I had been planning to put this report card together after today's game on the hope that the Nationals could get to .500 before I had to assign them letter grades. Thanks to gray skies, I'm moving up the appraisal. Today, team grades.
The Nats are 20-21 in the first quarter-season of 2011, good for 4th in the NL East. They're a game ahead of the last-place Mets (thanks to the Mets' extra-inning loss to the Fish last night), 3 games behind the 3rd-place Braves and 5.5 games out of first. Somehow the Nats are 9th in the NL, 4.5 games out of WC contention. Note that this is without Ryan Zimmerman, and against a tough schedule (their opponents have been 0.4 runs/game better than the average team). In fact, the Nats have been 0.2 runs/game better than the average team when you take the strength of their first-quarter opponents into account. For getting out of the cellar and near 0.500, they earn the gentleman's 'C.'
This has not been a particular strength so far this season. The team's wRC+ is only 78, last in the NL (100 is league-average). That means the Nats are creating 22% less offense overall than the average team. They are last in the league in batting average, OBP, and slugging. The Nats are also worst in strikeouts, getting rung up in fully 25.0% of plate appearances (tied with the Pirates). Their 3.83 runs scored per game is 13th in the NL. They're near league-average (35) with their 32 HRs, although the Nats' walk rate (8.7%) has slipped to 10th in the NL. They are 3rd in sacrifice hits and 4th in sacrifice flies, but that just tells me that they have to kill the rally to score a run. Baserunning might be the lone bright spot: that Nats are 3rd in SB with 36 (although only 7th in SB% at 78%); they are 6th in percentage of extra bases taken (going first-to-third on a single, etc.); and they're also tied for 7th-least outs made on the basepaths (caught stealing, doubled off, caught trying to take an extra base). I thought quite a while about giving the team a D-, but last in the league is not a passing grade.
Starting pitching: C
This has been a pleasant surprise so far. Nationals starters have been going about 6.1 innings per start, which is 5th in the NL. They're 4th in the percentage of quality starts (61%), and their ERA- of 102 is only slightly worse than league average ("ERA-" is ERA scaled to league average, where league average is 100; it has a "minus" in it to remind you that lower is better--it's directly proportional to ERA). On the peripherals, the Nats rotation is last in strikeout rate (5.65 K/9), but third-best in walk rate (2.71 BB/9, behind the Braves and Phillies) and right around league-average in WHIP (baserunners allowed per inning) at 1.32. They're a little ahead of the game on home runs, allowing only 0.79 HR/9, fifth fewest in the NL. The rotation is solidly league average.
Relief pitching: C-
We've seen some good and some bad this season. The relievers have an 81 ERA-, which is actually only slightly better than league average for relievers and 7th among NL bullpens (ERA- includes starters in the determination of what "league average" is, and relievers generally have lower ERAs than starters). The bullpen is 9th in save percentage (65%). More punishingly, though, the Nationals are 3rd-worst in percentage of inherited runners who score (38%). The bullpen is 9th in strikeouts (8.01 K/9), 9th in walk rate (2.19 BB/9), 7th in giving up dingers (0.67 HR/9), and 7th in allowing baserunners (1.32 WHIP). Overall, I'd say that's near league average.
This has been another area where we've seen some real brilliance and some real face-palming awfulness. The Nationals are 9th in errors (24) and 8th in fielding percentage (0.985). Looking at the advanced metrics, the situation is just as fuzzy as we'd expect with only a quarter-season of chances. Total Zone Runs actually has the Nats leading the NL, at 16 runs above average. On the other hand, Defensive Runs Saved has the Nats at either 4th or 5th in league, depending on which site you believe (I think they update their stats at different times), and Ultimate Zone Rating has them 4th-worst at 9.3 runs below average. One place the team really shines is behind the dish: the Nats have the fewest SB against (14) and the highest CS percentage (46%). The advanced stats also like Pudge and Ramos, putting them at first in the NL in Total Zone Runs (+4) and 2nd in Defensive Runs Saved (+3). On the whole, I think that adds up to above-average defense.
This grade doesn't count in your GPA, so think of it like the mark for "Citizenship" or "Effort." As you might have suspected, the Nats have had some bad luck at the plate. Their team BABIP is last in the NL, at .273 (BABIP is how many balls in play are hits, so it tells you whether a batter is lucky/unlucky with whether balls land near fielders). League average is .294, so bad luck is costing the Nats 5-10% of their offense. Of course, that only gets their wRC+ up to 84, which is still well below average. The pitchers have been enjoying a 72.2% strand rate, which is slightly, but not significantly, better than league average. Staff ERA (3.65) is almost identical to staff FIP (3.68), meaning that the pitchers aren't doing mysteriously better than their "fundamentals" would indicate. The Nats are beating their xFIP (4.01) by a bit, which means they've gotten a little lucky with their low HR rate. BABIP against is .289, which is slightly lucky. Finally, the Nats have scored 157 runs and allowed 168 in 41 games so far this year, making their Pythagorean "expected" record 19-22; they're a game luckier than their run differential in terms of winning close ones and losing blowouts. Overall that's bad luck at hitting with slight good luck everywhere else--call it a wash.