To say the Washington Nationals offense is struggling is an understatement. To struggle, you first have to establish a baseline of potential. With several players coming out of the gate so slowly, they haven't yet been able to establish a baseline...unless they have, in which alternatives should be sought after immediately.
Let's take a look at the Nats hitters player-by-player against their historical performances. Two things jumps out: despite their individual problems, every single player below is hitting in bad luck (lower BABiP than career history or league average) and; 2) Almost everyone's isolated power (SLG-AVG) is at a career low, almost like there's a systematic change of approach.
As always, small sample size caveat.
Jayson Werth (age: 37)
2016 (74 plate appearances): .185/.284/.385; K% 28.4; BB% 10.8; ISO .200; BABiP .220.
2015 (378 PA): .221/.302/.384; 22.2; 10.1; .163; .253
2014 (629 PA): .292/.394/.455; 18.2, 13.2; .163; .343
Career (14 years): .271/.364/.462; 22.8; 12.0; .191; .326
Werth is striking out more than he ever has. Only in one other full season (2005 with LAD) was Werth over 25 percent. MLB average is 22.8 percent. You see where I'm going with this.
If you listen to Nats Nightly (and if you don't, why not?) I've been talking about this all season. With his advanced age and injury history, Werth now owns what's known as a "slider speed" bat, and he's reduced to starting his swing early to catch up to the fastball. When he runs into one, he's still got enough power to hit one out, and his ISO of .200 bears that out. But he's swinging at more pitches both in and outside of the strike zone, and making less contact than ever (contact rate on strikes is down 4.2 percent over last season, acc'd to Fangraphs).
Now, his current BABiP is well under-average .220, so he's due some luck. But the bigger point is if his contact rate doesn't get any better, coupled with being a liability in left field, the Nats surely have to consider replacing him sooner rather than later. Unfortunately: 1) He's under contract for another year (at $21M), and 2) His most logical replacement on the 40-man roster is...
Level of overall concern: Very high. I've tried hard to look for the silver lining for Werth, but I fear this is what he's going to be for the remainder of his contract. Call it the cost of doing business. His contract signaled to the rest of baseball that the Nats were ready to be players, but we always knew it was going to catch up to them in the end. It's the end. Werth will still hit a few home runs, but the swing-and-misses will be more prevalent and he's no longer #WalkinMan.
Internal replacement: Michael Taylor, Chris Heisey.
Michael Taylor (age: 25)
2016 (78 PA): .192/.231/.301; 33.3; 5.1; .110; .261
2015 (511 PA): .229/.282/.358; 30.9; 6.8; .129; .311
Career (minors, 6 years): .263/.337/.429; 25.2; 9.3
Taylor's not doing any better than Werth is. In fact, allowing for age and experience, Taylor's doing worse. We all saw the promise from his 14 homer/16 steal season last year and hoped that the no-longer-young Taylor was going to make the jump from toolsy prospect to big league starter. It's not happening. He's always been a high K guy throughout his minor league career, but he's experiencing his worst swing-and-miss season of his career so far.
He's seeing fewer strikes from pitchers (42.9 percent, compared to 47.6 last season) and swinging at outside pitches more (26.3 to 35.6). Essentially, he's getting himself out. Is he still young enough to cut down his K rate and become a truly useful big league player? Is he destined to a career as a fourth or fifth outfielder? What he and Rick Schu can accomplish this season will determine it. But for the Nats this season -- one in which they expect to contend for the division -- they can't really be conducting experiments with full-time starters.
The thing to remember about Taylor: despite now in his age 25 season, he had all of 84 plate appearances in AAA. Forced into playing time the past two seasons due to injuries on the big squad and major deficiencies on the big league bench, he may have been robbed of critical development time in the minors.
Level of overall concern: High. Taylor has all the athletic ability in the world, but taking late to the game and now missing a critical season and a half of skill development might have cut down his potential from borderline all-star to fifth outfielder. There's time, but it's running out. Thankfully, Ben Revere will be back soon to put Taylor back on the bench and into a (hopefully) more useful role.
Internal replacement: Ben Revere.
Danny Espinosa (age: 29)
2016 (72 PA): .172/.310/.190; 20.8, 13.9; .017; .227
2015 (412 PA): .240/.311/.409, 25.7, 8.0; .169; .299
2014 (364 PA): .219/.283/.351, 33.5, 4.9; .132; .319
Career (7 years): .229/.301/.386, 27.6, 7.2; .157; .297
Okay, here we go. On the surface, it looks like Espinosa is getting better at strike zone command, yet producing less. His wRC+ this season thus far is an abysmal 34. That his WAR is only -0.2 so far is a testament to how good he is defensively, but you can't even carry Ozzie Smith with Espinosa's slash line full-time.
Espinosa's BB rate (and thus, his OBP) is getting the benefit of intentional walks (3 of his 10 total), hitting eighth ahead of the pitcher. If anything, Espinosa's being TOO patient right now. He's seeing fewer strikes (62.7 percent, compared to 66.5 last year), and looking at WAY more (26.9 percent in 2016, 17.1 in '15 and 21.2 in career). His ISO is a career-low .017 (career average .157). He's being tentative at the plate, making less contact, and making worse contact when he does.
His slugging line graph is almost comical:
Will he rebound some? Surely, unless he's hiding another injury. Plain and simple, though, he's got a poor approach at the plate and is proving -- once and for all -- that he's a bench player and defensive substitute in the big leagues.
Level of overall concern: Meh. Although we've known Espinosa was a swing king his entire career, he'd occasionally run into one and provide some pop. He's changed his approach some this year hitting in the eighth spot, but he's useless to the team right now. Unfortunately, it's going to take an injury for the Nats to call up Trea Turner before his time, so if the Nats look for another option, it'll be similarly contact-challenged (and much worse defensively) Stephen Drew to get first crack.
Internal replacement: Stephen Drew, Trea Turner.
Anthony Rendon (age: 25)
2016 (91 PA): .229/.297/.277; 12.1; 8.8; .048; .264
2015 (355 PA): .264/.344/.363; 19.7; 10.1; .100; .321
2014 (683 PA): .287/.351/.473; 15.2; 8.5; .186; .314
Here's where things start to get tricky. After Rendon's excellent sophomore campaign in 2014, everyone was predicting superstardom. It hasn't happened, though, and his start this season is particularly concerning. His K rate is good, his BB rate in line with career norms. He just isn't making contact. And what contact he is making is weaksauce. His extra-base hit percentage has dropped each of the past three years, to the lowly 4.4 percent is it this season, well below MLB average of 7.4 percent (which includes pitcher ABs).
He's swinging more, fouling more off and putting more balls in play than last year as well. By being less selective (27.0 percent swing rate outside the strike zone compared to 19.3 last year), he's making worse contact. And because of his superior bat control he's not striking out more doing it. This sounds like a case of bad advice from someone and he needs to get back to being Anthony Rendon.
Level of overall concern: Low-ish. Rendon is a much better hitter than he's shown and isn't close to his prime. Here's betting he figures out what's going on before too long and resumes being the near-perfect two-hole hitter.
Internal replacement: None. At all.
Ryan Zimmerman (age: 31)
2016 (75 PA): .235/.293/.324; 24.0; 8.0; .088; .300
2015 (390 PA): .249/.308/.465; 20.3; 8.5; .217; .268
2013 (633 PA): .275/.344/.465; 21.0; 8.5; .190; .316
Career (12 years): .282/.348/.473; 17.7; 9.1; .191; .314
Again, the strikeout rate is way up -- a nine point jump over the past two seasons and the walk rate is way down -- 1.2 percent over the same time. His swinging strike rate is up 7.7 percent from last year, a HUGE jump, but as we saw in Rendon, his balls in play are about the same.
His overall swing rate is comparable to previous years, but Zim is making less contact on his swings across the board -- a drop of 8.2 percent on strikes and and incredible 18.1 percent on swings outside the strike zone. He hasn't changed what he's swinging at, he's just missing it a LOT more, especially when he's chasing. Why? Maybe because he's seeing a lot more curveballs -- 13.5 percent this season compared to under 10 percent in his career. Trouble with the curve?
Level of overall concern: Medium-high. I've always contended Zimmerman is the most important hitter in the lineup, taking Harper's numbers for granted. A healthy and productive Zim is even more important now that he's full-time at first base. If this is a "new Zim," the Nats simply can't compete. There's no replacement for him inside the organization.
Internal replacement: None, really. Clint Robinson could sub if Zim is injured, but there's no way the Nats could bench Zimmerman. Simply, he HAS TO hit.