By Zev Feder
Forget the “Early-season success is short-lived” skepticism. Ignore the injury list already mounting to key players like Mike Morse, Drew Storen, Ryan Zimmerman, Jason Werth, Chien-Ming Wang, Wilson Ramos and Brad Lidge. Don’t fret the few losing streaks that have accompanied many strings of exciting wins. The Nationals have a contending team and they are constructing an even better one.
First, their solid season start is based entirely on pitching. Their starting pitching rotation is formidable. Steven Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmerman are all good enough to lead a good rotation. Ross Detwiler has performed equally as well as the first three, and Edwin Jackson has trailed the group only during occasional lapses. If one starter among five is occasionally average, you have a stellar rotation.
The bullpen staff has yet to grow into league-best status. It will. Closer Drew Storen has yet to pitch this season, but he is on track to return. Tyler Clippard started off the year less effective than the 2011 All-Star version but that is now resolving. And Henry (Wild Thing) Rodriguez, although still at times erratic, is growing in confidence and is unbelievably tough to hit when he is at his best. Add the talent those three possess to the consistent excellence we have to this point relied on from Craig Stammen, Sean Burnett and Ryan Mattheus and you have plenty of high-level end-of-gamers.
But the early-season weakness in our batting lineup is the best news of all and why my expectations are so high.
We won a lot of games this spring with a Murderers’ Row of one: Adam LaRoche. That’s it. Ryan Zimmerman out a month, following a start that almost every at-bat was a hard out driven right at one fielder or another, anyway. Michael (Beast) Morse out entirely. And Bryce Harper still in diapers until the end of April. Pencil sluggers like these into the middle of the lineup, give Bryce Harper a little time to settle in, and you have a hitting machine.
We won a lot of games this spring with most of the rest of the lineup also performing well below their potential. Danny Espinosa struggling. Left-field platooners Roger Bernadina and Xavier Nady producing infrequently. Somewhat more production coming from Ian Desmond, Steve Lombardozi, Rick Ankiel and Wilson Ramos, but only enough to win because our pitching made do with little.
Davey Johnson is working on that. In a post-game interview following Roger Bernadina’s second home-run, he said Roger had shortened his swing into a concise, hard but focused swing, instead of the old looping home run swing, and home runs will come by themselves. Charley Lau, in “The Art of Hitting .300,” teaches most hitters to not routinely attempt to pull home runs because the season results are better for player and team when you use a concise swing such as Davey Johnson described and hit line drives to all fields. (See my “Geometry of Hitting” column in the Southwester July 2011 issue.)
Davey’s lesson for Roger Bernadina will hopefully apply to Danny Espinosa as well, whose swing has mirrored Bernadina’s in length. If Espinosa can get back to consistent hitting like he did for the first half of 2011, he becomes a huge asset to our offense.
In the movie, “A League of Their Own,” Dottie, played by Geena Davis, tells her younger sister, Kit, to lay off the high fast ball. “Can’t hit ‘em, can’t lay off ‘em either.” That has sometimes described a talented but streaky Rick Ankiel. Just like Espinosa, Ankiel is a defensive asset with a cannon arm. Both contribute frequently to the Nats with run-saving highlight-replay gems. But their value to the team multiplies geometrically when they produce offensively, as well.
The Nationals could continue to maintain a top-of-the-standings position just on the best pitching in the game. But if Warren Buffett were looking at our mediocre early-season offensive production, and the great upside potential, it seems to me he would judge this is a buy-low opportunity. If I am right, watch out.