Monday, August 31, 2015

Assessing the Reinforcements

At the All-Star break, the Nationals were sitting atop the NL East having endured a rash of injuries and keeping their heads above water thanks to the impressive work of the bench and Bryce Harper. As the lead in the East slowly shrunk and the trade deadline approached, the Nationals had ample opportunities to make a move to reinforce the offense. Yoenis Cespedes got traded to the Mets, Carlos Gomez got traded to the Astros, Ben Zobrist got traded to the Royals. Bats were available, if you were willing to pay a price. Mike Rizzo opted to stand pat on offense, making only the move for Jonathan Papelbon. Rizzo was happy with the team he had constructed in the winter and was content to wait out the injury storm, counting on the guys returning from the DL to pick up the slack. Of course, the Nationals now sit 5.5 games back of the Mets after a big slide following the return of those key, injured players. The performance of those injured players has been a mixed bag, and how they play (or not) down the stretch will make or break the season.

Denard Span

Unfortunately, Span’s section will be short and decidedly not sweet. When Span has played, he has been great. He’s hit over .300 with an OBP of .365 in the leadoff spot. Although the advanced metrics aren’t crazy about his defense in the small sample size of the 2015 season, we all know what Span can do in centerfield defensively. Unfortunately, back and hip problems have limited him to only 2 games in the second half of the season. Recent hip surgery has knocked Span out for the season, meaning we have likely seen the last of Span in a Nationals uniform. This means that the Nationals will have to run with Michael A Taylor in centerfield for the rest of the season. While Taylor plays great defense, his offense has a lot of swing and miss. Taylor provides some pop, but the Nationals will sorely miss Span’s on base abilities at the top of the lineup, something that Taylor just can’t duplicate at this point in his career. Span’s injury is obviously bad news for the Nationals but it’s probably worse news for Span. He’s approaching a free agent year and seems like to get a Qualifying Offer from the Nationals. That QO means that whatever team signs Span has to give up a draft pick to the Nationals, limiting his market value as the searches for a new contract. Add in his nagging back and hip problems with three surgeries over the course of a year and he represents a big risk for teams that may be interested in him in the off season.

Ryan Zimmerman

Ryan has managed to play in 32 games in the second half of the season after letting his plantar fasciitis rest for an extended period of time. He has been solid over that time frame, hitting only .260 but sporting a .347 OBP while pitching in 7 homeruns for a .910 OPS. That line seems sustainable as his BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) is sitting at .297 after a career of BABIPs over .300. It looks like Zimmerman has put his foot ailment in the past as he has been hitting the ball hard on a consistent basis since coming off the DL. The most encouraging aspect of his return is the power Zimmerman has shown to right field. Zimmerman’s power alley has always been to right center field, and his last couple few homeruns to that part of the ballpark indicate that his swing is back. For someone who was struggling to put the ball in play with authority in the first half of the season, Ryan’s 55% hard hit percentage is impressive. It might not be sustainable as he’s never come close to this level of hard hit balls in the past, but it doesn’t have to be sustainable for the Nationals to make the playoffs. It only needs to last a few weeks.

Jayson Werth

While my thoughts on Werth’s defense (or lack thereof) haven’t changed, his bat has come around. While he is only hitting .209/.291/.336 on the year, he has been raking of late, especially since his move to the leadoff spot in the lineup. He’s hit only .209/.288/.382 in the second half of the year, but as the lead off hitter, that line has been .325/.413/.650 plus 2 home runs. It’s only a 10 game sample size, but that kind of OBP at the top of the lineup, in front of Bryce Harper, is part of the reason he Nationals have scored 4 or more runs in 7 of their last 8 games. Werth has also been hitting the ball hard, with only 19% of his batted balls being classified as “soft” during his time as the leadoff hitter. It’s not all rosy with Werth though. Over half of his batted balls have been to the opposite field. Now, that could show a hitter who has been willing to go with the ball where it is pitched. It could also show a hitter who hasn’t been able to turn on fastballs. Werth has been putting a charge into balls recently, but it sure does seem like he hasn’t been able to catch up some fastballs thrown right over the heart of the plate. Then again, it is a small sample size. And the Nationals aren't counting on Werth to hit for power, they just need him on base at the top of the lineup, setting the table for Harper.

Anthony Rendon

After a slow start, Rendon has come on strong recently. Overall, his line since returning from the DL isn’t spectacular at .259/.336/.371, but he is in the midst of an eight game hitting streak. Despite a flash of power against the Brewers, though, Rendon has been a singles and walks hitter over that stretch and since returning from the DL in general. His peripheral stats, like walk rate and strikeout rate, line up well with his (albeit brief) major league history, though, so there is reason to believe that Rendon can turn back into the hitter he was last year at some point. It just needs to happen sooner rather than later.

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