There are times that I forget that baseball is about the journey and not the destination, but I become so focused on the destination, the unknown future, that I get frustrated when it isn’t reached. These Nationals are predicted to win a World Series at some point. The ultimate potential of players like Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg is too great for them not to be a winning team for the foreseeable future, or at least that is what the experts say.
So far with those two players together, the Nats have two winning seasons, one playoff appearance and no World Series - but it has also only been two seasons with the third just under way. Sports are not scripted events. There are no spoilers on the Internet and seasons at a time can’t be DVR’d and fast-forwarded to find out the big plot twist at the end. Every day has to be lived and experienced until the ultimate conclusion is reached.
The 2013 Nationals found a way to make that everyday experience as frustrating as possible with general sloppy play and an offense that for much of the season stagnated near the bottom of the league. Many of the issues the 2013 Nationals faced have been corrected for 2014.
The offense is third in the National League in runs scored and fifth in OPS. A bullpen that struggled to hold ties or stop other teams from mounting large comebacks is second in all of baseball with a 2.08 ERA, and Aaron Barrett and Ross Detwiler have been monumental upgrades over their 2013 counterparts of Henry Rodriguez and Zach Duke. Even the bench has gotten in on the action with a resurgent Danny Espinosa hitting .293/.359/.466 with Ryan Zimmerman out of action, and Kevin Frandsen and Zach Walters providing good at-bats as pinch-hitters.
Even with those major issues of 2013 corrected, the Nationals’ start to 2014 hasn’t been much different. The defense remains sloppy and the Nationals have given their opponents too many extra opportunities, especially in the first couple of innings. The strength of the Nationals was always thought to be their starting pitching, but that strength has yet to materialize.
The Nationals notched their seventh come-from-behind victory last evening against the Angels, and while the team’s ability to fight back from behind is admirable, a team ERA of 7.77 in the first two innings isn’t a sustainable way to survive. The good thing about those early-inning struggles is that simply by the laws of chance they cannot continue. Add to that that Taylor Jordan is responsible for 11 of the 25 total runs the Nats have allowed in the first inning and this trend will be on the downward path as soon as Doug Fister is finished with his rehab in a week or two. Add to that that Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez have all had early, uncharacteristic blow-ups, and you have the makings of a statistical anomaly.
By ERA, the Nationals’ starting staff is currently seventh-worst in all of baseball, but by another stat - FIP (fielding independent pitching), a stat that measures outcomes that defenders have no control over such as strikeouts, walks, hit by pitches and home runs - the Nationals are the 11th- best. Take into consideration the Nationals’ league-leading 9.44 strikeouts per nine innings and you can see the regression coming. Especially from Strasburg, who has a 5.33 ERA, but a 2.58 FIP and 14.00 K/9 and has been the victim of an uncharacteristically high home run rate (1.00 HR/9) and wacky .394 BABIP (batting average on balls in play). Strasburg’s career HR/9 is 0.76 and BABIP, .294.
Most of what happens in April will be forgotten by October. The Nationals are a team with some very good trends (the improved bullpen, bench and offense) and some not- so-good ones (high error total and generally sloppy defense and poor starting pitching performances in the first two innings).
The rest of the season is about which trends continue and which dissipate. The offense should continue to be better than 2013, the starting pitching will regress to the mean and the defensive sloppiness may never work itself out. Put it all together and where does that have the Nationals ending up? That is a question that can only be answered by time, and until that time is reached, the best thing to do is enjoy the journey and forget about the destination.
David Huzzard blogs about the Nationals at Citizens of Natstown. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHuzzard. His views appear here as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our pages. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our regular roster of writers.