The Washington Nationals took to the field in Denver last night for the 81st time in regular season play and just as they had 56 other times in 2009, they lost a baseball game. At the halfway mark of their season the Nats are now 24-57, "good" for a .296 win percentage that puts them on pace to win 48 games. It would be the lowest win total in a 162-game season since the 1962 New York Mets won 40. No other National League team has won less than 50 since those Mets and just the 2003 Detroit Tigers have failed to win 50 in either league since the advent of the 162-game season. What I want to know is this; will the Nationals win 50 games?
Let's take a close look at the Nats and also analyze the makeup of the other historically awful teams in recent memory to try and identify differences and similarities. In this morning's Washington Post, Tom Boswell diagnoses what's wrong with the Nats. He has me for a while but then he writes this:
As if that weren't enough, the Nats have few situational hitters. Zimmerman was excellent as a rookie; now, he thinks he's past such humble duties. Put a man on second with nobody out or a man on third with one out and no Nat changes his plan of attack. Bunt for a hit, hit-and-run, squeeze? The Nats? You could die waiting.
When a team is on pace for a sub-50 win season, it's safe to say that a lack of situational hitting is in all likelihood not one of the top, oh, 100 problems or so with that team.
First the bright side for the Nats. They are 7 wins off of their Pythagorean-win pace and even further off if you look at Baseball Prospectus's third order wins, which looks more closely at how a team is hitting and pitching and assigns expected run totals. That number has them 11 wins short of where they ought to be and not even the worst team in the National League. That distinction belongs to the San Diego Padres. So it would appear that they have been unlucky.
The Nationals are also getting better. They started the season with a 5-16 April and backed it up with an 8-20 May. They are 11-21 since June 1st, which may not sound all that great - heck it's terrible - but it does represent marked improvement over their 13-36 record in the first two months. Some of that is the result of better luck and some of that, to management's credit, is the result of some personnel changes.
They acquired the tall right hander in the first place so it's hard to give too much credit here but Washington did replace Daniel Cabrera with promising youngster Jordan Zimmerman. That they optioned Shairon Martis, he of the 5-3 win-loss record, tells me that they are thoughtful about peripheral statistics. It will be interesting to see how long they can tolerate one disastrous Scott Olsen start after another.
They haven't sat idly with their position players, either. They acquired Nyjer Morgan from the Pittsburgh Pirates. Morgan is exactly the kind of defensive player they need patrolling their outfield with some combination of Adam Dunn, Austin Kearns and Josh Willingham flanking the center fielder at the corner outfield spots. While Washington's pitching has been nothing to write home about, much of their horrendous run prevention can be attributed to its defense, which ranks worst in Major League Baseball according to Defensive Efficiency Rating.
There are rays of hope for the Nationals, something that could not be said for some of the other historically bad teams over the last 50 years or so. Look at the 1962 Mets roster and there is no recipe for consistency with those ingredients. It's loaded with players that had no real shot of succeeding as Major League regulars. And they were an expansion team, so you would expect as much.
The 2004 Arizona Diamondbacks, winners of 51 games, managed to hit .253/.310/.393 as a team, all while playing home games in an absolute hitters paradise. Their starting pitchers not named Randy Johnson and Brandon Webb combined for 459 innings of 7.22 ERA performance. Again, there was just no way a team like that could string together wins.
The 2003 Detroit Tigers, who went 43-119, were sort of like the 1962 Mets. There was just nothing there. Their best starting pitcher in 2003 in terms of ERA was Nate Cornejo, who posted a 4.67 figure. My favorite part of Cornejo's season is that he was ostensibly the best pitcher on the team while featuring 2.1 K/9 and .79 K/BB ratios. He was awful, and yet a big reason the Tigers pitching numbers were merely bad and not a complete disaster is because Cornejo managed a 95 ERA+. The team ERA+ was 81.
Washington is different. Ryan Zimmerman has blossomed into a top-20 MLB position player. Dunn is having one of his better seasons at the plate. Nick Johnson and Cristian Guzman are both healthy and playing solidly. Josh Bard is having a nice year and getting more time behind the plate now. John Lannan currently sports a 145 ERA+. Their pitching is bad, but not that bad. Maybe with Morgan in the fold, their run prevention improves a bit.
If the Nationals play the same way in the second half and simply hit their Pythag number, they win 55 games. If they hit their third-order wins number, they're looking at closer to 60 wins. Factor in personnel changes - some of the players contributing to their awful numbers are no longer in the mix - and maybe you can even push 65 wins. The biggest threat to the 2009 Nationals is what happens at the trade deadline. Just about any deal that retrieves young, cheap talent would be defensible so I am not saying that they should avoid making deals in order to avoid infamy. But this team as currently constituted is bad, just not historically so. Swap out Johnson or Guzman or Joe Beimel for some Minor Leaguers and then sure, things will look different.
Short of blowing up their Major League roster, however, I would say that they've got the 50-win threshold in the bag.
This is one of the funniest reads I've seen in a while, courtesy of the DC Sports Blog. Last night's loss to Colorado was straight out of Major League, right down to the Austin Kearns Willie Mays Hayes-style headfirst slide to nowhere and the Harry Doyle/Monte "what the *^%& is this *&%#" announcing. Seriously, go read it.