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Stephen Strasburg Who? How the Nationals Will be Fine Without Their Ace – Part Two


If you have not read part one of this series, click here and read it.  I covered the reasons the Nationals should still be one of the favorites heading into the postseason without Stephen Strasburg based on the rest of their pitching staff. 

If the Nationals have been riding the coattails of their pitchers all season long, won’t their offense need to step up if they are to make the postseason and make a deep run through the postseason without Strasburg?  Well, let’s take a step back and look closer at the offense.  It’s a lot better than you might think.

The Nationals rank sixth in the National League in runs-scored this season, fifth in home runs, sixth in OPS, and third in total bases.  I think just about any fan with a dominant pitching staff will take those offensive rankings as a compliment to the pitching.  Listen folks, this is a good team.  Period.  But I’ll give you the numbers anyway.

According to ESPN, the Nationals starters (or number ones at each position on the depth chart) are as follows:

C – Kurt Suzuki
1B – Adam LaRoche
2B – Steve Lombardozzi
3B  – Ryan Zimmerman
SS – Danny Espinosa
LF – Michael Morse
CF – Jayson Werth
RF – Bryce Harper

Of that list, five players stand out – LaRoche, Zimmerman, Morse, Werth, and Harper.  That’s five out of eight players that as you read this list you think, ‘man I wish he was on my team.’  To top things off, Lonbardozzi has really stepped up, Suzuki has found new life in Washington, and Espinosa is quietly putting together a nice August which could translate into a nice September which could translate into a nice postseason.

Did I say this is a good team?

Let’s talk about the five players that jump off the depth chart immediately.

Adam LaRoche

LaRoche is your prototypical power-hitter.  He hits a lot of home runs, but he strikes out a lot.  This season, he is striking out right around the same level as his career average – which is to say, a lot.  LaRoche has the 13th most strikeouts in the National League, and he third most among National League first basemen with his 107 K’s.  But those strikeouts have not kept him from changing games and contributing to the run totals.  His wRC+ this season sits at 121, the second highest total of his career.  These runs he is able to create aren’t just coming in losses or blow-outs.  He is literally helping the Nationals improve their odds of winning.

This season, LaRoche has a WPA (win probability added) of 2.49.  He has essentially added 2 1/2% more probability to National wins throughout his at-bats this season.  That may not sound like a lot, but it ranks him 17th in all of the National League in WPA.  In a tight spot, LaRoche is probable a guy you’d want up at the plate.

Much of LaRoche’s success this season can be seen in his line-drive percentage.  He is hitting line drives more often than he has at any other point in his career.  He’s sitting on a LD% of 21.9% – his career average is 20.6%.  This is important for a couple reasons.  One, when he’s putting the ball in play, he’s staying out of double plays more by keeping the ball of the ground.  Two, when a ball is hit on a line, it has a better shot of finding and reaching the gaps.  This accounts for LaRoche’s 25 doubles and one triple this season.

Add to the LD% the fact that LaRoche has reduced his GB% and increased his FB%, the Nationals are getting a lot of value out of the veteran first baseman.  This season, LaRoche is turning flyballs into home runs more often than his career average.  His HR/FB rate is 17.3% verse 15.0% over the course of his career.  When almost 2 out of every 10 fly balls hit are clearing the fences, you must be doing something right.

Ryan Zimmerman

Zimmerman is tough.  He has played most of this season with an injured shoulder.  He did miss a game here or there, but in total he’s played 103 games for the Nationals.  The shoulder clearly hindered Zimmerman’s early-season performance, but he’s come on strong in the second half.  Overall, Zimmerman is hitting .277/.348/.460 with 16 home runs.

Zimmerman has been the cornerstone of the Washington Nationals.  He was drafted fourth overall by the Nationals in 2005, he made his debut with them that same year, and he was the first player they truly committed themselves to since moving to D.C. from Montreal.  His recent 11 year, $135 million contract will keep him in Washington for virtually the rest of his career.  And from all outward signs, Zimmerman loves the Nationals.

He’s a career .287/.354/.477 hitter.  He hits for decent power and is durable.  Zimmerman has played in 140 or more games four times in his young career.  He’ll come close this season to that total as well.

While Zimmerman strikeout like most power hitters do, he also walks, and this year is no different.  Zimmerman is walking 9.5% of the time, his career average is 9.2%.  Interestingly, when Zimmerman does make contact, his BABIP is actually slightly lower than his career average, so he may have been a little unlucky this year – but not by much.  Zimmerman’s BABIP this season is .311, while his career average is .318.

Setting aside the numbers, and they are good numbers, Zimmerman is the leader of this team.  He’s been there longer than everyone.  He’s suffered through the losing seasons, the perennial rebuilding.  It’s tough to imagine a player wanting success for this year more than Zimmerman.

Michael Morse

Morse missed a lot of time this year with a strained lat muscle.  He returned to the lineup on June 2nd.  Since then, he’s been on a tear, hitting .299 with 12 home runs.  Last year was his breakout season, and many didn’t know if he could replicate it.  He has, and then some.

After missing nearly half the season, Morse is on pace to hit 17 home runs, drive in 63 runs, and hit for an average of .293.  That’s a pretty good follow-up year to his incredible .303/.360/.550 season last year.  Factor in the position change Morse had to adjust to as well, and this year is even more impressive.  When the Nationals picked up Adam LaRoche last season, they hoped he could add some pop to their lineup.  Morse ended up being the guy to add that pop as LaRoche only played in 43 games.  However, this season, with Morse on the DL, LaRoche stepped in and filled the first base void wonderfully.  Morse, was shifted to the outfield upon his return.

Morse has an uncanny ability to find grass (or hit the ball over the wall) when he gets wood on a pitch.  His career BABIP is .346.  This year is no different at .345.  Some might call this luck, but when a player hits for such a high BABIP consistently over his career, it is clearly skill.

Despite the injury and missed time, Morse’s wRC+ is still 115.  He’s been 15% better at creating scoring opportunities than the rest of the league.  And Morse may still be heating up this year.

In August, Morse has hit .290 with 5 doubles, 4 home runs, and 12 RBI.  If he can keep this up and continue the hot-hitting into the postseason, the Nationals are in good shape.

Jayson Werth

Imagine where the Nationals would be if Werth hadn’t gone down to a fractured wrist in May.  Maybe they’d be in the same place, but maybe they’d be even better.  Werth came off the DL just two weeks ago and has been hot.  So far in the month of August, Werth is hitting .380 with five extra-base hits.  He’s been a catalyst toward leading the Nationals to the best record in baseball.

Werth was a bit of a flop in his first season in D.C.  The Nationals gave him a huge free agent contract (7 years, $126 million), but Werth failed to live up to it in his first year.  He hit just .323/.330/.389 in his first season with the Nats.  However, just about everyone around the baseball world felt this was an anomaly.  After all, Werth is a career .266/.362/.464 hitter.  Despite the injury, he has proven this year that his last season was in fact an anomaly.  So far this year, Werth is hitting .311/.407/.459 in 42 games.

A big part of Werth’s renewed success is his walk rate and strikeout rate.  He has increased the percentage of walks he is taking and reduced the percentage of times striking out.  So far this season, Werth’s BB% is 13.4% compared with a career average of 12.2% and last season’s average of 11.4%.  In addition, Werth is striking out just 15.1% of the time in 2012 compared with 24.7% of the time last year and 24.3% in his career.  If Werth can keep this up over the course of a full season in 2013, the Nationals are going to be absolutely dominant.  If he can carry these numbers into the postseason, their offense should be able to make up for any shortcomings – no matter how small they are –  of the pitching staff.

Bryce Harper

And then there’s the kid.  The phenom.  Only now is Harper starting to be overshadowed by his friend in Los

Angeles, Mike Trout (and rightfully so).  Yet, that doesn’t diminish what Harper has done this season – as a teenager.  At just 19 years old, Harper is hitting .248/.325/.405.  That’s good enough for a near league average OPS.  It’s also good enough to put him right at league average with wRC.  But I don’t think there is a person out there that doesn’t see Harper’s talent.  This first season will be his worst.  I, like most people, figure Harper to improve every season going forward.

As a rookie, Harper’s been worth 1.9 bWAR and 1.7 fWAR.  Either number you choose to use is good.  His defense is phenomenal.  His hustle is second to none.  He’s also been humble, which is surprising.  Given his minor league antics and his age, it seemed almost certain that Harper would be the overzealous, cocky type.  That hasn’t been the case and he’s already earned the respect of the older, veteran players on the team.

Performance-wise, Harper has some good power.  His Isolated Power (ISO) of .157 ranks him above average in the league.  He has 11 home runs, 16 doubles, and five triples on the season.  And he hasn’t played a full season.  If Harper can cut down on his strikeouts and draw more walks, he will find himself with an OPS well above league-average.  If he stops swinging at pitches outside the zone, which he currently does at a 34.3% clip, pitchers will have no choice but to pitch him more in the zone.  That will lead to better pitches to hit, increased power numbers, and yet another increase in OBP and OPS.

But the Nationals have him now, raw and in rookie form.  The current version of Bryce Harper is enough to give Washington some real value in the postseason.  His determination and hustle alone will help the Nats win some games in the play-offs.  Combine that with his actual ability and they have themselves a nice young player worthy of carrying the Nationals deep into the postseason.

Why they can win

Look at the players I jut described.  That’s not even the whole lineup.  Those are just the names that standout.  That’s a good team there in Washington.  With the veteran leadership mixed with young talent, this club has all the tools they need to beat any team in the National League, and they should be able to slug with the best of them in the American League.

Stephen Strasburg is a cog in the machine that is the Washington Nationals, but with the rest of the pitching staff and the offense I described above, why shouldn’t the Nats be favorites even without Strasburg?  Why can’t they march through the play-offs and bring Washington, D.C. a World Series trophy for the first time since 1925?  I can’t see a reason – even without their number one pitcher.