The Washington Nationals currently sit in third place in the National League East, four and a half games behind the Philadelphia Phillies with a .500 record of 10-10 after 20 games, roughly one-eighth of the season. Their Pythagorean W-L (based on run differential) is 9-11, so on that hand the Nats' record isn't really an aberration.
Or is it?
The Nats have heavily loaded their wins with runs. Naturally, one would assume that a team would score more runs in a win than a loss. But the Nats are taking this to an extreme. They've scored five or more runs in a game nine times this season, including Sunday's 6-3 over the Pittsburgh Pirates. In those nine games the team is a perfect 9-0.
But in games the Nats have scored fewer than five runs, they are a paltry 1-10. That's right. Only once this season have the Nats won scoring fewer than five runs, a 4-3 10-inning win over Milwaukee. That speaks to the ineffectiveness of both the hitting and the pitching.
Just how bad is that? In four of the Nats 10 losses, the opposition has scored fewer than four runs and in two more losses the other team scored five. So more than half the Nats' losses have come when the opposition has scored five or fewer runs.
To compare, the San Diego Padres, the lowest scoring team in the majors, earned five of their eight victories scoring five or fewer runs.
Essentially, the idea of the Nats starters "keeping their team in the game" has been meaningless thus far. The Nats have either won with an offensive explosion (by their measure) of they've lost. They haven't had any in-between. They aren't winning low scoring games and they aren't winning close games because they just aren't in many (1-2 in one run games).
Shall we examine the individuals?
Of the starting players (position players that have garnered the most at bats at their position), the Nationals have exactly two players hitting higher than .260: rookie 2B Danny Espinosa (.281/.364/.484) and Ryan Zimmerman, who hasn't played in almost three weeks and currently has no timetable for return.
The outfield of Jayson Werth, Rick Ankiel and Michael Morse is hitting .220 with five home runs combined. I went through Werth's troubles here, and his proclivity for hitting ground ball outs this year is alarming. In Sunday's win he grounded out four more times and struck out in his last at bat. Again, alarming.
But the other two are playing at very predictable levels, if you paid attention to pre-season analytical projections instead of anecdotal evidence from spring training.
In fact, the only hitter you can really state is slumping, with any confidence, is Adam LaRoche, who is one of the most consistent players in the game. LaRoche is traditionally a slow starter though, with a career .213/.308/.394 in April.
But then, his partially torn rotator cuff may be giving him more problems than he -- or the team -- is letting on. That's not an injury that heals itself, and any loss of joint stability could be affecting his strength, whether or not the player feels pain in his swing.
The most troublesome slow start belongs to Ian Desmond. He's supposed to be part of The Plan v2.0. He looks as lost at the plate right now as he ever has, reaching base just 20 times in 79 plate appearances (.253 OBP). In fact, he's struck out as many times as he's reached base. That's just not acceptable for a non-power hitter.
The rest? They are what they are at this point in their careers.
What can the Nats do to score more runs?
Hope Ryan Zimmerman returns sooner than later. Hope Jayson Werth figures out what's wrong with his swing and stops grounding out. Hope something clicks with Ian Desmond. Hope Adam LaRoche is going through his usual April swoon and not that his swing is being sapped by injury.
That's a lot of things to hope for.