David Huzzard: Inside the Nats’ left on base numbers

The Nationals have left 266 runners on base. This is the second-most runners left on by any team in the National League and the team ahead of the Nationals, the Diamondbacks, has had three extra games to leave runners on. Saying a team has left a lot of runners on base sounds alarming, but it only tells one part of the story. If a team gets a two-out double and that runner is then driven in by a base hit ahead of the third out then a runner is left on base. The same outcome holds if the primary runner were never driven in. Not all left on base numbers are created equal.

The biggest difference between the Nationals and Diamondbacks when it comes to the left on base numbers is how many people the teams are putting on base. The Nationals’ team OBP of .326 ranks third in the NL while the Diamondbacks’ .305 OBP is sixth-worst in the league. The Nationals are also hitting with more power, with a .408 slugging percentage, compared to .382 by the Diamondbacks. This means that many of the runners the Nationals are putting on are via the extra-base hit and therefore already in scoring position when they reach base.

When it comes to hitting with runners in scoring position, the Nationals don’t have good numbers, with a team OPS of .669, which ranks 10th in the NL. But like most numbers, these should be examined more closely to see just who is getting the plate appearances with runners in scoring position. The top five for the Nationals are Ian Desmond, Anthony Rendon, Adam LaRoche, Danny Espinosa and Jayson Werth. Of those five players, four of them have an OPS with runners in scoring position of .750 or better, with three of them over .900.

This is good news, as the hitters you want getting those plate appearances are and for the most part are performing, except for Espinosa. Espinosa’s resurgence has been one of the early stories of the season for the Nationals, but in the 35 plate appearances he has with runners in scoring position, he has an abysmal .207 OPS. The biggest reason for the difference between his overall numbers and numbers with runners in scoring position is the comparison between 35 plate appearances and 109. Both are small sample sizes but 35 plate appearances is eight or nine games’ worth for an everyday player, and close to meaningless.

Breaking down the Nats’ batting with runners in scoring position reveals more good news than bad as six of the eight regulars have an OPS of .750 or higher with runners in scoring position. The overall numbers are being dragged down because 142 of the Nationals’ 357 plate appearances with runners in scoring position have gone to bench players or pitchers and, aside from Steven Souza Jr. in two plate appearances, none of them has an OPS over .500.

The Nationals are leaving a lot of runners on base, but they are also putting a lot of runners on base and have scored the fourth-most runs per game in the NL. Having more men on base is what leads to scoring runs better than any other statistic in baseball. The Nationals are very good at creating opportunities, even if the bottom of the order and the bench haven’t been good at capitalizing on those opportunities.

High OBP leading to lots of base runners is a far more sustainable skill for a team than a high batting average with runners in scoring position. Hitting is hitting and hitters are going to hit. The vast majority of players are going to end up with a batting line with runners in scoring position very close to their overall career batting line. In other words, being clutch means being as good in high-leverage situations as one is in all other situations. As long as the Nationals keep putting runners on, they’ll keep scoring runs but they’ll also keep leaving men on base because the man that gets the RBI hit can be left on base just as easily as the man that gets the bases-empty knock.

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.

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