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Can the Nationals be a Surprise Team Part 3: Timely Hitting

How to write about something that might not exist? That is a question that has plagued me for the last couple weeks. Most of my research and time was spent looking at the Nationals hitting statistics and trying to figure out why they scored so few runs in 2010. I am not saying timely hitting doesn't exist. It does, but it is more a confluence of events that only look timely or clutch in hindsight. I have no idea how pressure effects human beings that have lived their entire lives under intense pressure. As sports fans we have seen success and failure in clutch situations time and time again. Olympic athletes train their entire lives for one moment, and sometimes they blow it. They work hard to get to the biggest stage in the world and they just can't come through in the clutch.

I fully believe in the existence of people that perform better in pressure situations. The problem is that describes every single major league ballplayer that has worked hard enough and has the talent to make it to and to stay at the highest level of the game, but still in other sports we have witnessed the very best rise to the occasion and almost single handedly lead their team to victory. The Michael Jordan flu game and the multiple Tom Brady scoring drives at the end of playoff games stand out in my mind. Baseball is different.

Sure, Jim Riggleman could decide that it is best to save Ryan Zimmerman for only the most pressure packed situations, but then he doesn't get those early at bats in a game that would create a pressure situation. In baseball there is little choice on who will get the last opportunity to make it count, or who will be at the plate when the game is one the line. Baseball in many ways is chaos theory in action. A miscalled 2-1 pitch in the first inning eventually leads to a walk that then has the game come to a head with the Nats down by one in the ninth and Ryan Zimmerman coming to the plate with a runner on instead of Ian Desmond. If that 2-1 pitch was called a strike all the way back in the first inning then maybe that runner doesn't reach base, and Ryan Zimmerman never gets the opportunity to be clutch. Instead the opportunity goes to a lesser player. That is really what I found. That opportunity is the most important aspect of timely hitting.

If two players are compared and one has a slash line of .258/.339/.401 and the other .250/.318/.390 then there doesn't appear to be much difference between the two, but when they aren't players but entire teams then the difference is huge. The Atlanta Braves had the best OBP in the Nationals League and the Washington Nationals came in at 12th better only than the Padres, Mets, Pirates, and Astros. The Braves in total scored 738 runs and the Nationals 655. That .021 difference in OBP doesn't look like much but it led to the Braves having 153 more plate appearances than the Washington Nationals. In 2010 the league average for PA per game was 38. The Braves in total had 4 entire games worth of extra plate appearances. That is a huge difference in the amount of opportunities that presented themselves to the Atlanta Braves over the Washington Nationals.

The goal for the Washington Nationals in 2011 shouldn't be to be the best in the league. They have little to no chance to achieve that goal. The goal instead should be to get closer to league average, and the league average OBP in 2010 was .324. I looked at all these numbers. I stared at spreadsheets and splits. Trying to figure out why the Nationals were so far from league average in 2011. The RISP numbers didn't solve much. With RISP the Nationals hit .253/.342/.371 while a league average team would have hit .260/.351/.409. That does explain something. With RISP the Nationals lacked power and had a problem getting on base, but something about it didn't feel right. It just didn't feel like those numbers were worth a 46 run difference.

With 2 outs and RISP the Nationals hit .233/.342/.350 compared to a league average of .235/.346/.370. The Nationals were closer to league average in this regard but still the power was below what it needed to be and there is still a little trouble getting on base, but anyone that watched Nationals games in 2010 would know they weren't a very clutch team. The biggest difference in the RISP numbers appeared to be the power, but the Nationals had a .390 SLG and .140 ISO compared to a league average .399 SLG and .144 ISO. As a team the power numbers are decent, and this is when it hit me. The players on the Nationals that reached base the most were Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Dunn, and Josh Willingham meaning that the players batting most of the time with runners in scoring position weren't very good or in the midst of terrible seasons.

So I broke it down. The Nationals 3-5 batted .273/.364/.481 while all others not including the pitcher batted .254/.310/.368. A league average 3-5 batted .271/.348/.453 and all other positions excluding the pitcher batted .258/.324/.392. The Nationals 3-5 were above average in every aspect of their game, while every other position player was below average. The biggest problem with the Washington Nationals wasn't hitting with RISP it was who was getting into scoring position and who the players were that hit with men in scoring position.

According to Bill James projections this problem might be solved next season as the 3-4-5 of Zimmerman, Werth, and LaRoche are projected to hit .276/.359/.490 and Morgan, Desmond, Bernadina, Espinosa, and Rodriguez are projected to combine for a slash line of .272/.326/.405. Other players will see time in these positions in the batting order, but it gives some idea of the improvement that could happen for the Nationals offense. The offense would have been better with Dunn batting 4th and Willingham still in the line-up, but that isn't the direction the Nationals decided to go in. If the projections are in the ballpark then the Nationals middle of the order likely won't suffer the drop off that many are expecting it to, and with the other positions in the order being better the Nationals offense in 2011 is likely to actually improve on 2010.

Of course there are other aspects. None of the players I named above will be playing 162 games in 2011. Which leads to another problem the Nationals had. Washington Nationals subs hit .208/.285/.323 compared to a league average of .221/.288/.341. The problem here was once again the power numbers and while there is little difference in the OBP numbers the batting average is well below league average, and in the situations that a pinch hitter is likely entering sometimes that hit can mean all the difference in the game. If there was a way to filter out the times that the regular starters didn't start a game and entered as a sub then these numbers would likely be worse, but the league average numbers would also likely be worse as well. The Nationals in 2011 shouldn't just have a league average bench, they should have an above average bench. Ankiel, Morse, Hairston, Stairs, and Ramos are all better than the players that filled those rolls in 2010.

There is also something else to consider with timely hitting, sometimes it isn't even hitting at all. A sac fly that scores a run from third base can be just as important as a single that accomplishes the same goal. In 316 opportunities with less than two outs and a runner on third the Nationals scored the runner 50% of the time compared to a league average of 51%, but that 51% came with 330 opportunities for a difference of 158 runs scored compared to 167 runs scored, which is a 9 run difference and worth 0.9 wins. That 0.9 might not look like much, but these little things add up. Round that up to a win and add it to the 10 wins from improved defense and marginally improved pitching and the Nationals are inching closer to the threshold of being a surprise team.

The most important aspect in how many times a runner scores from third with less than two outs isn't the percent of times that runner is scored but the number of chances. There are a few ways a runner can get to third with less than two outs, we will ignore a no out or one out triple, because that is the rarest possible way. The remaining two ways are advancing from first to third on a single, or from second to third on an out or single. The Nationals were right at league average of 42%, but a league average team would have had 38 more chances to advance a runner, but when it comes to going from first to third the Nationals were well in the bottom half of the league with 18 less advancements than a league average team. These are just little ways that the Nationals need to improve in 2011, and with the focus being on more athletic players they should see some improvement in this aspect of their game. At best it will lead to a one or two win improvement, but that is what winning organizations do. They scratch and fight for any advantage they can gain.

The Nationals are not likely to see much improvement in runners advancing on outs, and this might be a good thing. I am sure you have heard people say there are no such things as a productive out, and it is true, but an out that advances a runner is better than an out that doesn't. After all the only thing a baseball team is guaranteed in a game are 27 outs. Guzman was known as a contact hitter and Willingham and Dunn were known as hitters venerable to the strikeout. Dunn's spot in the order will be taken by Werth, and Willingham's by LaRoche. Werth and LaRoche average 293 strikeouts per season and Dunn and Willingham 309. The improvement is so small it won't matter one bit as those non-strikeout outs might not be of the runner advancing variety or might not come with a runner on base. Guzman who few would mistake for a good hitter has only struck out an average of 90 times per season. Danny Espinosa is likely to strike out as many as 174 times per season. Espinosa should still help the team more than Guzman would have as he will hit with more power and is likely to reach base more often. Both of which are far more important than not striking out. What not strike out does accomplish is it brings luck into the equation. With a strike out, bloopers can't fall, seeing eye singles can't sneak between infielders, and check swing doubles and fielding errors don't occur. The most important aspect of baseball is getting on base, and if a hitter's approach leads to more strikeouts at the same time as a higher OBP then they are a better hitter than a player that doesn't strikeout but also doesn't reach base as much.  

As important as getting on base is staying on base is just as important. The Nationals do need to improve on getting runners into scoring position, but not at the risk of losing base runners entirely. In 2010 the Nationals were caught stealing 41 times and were picked off 20 times. The Nationals also grounded into 125 double plays. That all comes out to 12 additional base runners lost when compared to a league average team. It should be noted that the Nationals were above league average with a 73% success rate at stealing bases, but this is still off the pace of the 75% most experts believe is required for the stolen bases to have a positive effect. This is yet another aspect of Nyjer Morgan's game that has to improve in 2011. He is the team's best threat to steal a base and a success rate of 50% simply isn't going to cut it. Especially when the pick-offs are considered. The Nationals in 2011 need to not only improve on getting on base, but also in staying on base.

Of course it didn't help that when the Nationals did get runners on and didn't make an out on the bases they had trouble getting them in. The Nationals were not a clutch team in 2010. According to the creatively named stat Clutch that measures these sorts of things, the Nationals cost themselves 2.47 wins in 2010 while a league average team would have only cost themselves 1.04 wins. The Nationals line-up in 2011 should be deeper. The two main reasons for that is the replacement of Guzman, and moving Desmond from 8th in the order where he hit .250/.301/.379 to the 2 hole where he hit .321/.354/.478 for his career.

Timely hitting is a funny thing. One year a player is great in hitting with RISP. Far above his regular average and almost every time he comes to the plate with a runner in scoring position he is able to score them, and then the very next season he just can't do it. In 2009 Adam Dunn hit .283/.454/.566 with RISP, but in 2010 he only hit .217/.335/.427, and that pretty much sums up everything you need to know about hitting with RISP. To further drive this point home in 2009 the Nationals scored 710 runs and in 2010 they scored 655. The 2010 team would be considered to be the more talented of the two by most people, but yet it couldn't manage to score as many runs.

Offense was down across baseball in 2010, but in many ways offense is unpredictable. If a player has a large enough career sample size a general idea of what that player will do can be formed, but still no one knows what players are going to have breakout or career years, or which players will have terrible years. Most people look at an offense that is losing a 35 homer bat, and an extremely productive on base machine, and figure the offense can only get worse. The numbers tell the story of a team that struggled offensively in 2010, but the reason for that was because of all the spots in the order that weren't 3-5. It is very likely that in 2011 the 3-5 hitters won't be much worse than in 2010 and that all other spots in the line-up have the chance to be significantly better. To try and pin an exact run total on it is beyond my abilities, but to think the Nationals offense can only get worse isn't a logical position to take. The Nationals could have the worst offense in baseball in 2011. That is one possibility, but there is also the possibility that they get closer or become a league average offense. By filling the gaps created by the loss of Dunn and the trade of Willingham with Werth and LaRoche any contributions the Nationals get from Espinosa and Ramos, and improvement by Desmond, Bernadina, Morse, and Morgan will have a positive effect on the number of runs scored instead of simply making up for the players that were lost.

The Nationals offense is unlikely to be a strength, but it could be less of a weakness than it was in 2010. A lot depends on how the young players progress and how Morgan rebounds, but the opportunity for growth exists.