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Series Preview #42: Arizona Diamondbacks vs. Washington Nationals

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Here's a list of figures associated with the Washington Nationals organization, in order of media attention that they receive:

  1. Stephen Strasburg
  2. Bryce Harper
  3. The dude in the Teddy Roosevelt costume
  4. Jayson Werth's contract
  5. Jim Riggleman, the manager who quit on the team in the middle of the season
  6. Ummm...I don't know.  Ryan Zimmerman, maybe?

Of course, this is not to say that the Nationals don't have some exciting talent at the major league level, like Danny Espinosa or Michael Morse.  However, when the players take a back seat to prospects and various sideshows, it generally doesn't bode well for that team's immediate success.

Of course, the emphasis on prospects is not without reason.  People are focusing on Strasburg and Harper because they are incredibly talented, potentially once-in-a-lifetime players, and when you add to the list 2011 number 3 pick Anthony Rendon, who many had going first overall, the Nationals' farm system might have the most top-end talent in baseball. 

But until those players make it to the majors, the Nationals remain a team without much star power or high-end talent.  For example, the team leader in fWAR is pitcher Jordan Zimmermann, with 3.7.  As such, the team is mired in mediocrity, with a 61-64 record that is good for a distant third in the NL East.  The Nationals have a solid supply of complementary talent, but what they lack is a solid core of players that will take the team to the next level.  If Strasburg/Harper/Rendon become that core, this team will become very scary, very quickly in the next few years.

What the Stats Say (According to Fangraphs):

Hitting (wRC+): 93 89
Pitching (FIP-):
100 102
Fielding (UZR):
52.9 -6.6 Arizona


Mediocre hitting + Mediocre pitching + Mediocre fielding = Mediocre baseball team.  If you want a slightly more detailed analysis, the Nationals' offense is suffering for more or less the same reason as the 2010 Diamondbacks did: they strike out at a very high rate and they don't walk enough or hit enough home runs to make up for it.  Their K% is 21.3%, behind only the Padres for the highest in baseball.  Obviously there are ways to succeed with a high K-rate, but the team is in the middle of the pack in both walk percentage and ISO%, so the strikeouts are likely taking a toll on a team that has scored the sixth-fewest runs in baseball this year.

Their pitching has actually gotten somewhat lucky this year, with a team ERA of 3.69 to go with an FIP of 3.91.  The pitchers also struggle with strikeouts, namely not getting enough of them.  The rotation in particular has struggled with this, ranking 27th out of 30 teams in K/9.  

Starting Lineups:

Arizona Diamondbacks

1. Willie Bloomquist, SS
2. Ryan Roberts, 3B
3. Justin Upton, RF
4. Miguel Montero, C
5. Chris Young, CF
6. Kelly Johnson, 2B
7. Paul Goldschmidt, 1B
8. Gerardo Parra, LF

Washington Nationals

1. Ian Desmond, SS
2. Rick Ankiel, CF
3. Ryan Zimmerman, 3B
4. Michael Morse, 1B
5. Jayson Werth, RF
6. Danny Espinosa, 2B
7. Laynce Nix, LF
8. Wilson Ramos, C

The lead-off spot has been a problem for the Nationals all season, as they've gotten a collective line of .201/.267/.317 from the first hitter in the lineup this year.  Ian Desmond, while only 25, has seen his OPS drop every season he's been in the majors, to where it sits now at .596.  Rick Ankiel is somehow still only 30, and patrols center field for the Nationals sporting an OPS+ of 84. Danny Espinosa has a Batting Average of only .227, but he's only 24 and all of his other numbers suggest that he should be a solid regular for years to come in the middle infield.

Ryan Zimmerman is probably the closest thing to an established star that the Nats possess.  He's had some injury trouble this year, but he's only 26 and has a career OPS+ of 122.  As third basemen go, Zimmerman belongs in the same sentence as David Wright and Evan Longoria.  Michael Morse has become a huge and surprising star this year, transforming himself from a career backup who had never had 100 Plate Appearances in a season to a star with the highest Slugging Percentage of any first baseman in baseball.  Jayson Werth's 7 year, $126 million deal would have looked bad even if Werth had performed up to his career numbers, but now that he's having his worst season of his career, it looks downright awful. 

Pitching Matchups:

Monday: Joe Saunders (8-10, 3.91) vs. Ross Detwiler (1-3, 2.87)

Insightful Commentary: Joe Saunders threw six very solid innings against the Philadelphia Phillies his last time out.  The only problem was that he was brought out to pitch a seventh.  All of his baserunners finally caught up to him then, and he ended up with a line of 6+ innings, 5 runs.  His ERA is slowly but surely creeping back up into the 4s, where his FIP and xFIP say it should be, and his 3:4 SO:BB ratio last time out isn't doing anything to help.

Ross Detwiler has bounced between the majors and the minors since 2007, starting a few games here and there as a major-leaguer without making much of an impact.  He has good numbers in the minors, but in his 137 innings in the majors he walks too many and doesn't strike out enough.  He's only 25, but one would imagine that he's running out of chances to make an impact for the Nationals.  The last two months of this year will go a long way toward determining Detwiler's future with the club.

Tuesday: Ian Kennedy (15-4, 3.22) vs. Jordan Zimmermann (8-10, 3.11)

Insightful Commentary: Kennedy looked to have his best stuff at the beginning of his last start against the Phillies, but he seemed to lose focus after colliding with Ryan Roberts in the third inning.  Ultimately, he gave up 3 runs in a rain-shortened 3 inning start.  If I had to guess, I'd imagine that the collision with Roberts had more of a psychological effect than a physical on Kennedy, but if he struggles again on Tuesday, it might be worth revisiting.

Zimmermann has been the Nats' best and most consistent starter this season.  His secret is a miniscule BB/9 of 1.67, which is the fourth-lowest in baseball among qualified starters.  He also has allowed only nine home runs all season, which is good for a 0.54 HR/FB.  I expect that will regress in time, but he's still only 25, and he already profiles as a number 2 starter.

Wednesday: Daniel Hudson (12-9, 3.83) vs. Livan Hernandez (7-11, 4.11)

Insightful Commentary: Hudson was victimized by the long ball in his last start against Atlanta, allowing three in six innings to the Braves.  Like Saunders, Huddy's ERA is creeping back toward four, though in spite of his impressive peripherals.  We can't ignore the fact that Hudson's K-rate is down significantly from last season, particularly over his last few starts.  Some have suggested that his throwing motion is to blame for the problems, while others maintain that it is just hitters adjusting to his delivery.  Either way, it is worth keeping an eye on in the future. 

Livan Hernandez doesn't throw hard, doesn't strike very many hitters out, allows a startling amount of baserunners...and has been a successful starter doing these things since the Clinton Administration.  He wins with deception, and by working the corners of the strike zone to strand just enough runners on base.  Obviously, he's doing it again this year, and will probably continue doing it until the end of time.

Thursday: Wade Miley (0-1, 11.25) vs. John Lannan (8-9, 3.61)

Insightful Commentary: Wade Miley didn't have the greatest of debuts in his last start, giving up 5 runs in 4 innings to the Braves.  It's obviously dangerous to make assumptions off of one start in the majors, so I expect Miley will get another couple of starts before the front office considers making a change. 

Like seemingly everyone in the Nationals' rotation, Lannan walks more batters than average while striking out fewer, but succeeds by keeping the ball in the ballpark with a 0.73 HR/9.  He's one of those pitchers who consistently outperforms his FIP, by inducing a lot of ground balls that seem to have a habit of finding defenders (as his .284 career BABIP would indicate).

Final Verdict: The Diamondbacks' "Hey, at least we're winning" quasi-momentum from the previous week and a half has completely evaporated after losing five straight.  They remain a comfortably better team than the Nationals, but the last couple series--particularly scoring three runs in three games against the Braves--don't really help my confidence.  In the end, I expect the Diamondbacks and Nationals to split the series at two games apiece.

Head to Federal Baseball to see what Nationals fans think.

All batting data courtesy of Baseball-Reference unless otherwise mentioned, all pitching data courtesy of Fangraphs.