What ever happened to the Washington Nationals?

On Opening Day of this year’s baseball season, with expectations sky-high for the “World Series or bust” Washington Nationals, I wrote, “teams that looked as good as the Nats do on paper have played .500 ball over the course of the long season.” This statement wasn’t intended to be prophetic. It was simply a word of caution in an otherwise gushing post. I expected the Nationals to approach or exceed their victory total of 2012 — 98 games.

But by early August, it wasn’t clear that the Nats would win even half of their 162 games. On August 7, after the Atlanta Braves swept a three-game series, Washington’s record stood at 54-60.

The team rallied, finishing the season at 86-76. Even so, this left them 10 games behind Atlanta in their division and 5 games short of wild-card consideration.

What happened?

Lots of things, including an ungodly number of defensive miscues in the first few months of the season. But the big thing that happened was the club’s failure to produce at the plate.

In late July, through 98 games, the Nationals had the second worst offense in the National League. They were averaging 3.7 runs scored per game. Their team batting average was .240, with an on-base percentage of only .300 and a .383 slugging percentage.

And they looked even worse than their numbers. Most Nats hitters seemed to have no accurate concept of the strike zone. They regularly swung at pitches several inches off the plate. This accounted for the low on-base percentage — you don’t walk when you consistently swing at non-strikes — and the low batting average — you don’t get many hits chasing pitches that are low and away.

The 2013 Nationals aren’t the first team to get itself out at the plate. Indeed, this practice is a hallmark of poor hitting clubs.

But the Nats are a team of mostly accomplished hitters. In 2012, a lineup consisting of most of the same players — and plagued by injuries — finished third in the National League in runs scored. The team batted .261, with an on-base percentage of .322 and a slugging percentage of .428.

Consequently, as Nats hitters kept failing in 2013, I kept expecting the team to fire its hitting coach, Rick Eckstein.

When they finally did so in late July, two things happened. First, there was an outcry against the firing by players and, above all, manager Davey Johnson, who was so distraught that he offered to resign.

Second, the team started hitting like a pennant contender. Under new hitting coach Rick Schu, the Nats averaged, by my calculations, around 4.4 runs per game (compared to 3.7 under Eckstein). And their batting average and on-base percentage both significantly exceeded their marks for 2012, when they had such a potent offense (the slugging percentage was roughly the same as in 2012).

I’m sure it would be a mistake to attribute all of this dramatic improvement to the change in batting coach. But to object to the firing of Eckstein with the way the Nats were hitting is to admit that a batting coach is superfluous. In that case, why have one?

It’s natural for a team to be loyal to its coaches, even ineffective ones. But the 2013 Nats carried their sense of loyalty to the point that it became difficult to distinguish from a sense of entitlement.

We saw this in another personnel controversy — the one brought on by management’s decision to sign Rafael Soriano to replace Drew Storen as “closer.”

Soriano is one of the game’s most successful closers. He was hardly brilliant in 2013, but did save 43 games. In any case, the wisdom of replacing Storen seemed fully vindicated by the fact that Storen was horrible during the first half of 2013 — so bad that he was sent to the minor leagues.

But instead of thanking their lucky stars that Storen had not been entrusted with closer responsibilities, word emerged that the team resented management for replacing Storen and blamed his ineffectiveness on the team’s lack of confidence in him as a closer.

This theory struck me as ludicrous and inadvertently insulting to Storen. No one whose psyche is too fragile to handle being relegated to pitching the seventh or eighth inning, rather than the ninth, should be entrusted to pitch the ninth when the game is on the line.

Storen’s problems in the early part of the season stemmed, it seemed to me, from the fact that these days it’s tough to avoid giving up runs when you rely on a fastball that’s 94 miles per hour and high in the strike zone. This is true no matter what inning you’re assigned to pitch, and probably more true when the game is in the balance. And if Storen lacked confidence, this probably had more to do with his failure to close out the decisive game of the 2012 playoff series against the St. Louis Cardinals than with the arrival of Soriano.

I don’t mean to say that Davey Johnson picked the right closer, though. Tyler Clippard was clearly superior to both Soriano and Storen. Clippard allowed an astonishingly low number of hits (37 in 71 innings, though he did walk 24). His ERA was 2.41, compared to 3.11 for Soriano and 4.52 for Storen (who pitched much better after being recalled from the minors and should, by no means, be written off). Soriano allowed a hit per inning; Storen allowed fractionally more.

Yet Johnson used Clippard almost exclusively as Soriano’s set-up man, even though Clippard has been an effective closer in the past. With the way the Nats hit for most of the season, though, we weren’t going to make the playoffs regardless of who closed games.

Looking ahead, Davey Johnson will be gone next year; he retired at the end of the season. Notwithstanding his disappointing final year, he’s a baseball legend. If you add his considerable accomplishments as a player to his success as a manager, he deserves to be in the Hall of Famer, sort of like Gil Hodges.

I don’t think it works that way, however. Apparently you make it as a player or as manager, not as a combo (Hodges isn’t in the Hall).

Johnson’s managerial career rates Hall of Fame consideration. But he sure could have used another World Series appearance, such as the one he kept saying he expected this year.

As for the Nats, they should contend strongly for the playoffs next year. It will help if this season makes them feel less entitled.


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