As he watched his rebuilding club play seven of its final nine games against the team that tied the major league record for home runs in a season, Mike Rizzo couldn’t help but acknowledge what was all too obvious about the Nationals’ 2023 lineup.
“We had some strengths,” the longtime general manager said. “We put the bat on the ball. We didn’t strike out much. But we didn’t have enough power. … When you see teams like the Braves, that’s a formula for winning baseball.”
The Braves, for those who weren’t paying attention, tied the all-time record with 307 home runs and set the all-time record with a .501 slugging percentage as a team. They also won 104 games and are as well-positioned to win the World Series as anyone else in the field of 12 that opened postseason play Tuesday.
The Nationals, for those who didn’t realize it, ranked 29th out of 30 MLB clubs with 151 home runs. Not one individual player slugged .500. They won 71 games and for the fourth consecutive October will be watching the postseason from home.
There are other ways the Nats can improve, to be sure. But from an offensive standpoint, it’s clear from where the improvement needs to come.
“Slug is something that we’re going to try and either acquire and/or develop,” Rizzo said, “to get to a point where you don’t need to get three or four hits in an inning to score a run, and it makes it much more difficult to put up a crooked number.”
The 2024 Nationals do need to slug more, but the problem this year wasn’t a lack of doubles or triples. They actually ranked right in the middle of the pack in both departments (14th in doubles, 11th in triples). Plain and simple, they need to hit more home runs.
But they don’t need to do that at the expense of the one offensive skill they legitimately excelled at this season: Making contact.
Under the tutelage of hitting coach Darnell Coles and assistant hitting coach Pat Roessler, the Nats ranked 10th in the majors in hits, second in singles. They struck out fewer times than 28 other teams. And they weren’t bad in clutch situations. They hit .268 with runners in scoring position (ninth-best) and ranked higher in on-base percentage (.337), slugging percentage (.410) and OPS (.747) in those situations than they did overall.
They need to find a way to keep delivering like that while simultaneously turning some of those singles into home runs.
“When I watch teams in the playoffs, yeah you have teams with power. But it seems like the teams that go a long way are those that don’t strike out a ton and put the ball in play,” said right fielder Lane Thomas, the lone National to hit at least 20 homers this season. “Maybe that’s not always true, but I’m just going off what I’ve noticed. Maybe I’m wrong. But I think there’s a plus to both of those things.”
There’s another key area that needs to be addressed. The Nationals didn’t just rank near the bottom of the league in homers. They ranked near the bottom of the league in walks, drawing an average of only 2.6 per game. Only one player on the roster drew more than 50 free passes: Alex Call, whose .307 on-base percentage was identical to his slugging percentage (never a good combo).
This was a lineup, suffice it to say, that loved to swing. The Nats saw only 3.76 pitches per plate appearance, fewest in the majors. Only 3,031 of their plate appearances reached two strikes, 76 fewer than any other team in the sport. They reached a three-ball count only 1,092 times, fourth-fewest in the majors.
“The plan for next year is to get them to understand how to shrink the strike zone and get good pitches to hit,” manager Davey Martinez said. “Because they hit. We don’t strike out a lot. But if we can be a little more patient and get a good pitch to hit, I think we’ll start driving the ball. …
“This is something we’re going to address in spring. We’re going to work on it. And hopefully as a group, we get a lot better.”
How, though, do you specifically coach that?
“The biggest thing is, you can’t be afraid to hit with two strikes. You can’t,” Martinez said. “Some of the better teams, you look at them and they’re pretty good at hitting with two strikes. We’ve got to get to that point. We’re young, and I like the fact we are aggressive. Now, we’ve got to start being aggressive in the strike zone. When they do that, the results are there. I’ve seen it. We’ve all seen it.”
Indeed, though the Nationals took the fewest plate appearances in the majors with two strikes, they actually fared well when they got there. They ranked fifth in batting average with two strikes (.184) and 14th in OPS with two strikes (.530).
Better hitters, of course, would make a difference. And perhaps by the end of the 2024 season, the Nats lineup will include productive rookies like Dylan Crews, James Wood and Brady House. Perhaps it will even include a veteran or two signed this winter.
But in the long run, the Nationals are still going to have to see improvement from their core hitters who are already here: Thomas, CJ Abrams, Keibert Ruiz. Each had a productive season in many ways. But each knows he can get better in some key areas.
“I think that you’ve seen some growth in that area by most of those players, and I think you’ll see continued growth,” Rizzo said. “It’s a point of emphasis that Darnell puts into all of his advanced plans and his hitting plans. And I think that the farther along in their careers that they get, I think the more at-bats they get at this level, I think the better you’re going to see that.”