The Nationals' bench separates them from their competition.
Sure, their starting pitching is superb and their lineup is packed with talent from top to bottom, but frankly, the other playoff teams they'll face—the Cardinals in the NLDS and either the Giants or Reds if they make it to the NLCS—are pretty gifted in those areas too.
If their bench players can continue to contribute in the postseason, they'll be the last club standing.
Maybe the most overlooked facet of the game, pinch-hitting and running and defensive replacements are important in the regular season and crucial in the playoffs. Bench players combine for more at bats than any single starting player, and on some teams, maybe as many as two.
To be a truly well-rounded team, the little guys need to contribute. But, the value of a bench spans even beyond that.
Baseball is largely a game of match-ups. A player with the platoon advantage has a greater chance of winning a match-up. In the late innings, even the most minute increase in run scoring (or preventing) probability can change the outcome of a game or series.
The Nationals' bench, coined the "Goon Squad" by MASN color guy F.P. Santangelo last Spring, offers everything a manager could ask for. They can run, they can field, and they can hit in the clutch. But of all of the areas they can contribute, their affinity for clutch-hitting in the late innings will be a key factor in October.
Nats pinch hitters led the MLB with a .288 batting average this season. They ranked third in the league with 61 pinch hits, more than any other playoff team, and they also totaled a whopping 61 RBI. For reference, the average big league pinch hitter posted a .224 batting average.
Davey Johnson's starting lineup is heavy on right-handed hitters, and is therefore better at hitting left-handed pitchers. This postseason though, they'll face teams with the best right-handed pitchers in the game—starting with the Cardinals who plan to send Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter, Kyle Lohse, Lance Lynn and Jason Motte to the mound.
In the late innings, that will put left-handed hitters Roger Bernadina and Chad Tracy in the batters box. Both hitters are adept at hitting in the clutch, and no doubt, they'll step in to the batters box in high-leverage situations.
Bernadina played great baseball while filling multiple roles for the Nationals this season. Overall he hit .291/.372/.405, and his on-base percentage ranked second on the team, behind Jason Werth's .387 mark. He went eight for thirty-three as a pinch hitter (.242 average), but that doesn't tell the whole story.
Roger was clutch, hitting a monster .356/.466/.508 with runners in scoring position and .316/.414/.459 with men on base. He performed even better in tighter situations, collecting 13 hits and 11 RBI in 30 at bats with two out and men in scoring position. And, when he made outs, they were still productive, advancing runners 40 percent of the time (about 10 percent above the NL's average).
Bernadina is also a tremendous baserunner and a top-shelf defensive outfielder. Throughout the past three seasons he's stolen forty-eight bases in 56 attempts (85 percent success rate), and swiped 15 in 18 chances this season. In the outfield, his glove plays above-average in all three positions. Even better, like his hitting, he thrives when it counts most, and he's already single-handedly saved a game with a spectacular catch this year.
In his first season with the Nationals, Chad Tracy carved out a niche for himself as an effective pinch hitter. After injuries ended his career as an everyday third baseman a few years back, he proved he could still help his team win with timely hitting and intelligent at bats.
He hit .269/.343/.441 overall this season, but did his best work in the late innings, hitting .281/.364/.474 after the sixth frame. But how will he perform in the postseason? Tracy appears to be well suited for the pressure of post-season pinch hitting, as he posted a .333 batting average (10 for 30) and drove in eight runs in the late innings of close games (score difference is fewer than three runs).
Finally, the rest of the bench, consisting of Jesus Flores, Tyler Moore and Steve Lombardozzi will likely play leading roles in the Nationals postseason run as well. Moore, a right-handed slugging rookie offers Davey an extra masher off the bench when the team needs to score runs fast. Moore slugged .513 through 171 plate appearances this season, and while he doesn't have a platoon advantage, he still managed to post a herculean .929 OPS against right-handed pitchers.
The back-up catcher, Jesus Flores, will get at least a handful of at bats when the club needs to spare Kurt Suzuki's knees, while Steve Lombardozzi will chip-in as a defensive replacement and as a pinch hitter when Danny Espinosa faces a tough right-hander. Lombardozzi hit .287/.332/.382 against righties this year. Both Lombardozzi and Flores have above-average gloves as well.