Washington Nationals Season Preview: Plate Discipline
Having a good at-bat and drawing a walk is the catalyst for success in any MLB lineup. Walks lead to extended innings, more opportunities for driving in runs and stealing bases, and more stress on the opposing pitcher. Unfortunately for the Nationals, their lineup does not have a great track record in this area.
Nationals fans are accustomed to watching talented players with elite plate discipline skills, such as Jayson Werth, Anthony Rendon, and Bryce Harper. At the peak of the team's competitive window, their offense had a strong foundation of long at-bats and a high on-base percentage. In 2018, the team was 2nd in MLB in total walks drawn, and they ranked 8th in the league in their 2019 championship season.
As the team has fallen out of contention their walk rate has declined significantly. From 2020 to 2022, the Nationals rank 17th in MLB in total walks, falling to the fifth-worst mark in the league last season.
These recent totals are low, but are also buoyed up by the consistent presence of Juan Soto, who recorded the league's single-highest on-base percentage and walk total over the past three seasons. His 321 bases on balls are more than 100 higher than 2nd-place Freddie Freeman with 214. Soto leaves not only a large hole to fill in the lineup, but the discipline he displayed in his young career as a National is one-of-a-kind and there is no chance of replicating it.
In 2023, the Nationals will have to manage without the massive contributions of Soto. Many of the young lineup regulars with the team - Keibert Ruiz, CJ Abrams, Luis Garcia, and Victor Robles - have been unable to demonstrate strong or even average walk rates so far in their careers. Most MLB teams, including past versions of the Nationals, have looked to their more experienced players to provide plate discipline. Dominic Smith, Corey Dickerson, Ildemaro Vargas and late-career breakout Joey Meneses form a kind of veteran contingent, but each player has a career walk rate below 7%, whereas the MLB average in 2022 was 8.2%.
Potential bright spots in this area are seen in two particular players. Jeimer Candelario owns a career 9.6% walk rate, and while he experienced an all-around down season in 2022, there is certainly hope he can draw 60+ walks as he has done twice in his career so far. Lane Thomas, a candidate to lead off for manager Davey Martinez and specialist versus lefties, also has some upside in drawing walks. His career walk rate matches Candelario's exactly, and his performance in 2021 with both the Cardinals and Nationals saw him draw walks at an even higher clip. His season will be one to watch as he assumes Juan Soto's former position in right field and likely gets some opportunities to hit first in the order
Ultimately, the Nationals are expected to be below average as a team, as an offense, and at drawing walks in 2023. For their young core, developing contact skills and generating more power may be a larger focus than plate discipline. If Joey Meneses and the youth up the middle can become more threatening as a unit, opposing pitchers will likely approach more cautiously and walk totals will gradually increase. That's the goal for the team, and it will be a success if the lineup can grow in Soto's absence and display plate discipline numbers closer to the league average.
My prediction is that Joey Meneses will lead the team in total walks as he represents the team's most serious power threat and will be treated as such. I will be closely monitoring middle infielders CJ Abrams and Luis Garcia for improvements in this area. Abrams only managed one single walk in 44 games as a National last season, and each player will need to restrain their swing-happy instincts to improve their overall offensive profiles. Even if the Nationals struggle in 2023, a healthy improvement in plate discipline can be a positive sign of future success for the club.
Stats via FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, and StatHead