What’s Wrong with the Washington Nationals?

The Washington Nationals were baseball’s darlings in 2012 with a collective future so bright fans had to wear shades. They opened 2013 with swagger and confidence and then they began to actually play baseball. After sweeping the hapeless Marlins in the first series, the Reds took them to the woodshed 15-0 on April 5th. Whereas the 2012 team was plucky and won the close ones, the 2013 version of the Capital Punishers have in no way resembled that 98-win team from a year ago, and they certainly have to be included in this list of puzzling disappointments this year. They’re 58-60 on the year and last year they were 72-45. One could argue that the Los Angeles Angels have spent more and done less than the Nationals but at this point the Nats are the NL’s most disappointing team hands down.

There are a multitude of things that went awry in the nation’s capital this year.

One culprit is the offense. Whereas the 2012 version scored a surprising 731 runs — a statistic only bested in the NL by traditional offensive juggernauts Milwaukee, St. Louis and Colorado — this Nationals team is only on pace to score only 612. They rank 27th, 24th, 26th and 21st in runs, batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. When you’ve only outscored the Triple-AAA Marlins and the perennially offensively challenged Giants in the NL, you know you’ve got issues.

No one expected the 1927 Yankees from this lineup. The Nats play in a cavernous park that favors pitching, speed and defense. Often teams that can’t match power offenses have slimmer margins for error. Hitting with runners in scoring position, walks, blown saves and fielding percentage are all the hidden metrics that feed into the win-loss column. The fact is a lot of those statistics are surprisingly similar to last year. If I were nitpicking, the 2012 Nats were probably playing over their heads offensively. The 2013 team doesn’t make contact as well, doesn’t draw walks as well, and is less threatening on the basepaths. Leadoff man Denard Span has been a disappointment, posting a career low .315 OBP. Phenom Bryce Harper’s rise into .300-30-100 territory has stalled. He’s been injured on and off this year and is projected to only go .262-23-55, clearly the injury affected him. A man with his talents should be hitting more than 12 doubles by mid-August. Adam LaRoche hasn’t gotten on track yet, hitting just .238 so far. The bench has been almost useless with Lombardozzi, Chad Tracy, Tyler Moore and Roger Bernandina all hitting near the Mendoza line. The Nationals fired their hitting coach in July and the offense has responded slightly, but they won’t be making the playoffs this year.

Pitching is this team’s strong suit, and it’s been a little worse this year. The team ERA has risen slightly from 3.18 (1st in the NL last year) to 3.70 in 2013. The result of the offensive ineptitude is some pretty embarrassing stat lines for what is still arguably one of the top rotations in the MLB. Reminiscent of some dead-ball era teams, the pitchers have labored with criminally bad run support. Take ace Stephen Strasbourg; in 2012 he went 15-6, 3.16 ERA and 11.16 K’s per nine innings. In 2013 with this lineup he’s 6-9, 2.83 ERA and 9.41 K’s. While his walks and homers allowed will likely surpass last year, he’s eight in the NL in WHIP with a 1.04. His batting average against has been lowered to a paltry .206. Yet in 23 games, he’s won six of them. Gio Gonzalez who won 20+ games last year hasn’t been as dominant this year (7-5, 3.42, 9.08 K’s per nine). The back of the rotation has been bad (Dan Haren — what a fall from near-elite) and the middle relief hasn’t struck guys out with the same aplomb.

Defensively they haven’t been the tight ship they were last year. They are on pace to commit 108 errors and last year they were 8th in baseball with 94 total. Ryan Zimmerman’s off year has continued out in the field as well—something that is particularly troubling. The longest-tenured Nat has committed 17 errors so far and skipper Davey Johnson has hinted they may need him to switch positions. They’ve had issues in their division, going 3-10 against the Braves. Its unfortunate because the rest of the division has been pretty mediocre.

With a team with such young cornerstones, such overall regression years are typical. The 2008 Rays won 97 games and the pennant only to slide to 84 wins the following year before following 2009 with a string of 90-win campaigns. The Nationals still have a very bright future. Don’t put those shades away yet.