The struggling Washington Nationals have reached the limit of their patience and are now trying anything and everything they can to get back in the postseason race, with the latest move being to fire hitting coach Rick Eckstein.
After winning 98 games in 2012, more than any other team in Major League Baseball, the Nationals had high expectations coming into this season. They were going to get a full season from Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. This was supposed to be the year where they took control of the National League for a long time to come.
Instead, thanks to a vast array of injuries to key players in the lineup and pitching staff, the Nationals have floundered to a 48-50 record, third place in the National League East and seven games behind Atlanta.
The main culprit behind the poor record has been the offense, which ranks 23rd in slugging percentage, 27th in batting average and 28th in runs scored and on-base percentage. Only the Marlins have scored fewer runs in the NL than the Nationals.
So the simple question becomes how much better should we expect the Nationals offense to be under Rick Schu and will it signal the start of a playoff push?
The answer, unfortunately for the Nationals and their fans, is not much better and probably not on the playoff push.
But that isn't an indictment of Schu's ability to be a hitting coach, just as it wasn't an indictment of the job Eckstein did when he was there. The idea that a hitting coach or pitching coach or even a manager change in the middle of the season makes that much of a difference for a team is overblown.
Some people might point to Jack McKeon taking over as skipper the Marlins in 2003, but I could just as easily tell you that team had a young core group that included Josh Beckett, Miguel Cabrera, Dontrelle Willis, Mike Lowell, A.J. Burnett, a still-functional Carl Pavano, Ivan Rodriguez and Derrek Lee.
The point being that getting raising hope for an entire lineup when the pitching coach gets fired is silly.
I was one of many people who picked the Nationals to win their division and compete for a spot in the World Series. There was also the understanding that they had to get there with pitching because there were holes in the offense.
Even last year winning 98 games, the Nationals were a decent offensive team ranking 10th in runs scored. They got a lot of key contributions from players not likely to duplicate their performance.
Adam LaRoche had a career year hitting .271/.343/.510 with 33 home runs at 32 years old. He has always been a player who strikes out a lot but has the ability to draw his share of walks, but those players tend to age poorly.
Sure enough, LaRoche hasn't been the same in 2013. He is hitting a paltry .247/.329/.421 with 13 home runs. He was the middle-of-the-order bat the team was counting on to back up Bryce Harper.
Speaking of Harper, losing him for 31 games early in the season with a knee problem certainly put the rest of the lineup under the microscope. Danny Espinosa has played in just 44 games this season, but his numbers even in the lineup have been dreadful (.158/.193/.272). Ditto, Kurt Suzuki (.221/.282/.320).
Ian Desmond continues to make progress as a hitter, but his aggressive approach will prevent him from ever getting on base at a high clip. Denard Span was supposed to solidify center field and the top of the lineup, though that .317 on-base percentage puts a black hole on anything else he does.
Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth have been the best all-around hitters in the lineup, which is great. A team, however, needs more than just two hitters firing on all cylinders at the same time in order to play up to their potential.
A lot of things have gone wrong for the Nationals this season, much more than problems with the hitting coach. Sometimes players get hurt and/or underachieve. It is just one of those things that happens.
Unfortunately, Eckstein paid the price. Hopefully this ignites a spark in what was supposed to be a very fun and exciting Nationals team.
The smart money has them missing out on the postseason.
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