When Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber joined the Washington Nationals this offseason, the one thing the team thought they were guaranteed to get from them was some serious power.
Between 2019 and 2020, Schwarber clobbered 49 home runs, sported a slugging percentage of .494, and posted a .261 ISO, a statistic that isolates a player’s power from average and slugging. Meanwhile, Bell hit 45 home runs, slugged .514, and held an ISO of .251.
While both of their batting averages fluctuated, the constant in their play was the power.
Fast forward back to 2021 and the Nationals are having a strange season at the plate, where they are one of the better teams in the league in batting average, but one of the worst when it comes to hitting the ball with power.
Entering Monday’s games, the Nationals’ .246 average was the sixth-best in the majors, and their .314 on-base percentage ranked 14th. However, they were also 19th in slugging percentage at .381, their .135 ISO was the fifth-worst, and the 30 home runs they’re hit were the fourth-fewest.
That’s a pretty big disparity between their hitting and their power so far this season.
Unsurprisingly, two of the main culprits are the two hitters they brought in specifically to provide some extra thump to their lineup. Schwarber has a slugging percentage of .364 and ISO of .170 while Bell is slugging just .308 and holds an ISO of .167, a far cry from their usual form.
Perhaps the most infuriating thing for the Nats with their two sluggers is the inconsistency.
Before Sunday’s game, the Nationals were yet to have a game where Schwarber and Bell have both had an extra-base hit while neither player had recorded back-to-back games with an extra-base hit since April 20th.
Every time one or both of them shows a flash that they might be ready to snap out of their funk with a solid game, they quickly slump back to earth and stay in their personal ruts.
“We definitely want them to find that consistency,” manager Dave Martinez said after Sunday’s game. “Bell came up right-handed, hit a ball hard off [Aroldis] Chapman, up the middle, but you know it’s getting better.
“We see them being more on time. Now it’s about focusing on hitting strikes. As you see, when they get a ball in the strike zone, they’re hitting it hard, and the other thing is that when they do get it, not to foul them off. They’ve got to put them in play.
“When they do that, they’re going to be successful and we’re going to start scoring a lot of runs.”
There were more flashes of increased power in the team’s series with the Yankees.
Bell went deep on Friday night in the series opener and, following a double earlier in the inning from Bell, Schwarber cranked a game-tying two-run home run in Sunday’s series finale.
“We need them to do that,” Martinez explained. “We need them to drive in runs. Bell hits the double, Schwarber comes up and hits a bomb.
“They’re a big part of our lineup, man, they start getting going, we start scoring runs.”
As The Athletic’s Lindsey Adler wrote in a recent piece, despite the fact that average exit velocity is up, offense around the majors has taken a downturn early in the season, with a somewhat lighter baseball being a factor in this, not just with the Nats, but league-wide.
Even with that in mind, Statcast would seem to suggest that there is a decent amount of bad luck involved so far in the team’s as well as Bell and Schwarber’s power struggle so far.
So far this season, Bell has a .452 expected slugging percentage, Statcast’s way of predicting the slugging percentage of a ball based on its launch angle and exit velocity, compared to his actual slugging percentage of just .308. Schwarber’s xSLG is .452, still way above his actual slugging percentage of only .364, though not quite by as much as Bell.
Juan Soto is another player who stands out here, as his .431 slugging percentage and .169 ISO are down on his career numbers of .550 and .256 respectively. Like the two above, his expected slugging is way above his actual slugging at .697, so expect his power numbers to rise too as the summer months roll along and he gets back into his rhythm.
They also boast the sixth-highest average exit velocity at 89.5mph, according to Statcast, as well as the sixth-highest hard-hit rate, and second-highest hard-hit rate per swing, as opposed to just batted balls.
While every team in MLB is seeing a negative discrepancy between their Statcast expected stats and actual stats, relative to the other teams in the league, the Nats are one of the teams that will expect their fortunes to change for the better and get closer to the mean.
With warmer weather and the dog days of summer on the way, the Nationals will hope that their big bats will start to put the slug in slugger sooner rather than later...