The Washington Nationals are a good team, probably the best in the National League. After they made headlines for winning games via walkoff only, they settled down and started winning games the traditional way. With a seven-game lead in the NL East, the Nats are all but a lock to at least qualify for the postseason this year. As of today, their playoff odds sit at 99.9%, with a 99.3% chance of holding on to the division crown, the highest marks in baseball.
By Base Runs and Pythag, their talent on-hand appears to be slightly better than their record shows. The Nats are a team best characterized as a great pitching team, with a formidable starting rotation and steady bullpen supported by strong defense. Their offense doesn’t get its due, boasting a 98 wRC+ for the season – though their non-pitchers rank among the best in the game.
It is somewhat surprising to see the Nats offense rank so high, given their high strikeout rate and lack of a single offensive force (Jayson Werth’s 136 wRC+ is best on the club, ranking him 21st among qualified hitters). But it is this offense that I believe makes them even more troubling for potential playoff opponents. The Nationals deadline deals and improving health might make the prospect of facing their lineup even scarier come October than a rotation stacked with studs.
Zooming out on the Nats offense, you see a well-balanced attack. Dropping the plate appearance limit to 100 as to include recent acquisition Asdrubal Cabrera, the Nats claim nine players with above-average offensive numbers this season, suggesting an incredibly balanced lineup. More to that point, the bulk of their non-performers with the bat are no longer counted on and can no longer drag the overall team line down.
The Nats handed nearly 1000 PAs to Kevin Frandsen, Jose Lobaton, Danny Espinosa and Nate McLouth, and they combined for a 69 wRC+. Bench players are a necessary evil, but Lobaton is the backup catcher (and Stephen Strasburg’s personal guy) and McLouth is (mercifully?) out for the season with a shoulder injury. Meanwhile, Espinosa and Frandsen are now bench players, forced into reduced roles since the addition of Cabrera. Once Ryan Zimmerman is healthy, there is little need for either player to see the field with any regularity.
As they battle through meaningful games and look forward to the postseason, expect to see the Nationals run this lineup out most days:
While limiting the exposure of marginal hitters helps the offense on one hand, the improvements and/or returns-to-form from Bryce Harper and Denard Span pushed the Nats lineup from middling towards something much more menacing for the opposition, finally giving breakout star Anthony Rendon and Werth the support they need. Harper’s season is yet to produce the results expected from such talent, but a recent swing change produced numbers more in line with his considerable abilities. Harper leads the team with nine second-half home runs, putting up a 137 wRC+ in that time. Span’s table setting is virtually unmatched over the last three months, buzzing along at a .318/.369/.442 clip as he has since June 1st.
They’re trending in the right direction, they’re balanced against pitchers from both sides and their numbers against ground ball/fly ball pitchers suggest there isn’t any one good way to attack them. Though it isn’t an “ideal” setup, hitting Harper all the way down in the number six spot gives the Nats more punch that low in the order compared to the league. Cabrera is a league-average hitter at worst and projects to put up even better numbers over the final month of the year.
Ian Desmond is experiencing something of a down year but he remains a home run threat. With Zimmerman fighting to come back and veteran outfielders Scott Hairston and Nate Schierholtz providing bench cover, their largely insulated against the kind of bumps and bruises that could undercut one of the older NL teams.
The balance and composition of the Nats order reminds me of the 2013 St. Louis Cardinals. Last year’s NL champs only featured one player — Matt Adams — with an ISO above .200, exactly one more hitter of that stature than the 2014 Nats feature. But the Cardinals lineup famously excelled in higher leverage situations and featured a relentless attack from top to bottom, stringing together big innings without the long ball and producing situationally like few teams before.
Does this kind of lineup breed better situational hitting? I’ll leave the heavy lifting for someone with more SQL might, but the idea sounds right inside my head. Without the holes of less balanced squads, perhaps an evenly-distributed lineup of good (but not great) hitters can take better advantage of run-scoring situations and make life even more difficult on opposing managers hoping to play matchups.
During a league-wide offensive drought, the Nationals are drowning in offensive excess. While their chief rivals in the NL East race send Ryan Doumit out as their cleanup hitter, the Nats hit Bryce Harper sixth. The Nats pitching might steal the headlines, but it is their “one-through-eight” attack that makes the team to beat in the National League. The “who starts Game One” controversy might get more of the publicity and the thought of facing four of Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, Tanner Roark and Doug Fister is a daunting one indeed, but the overlooked offense could be the key to October success.