Breaking Down the Nationals' Struggles to Begin the 2019 Season

Despite losing Bryce Harper to the Phillies in Free Agency, expectations were high for the Washington Nationals opening the 2019 season. With two twenty-something phenoms starting in the outfield (Soto, Robles), one of the best players in baseball at the hot corner (Rendon), an offensively dynamic shortstop (Turner), a revamped catching corps (Gomes, Suzuki), a third ace (Corbin), and the reigning best pitcher in baseball (Scherzer) still taking the mound on Opening Day, the Nats projected to be the most talented team in perhaps the toughest division in baseball.

Today, that same roster has been good for a 16-23 record, and currently sits in fourth place in the NL East, ahead of only the lowly Marlins. What has gone wrong?

Anyone watching the game can tell you two things right off the bat - first, the Nats have suffered injuries to their three best offensive players (Rendon, Soto, and Turner), which have disrupted the offense and pushed bench (and Minor League) players into roles they were not ready to fill (see: Carter Kieboom’s 41% K rate and four errors in 10 games). Secondly, the Bullpen has basically been a dumpster fire, recording the worst ERA for relievers in baseball in the going thus far (6.03), which is led by an atrocious 36.00 ERA by Trevor Rosenthal in just 7 appearances. Even with Rosenthal optioned to the Minors, Dan Jennings, Matt Grace, Tony Sipp, and Wander Suero have all struggled to get outs in the 6th - 8th innings.

To see if there are any key factors that might be able to explain the root cause of the Nats’ disappointing performance thus far in 2019, and also investigate reasons behind the team’s offensive and bullpen woes, I spent some time digging through advanced analytics and trying to see what patterns might be found. Here’s what I found!

The Bullpen is Melting Down

Incredibly poor performance stranding runners on base immediately jumps out as the primary takeaway from this data. The Nats are by far the worst team in baseball using this metric, with their relievers allowing 35% of runners who reach base to score. Also jumping out is just pure “bad luck”, as measured by BABIP (batting average on balls in play), and which implies that contact made by Nats’ opponents are dropping in for hits more than against any other team. Fortunately, BABIP is one of the statistics that one can expect to normalize over the course of a season, with positive or negative regression to the mean. However, it doesn’t change the fact that “poor luck” thus far has cost our bullpen heavily.

Bullpen Left on Base and BABIP

Overall Hitting Performance is Down

The charts below are simple, but clearly show how the Nats’ offensive production has left a lot to be desired to start the season.

Batting WAR

Batting wRC+

Poor Plate Discipline Appears to be Leading Cause

A primary reason for the Nats’ struggles at the plate appears to be poor plate discipline, as measured by walk and strikeout rate. It’s tough to produce well on offense when you are striking out over 3 times as often as taking a walk…

Plate Discipline

Hitters Aren’t Striking the Ball Well Either

Despite some issues with strikeouts (and not enough walks to help make up the difference), the Nats are also simply not striking the ball well. Thus far, the team has recorded one of the lowest rates of hard contact in the league, and one of the highest rates of soft contact as well. Those rates are backed up by the raw ball-striking numbers of exit velocity and launch angle, which shows that the Nats are elevating the ball at roughly a league-average rate, but striking it a few miles an hour slower on average than the rest of the league. The best way in this league to be a better hitter is to hit the ball harder - it seems that the Nats have a lot of work to do in that department.

Contact Quality

Velocity

Pulling the Ball May be Impacting Contact Quality

In my search for a potential culprit for the teams hitting woes, I found an interesting stat that I wanted to share - the rate at which the team pulls the ball, compared with going to center or the opposite field, has changed dramatically thus far in the 2019 season. In 2018, the Nats were one of the most balanced teams in baseball - more likely to go the opposite way than the average team, and much less likely to pull the ball. In 2019, the Nats have been one of the most pull-happy teams in the league, and are going to the opposite field with much less frequency.

This shift is interesting to think about because it can be influenced by both personnel and approach. What troubles me, however, is that the team’s personnel has not changed (too) significantly since last season. Sure, Bryce Harper is gone, but he was primarily a pull hitter himself. Dozier, Gomes, and Suzuki are all new additions, but the core of the team’s lineup is mostly the same as last season. Despite this (general) continuity in the lineup, the manifestation of the team’s hitting tendencies has shifted significantly.

My fear is that this new approach may be a root cause behind the team’s lacklust output at the dish thus far, and trying too hard to pull the ball may be compromising the player’s ability to drive the ball to center and the opposite field, and historic strength for the Nationals’ lineup. Furthermore, it makes the Nats’ hitters more “shiftable”, which can be a pivotal weakness against certain teams. While I hope that this phenomenon is a mere coincidence, I’ll be curious to see how these metrics change with more games under the team’s belt, and whether or not the relationship between increased pull rate and diminished offense production holds steady into the summer.

Pull Rate