As I write this, the last place Washington Nationals trail the division-leading New York Mets by only two games, but that’s less a testament to the Nationals on-field ability and is perhaps more of an indictment on the National League as a whole entity.
Coming into the season, we expected the NL East to be the most vaunted division in baseball. If the East keeps up its current pace, we’ll ultimately have to decipher whether or not the East leaders aren’t winning more games because of the challenging environment within the division or if the division simply isn’t as good as we thought it would be.
That’s particularly troubling news for the Nationals, who are pulling up the rear, trying to rely on its cobbling together of veterans to turn the tide and return the organization to its weird but winning 2019 ways.
For this article, I set out to find the one thing the Nationals do well. It wasn’t easy.
After combing through FanGraphs’ leaderboards, I finally managed to land on something. That something? BABIP.
BABIP, or “batting average on balls in play,” is one way to measure output, with excessive numbers sometimes indicating luck, while deflated numbers can sometimes signify bad luck. After reading that, you might be asking the question: “If having too high a BABIP is indicative of being lucky, should we have a concern about the Nationals’ output, given their other offensive metrics?” The answer: No, Washington’s BABIP is not nearly good enough to be considered “excessively lucky.”
But the Nationals do rank sixth in all of Major League Baseball by BABIP (.301). They are sandwiched between division-foe Miami Marlins and former World Series bunglers, the Texas Rangers. There is one other NL East team ahead of the Nationals: The Phillies.
With this being the case, the Nationals also have one of the higher team batting averages in baseball (.242), which puts them eighth among all teams.
Obviously, this isn’t resulting in the team winning games, so you might ask yourself why you should care. That’s certainly a fair question and the best I can do is this: To be a winning team, a club has to do several things correctly. At this rate, the Nationals are doing next-to-nothing in the top-third of baseball. To win games, they’re going to have to start pulling team outputs up into that top-third zone. BABIP (and average) are really the only thing that currently resides there. That means they’re doing something “right.”
Now what’s left for them to do is figure out a whole host of other things to do “right.” Some not-so-easily-implementable suggestions? wRC+ (rank: 28), wOBA (25), OPS (25); for pitching: ERA (25), FIP (30), HR/9 (30). Those are just a few of the many things going wrong for the Nationals early on. I suppose at this point the hope is when some of these players return from the injury list, things will start to trend upward. I wouldn’t hold my breath.
I spent much of the offseason belaboring the point that the Nationals should proceed with caution about the path they were taking. Now that the 2021 season has begun, it’s not panning out how we all hoped early on. With the window closing on many of the big names that have worn a Nats’ uniform in recent seasons, things could get much bleaker in the coming years.
On the flip side of that, if you want a more positive spin, it’s still early in the regular season. There’s no reason to fully write off any team just yet, but it might be necessary to maintain cautious optimism.