What’s really to blame for Nats’ offensive struggles?

PITTSBURGH - What’s the biggest reason the Nationals are having so much trouble consistently scoring runs this season? The easy answer, as Davey Martinez has said on more than one occasion, to blame the club’s struggles with runners in scoring position.

“It’s more collectively,” the manager said after Wednesday’s 2-0 loss to the Pirates. “Individually, the guys hit the ball here and there. But it’s more like our situational hitting. Runners on second base. Sometimes you’ve just got to move the ball.”

Never was that more apparent than during the third inning Wednesday, which began with a Gio Gonzalez double but was followed by an Adam Eaton lineout, a Juan Soto flyout and an Anthony Rendon lineout.

That’s a big, fat 0-for-3 with runners in scoring position that inning alone, and it was perhaps a perfect encapsulation of the Nationals’ season to date.

But are the Nats actually struggling that much with situational hitting? Anecdotally, it sure feels that way. Statistically, it’s not as bad as it feels.

Would you believe the Nationals rank 10th in the majors in both batting average (.255) and OPS (.764) with runners in scoring position? They actually rank better in those situations than overall, where they’re 18th in batting average (.244) and 15th in OPS (.726).

Those are their numbers across the entire season. So the strong performances in blowout wins tend to offset the ugly performances in shutout losses.

The bigger problem, then, isn’t so much situational hitting but rather the lack of consistent hitting altogether. You just don’t know what you’re going to get from this lineup from one night to the next, and here’s the evidence of that: In their 46 wins this season the Nationals are batting .289 (fifth-best in the majors) with an .865 OPS (eighth) and 6.46 runs per game (seventh), but in their 46 losses they’re batting .196 (27th) with a .574 OPS (25th) and 2.29 runs per game (26th).

Adams-Kneeling-Gray-PIT-sidebar.jpgIs there a chance the Nats have just been unlucky? Matt Adams seemed to suggest that after Wednesday’s loss.

“I think if you look at the results not being consistent, look at how many barreled balls we’re hitting right at people,” said the first baseman, who went 0-for-4 with two flyouts to the warning track and a lineout. “That’s the game. We’re going out there and giving it our all, playing good baseball. We’re just on the other side of things right now. But I think everyone in here would agree that we’re going out there and playing good baseball. It’s not like we’re going out there and making five or six errors a game and giving games away. We’re battling and getting guys on base. When we do put the ball in play, it’s just right at people.”

So is that true? Well, the Nationals’ batting average on balls in play (.288) ranks 22nd in the majors despite the fact they’re hitting line drives 21.4 percent of the time, which ranks 13th. That’s actually up from a 20.3 percent line drive rate last season. Which suggests at least some bad luck.

The Nats probably also are getting burned by all the defensive shifts opposing teams have been deploying with far more regularity than in the past. But they’re also hitting into those shifts more. Last season, 26.1 percent of their batted balls were hit to the opposite field, the 10th highest rate in the majors. This season, they’re hitting to the opposite field only 25.1 percent of the time, which ranks 21st.

So they might benefit from going the other way more often, essentially beating the shift.

There isn’t one overriding reason for the Nationals’ offensive woes. You can point to situational hitting. You can wonder if bad luck is involved. You can suggest they learn how to be better at hitting ‘em where they ain’t.

Put all that together, though, and you get a good picture of the state of this lineup right now. However they ultimately do it, the Nationals simply have to find a way to start scoring more runs.

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