Washington Nationals: Early trends show new offensive approach

CINCINNATI, OH - MARCH 30: Bryce Harper
CINCINNATI, OH - MARCH 30: Bryce Harper /

The Washington Nationals’ offense is off to a nice start in 2018. Has there been a change under new manager Davey Martinez?

The Washington Nationals’ offense was good, but not great under Dusty Baker.

From 2016-17, the Nats ranked in the top 15 in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging, wRC+, walk rate, and strikeout rate, but failed to crack the top five in any of those categories. They were a well-rounded crew, but did not do any one thing exceptionally well (except for steal bases – Baker’s clubs were quite aggressive on the base paths).

Though it’s still incredibly early in 2018, it looks like new manager Davey Martinez could be instilling a new offensive approach with this veteran Nats team. Martinez comes from the Joe Maddon school, where he studied under Maddon’s tutelage for 10 seasons in Tampa Bay and Chicago.

More from District on Deck

Maddon has always emphasized the importance of working the count. When Chicago was battling for NL Central supremacy last summer, Maddon said, “We need to force the opposition pitchers to get us out with pitches in the strike zone.” Martinez joined Maddon’s staff in Tampa in 2008, and remained with him through 2017 in Chicago. In those 10 years, the Rays and then the Cubs finished fourth or better in the majors in walk rate every season, including four first-place finishes.

In Washington’s Baker era, the Nationals ranked 8th in walk rate in 2016 and 15th in 2017. This season, the Nationals have jumped to first with a 13.5 percent walk rate over 7 games. Of course, there is plenty of noise in those numbers. It’s a ridiculously small sample, and the Nats haven’t exactly faced a murderer’s row of starting pitchers thus far.

But just because it’s early does not mean it’s necessarily inaccurate. Maddon was clearly employing a strategy, and it makes sense that Martinez would follow a similar ideology. Trea Turner entered the season with just 48 walks in 198 career games; he already has six free passes in seven games. Bryce Harper, who has always had excellent bat control, leads the team with 10 walks (none intentional). The Nats don’t need Harper to become too passive, but they have the lineup depth, with more help on the way, to take advantage of Harper on base instead of just at the plate. Washington has also scored 38 runs in 7 games, so while the success cannot solely be attributed to improved plate discipline, it certainly has not hurt.

By working the count more, the Nationals now have more of an offensive identity. This gives them something to lean on when things get tough, particularly in the playoffs. Base runners are even harder to come by in October, so an extra walk or two could prove to be the difference in those tight one-run ball games (though the Nationals did out-pace the Cubs in walks during their five-game series last fall).

Next: Eaton out with ankle injury

We’ll see if this trend holds, but based on Martinez’s track record and the quality of the players on the Nationals roster, expect Washington to finish near or at the top of the walk rate leaderboard. Whether it makes the difference in the postseason, well we’ll just have to wait and see.