Washington Nationals: 2011 Final Team Report Card.

After giving everyone a few weeks off from the end of the regular season, it's time to unleash the notoriously unforgiving Doghouse Curve (it breaks right over your GPA).  We all enjoyed the Nationals' great late-season run, as they knocked around the Phillies and Braves, beat up the Marlins, and came within a Doug Slaten relief appearance of posting their first winning record since coming to DC.  With the season over, it's time to take an objective look back at 2011 and see how the Nats measured up as a team.

Overall: C-

The team finished 80-81, one game under .500.  They were third in the NL East, 21.5 games out of first, 8.5 games behind the second-place Braves, and 8.5 games ahead of the last-place Marlins.  They placed 8th overall in the NL, 9.5 games behind the wild-card-winning Cardinals.  They were 0.2 runs/game worse than the average team when you account for the strength of their schedule (which was 0.1/runs game easier than average this season, interestingly enough).  I tried to find a way to give the Nats a straight "C" on the season, but even with the third-place finish, they're under .500 and closer to the bottom of the division than the top.  That's a "C-."  That's held surprisingly steady over the course of the season, and it's also a full letter grade better than 2010 (D-), which was better than 2009 (F).  The Nats have gone from failures to just below league average.

After the jump, grades for offense, starters, relievers, defense, and luck.  Stats from the redoubtable fangraphs and baseball-reference.  Put your own grades (or take vigorous exception to mine) in the comments!

Offense: D

As team, the 2011 Nats had an 89 wRC+ (12th in the NL).  Their collective 242/309/383 hitting line was tied for 2nd-worst AVG, tied for 4th-worst OBP, and 6th-worst in SLG. They were 7th in HRs (154), edging the 8th-place Phillies by one.  In terms of patience, they're tied for worst in the league in strikeout rate (whiffing 21.7% of the time), while generating the fourth-worst rate of walks (7.7%).  On the bases, they're 8th in SB (106), 9th in SB% (74%), but 3rd best in baserunning apart from SB (+8.5 runs above average).  Overall, the Nats scored 3.88 runs/game in 2011, 11th in the NL and well below the league average of 4.13 runs/game.  The Nats lagged the league in most categories, and barely kept pace in the rest.  Their offense wasn't as failtastic as the Padres, Pirates, or Giants, so they barely cling to their first-half "D."  That's better than the "F" they started the first quarter with, and it matches their "D" from last season, but it's worse than 2009's "C."

Starting pitching: C

In 2011, Nats' starters averaged 5.8 IP/GS, tied for 2nd-worst in the NL.  They had the 4th-lowest percentage of quality starts (48%). They had an overall ERA of 3.80 (7th) for an exactly league average 100 ERA-.  Their FIP and xFIP were both worse than league average (9th and 14th, respectively).  The rotation gave up a fourth-best 0.83 HR/9, while racking up a 2nd-worst 14.8% strikeout rate (5.67 K/9), but a fourth-best walk rate of 6.7% (2.58 BB/9).  Starter WHIP was right around league average at 1.32 (8th).  Despite these shaky stats, they only gave up 2.74 runs/game, 6th in the NL (2.87 is league average). There's some good stuff (low walks and HRs), but some real bad (low IP, low Ks), and overall decent performance (better than average runs/game).  I'll call that a "C," which continues the improvement from 2010 (C-) and 2009 (D-) but stays level with the rest of this season.

Relief pitching: C

In the 2011, Nationals' relievers were 4th in ERA (3.20), 7th in FIP (3.66) and 8th in xFIP (3.91).  They were 8th in strikeout rate (21.2%) and 9th in walk rate (9.6%), but 4th best in WHIP (1.26).  They were 7th in home run rate (0.76 HR/9).  They allowed 32% of inherited runners to score, fourth-worst in the league (30% was league average).  And although I don't believe in the save stat, the Nats blew 28 in 2011--the most in the NL (although there were only 11th in blown save percentage, since they were also tied for the most save opportunities at 77).  The Nats also had the most games lost by the bullpen when the starter was in line to win, as well as the second fewest games won by the bullpen when the starter was in line for a loss.  We're seeing some good, some bad, and a lot of average.  Call that a "C," a slight improvement over 2010 (C-), and a big improvement since 2009 (F).

Defense: B

The advanced defense metrics are reliably uncertain about how much they like the 2011 Nats.  By UZR, they're 11th in the NL (-14.3 runs).  However, they're 2nd best in Defensive Runs Saved (+38) and best in the NL in Total Zone Runs (+39).  The Nats are 8th in defensive efficiency rating (.697) and 10th in FP (.983).  Team CS% is down to 34%, only 3rd in the league, although they also have the 3rd fewest SB against.  This is a slight down-tick from the first half of the season (B+); Zimmy's struggles to master his new throwing mechanics didn't help, nor did losing Pudge's arm.  However, it's still a solid improvement over 2010 (C) and 2009 (F).

Luck: Slightly lucky.

"Luck" doesn't count in your grade, but it's something to keep track of--it hints at whether the team will be able to repeat its grade next year.  Team BAbip (roughly, "hitting luck") was .292 in 2011, barely less than the league average .296, so hitting luck is about even.  Likewise, the pitchers stranded 73.6% of runners--9th in the NL and just around league average.  However, staff ERA outperformed both FIP and xFIP, showing the benefits of decent defense and keeping down the HRs.  BAbip against was .293, right around league average.  Finally, the Nats scored 624 runs in 2011 and allowed 643, for an "expected" W/L of 78-83, making their actual record two games luckier than average.  That's a wash in hitting luck, slight pitching luck, and some defiance of Pythagoras for slight luck overall.

What does this tell us?

Not to be a downer, but this tells us that the 2011 Nationals were not a good baseball team. They weren't a bad team, but they were only notably above average in one category--defense.  That was balanced out by being notably below average in offense.  Despite the help that's coming and the good pieces that were in place, the pitching staff was league-average at best over the course of the season.  Only piece of the SPAD formula that worked in 2011 was the D, and the lack of "O" in "SPAD" was painfully apparent.

But is there hope?

Oh, my, yes.  I mentioned the grades from previous years because I had forgotten just how terrible the Nats were when I started writing these report cards.  The Nats have climbed up from "F" to "C-" in two seasons, and I think we can reasonably expect improvement in every category in 2012--even with no trades at all.  However, I suspect that Rizzo just may have a trick or two up his sleeve between now and Spring (MOAR OFFENZ PLZ!).  I haven't done the math yet, but I'm figuring to project 82+ wins for 2012.

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