"You gave me a 'C'? Don't think I won't cut you, son!" (Not an actual quote.)
How far have the Nats come since their last report card? Wins, losses, injuries, a new manager--after 41 games they were one game under 0.500. Now, after 81 games, they're... one game under 0.500. Let's get the team grades out of the way, with player grades probably to follow on or around the AS break.
The Nats are 40-41 at the halfway mark, which puts them in 4th place in the NL East (sound familiar?). They're 9.5 games out first, 1.5 games behind the 3rd-place Mets, and 4.5 games ahead of the last-place Marlins. They're 10th overall in the NL, 6.5 games out of Wild Card contention. Well over half the season has gone by without Ryan Zimmerman, but the Nats are still 0.1 runs/game better than the average team if you go by the strength of their schedule so far. They're close to .500, and their late hot streak got them out of the basement, for a gentlemen's 'C.' However, their last few losses put them below the middle of the league, and closer to the bottom of the division than the top. That bumps them down to a 'C-.'
After the jump, grades for offense, starters, relievers, defense, and luck. Stats through the games of June 29, 2011 from the redoubtable fangraphs and baseball-reference. Put your own grades (or take vigorous exception to mine) in the comments!
While they improved from their mid-term grade, the Nats' bats are still an overall weakness. Their wRC+ of 86 is tied for third-worst in the NL (with the Marlins!). Somehow they've hit the 6th most HRs (76) in the league, and they're 3rd in SB (67). However, the team's batting line of .232/.301/.369 is nothing to be proud of. That's last in BA and OBP, and 13th in SLG. Their strikeout percentage has improved to second-worst in the league (23.8%), and they've grounded into an exactly-league-average 57 double plays. On the bright side again, they're 5th in the NL in baserunning runs (+2.9 runs), which is baserunning aside from SB/CS (going first-to-third, tagging on flies, etc). Still, it only gets you up to 3.88 runs per game, well below the league average of 4.1 and good for 11th in the NL. It's not cellar-tastic, like last time, but it's still well below average.
Starting Pitching: C
This has only been getting better (in places), despite how often the starters get robbed--good thing I don't believe in W/L as a meaningful pitching stat! Right now the Nats are 4th in the NL in ERA- (3.63 ERA), although they're only 7th in FIP- (3.80 FIP), and they're second-to-last in xFIP- (3.98 xFIP). (For the uninitiated, the "-" stats are park-adjusted figures that are normalized to league-average, and smaller is better, just like with ERA/FIP/etc... that's what the "-" means). This means that the pitchers have been benefiting from some good defense, because they're 2nd to last in K/9 (5.76)! However, they've got the 3rd best walk rate (2.7 BB/9) and are nearly league-average in WHIP (1.32--9th place). The starters are a little ahead of the game in HRs, too, only surrendering 0.78 per 9 IP (6th in the NL). Overall, the rotation is giving up 3.93 R/G, a bit better than league average (4.14 R/G). They're holding steady at 6.1IP per game, with 58% of starts being Quality. The peripherals are kind of all over, and I'd like to see more Ks or even fewer walks before I give 'em credit for being above league average.
Relief Pitching: C
Again, we've seen some awesome and some not-so-awesome. The relievers are 8th in ERA- (3.26 ERA), 9th in FIP- (3.81 FIP), and 12th in xFIP- (4.04 xFIP). Again, they're holding down the dingers (0.77 HR/9 is 7th in the NL) and getting some fielding help. The Nats are 8th in scoring inherited runners (32%), although they lead the league in games the pitcher was in line to win but the bullpen lost (14) and are last in games the pitcher was losing but the bullpen won (7). (I know, a lot of that's on the offense.) The bullpen is 8th in strikeouts (7.75 K/9), 13th in walks (4.1 BB/9), but only 6th in allowing baserunners (1.30 WHIP). There's good and bad, but right now it looks league average, overall.
Despite some hiccups, things have been looking decent on this front. Thanks to the notorious baseball-hater Bono, the Nats are 8th in errors (47), although they're 5th in fielding percentage (.985). The advanced metrics have the Nats at 9th in the NL by Ultimate Zone Rating (-5.0), 2nd by Defensive Runs Saved (+14), and 2nd by Total Zone Runs (+4). Add that to the league-leading 43% CS, and a tie for fewest SB against, and we've got some pretty solid fielding. The only thing keeping them from an 'A' is a bit more agreement among the advanced metrics, and the fact that my eyes are still weeping blood from the five-error game the other day.
Luck: Slightly unlucky
Like before, "Luck" doesn't count in your grade, but it's something to keep track of. The Nats' batting struggles are partly due to luck, since their .275 BABIP (roughly, "hitting luck") is last in the NL. League average is .294, so that's about 6-7% of the Nationals' offense getting hit hard right into someone's glove instead of finding a patch of grass. Right now the pitchers have a 75.2% strand rate, which is 13th in the NL and significantly worse than league average. Mind you, the staffs' ERA (3.51) is outperforming its FIP (3.80) and xFIP (4.00) by a good bit, hinting that defense and luck with HRs staying in the park has been in our favor. BABIP against is .287, slightly lucky. Finally, the Nats have scored 314 runs and allowed 310 in 81 games, giving them a Pythagorean "expected" W/L of 41-40, making their 40-41 record one game unluckier than their run differential. Overall, that's bad luck hitting, some good luck pitching, and bad luck with scoring. Call it slight bad luck overall.