Over the final couple of months of the season, we heard manager Davey Johnson say over and over (and over and over) again that one of the main reasons for the Nationals’ struggles for much of the year was that the guys on the bench didn’t perform to their ability level.
Chad Tracy hit .202 with a .568 OPS and Roger Bernadina hit .178 with a .517 OPS this season, a pretty steep decline from their numbers in 2012. But they weren’t alone. Tyler Moore also saw his production level take a pretty big hit in 2013.
Moore, who hit .263 with a .840 OPS and a whopping 10 home runs in 156 big league at-bats as a rookie in 2012, struggled mightily in a similar role this season. He was twice demoted to Triple-A Syracuse and ended up batting .222 with a .607 OPS and four homers in 167 major league at-bats this year.
Those numbers are a bit deceiving, however.
Moore didn’t fare all that poorly when he got the opportunity to start, posting a .247/.284/.390 slash line with four homers, nine doubles and 21 RBIs in 146 at-bats. The bigger problem was when Moore was called upon to pinch-hit.
In 18 pinch-hitting opportunities this season, Moore went 1-for-18 (.056) with 12 strikeouts.
It got to the point where late in the season, Johnson stopped using Moore as a pinch-hitter almost entirely. He got just three pinch-hit chances in September, and none after Sept. 6.
“He still doesn’t quite grasp the pinch-hitting role,” Johnson said late in the season. “He’s got that everyday player mentality - go up there and take a pitch. You’ve got to go up there and swing. And he still has a little bit of a tendency to, because he’s such a good offspeed hitter, he can hit the ball hard the other way, sometimes he gets off the fastball more than he should. It’s all about learning to make adjustments. ...
“He had a really good year last year playing against left-handers and coming off the bench, but, actually, most of his success was hitting against right-handers. He was better. But a lot of that is just not having seen a lot of left-handed pitching and the ball breaking in to you, you’ve got to turn on it and pull it. That’s a very difficult pitch to hit the other way. Right-hander (on the mound), everything’s breaking away, so it’s easier to go that way. So you have to make those adjustments.”
The numbers back up Johnson’s point. Moore hit just .189/.238/.270 against left-handers this season, compared to a .247/.278/.409 line against righties. Same type of deal last season, when Moore had a .780 OPS off lefties and a .929 OPS against righties. You would expect to see those numbers flipped around, as right-handed hitters typically see the ball better from left-handed hurlers.
As a right-handed bench player, Moore is going to get most of his at-bats against southpaws, so if he struggles in that department, his pinch-hitting numbers will obviously suffer. That’s an area that must improve.
The question, given all the numbers you see above, is whether Moore is cut out for a bench role in the big leagues. With the roster constructed as it is currently, Moore would enter 2014 in the same role he filled this year - as the right-handed option at first base behind Adam LaRoche and an extra corner outfielder.
Johnson talks about how he doesn’t like having younger, more inexperienced players on his bench in the big leagues, because they’re not used to the inconsistent playing time and the adjustments pinch-hitters need to make. Johnson obviously won’t be managing this team next season, but his issues with having less experienced players on the bench seem warranted.
Still, despite Moore’s scuffles this season, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo sees a bench role as something Moore can adapt to at the big league level.
“In 2012 he had a remarkable season as a pinch-hitter,” Rizzo said. “He’s learning the role. It’s a difficult role to learn. It’s a position I think he will take to and can handle and produce for us.”
Whether or not you believe that the struggles of guys like Moore, Tracy and Bernadina played a major role in the Nationals’ overall issues this season, it’s clear Moore will need to improve next year. Scott Hairston is under contract for 2014 and can provide some pop from the right side off the bench, and Steve Lombardozzi showed he can be an effective pinch-hitter from both sides of the plate, as well.
But assuming Moore cracks the 25-man roster, the Nats will need to see him take some strides when it comes to his hitting against left-handed pitching and his hitting off the bench. Pinch-hitting might not be an easy job at the big league level, but for now, it’s the job Moore has waiting for him.