Despite the winter-long rumors of interest in a new big bat the Nats, mainly coalescing around Prince Fielder, Nats' GM Mike Rizzo stood firm in his pursuit of pitching first this last offseason. So far, that's worked out pretty well. And there were a number of factors that hinted that the Nats' 2012 could be better than 2011 even without adding players from outside the organization: Michael Morse seemed to be legit; we could have healthy, full-season performances from Adam LaRoche and Ryan Zimmerman; Jayson Werth was likely to regress upward toward his career offensive norms; the youngsters up the middle (Desmond, Espinosa, Ramos) were still promising despite their occasional struggles; and, of course, Bryce Harper.
Fast forward to today. The Nats are just below league average in overall offense, ranking 10th in both runs scored per game (3.90) and wOBA (.300). Their context-independent, normalized offense is again, 10th in the NL, with a 91 OPS+ and a 90 wRC+ (100 is MLB-average, higher is better, and both are adjusted for ballpark effects). Mind you, that just-below-average offense has been enough to outscore their opponents by 1.2 runs per game, a differential beaten only by the Dodgers and Cards, who are each currently running away with their divisions. In fact, by baseball-reference's Simple Rating System, the Nats' pitching and offense are combining to make them 1.1 runs per game better than the average MLB team, tied with LA for second-best in the NL.
As we explored last weekend, the Nats pitching has been having a good run, with some excellent performances that have relied more on skill than luck. The offense seems to be falling into the "just enough" category so far. Are Nats' hitters off to a slow start, or are they having some bad luck? It's really too early to use the stats to make a defensible statement either way, but that won't stop me from trying--after the jump!
So, the Nats are slightly behind league average in overall offense. Where are they trailing, specifically? As a team, the Nats are hitting 244/332/336 with 5 HRs, 16 2Bs and 1 3B. The NL-average team line is 240/312/378 with 8 HRs, 15 2Bs, and 2 3Bs. That puts the Nats at 7th in AVG, 4th in OBP, and... 13th in SLG. They're tied for 5th-most 2Bs, 2nd-fewest HRs, and 2nd-fewest 3Bs. The Nats have a major power deficit (so far) relative to the rest of the league. In fact, they are getting dingers on only 5.5% of fly balls, the lowest rate in the NL and a bit over half the league-average rate (9.9%). They are ahead on patience, however (thanks, Mets!). They are walking 10.9% of the time (3rd in the league), and they are 2nd in total walks (45). The Nats 19.3% K-rate is better than league average (19.8%) and 7th best in the NL.
Now, we've all seen some hard-hit balls going straight at fielders so far this season. Have we been seeing more than we "should"? That is, are the Nats having a string of bad luck with where hits are falling (or not falling, as the case may be)? BABIP (batting average on balls-in-play) is the stat that characterizes that, and the Nats' is .300, which is 5th-highest in the NL, and well above the league average of .282. By that measure, the Nats have actually had slight good luck with hits going through. Now, as I've said before, you really compare BABIP to "expected" BABIP, based on the distribution of batted balls--however, xBABIP calculations are fishy enough without averaging across an entire team, SSS aside. Suffice it to say, bad luck probably isn't the reason for low offense so far.*
Bottom line: the Nats are making contact, showing a good batting eye, and getting on base. They are way behind the league in power, however. Our verdict has to be NEEDZ MOAR D1NG3RZ!!!1!!1(eleventy)!
*There is an argument that the number of FBs going for HRs has a random element to it (Wrigley with the wind blowing in on opening day aside...), especially only 10 games in. If the team's HR/FB rate regressed to league-average, that would probably more than make up their power deficit relative to the league, putting them as a solid, above-average offense. I haven't looked at how individual Nat's HR/FB rates are doing this season relative to career averages because SSS and my lunch is over.