A few before-and-after shots

When the Nationals beat the Rockies 14-6 on May 13, running their record to 20-15, everyone in the clubhouse was talking about how the team hadn’t played its best baseball yet. The offense wasn’t doing enough to regularly win games - and the 14-run outburst in Colorado looked like a sign of that changing - and the bullpen was still a move away from becoming the smooth-running outfit it is now.

But all that rhetoric, at least to this point, hasn’t yielded results. The Nationals are 11-20 since then, back in last place in the NL East with a 31-35 record. They’ve got a soft slate of games coming up, but they’ve lost series against the last-place Astros and Indians, unable to take advantage of weak opponents after a brutal opening stretch of the schedule.

So what’s changed? We’ll attempt to figure that out, statistically. Keep in mind that we’re comparing 35 games to 31, but we can get a reasonably accurate picture from the numbers:

Offense
Through May 13: .264 batting average, .340 on-base percentage, .430 slugging percentage, 33 homers, 29 steals, 14 times caught stealing, 27 double plays
Since May 13: .259/.325/.391, 27 homers, 17 steals, nine times caught stealing, 25 double plays
Analysis: Not a huge dropoff here, though the 39-point dip in slugging percentage is significant. The Nationals were running more when they were winning, but that probably had something to do with Nyjer Morgan, who had a .342 on-base percentage through May 13. He tried to steal 17 times in that stretch, and was successful on nine attempts. Since then, he’s only ran nine times, succeeding six times. That’s a better ratio, and Morgan has been more conservative, but he’s also not on base as much: his OBP since May 13 is a putrid .269. You simply can’t have that from a leadoff hitter.

Pitching
Through May 13: 4.51 ERA, 1.477 WHIP, 209 strikeouts, 34 home runs, 61.8% strike percentage, 64 inherited runners, 45% inherited score rate.
Since May 13: 3.91 ERA, 1.382 WHIP, 157 strikeouts, 31 home runs, 62.3% strike percentage, 46 inherited runners, 28% inherited score rate.
Analysis: As a staff, the Nationals have actually pitched better; they’re allowing fewer walks and hits, stranding more runners and reducing their ERA. But most of that has been in the bullpen. which has the best ERA in the majors over the last 30 days (2.34). The group’s Fielding Independent Pitching ERA, which only measures plays that do not involve fielders (strikeouts, walks, home runs, etc.) isn’t quite as good - it’s 3.49 in the last 30 days, 10th-best in the majors. But the bullpen, as a whole, has turned into one of the best units in the big leagues. The same can’t be said for the starters, who have a 4.55 ERA, a 4.98 FIP and 79 strikeouts, the fewest in the majors over the last 30 days. When you consider that 22 of those are from Stephen Strasburg in two starts, that’s stunning. The Nationals have more pitchers coming who will miss bats, but for now, they’ll have to get by. It’s also worth noting that Scott Olsen has been out since May 22. That’s been a big blow to the rotation.

Fielding
Through May 13: Nine unearned runs
Since May 13: 30 unearned runs
Analysis: I couldn’t find a good UZR breakdown by day or anything like that. But with that stat, what more do you need? When four of your five starting pitchers (and until Strasburg, all five of your starting pitchers) don’t miss bats on a regular basis and are relying on fielding to bail them out, everybody suffers from bad defense. The Nationals’ UZR is still 11th-best in the majors, but the mistakes are adding up.

Final thoughts: It was apparent from watching the Nationals in the first 35 games that they were going to win games on pitching and defense, and with the way they’ve fielded and the way their starters have pitched in the last month, that’s not going to fly. The offense has been fairly steady, though still not good enough to cover up the mistakes. But the Nationals weren’t bludgeoning opponents in the first 35 games anyway. Their losses have been largely self-inflicted, which means they’re largely correctable if they get back to the disciplined style of baseball they were playing early on.

Much of the key to all of this, in my mind, is Morgan. He’s struggled both at the plate and in the field, and we saw last year how quickly he’s become the catalyst to this offense. The Nationals need to get him right, or they probably need to think about revamping the top of the order.

Any thoughts on the stats or ideas for quick fixes? Let me know.