Washington Nationals: 4 Reasons Why Their Hot Start Is Not an Aberration
Stop me if you've heard the beginning to this story before.
A team steeped in a history of failure starts the season on a blistering tear by beating discernibly weak teams, and steadily constructs a gaudy record that is largely smoke and mirrors.
At this point, every Pittsburgh Pirate fan is shaking their head in disgusted acknowledgement. They watched as their team actually led the National League Central after 100 games. But then, according to Elias Sports Bureau, suffered the worst record in their last 62 games of any team who led their division after 100 games, finishing at a typical Pittsburgh-ian 72-90.
Now, you might reasonably argue that these same Washington Nationals will bow to the same fate. After all, their 6-2 record thus far was crafted in large part thanks to victories over the hapless Cubs and Mets. That has to be the reason why they'll eventually fall off, right? You can't seriously claim the Washington Nationals will compete with the Phillies, Braves and the Castro-loving Marlins (sorry, couldn't resist) are you?
However, as the incomparable Lee Corso might say, not so fast my friends!
These Nats are for real.
Here are four reasons why the team formerly known as the Expos will have a breakout year and sustain their current success.
4. Weakened Division
Despite the implicit argument that can be extrapolated from the headline and picture above, the predictions for this article come with one caveat.
I am not picking the Washington Nationals to win the NL East.
Instead, I think securing the wild card is a much more viable option for the Nationals to achieve this season.
But, don't be too surprised to find the supposedly woeful Nationals in contention for the NL East crown for the clear majority of the season.
As illustrated above, the already putrid Philadelphia Phillies offense took two enormous hits when two of their best hitters (Ryan Howard and Chase Utley) were unable to start the season. This put immense pressure on other Philly mainstays Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino to carry the offensive load. Up to this point, they have not been up to the challenge.
Even the Phillies' celebrated pitching staff has not performed up to expectations (outside of Roy Holliday), with Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels currently saddled with ERAs well over 3.00.
The same can be said for the Nationals' other division rival, the Atlanta Braves.
In 2011, the Atlanta Braves pitching staff was rock solid up until their epic September collapse. Led by Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson, the Braves possessed a talented staff filled with strong arms and depth.
The script could not have been written differently to start 2012, with Jurrjens currently possessing a downright ugly 7.71 ERA. Jurrjens' numbers are a microcosm of the Braves' pitching overall, which is currently 24th (4.88) in team ERA.
With the NL East's top two Goliaths off to rough starts, this leaves the door open for David to shock the prognosticators and be a factor come September.
3. Talent at the Corners
No, they'll never be mistaken for Alex Rodriguez and Mark Texeira.
But that doesn't mean that skipper Davey Johnson isn't satisfied with his every day first and third basemen, Adam LaRoche and Ryan Zimmerman.
In the early stages of the 2012 season, Adam LaRoche has been a pleasant surprise for Nats' fans, batting .303 and leading the team with two home runs and eight RBI. Although not known to be a conventional "slugging" first baseman, LaRoche has had a big bat thus far, leading the team with a solid .515 slugging percentage and an equally impressive .910 OPS.
This contrasts with Ryan Zimmerman, who has struggled to find his rhythm in 2012 (.194 avg, 0 HR, 1 RBI, .624 OPS). If the body of work in an entire career is any indication, this is clearly an aberration. This is the same Zimmerman that hit a combined 78 home runs and 191 RBI in 2009 and 2010.
Zimmerman was on a similar pace in 2011 before getting injured. Although he hasn't looked quite like himself, expect Zimmerman to get going and return to his more prototypical pre-2011 statistics with the progression of the season.
Assuming Zimmerman gets going, this is a corner duo that could be quite productive for the Nationals' and give fans hope that they have the offensive firepower to compete for the division crown.
2. Resurgence of Jayson Werth
It may have taken more than one season, but rejoice Nationals fans, you are now finally being treated with what you were expecting in April of 2011.
A highly productive, clutch-hitting Jayson Werth.
If Friday night's thrilling walk-off victory against the Cincinnati Reds is any indication, the Philadelphia Phillies' version of Jayson Werth is awake after a year-long hiatus. Although he only went 2-for-6 on the night, Werth's final hit had the largest impact on the game. With the bases loaded and one out in the bottom of the 13th inning, Werth lined a single up the middle to deliver a 2-1 victory for the Nationals.
After signing an enormous seven-year, $126 million deal coming into the 2011 season, Werth was expected to be a stabilizing force in the middle of the Nationals' lineup. The 2011 campaign, however, would prove to one enormous disappointment, symbolized by his career worst .232 batting average.
In contrast, the 2012 Jayson Werth seems re-energized and freed from the burden of last season. Werth is currently hitting a pristine .303 while his OBP (.395) and OPS (.789) are both at least 65 points higher than their 2011 counterparts.
All of which is music to the ears of impatient Nationals fans, many of who have been wondering when the real Jayson Werth would return.
But, thus far in 2012, Nationals fans may finally be getting the answer they were waiting for.
Welcome back Jayson. We surely missed you
1. Starting Pitching
We hoped, but we couldn't be too sure.
Would the post-Tommy John surgery Stephen Strasburg be anything close to the multifaceted pitcher with once-in-a-lifetime velocity we knew before?
His brief return in September of 2011 gave us just a taste of what was to come. That being a pitcher who can seemingly shut down opposing lineups and notch 10-plus strikeouts a game without breaking a sweat.
And the scariest part? He's not doing it alone.
Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the most important (and sustainable) reason why the Washington Nationals are serious contenders in 2012:
The deep and talented pitching staff.
As you expect, it all starts with the ace of the staff, and what an ace he is. Strasburg's stats after two starts look downright Koufax-ian, leading the Nationals with an obscenely low 0.69 ERA. Add in his 14 strikeouts and an impressive 0.85 WHIP, and you have the makings of a season worthy of the Cy Young Award.
But, don't fool yourself into thinking this staff is "Strasburg plus four stiffs." For evidence of this, one need look no further than the No. 2 starter, Jordan Zimmermann. Zimmermann's been particularly hard to hit himself, posting a lower WHIP than his more celebrated staff member (0.79) and an equally impressive 1.29 ERA and .184 average against.
Throw in solid starts by Craig Stammen (2-0, 1.59 ERA) and Gio Gonzalez, and you have the ingredients necessary to produce a staff that leads all of Major League Baseball in ERA (a sterling 1.92).
What does all this mean for you Nationals fans?
That, unlike your 2011 Pirate brethren, your team might still be in the thick of the playoff race come September.