Sunday, August 31, 2008

How the Nationals Got their Groove (for the First Time, Really)

The Nationals are suddenly one of the hottest teams in baseball, having won six in a row, and eight of ten. How have they done it, and can we expect any of this goodness to continue? Looking just at the numbers, here's what I see are the secrets of the Nationals' recent offensive successes.

  • On August 21, Cristian Guzman appeared in the lineup for the first time in about a week, ending a stretch of 24 straight games that the Nationals played short-handed. In four of those games, the Nationals had only 23 available, and once they had only 22. The Nationals won six of those 24 games. The Nationals' hot streak started the day they finally fielded an active roster 25 strong. That's more correlation than causation, but still, constantly playing one, two, or more guys down sure doesn't make it any easier.
  • Elijah Dukes is a huge upgrade over Austin Kearns, who has been hands down the worst starting RF in baseball this year. Only Jeff Francoeur comes close. Dukes's .435 OBP / .736 SLG won't continue, but his talent is for real, and Kearns really is not a legitimate starting major-league right-fielder. Sorry.
Regression to the mean. There are some guys who are better than they've shown to this point and are just now starting to see some of their numbers even out:
  • Ryan Zimmerman: the partially torn labrum has certainly zapped a lot of his power, turning would-be homers into doubles, but he's better than .259, which was his batting average on July 29. His .381 batting average over the last ten is just a matter of catching up. He's knocking on the door of his .281 career average.
Young guys getting better before our eyes. One of the nice things about stocking up on younger players is that generally speaking they get better over time. I know we haven't seen many examples of that since the Expos moved to DC, since our team has been stocked overwhelmingly with guys past their peaks, but we're seeing some of it now:
  • Lastings Milledge: There's a bit of regression to the mean here too, but Milledge is doing some things he's never done before, namely get on base a lot. His OBP from August 1 to August 30 was a massive .413. In his two years in New York his OBPs were .310 and .341. I don't expect him to stay in that territory, and even this hot streak has only elevated his OBP for the year to .328, but there's evidence that he's filling some of the holes in his swing and getting more selective. He drew walks in 8.2% of his ABs over this period, compared with 6.7% in his first two seasons, which seems like a small increase but is really pretty significant. The HBPs don't hurt either (well, yes they hurt, but you know what I mean).
  • Emilio Bonifacio: He's had some good luck too, but 4 flyballs and 7 strikeouts in 29 plate appearances is definitely the direction we want to see young Emilio headed. He can't use his speed unless the ball is on the ground, and he's been making putting it on the ground more.
  • The aforementioned Dukes.
Luck. Branch Rickey famously said that luck is the residue of good design. Well, even Rickey know that you can be lucky for a week without any residue or anything but dumb luck:
  • Anderson Hernandez: The man with two last names is riding high on a .480 BABIP, his batting average just factoring in the balls put in play, not counting HRs. A typical BABIP is .290, and generally if a guy is posting a BABIP way higher or lower than this, it's a function of luck and/or the defense. Hernandez's .480 BABIP is laughable. He would need to go 0 for his next 30 PAs or so for his luck to even out.
  • Cristian Guzman's .485 BABIP over the last ten games isn't sustainable either. I guess this could more charitably be called regression to the mean, since the .196 BABIP he posted from the All-Star game till August 13 wasn't the real Guzzy either. But overall this season he's at .330 BABIP, so he's going to need to still hit a bunch of hard liners right at people to get things to even out.
Throw in continued best-case scenario type production from Belliard and Harris, and you have a pretty darn hot offense. So I wouldn't expect the production we've seen to continue (you weren't anyway, I know), but there are some things here that we can be encouraged by.


Sean Hogan said...

I was given a "Kick Ass Blogger" award and with that title am allowed to name 5 more recipients. Congrats, Steven, I named you the Most Improved Blog (not that my awards matter in the grand scheme of things, but know that you are very appreciated).

This link is for my Kick Ass Blogger awards:
This link is for the Kick Ass Blogger award in general:

Anonymous said...

Perfect, they are now securing that they wno't get the 1st round draft pick next year...not that they would sign him anyways!