The Nationals have had a rough go to the start of the season in terms of opposing starting pitchers. They’re facing left-handed starters at a higher rate than usual, which early on led to some inconsistencies in their lineup constructions.
When the Nats face the Padres’ Blake Snell in this afternoon’s series finale, it will be their 19th time in their first 50 games facing an opposing lefty starter. That’s almost a 40 percent rate, unusually high over the first two months of the season, with possibly more on the way.
“Yes,” manager Davey Martinez answered during his pregame media session when asked if this amount of opposing left-handed starters is unusual. “We've seen a lot of lefties. I think we'll get another one too in Kansas City. So yeah, we have seen quite a bit of lefties. But the thing about it is our left-handed hitters are not doing bad against them, it's kind of nice.”
It’s almost ironic that the Nationals have faced this many southpaws to start the year. Over the offseason, the focus was on acquiring a left-handed-hitting corner outfielder and possibly a backup lefty first baseman to fill out the roster. They were able to get both and then some.
Corey Dickerson was the left corner outfielder and Dominic Smith was the starting left-handed first baseman, allowing Joey Meneses to shift to designated hitter full time. Add switch-hitter Jeimer Candelario and the Nats could actually have more lefty bats than righty in their lineup on a given night.
And they have done well against left-handed pitching. Over their first 18 games against a left-handed starter, the Nats have slashed .289/.344/.436 for a .780 OPS. Conversely, they’ve slashed .249/.312/.351 for a .663 OPS in games started by righties.
A big reason for that is the success their left-handed hitters are having in games started by an opposing southpaw. Smith (.339/.387/.357/.744), Candelario (.279/.329/.382/.711) CJ Abrams (.277/.333/.511/.844), Luis García (.286/.296/.388/.684) and switch-hitting Keibert Ruiz (.245/.309/.469/.779) all have better numbers in games started by lefties than righties.
“We've done a lot of work,” Martinez said. “I know we worked a lot in the cages on facing those guys and doing a lot of different things to keep the guys engaged and keep them in there against left-handed pitchers. And they've done really well.”
It’s also helped the skipper construct his lineups more consistently. Earlier in the season when the Nats faced four left-handers in their first six games, Martinez mentioned it was tough to put out consistent lineups to get his hitters in a rhythm.
Surprisingly, the missing piece was one of his left-handed hitters.
“You know what, helps with that is having Corey back. We missed him,” Martinez said. “Vargas we can plop in almost anywhere because he's a switch-hitter when he gets the chance to play. But yeah, for the most part, look, we want to see our young guys play every day, so they get the opportunity. Maybe when I got to give them a day off, it's typically against a tough left-handed pitcher because we got guys that could cover. But having Corey that can play against right-handed pitching and the fact that he doesn't struggle against lefties neither, he actually puts pretty good at-bats against lefties too, does help our lineup a lot.”
Dickerson hasn’t faced too many lefties so far this season, as his career splits suggest he shouldn’t. But having him back from the injured last has allowed Martinez to platoon him and Stone Garrett in left field based on the opposing starting pitcher.
And at the rate they're facing lefties, including against Snell today, has let them both play consistently.