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Too Hot To Handle, Too Cold To Hold

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The Nats are finally fleeing the Central Time Zone, and I couldn’t be happier. Those freaks out there are weird, what with their prime time television starting at 7 pm and all. Plus, Chicago and Milwaukee swept out the Nats in six straight, and if the Nats can’t win there . . . well, maybe they can win somewhere else. Like in RFK Stadium. Maybe. Hopefully. The series against the Marlins starts on Friday, and hopefully a more mortal version of Miguel Cabrera will be on hand than the one who utterly destroyed the Nats in early April. In the meantime, here are some disjointed thoughts; I've even numbered them, since I've got nothing better to do.

1. A few days ago, I looked at 20-game splits for some recent horrible teams of varying horriscosity. Since the 2007 Nationals are destined for a certain level of horritude, I figured I'd look at the Nats in the same manner. The team is 34 games into the season. In the first 20-game split, the Nats went 6-14. With six games left in the second 20-game split, they need to finish the stretch at level par to match the first split. Can it be done? Oh, I don't know -- three against Florida, three against Atlanta. They've played those teams tough, relatively speaking, 4-7 combined (2-4 versus Florida; 2-3 versus Atlanta). Please understand I do realize how compelling this is, handicapping a team's chances of playing .300 ball over a three-week stretch. Suffice it to say the team's record is mucho horridad.

2. In the first 20-game stretch, the Nats hit a particularly punchless .240/.322/.345. Yet, that's positively Ruthian performance compared to the first 14 games of this next interval, in which they've batted .211/.287/.304. To put this in perspective -- because, as an old roommate used to say, I'm a big fan of perspective -- the Nats as a collective body have essentially spent the last two weeks impersonating Rey Ordonez. Keep in mind these two weeks are making the first three weeks, in which the Nats basically hit like the Royce Clayton we all knew and loved, look good.

3. To look at this a different way, let's put this in golf terms. Trust me, it won't be that boring. Okay, maybe it will be. Anyway, the average NL team is scoring 4.40 runs per game thus far in 2007. Accordingly, let's ascribe a "par" to each game in which the Nats have scored near that average, say, for games in which they've scored four or five runs (since it's difficult to score 4.4 runs in a given game). I'll denote worse than par with italics and better than par with bold. In order, the Nats have scored:

2, 3, 7, 3, 1, 1, 1, 0, 3, 2, 2, 6, 5, 2, 6, 3, 6, 3, 3, 4, 4, 2, 0, 3, 0, 3, 4, 3, 3, 0, 4, and 0

runs.

I do declare my fingers are fractionally shorter having pounded the HTML coding for italics 25 or more times. For what it's worth, the Nats would be 45 over par right now. Fudge things a bit and give 'em a birdie for every game in which they scored five runs, and the total improves to 44 over par. That made a big difference. Anyway, the thought occurs to me that 44 over par isn't so bad for 34 holes of golf. That's equivalent to a round of, what, 95? A little over bogey golf -- not so bad, really. On the other hand, I suppose a round of 95 would be pretty bad for a professional golfer, and the Nats are professional baseball players. Am I saying the Nats' offense is so bad that a team of nine blogger hacks could go out and score three runs per game? Certainly not! Needham, the irrational hater of the bunt, would insist on playing for the big inning that never materializes. Yet, I did just buy this sweet, sweet driver . . .

4. All that being said, what to do? This shouldn't be happpening, you know. When I watch the Nats on MASN, it seems like Bob Carpenter seems pretty excited about these guys, Nook and Guzman and Fick and the gang. I conclude the problem must be one of motivation. But how to motivate the fellas?

Tell you what -- this is Stan Kasten:

For every game the Nats score fewer than four runs, a precious strand of hair gets pulled from this picture. Yes, this is a gratuitous Major League reference, so sue me. It worked there.

5. Lest I leave the impression all has gone wrong, allow me to express some admiration to the pitching staff -- especially the starters, who have on the whole proven surprisingly resilient. Again, the following table contrasts Game 1-20 with the performance since:

Split ERA K/9 BB/9 HR/9 IP/GS
1-20 5.31 6.1 5.1 1.20 5.25
Since 4.58 4.9 4.0 0.96 5.75

Generally speaking, the starters have been more efficient even as the team's fortunes have turned for the (even) worse. Their strikeout rate has gone down, but so have the other rates (earned runs, walks, homers), all except the innings pitched per start. These are nice developments, not that I'm going to overstate. The 4.58 ERA in the latter timeframe is still a third of a run worse than the NL average for starters, so there's room to grow. But they didn't build Rome in a day -- and, as it were, they didn't put John Patterson on the disabled list until May 6.

6. While the Nats haven't nearly caught up to league average in pitching, they are in the process of catching up. After Jason Bergmann's fifth solid start in his last six outings, the Nats now have 14 quality starts in 34 games played. A quality start is defined as six innings pitched or more, with three earned runs or fewer allowed. These standards are a bit low for some, and maybe they should be, insofar as six innings of a 4.50 ERA doesn't sound all that impressive. Then again, in recent years the average NL starter has pitched around six innings per game with around a 4.50 ERA (run scoring has fallen off so far this season, a subject better served in another post), so maybe the baseline makes abundant sense. At any rate, that's just the baseline, and this Kansas City Star article quantifies the relevant information on quality starts over the last five seasons:

  • 48.4% of starts have been quality starts;
  • teams won 68.3% of their games in which they received a quality start;
  • of these quality starts, 9% were of the baseline 6 IP/3 ER quality.
For the 2007 Nats, these figures are: (1) 41% quality starts; (2) a .429 winning percentage in games receiving a quality start; (3) no baseline quality starts, though there have been a couple of 6.1 IP/3 ER starts, which is the next rung of the ladder.

7. Anyway, that's where we are at the moment: pitching that has surpassed (meager) expectations, but meager (meager) hitting. All things being equal, it would be nice if we could remove one of the meagers. Harper put it best earlier: "Building a team around mediocre pitching and ok defense [but] abandoning offense completely is not going to work."