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Washington Nationals offense lackadaisical again in 3-2 loss

Outside of Bryce Harper, the bats were pretty silent again as the Nats fell to the Miami Marlins 3-2. We can keep harping on the bullpen, but it really doesn't matter if this team doesn't start scoring more runs.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

After Friday's 3-2 loss in Miami, the Washington Nationals have scored 63 runs in 17 games.  That's an average of 3.70 runs per game, or a little over half a run less than the Nats averaged in 2014 (4.23).  The Nats have had their fair share of injury problems on the offensive side of the ball, which means it's reasonable to give them a little bit of a pass.  Jayson Werth has played in just nine of their seventeen games... and he's looked like a player who didn't see any spring training action (.152/.256/.212).  Denard Span has played in just five of those seventeen games, and he hasn't really hit stride either (.238/.304/.238).  Anthony Rendon made his first rehab start on Friday, but he's yet to play in a game this season.

Werth, Rendon, and Span were the top three hitters on the Nats in terms of Offensive WAR in 2014.  Werth led the team with 35.2 Offensive Runs Above Average.  Rendon was second with 29.9.  Span was third with 19.2.  Their fourth best finisher in 2014, Adam LaRoche, is now a member of the Chicago White Sox.  The Nats top 2014 returnee in terms of Offensive RAA that has been healthy all year is Ian Desmond, who checked in with just 9.9.  The fact that the Nats have missed 37 out of a possible 51 games out of their top three hitters from a year ago should explain some of their offensive struggles.  Even in the fourteen combined games that Span and Werth have played, they've looked a bit rusty.  That can happen when players miss the entire month of meaningless games in March that are mainly played to help hitters get their timing back and find their stride.

I kind of made a joking comment in my bold predictions article before the season......

While the offense should be above average when everyone is healthy, the Nats' starters should be able to carry this team as long as the offense is giving them an average of three runs of support per game.

I sure wasn't hoping for that theory to be tested, but it has so far outside of the Red Sox series.  The Nats scored 21 runs in their three game set in Fenway Park earlier this season.  In their other fourteen games, they've scored an average of exactly 3.00 runs per game (42 in 14 games).  While 42 may be the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything, it's a pretty pitiful run total in 14 games.

What has this meant so far this season?  It's meant that almost every game is a nailbiter.  Last season, the Nats played 99 games in the regular season that were decided by three runs or less (61.1%).  They went 56-43 in those 99 games (.566).  So far this season, 14 of the Nats 17 games (82.3%) have been decided by three runs or less.  They're 5-9 in those games (.357) through Friday.

What happens in closer games?

Each run and game situation becomes more important.  In a five run game, one run won't change the outcome of the game.  In a one or two run game, the lead (or deficit) is in jeopardy on every pitch.  There's just less margin for error, by both the players and the manager.

  • Each defensive miscue gets put under the microscope, since there's a higher likelihood that it can put the tying or go-ahead run(s) on base
  • Each bullpen decision entails a little more risk.  If the manager makes a questionable decision to go to a reliever and it backfires, it can make the difference in the game
  • The same goes for pinch hitting opportunities.  A manager probably doesn't have the wiggle room to try and keep his bench players sharp so much as needing to think about the matchup in every plate appearance with the potential to impact the game
  • More than anything, there's a greater chance that randomness can rear its ugly head.  One or two instances of good or poor BABIP luck can create game-changing opportunities.  In a four or five run game, BABIP hits can be frustrating.  In a one or two run game, a BABIP single by the opponent can be a dagger.
  • We hear a lot more nonsensical ranting about statistics that thrive on small sample size, such as a team's batting average with runners in scoring position.  We hear the word "clutch" thrown around a lot more often.

What can the Nats do?

They can hope for hitters like Span and Werth, who haven't looked sharp in the early going, to start finding their stride.  They can patiently wait for Anthony Rendon, who may be the best hitter in the lineup when it's healthy, to return to the lineup.  Apart from that, the Nats need better sequencing (that's some of the randomness) and they need to start performing better at the plate.

This team had a 99 wRC+ last season, which was essentially league average.  Thus far this season, the Nats check in at 22nd in MLB with an 85 wRC+.  With the pitching rotation that they have, a league average offense should do very well.  An offense that's 15% below league average is keeping opponents in ballgames, and that allows that zany randomness to change the results of games.

Biggest decision(s) in Friday's game

I did say that manager decisions can have a greater effect in close games, so let's examine a couple of Matt Williams' biggest decisions from Friday...

With Jordan Zimmermann at 79 pitches in a tie game, Williams pinch hit for Zimmermann in a 2-2 game in the seventh inning.  I said in the analysis of Thursday's game that it might have made sense for the Nats to leave Scherzer in the game had it been tied, but I'm good with deciding to pinch hit for Zimmermann here.  Why?  The Nats had two on and two out.  The go-ahead run was on second and likely to score on a two out single.  You take your shot.

Of course, who you take your shot with comes into play as well.  A.J. Ramos has a big fastball and a filthy slider.  He's done well against both LHH and RHH throughout his career, but LHH have handled him quite a bit better (.291 wOBA vs. .242 against RHH).  A left-handed hitter also figures to take away one of Ramos' better weapons: his slider.  With Clint Robinson available off the bench, Williams went to a platoon heavy RHH instead and sent Reed Johnson up there.  Johnson grounded to third on the second pitch and that was that.

Would Robinson have done better?  Who knows?  The fact of the matter is that Robinson would have given Williams a considerably better matchup in this situation.  He would have nullified one of Ramos' best pitches and given him the platoon advantage in a situation where a single would have put the Nats ahead.  The fact that this was a key situation (2 on, 2 out, tie game, late) and that Williams went to Johnson over Robinson is what annoys me here.

I can't question the bullpen management too much.  I have, after all, been emphasizing that Williams needs to be focusing on matchups and occasionally gaining the platoon edge for these past few weeks, right?  Still, I'm not so sure that Dee Gordon is that guy who makes me run out there to make a pitching change to get the platoon edge.  Roark had just one hiccup, and Gordon's best chance to hurt you is with a slappy single (infield or otherwise).

Alas, Williams went to Grace, who allowed an infield single.  He then went to Barrett, who got burned by a Martin Prado opposite field single that plated the go-ahead run before striking out the next two hitters to keep the game close.  It wasn't a terrible call, but it seemed like it may have been a little overreactive.

Here's the good part.  The Nats get an opportunity to come right back in Saturday's game and face a back of the rotation starter in Tom Koehler.  How about you score some runs and leave less of a chance for randomness and manager decisions to affect today's game?