Mets 10, Nationals 7: Second Look (with a twist)

The Nationals’ 10-7 loss to the Mets last night was one of their ugliest of the season, and afterward, Jim Riggleman told them as much. It was pretty cut-and-dried - the Nationals were bad in every facet of the game, so I don’t see a lot of value in peeling back the layers on the game as a whole.

Instead, I want to discuss a player that seems to be drawing a lot of ire in the Natosphere these days: Nyjer Morgan.

Remember him? He’s the guy that had an otherworldly 49-game stretch for the Nationals last year, ignited the offense and created something of a fervor based on the always-dangerous we’ll-have-him-for-a-full-season line of thinking. The problem with that is, Morgan’s fullest season in the majors was last year, when he played 120 games. This year, he’s played 42, and seemingly nearly balanced out his goodwill ledger. He’s not the player he was in 49 games last year, but the good news for Nats fans is, he’s also not the player they’ve seen in 42 games this year.

I’ve said since spring training that expecting Morgan to do anything close to what he did last year with the Nationals (.351/.396/.435, with a 13.3 UZR and 24 steals in 31 attempts) is unrealistic. It’s also probably unrealistic to assume he’ll repeat his full-season results from last year (.307/.369/.388 and a 27.6 UZR in 120 games). Especially defensively, Morgan’s 2009 results look like an outlier. And his career averages are tough to measure, because they’re so greatly affected by the 120 games he played last year. But Morgan’s projections for 2010 also were much better than he’s shown so far this year, which means he’s got better days coming.

Here’s the biggest problem with putting too much stock in Morgan’s 49-game stretch with the Nationals last year: his batting average on balls he put in play (BABIP) was .396. That’s extraordinarily high, and not sustainable over a full season. But his BABIP this year is just .310, well below his career mark of .349 and his ZiPS projection of .327.

Defensively, Morgan’s taken some ill-advised chances, like the last two nights, when aggressive leaps at the wall led to an inside-the-park homer and a three-run double. But he’s an aggressive player, and it stands to reason that not all of his gambles are going to turn out as badly as they have so far. And as much as I’m loathe to use the weather as an excuse, he’s also played in swirling winds a fair amount already this year, and you’re not going to see those conditions continue through the summer.

Morgan’s never been a high-percentage base-stealer; he was thrown out 17 times in 59 attempts last year. Some sabermetricians put a 70-percent success rate as the benchmark for making base-stealing worthwhile; others would say 80 percent. This year, he’s only at 50 percent (8-for-16), and has been tinkering with a feet-first slide after breaking his hand sliding headfirst last year. Morgan needs to figure out what’s going to work on the basepaths, because he’s got the speed to be an effective, if not pristine base-stealer. But he’s gone back to sliding headfirst on close plays. Like the other areas of his game, he’s going to take some chances, and stats typically don’t reward aggression. But in a few areas, Morgan has actually been more disciplined so far this year.

He’s hitting .200 against lefties in 26 games this year, which is actually 25 points better than he did in 69 games against them last season. He’s swinging at less pitches out of the strike zone this year, his walk percentage is the highest of his career and despite hitting .255, he’s got a .341 on-base percentage.

And while none of the projection metrics had Morgan equaling last year’s results, all of them had him putting up respectable results. Bill James had him hitting .302 with three homers, 34 RBI, 94 runs and 52 steals in 599 plate appearances. CHONE had him at .281-3-30-62-29 in 502 at-bats, and PECOTA had him at .283-4-35-65-27 in 468 at-bats. Those are all better seasons than how Morgan’s trending right now. And his UZR is -4.4 right now; he’s never been a below-replacement defensive player in his career.

I’m not trying to argue that Morgan’s playing well right now; his aggressive bent has gotten him in trouble plenty of times this year. But as much skepticism as you have to apply to his 49-game stretch with the Nationals last season, you have to apply a similar amount to this year’s 42 games. Unless Morgan’s track record and all of the projections about him for this season were wrong, he’s got better days in store.

Now, to the Talking Points:

1. Tell me what you think of all this. Agree or disagree? Nominate it for an award, or print it out just so you can have the pleasure of flushing it down the toilet? How do you see the rest of the year playing out for Morgan, and would you tell him to dial back some of the aggression?

2. What do you think of Jim Riggleman’s decision to, shall way say, pointedly let his team know what he thought of their performance last night? Do you like the fact that Riggleman will push the red button when he needs to, or would you prefer a different approach?

3. What do you expect in this weekend’s Battle of the Beltways? The Orioles are coming in with the worst record in the game, and changes could soon be in store. How many games do you expect the Nationals to win, and how many wins would it take for you to not be disappointed with the weekend?

Leave your answers to the Talking Points in the comments section, and we’ll have more - from all corners of - this afternoon at Nationals Park. Should be fun.