In the infancy of the 2014 season, the Nationals have already had a pair of at-bats that sans a hit or run scored have resonated with the team and fans alike.
Last week, it was Danny Espinosa's eight-pitch at-bat against New York Mets reliever Bobby Parnell, culminating in a walk and a new look for the oft-maligned second baseman - that of a patient, strike zone-savvy hitter. In Sunday's game against Atlanta Braves starter Alex Wood, it was Nate McLouth's 13-pitch duel that turned heads, despite it ending on a liner snagged by second baseman Dan Uggla. The battle was lost, but McLouth's peskiness sparked a 32-pitch inning for Wood against the Nationals, putting the lefty's pitch count into a tailspin, after starting the game in cruise control.
Despite it only being two instances in a very young season, these examples of the notion of patient at-bats appears to oppose manager Matt Williams' onus upon added aggressiveness throughout all aspects of the game. Have the hitters embraced a more controlled approach, dependent upon extending at-bats and opposing pitchers' pitch counts in 2014, or were the Espinosa and McLouth at-bats anomalies? Thus far, Nationals hitters swing at the first pitch of an at-bat a little over 30 percent of the time, up from the roughly 27 percent clip seen last season.
Looking at pitches per plate appearance, Williams' squad has a team average of 3.99, bettering not only the National League average this year (3.83), but also the 2013 Nationals, who saw 3.8 pitches per plate appearance. Almost across the board, the team's starters are using a more patient approach at the plate, bettering their pitches per plate appearance this season.
Three notable players are doing the opposite and seeing fewer pitches so far - Anthony Rendon, Jayson Werth and the always-swinging Ian Desmond. Desmond is taking his see-ball, hit-ball approach to extremes in 2014, swinging at first pitches a whopping 56 percent of the time, up from his sixth-ranked rate of 38 percent in 2013.
So far, we see a bit of a disconnect with hitting approach; while taking a hack at the first pitch is up, plate appearances are going longer. Have the Nationals hitters improved their eye and simply started swinging at strikes now more than last season? Taking a look at swinging rates, the team is swinging at 45.4 percent of the pitches they see, down slightly from last season, which saw them swing 46 percent of the time. So far in 2014, they have swung at strikes 70.9 percent of the time, down from 71.8 percent last season. Contact rates are also down compared to 2013, with the team connecting 75.4 percent of the time this year, compared to 78.6 percent last year. Also discouraging is the propensity for hitters to strike out looking, up from 27.7 percent in 2013 to 31.4 percent this season.
Despite the encouraging bump in pitches seen by hitters this season compared to 2013, the other stats paint a slightly discouraging picture overall in the approach taken by the Nationals early this season. While they are swinging less, they are swinging less often at strikes, while also making less contact. There is plenty of time for the Nationals to make the proper adjustments and fine-tune (or in certain cases, find) their eye for the strike zone.
However, the underlying impetus on swinging at good pitches, which often will be the first pitch seen in an appearance, is a hopeful trend. If the ability to lay off bad pitches and make the pitcher work harder for his outs can be improved upon, thereby extending the Williams-inspired aggressive approach seen thus far from the batter's box to the basepaths, the potential for an improved offense in 2014 remains possible.
Stuart Wallace blogs about the Nationals at District Sports Page. Follow him on Twitter: @TClippardsSpecs. His work appears here as part of MASNsports.com's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. 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 roster of writers.