Have The Nationals Really Improved?

As major league baseball’s mid-season break is ending, fans are putting the National League’s first All-Star win in 14 years behind them and are looking forward to the promise of their team’s second half of the schedule. For the Nationals faithful, it’s a new experience. Last season, D.C’s ballclub had stumbled to a record of 26-61 at the All-Star break and had, for all intents and purposes, nothing left to play for. This year, however, the Nationals entered the break with a respectable—albeit unspectacular—record of 39 wins to 50 losses. But have Jim Riggleman’s Nationals really gotten better?

Based on their record alone, the Nationals have improved by leaps and bounds. But simply comparing win-loss records doesn’t go deep enough. As stellar as a 13-game upgrade is, there is still the chance that the Nats have just gotten lucky. So to divine whether or not the Nationals are truly a better team, we’ll do some quick "stats investigation".

Here’s a comparison of the team’s 2009 performance and its 2010 performance through the first 89 games on each schedule:







Batting avg.



Team ERA






Bullpen ERA



Runs Scored



Save %



Runs Allowed



The comparison shows a couple of things:

  • The National’s pitching has dramatically improved. Last year, low ERA’s were hard to come by for both the Nats starting rotation and the team’s relievers . But through 89 games in 2010, the pitching staff’s overall ERA has decreased by almost 1 whole run (largely due to some outstanding performances by Livan Hernandez and Stephen Strasburg). And the bullpen ERA has decreased by almost twice that number. In fact, the Nats new-look bullpen has been developing into one of the team’s stronger components. In addition to a lower ERA, the relievers, led by pitchers like rookie Drew Storen and closer Matt Capps, have been much better at keeping opponents at bay when the Nationals hold the lead, saving 25 games of 39 opportunities (compared with 14 saves in 34 opportunities in the first 89 games of 2009). While there is still work to be done, it’s clear that the team’s pitching has definitely been upgraded.
  • The Nationals offense has for the most part stayed the same. It might even be a little worse. In 2010, the batting average is slightly slower, the team isn’t slugging as hard, and they’ve also scored less runs. The offense has also at times fallen victim to the same offensive slumps as it did in 2009. With a new batting order featuring quality hitters like Josh Willinghamm, Ivan Rodriguez, and Ian Desmond, the Nationals’ offense hasn’t shown that it can be better. Sorry, but there’s no improvement here.

It should also be noted that the team is still suffering from the same defensive woes as last year. Just like they did last year, the Nationals fielders lead the majors in fielding errors with 75 on the year. New shortstop Ian Desmond is the worst offender by far (he has 21 errors on the year). These errors have led to a total of 47 unearned runs.

But, yes, it’s probably still fair to say that the Washington Nationals have improved upon last year’s waking nightmare of a season. And the fact that most of the improvement came via pitching and not offense would seem to suggest that these Nationals are for real. They’re grinding out some tough wins. Truthfully, though, it’s a mixed bag. While the pitching changes have been paying dividends (and the Nats now have some competent starters and a bullpen that doesn’t let a win slip away like a wet bar of soap), the offense hasn’t made the desired strides, and the fielding performance still leaves a lot to be desired. If the Nationals want to continue their uphill climb from the NL East basement and eventually contend, they’ll need to better in all three areas, instead of just in one.

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