Are The Nationals Hitters Getting Lucky?

Washington Nationals v Los Angeles Angels
Washington Nationals v Los Angeles Angels / Kevork Djansezian/GettyImages

The Nationals had an impressive victory against the Los Angeles Angels on Monday night. Over their last three games prior to meeting Shohei Ohtani, the offense has clicked and put up 19 runs. The team's overall offensive statistics have rebounded from a rough opening homestand and there are already some pleasant surprises in the lineup. It's early but there are still a few indicators we can look at to determine how good this offense can really be.

Right now, the team's offensive performance is deceptive. They've done some scoring and have looked potent at times, but they aren't creating offense in optimal ways. Here's what I mean: the Nationals are tied for last in MLB in home runs, are second to last in isolated slugging, and are sixth to last in slugging percentage. There's simply no way to have an elite offense with such little power. A team can succeed in other areas, but producing extra base hits is essential, and hides other offensive weaknesses.

That is an obvious indicator of a poor hitting team, and lines up with what the Nationals were expected to do coming into the season. The way the Nationals are actually producing runs in absence of home runs and doubles is problematic as well. The team is piling up hits and rallying as well as they possibly can right now, but that has proved inefficient.

Heading into Tuesday's game, the Nationals were first in MLB in hits.

That sounds great! Their team batting average is 6th in MLB and their team on-base percentage ranks 7th, which also are terrific signs. Even more interesting is the team's overall strikeout percentage, which is the second lowest in the league at 17.7%. In a sense, these all indicate that the Nationals have a great hitting team. Why, then, are they only 18th in runs scored?

The answer is found above, of course. The team has been unable to drive in runs with extra base hits. This is a basic way to prove that exchanging contact skills and batting average for power hitting is generally beneficial for offense. That's the reason why the league as a whole has seen significant offensive trends over the past several decades: home runs and strikeouts go up, batting average goes down.

The Nationals are swimming against the current with their offensive makeup. They did a similar thing last year, too. The 2022 Nationals were a top team at avoiding strikeouts and in batting average, but had an awful offense overall. In another year of a rebuild, the current Nationals ask a question of aesthetic preference to their fanbase.

I am conflicted on this question. Monday night's game, where the Nationals tallied 12 singles and even stole a few bases, was great to watch. Unfortunately, I know that a singles-only team will inevitably sink to the bottom of the league. It's tempting to think the team can keep knocking singles, and keep putting up high batting averages and crooked numbers. There's a reason teams don't succeed like that anymore, though.

Here's a few reasons I'm down on the offense looking like this. To address one rather large elephant in the diamond, the team has played four of eleven games at Coors Field. The Rockies pitchers are bad, like always, and hits are significantly more common at Coors elevation. The Nationals get no more Coors games, and their overall numbers will drop slightly for that reason alone.

The biggest reason the Nationals look good but won't continue looking good is BABIP. Batting Average on Balls In Play is an important statistic to understand in general, and has been talked about a lot recently with defensive restrictions being implemented. The figure indicates how often contact translates into hits, and heavily pulls towards league average over large samples. Right now, the Nationals rank 9th in MLB with a .327 BABIP as a team. Last season, the league average BABIP was under .300, and only one non-Rockies team had a mark over .305.

It's virtually impossible to sustain that kind of BABIP in the long run. No matter how good a hitter is, they cannot defeat probability. Sometimes hits will fall, sometimes they won't. Right now, Victor Robles and Lane Thomas are flying high with BABIPs of .452 and .441, respectively. They are soaring, and it looks great. BABIP is a force of nature, though. BABIP will shine harshly on Robles and Thomas, it will melt their wings, and they will plummet.

That might be a little dramatic for 11 games of data, sure. Look at Victor Robles' spray chart on Baseball Savant, though, and you might be swayed. He's hitting mostly grounders and a couple of bloop hits, with a small handful of line drives and only a single Barrel. His exit velocity numbers are still bad, and these numbers are similar for his teammates in the outfield, the middle infield, and behind the plate. His plate discipline numbers have been much improved this year, which is a more important sign in a small sample, but his batted ball luck will fade.

You might want to say that the team is doing the right thing, actually, and they just need to have good at-bats and avoid strikeouts and everything will be fine. I wish that were true, really. There's a hard limit on what weak contact can produce, and there's a hard limit on how well sequencing rallies at the right times can work over a full season. In individual games, the Nationals can absolutely pile on hits in the right spots and they will be praised for old-school tactics and bunting and finding gaps and going the other way and up the middle all of the other clichés. Over 162 games, their singles will be distributed in high leverage spots and low leverage spots evenly. Over 162 games, their BABIP will erode like a cliffside on the unruly ocean after a thousand years. It will end up at, like, .296. Maybe .298 if they're lucky.

By the time you're reading this Shohei Ohtani might have thrown a no-hitter against the Nationals and a string of web gems by the Angels will prove me right immediately. More likely, the Nationals will pick up some singles and lose because of being out-homered. Maybe they'll even win. Eventually, the gravitational pull of BABIP will prove me right and we'll all be sucked in by its inevitability, its singularity.

Don't be surprised if the Nationals run out of infield singles and bloop hits to carry their offense. If the bigger bats can wake up and mash more extra base hits, the offensive numbers will level out a bit. Without some serious power gains, though, I would forecast a rapid descent for the team. Don't let Coors Field and small sample sizes fool you.

All Stats via FanGraphs and Baseball Savant