3 Biggest Surprises So Far for the Washington Nationals This Season
Their starting rotation is stacked, their lineup is challenging, their bullpen has been beefed up and with names like Gio Gonzalez, Bryce Harper, Adam LaRoche and Rafael Soriano, the Nats are poised for a repeat—and then some—of their 2012 marquee season.
However, nearly two months in, it's safe to say that the Nationals have yet to hit their stride.
Thanks to a number of early-season injuries, manager Davey Johnson has been forced to place a different lineup on the field every week. So far, the Nationals' performance has been rather unpredictable from game to game.
While they sometimes play like the reigning NL East champions, at other times they play like, well, something else.
Following are the three biggest surprises—both good and bad—for the Washington Nationals so far this season.
Stephen Strasburg's Losing Record
This is certainly a surprise. No one in their right mind would have ever predicted that Stephen Strasburg would start 2013 with a 2-5 record.
After being controversially shut down before the 2012 postseason, Strasburg ended last season with a 15-6 record and a 3.16 ERA in 159.1 innings pitched.
Read that again—after just two months the Nationals ace is only one loss away from losing as many games as he lost all of last season.
So what could be the cause of Stras' struggles?
The truth is that he's pitching just fine. Through 10 starts he has a 2.66 ERA in 64.1 innings pitched. He just needs to learn to relax.
Strasburg is a perennial perfectionist, and if things don't go exactly as he wants right from the start he has a tendency to freak out. As Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty told MASN:
"(Strasburg) puts himself under unbelievable scrutiny to be perfect, which we always work to get over with. Do I like the fact that he does it or anybody does it? No. It's something we always fight against. But it happens. ... This is a young guy who is still learning what he's doing with the tremendous ability that he has. He's got to learn how to fight some of his own battles and learn how to get through them."
Learning to work himself through those difficult situations that he'll face on the mound is something that will come with age and experience—and at just 24 years old, Strasburg has a long road ahead of him.
Provided that his team can awaken its offense and give him some run support, Strasburg's record will right itself as the season—and his knowledge of himself—progresses.
Jordan Zimmermann's Dominance
Washington's greatest asset is its pitching staff, and so far, no Nationals pitcher has been more dominant than their No. 3 starter Jordan Zimmermann.
Zimmermann has demonstrated superb command and efficiency week in and week out. He boasts the third-lowest ERA in the National League at 1.62, having allowed just 12 earned runs over 66.2 innings pitched. On April 26, he threw a complete-game, one-hit shutout against the Cincinnati Reds that some called the best start in Nationals history.
Even when he does give up a few hits, Zimmermann keeps his cool. Over his last three starts, he has allowed just three runs on 23 hits and two walks. That includes a start against the hot-hitting Detroit Tigers.
Needless to say, Zim's a definite early-season contender for the Cy Young Award.
However, like Strasburg, if Zimmermann's teammates don't start giving him some run support, his record could suffer. In his last start, the Nats managed just four hits off San Diego Padres left-hander Eric Stults, whose ERA dropped from 4.57 to 4.05 thanks to their quiet bats. Washington blew a 1-0 lead and Zimmermann's record fell to 7-2.
Nevertheless, the Nats' third starter has been a force to be reckoned with this season and has quickly become the most feared pitcher in the rotation.
Lack of Offense
Speaking of no run support, probably the biggest surprise we've seen from the Nationals this season is an astounding lack of offense.
Washington owns the second-lowest on-base percentage in the league at a dismal .289. Essentially, that means they've demonstrated a lack of patience at the plate.
Things get a bit confusing when you look at some of the individual OBPs on the team. Kurt Suzuki (.322), Ian Desmond (.301), Adam LaRoche (.300), Ryan Zimmerman (.372), Bryce Harper (.383) and Denard Span (.332) are all regular starters who have an OBP at or above .300.
So if six out of nine are capable of getting on base, why is the team's average so low?
Two reasons—injury and because the weak spots in the lineup are extremely weak.
Jayson Werth, who has arguably the best at-bats on the team and has a .308 OBP, hasn't played since May 2 and is benched until early June thanks to a right hamstring strain. His spot has been filled by both Roger Bernadina and Tyler Moore who own a .194 and .157 OBP, respectively.
Wilson Ramos was sent to the DL with a left hamstring strain and has no timetable for his return. Prior to his injury, his OBP was also .308. His replacement, Jhonathan Solano, has a .200 OBP.
However, the most glaring weak spot in the Nationals lineup has nothing to do with injury. Steve Lombardozzi and Danny Espinosa are currently the only second base starters Davey Johnson has on his roster. Lombo's OBP is .245. Espinosa's is just .163.
Clearly, something needs to change in those weak spot. The good news is that change is possible.
Once Werth returns from the DL, it will add an instant boost of offense to the lineup. As for the troubles at second, if Lombo and Espinosa continue to struggle, Davey does have another option on the table in Anthony Rendon.
Rendon has experience at second base playing for the double-A Harrisburg Senators, but more importantly his OBP is a whopping .467. In the eight games he played with the Nats earlier this season, he posted a .367 OBP. That patience is certainly something Johnson's club could use.
The Good News: While Most of the Surprises Are Bad, They Are Also All Fixable
It's true that the majority of the "surprises" the Nationals have given us so far this season are not positive surprises. The good news is that all of those bad surprises are completely fixable.
First, Strasburg will learn to keep his cool in tough situations. In the meantime, he's still pitching pretty darn good.
Second, Washington is well versed in working through injury, and this starting lineup is more than capable of busting out of an OBP slump.
Of course, it will make a big difference once Jayson Werth returns. Once he's back in the lineup, not only will the offense benefit, but his teammates will benefit in learning from his patient at-bats. When you see someone else working effectively, it motivates you to work effectively, as well.
There's a long way to go this season. There's still ample time for the Nationals to surprise in a very good way and begin to perform like the World Series contenders everyone made them out to be to start the year.