of those errors and has the worst fielding percentage of all third basemen. However, we need to remember that Zimmerman is just months removed from shoulder surgery and Davey Johnson and Zimmerman have said since Spring Training that Zimmerman was unlikely to be near 100 percent until June. Zimmerman has only committed three errors in his last 24 games. Over 162 games, that would put him on pace for a bad, but livable, 20 errors (he is on pace for 30 now and was on pace for 40 a month ago). Ian Desmond is second on the team with 7 errors. He has not committed an error since April 18, a streak of 46 consecutive games without an error. That’s the longest active streak in baseball.

If you take away Zimmerman and Desmond’s errors, the Nationals are a top 10 defensive team. Of course, you can’t take away those errors, but with those guys trending upwards, expect to see a much more crisp defensive performance in the future.

The biggest issue the Nationals have faced all season is clearly their offense. Of course, they have suffered a number of injuries to key players such as Zimmerman, Wilson Ramos, Danny Espinosa, Jayson Werth, and most importantly, Bryce Harper. The Opening Day team has not played together since mid-April. However, injuries are no excuse for a performance that is historically bad. Again though, there are reasons to be optimistic moving forward.

Anthony Rendon is one of those reasons. Since he entered the lineup (and Werth returned), the Nationals have scored: 3, 1, 3, 7, 5, 3, 5 and 5 runs. Not exactly spectacular numbers, but given that the Nationals have scored two or fewer runs a staggering 28 times, it is progress.

If you look beyond the runs scored, there is even more cause for optimism. In those games, they churned out 66 hits, good for an average of over 9 hits per game. On top of the hits, they are walking at a much higher rate. In the last five games, they have walked 22 times. In the five previous games, they walked five times total.

Small sample size certainly applies to all of this, but it is especially promising considering that their best offensive player in nearly every statistical category, Harper, is on the disabled list.

Finally, the Nationals baserunning woes. This is not as much of a concern as it would appear. The Nationals did not run a whole lot last year. They were tied for 14th in stolen bases. The bigger issue is the lack of success on the few occasions they do run. Last season, the Nationals stole 105 bases and were caught 35 times: a 75 percent success rate. This year, their success rate is 68 percent. That is simply not good enough, particularly when the team acquired Denard Span in part because of his baserunning acumen. He’s stolen only six bases and been caught three times. He’s also been picked off three additional times.

There is not much that can be said about how to improve the baserunning other than to simply not do it. A team can win without running. The Tigers, who appeared in the World Series, stole only 59 bases all year, second least in all of baseball. In fact, of the bottom five teams in stolen bases, four were playoff teams. If the Nationals cannot run well, they would be well advised to stop running altogether.

Look, all of this is certainly predicated on the notion that the Nationals are a legitimately talented team who are underperforming. If you look at any metric, they will not point toward a turnaround. For instance, in run differential (a key predictor of future success), the Nationals are dead middle in MLB at 15th with -27. Not coincidentally, the Nationals are one game over .500, exactly where it suggests they will be. However, if you look at some smaller trends within those numbers, and assume that the Nationals will build on those trends, there is a lot of reason to think that they are beginning to turnaround.

Maybe it’s not the 100 win season we all hoped for, but who is opposed to a Cindarella story?