Nationals at the Half-way Point:
July 6, 2012 in Uncategorized
The Nationals have now played 80 games, and while they are a game shy of the mid-way point, it is fair to look at given that most of the league is already half-way through their games. The Nationals now sit at 48-32, with a 4.5 game lead in the NL East and the best record and winning percentage in the National League. Overall they have the third highest win total and winning percentage (behind the Rangers and Yankees), and look to be well on their way for the franchise's first playoff berth since moving to Washington in 2005.
The Nationals +60 run differential is 4th best in all of baseball, and is built on their league best 280 runs allowed. That is 25 fewer runs allowed than the next closest team, the Pittsburgh Pirates (*The Pirates have played two more games so the gap is a bit closer). Why are the Nationals keeping other teams off the score board? The answer is simple, their dominant pitching. The Nationals lead baseball with a team 3.22 ERA and a 3.40 FIP. What's impressive is that they are essentially dominating all the key secondary stats (with the exception of walk allowed where they are middle of the pack) which bodes well for this not being a fluke. The Nationals rank 1st in HR/9 innings, 4th in Left on base percentage, 9th in ground ball rate, and 5th in K/9 innings. This balance allows them to succeed in any ball park
The one issue with the Nationals pitching has been their bullpen, which has only been good, and not great like the rest of the staff. This is due mainly to the innings given to Henry Rodriguez and Brad Lidge, who both struggled mightily in some very high leverage situations. It's also a good reason why their winning percentage in 1-run games (55%) is lower than their season winning percentage. The bullpen though figures to get better when closer Drew Storen returns from injury soon after the All-star break.
Now while the pitching staff has been an obvious strength, their bats have been a bit of a concern. Their 340 runs rank 20th in the league (though since they are a few games behind some teams right above them, they would rank a little higher if it was based on a per game basis). Regardless though their hitting numbers are average at best, and in a number of cases approaching the bottom third of the league. The most troubling number might be their on base percentage which at .315 sits at 20th in the league. On the positive side for the Nationals is the fact that their numbers should improve in the 2nd half. Their current numbers are based on a time period where they didn't have Bryce Harper for the first month of the season, Michael Morse was out the first two months (then ineffective for the first half of June), Jayson Werth missed 53 games (he's expected back at some point in August), and Ryan Zimmerman was woefully ineffective. Now the Nationals will need Harper to not wear down, Zimmerman and Morse continue their hot streaks, and Werth to come back healthy, but there is real potential for this line-up, particularly if they are able to add a legitimate CF and lead-off man. If the Nationals offense can start carrying their weight, this team could be pretty special, and could even be a favorite once October comes.
Overall, Washington is in a great position at the top of the division, and should see an easier schedule in the 2nd half of the season, given they won't have the 18 games versus the AL East. Washington can't get complacent though, as they do have some concerns with finding a legitimate center fielder/lead-off man, bullpen help (perhaps even beyond Storen's return), and a starter to replace Stephen Strasburg when his innings limit forces him to be shut down. Now the trade market will dictate just how many of those needs the Nationals can fill, and how good of a player they can find. It's also important that they remember that they don't need to take an all-in approach this year, given their relatively young cost-controlled roster