Washington Nationals' Batting Review (Part Two): Are They for Real?
In part one of this series, we took a look at the overall team numbers of the Washington Nationals' surprisingly effective offense.
In part two here, we'll examine each of the Nats' regular players to evaluate their performance so far, and try to establish if they can keep up their pace.
Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA system is a tremendously accurate projection system, so we'll compare their projections to the players' pace to aid us in our evaluations.
Cristian Guzman, SS
The Nats' lone all-star representative last season, Guzy has his .392/.392/.519 thus far in 2009. You'll immediately notice that his OBP equals his average. He has yet to take a walk.
But of his 31 hits, seven have been for extra bases (five doubles, one triple, one home run), so it's not completely empty batting average.
Guzman is a completely different player since his LASIK eye surgery before the 2007 series, but .392 is simply not sustainable. His BABIP is an outrageous .448, which, as is retreats into a more human range, so too will his average.
If his average falls and discipline doesn't increase, he'll be a less-effective table-setter.
PECOTA had Guzman at .323/.361/.455 this season, so combined with his elevated BABIP, we can expect a big normalization throughout the summer. But even if he levels off to his PECOTA numbers, he'll be a relatively effective leadoff hitter.
Nick Johnson, 1B
Larry Bowa's nephew knows a thing or two about hitting. He's always had a great OBP and plays a good first base to boot.
His health is the only question, and so far in 2009, he's been able to take the field whenever manager Manny Acta asked him.
Johnson's batting line of .317/.405/.413 falls very well into lifetime healthy norms for him. In fact, you'd have to say he's due for a bit of increase in slugging.
That, unfortunately, may be a by-product of the accumulation of injury however.
His BABIP is a little high (.369), but not alarmingly so like Guzman's. But Johnson has a career .397 OBP, so even if his average dips a bit, hit batting eye will remain consistent.
Johnson has just six XBHs in 121 plate appearances (four doubles, two home runs). That lack of power from a first baseman would be a concern on most teams.
PECOTA wasn't sure what to do with Johnson with his injury history. It give him 430 plate appearances, with a .266/.410/.472 bating line, so Nats fans can be hopeful that as he gains strength throughout the season, we might see a little more pop from him.
Ryan Zimmerman, 3B
The "Face of the Franchise" is enjoying a breakout year so far. Long thought to possess the all-around game to land him in multiple all-star games, Zim is finally healthy and flat out raking at the start of the 2009 season.
He is hitting .339/.391/.554 with 11 doubles and five home runs. At this publishing, he owns a 28-game hitting streak. Maybe the best news of all is his batting eye seems to be improving. His walk rate is 18.8 percent, easily his career high.
Zim's BABIP is an inflated .391, so as with the top two in the Nats order, we can expect an amount of regression of his average as we hit summer. But with increasing eye and power numbers that look in line with his career numbers. he shouldn't fall far.
Zimmerman looks like the rare player whose numbers increase after signing a big, long contract.
PECOTA had Zim at .289/.358/.471, so he is outperforming their expectations. But they also gave him a 39 percent chance of breakout, so maybe he's falling into that category.
Adam Dunn, LF
The burly slugger was the Nationals big off-season free agent acquisition, and his placement into the cleanup spot in the lineup has been what the Nats have lacked since their move to DC: a strong middle-of-the-order presence.
Dunn is hitting .296/.444/.582 in 2009. The average is 50 points higher than his career average, but his BABIP of .344 is only slightly elevates, so maybe he's figured something out. Regardless, average is not why Dunn is in the lineup.
He reaches base as well as anyone in the majors, with an outstanding batting eye, and hes delivered as promised thus far, and perhaps even having a ripple effect with his teammates.
He leads the league in walks and has eight homers and 24 RBI in 124 plate appearances.
PECOTA actually thought Dunn's average would rise this year too, just not quite as much as it has. They had him at .262/.396/.541, but didn't have a team for him at their publication.
Perhaps teams are being a little more careful with him as the biggest danger in the Nats lineup?
Perhaps not. Zimmerman was recently intentionally walked to reach Dunn, so maybe things are actually changing in DC.
Elijah Dukes, CF
The mercurial outfielder is now Washington's center fielder with the demotion of Lastings Milledge. And while there still is work to do defensively, it looks like Dukes is coming into his own as a major league hitter.
Dukes currently sports a .280/.356/.484 batting line, with only his average spiking over his limited career numbers. But Dukes, just 24, is a patient hitter that needs to play everyday to grow into his immense talent.
His BABIP of .333 matches what he did last season for the Nats, so perhaps his current numbers are truly indicative of what we can expect the rest of the season.
PECOTA thought he would progress as well, predicting a .278/.386/.486 for him. Can't get much closer than that. One of Baseball Prospectus' most favorable comparison for him at this stage in his career: Adam Dunn.
Austin Kearns, RF
Kearns was supposed to share time with Josh Willingham as the Nats fourth outfielder this year, but with Milledge's demotion, he's been the beneficiary of the increase in playing time.
The eight-year veteran has battled injury the last two years, including an elbow injury that sapped him of much of his power. This season has seen him healthy and hitting, putting up a line of .261/.414/.522.
His walk rate is up significantly. At 18.4 percent, it's seven percent higher than his career numbers, but not unsustainable. Additionally, his BABIP is an even .300, so his current numbers aren't being inflated at all.
Perhaps health and a preaching of patience from batting coach Rick Eckstein was all Kearns needed to return to a very serviceable major league outfielder.
PECOTA saw a return to career averages for Kearns, at .264/.355/.417, with a 64 percent chance of improvement. It's not unrealistic to think Kearns can continue his current pace.
Jesus Flores, C
Washington's catcher was the youngest backstop in the majors to lead his team in games played last season. At 24, he is coming into his own as a defensive and offensive force.
With 99 plate appearances so far, Flores is hitting .314/.388/.535, all considerable jumps from previous numbers. But he was the team's No. 2 RBI leader last season in just 324 appearances, so growth should have been expected.
But maybe not this much. His BABIP of .404 currently is completely unsustainable. But his walk rate is up over five percent from his career average, so as his average cools, his OBP should balance that out a little.
The power is for real though. He's hit three doubles and four home runs in his 99 appearances and should, with health, approach 20 home runs this season.
PECOTA likes Flores' chances, too. It didn't account for the spike in his walk rate so much--it expected a line of .252/.316/.432, but did give him a huge 71 percent chance of improvement, calling him a potential future all-star.
Anderson Hernandez, 2B
Hernandez came up in the Mets organization, and was long heralded as the future at the keystone. But the signing of Luis Castillo two years ago made Hernandez expendable, and he came to DC last summer for a song.
He's been excellent so far for the Nats in the eight-hole. A .310/.410/.380 line is testament to that. All of his quality numbers are huge increases from his limited big league experience though.
As he settles into a regular role for the first time in his career at age 26, what can we expect?
Well, to start, his BABIP is .373. His walk rate is up over five percent too, so the Nats preaching of patience at the plate is reaching everyone. Hernandez' ground ball and line drive rates are both up above career norms as well.
PECOTA does not like Hernandez' chances. They have him pegged at .223/.273/.305. Pretty dismal.
As spring turns to summer, Hernandez' progress might be one of the more interesting cases to follow, as his early success very much contrasts his career numbers and reliable projections.