A's Getting Things Done With Less Talent Than Nats
The Nationals moan constantly about their lack of offense and act as if there is no reason that they should be expected to score more than their current pathetic average of 3.85 runs a game.
But the Nats are wrong. Oakland gives the lie to all of the Nationals' excuses. At the same time, the incredible success of the A's, who've won 32 of 39 games to take the lead over the Yankees (!!!) in the American League wild-card race, raises hopes that Washington might actually mount a credible offense in the last two months of the season.
Through Monday's games, the A's had scored 506 runs compared to 404 for the Nats. What an enormous difference of 102 runs -- almost one run a game -- between the A's, who are eighth in baseball in runs scored, and the Nationals, who are dead last.
Why, if Washington had an offense as good as Oakland's, think where it'd be? After all, the Nats' pitching is slightly better than Oakland's with only 429 runs allowed for Washington to Oakland's 451.
Here's the question: Why on earth don't the Nationals have as good as offense as the A's?
The A's have only one .300 hitter and he's a rookie who's batted only 174 times. The Nats have three .300 hitting regulars -- Nick Johnson (.319), Ryan Church (.306) and Jose Guillen (.301). The A's have no one slugging over .500. Washington has that same heart-of-the-order trio all over .500. No Oakland player has as many homers as Guillen's 19. In addition to Johnson, Guillen and Church, the Nats have three other players who would be starters for the A's in a blink: second baseman Jose Vidro, outfielder Brad Wilkerson and catcher Brian Schneider.
Given a choice between Washington's offensive talent and the A's, I'll take the Nationals' players every day. Yet Oakland's lineup works and, so far, Washington's hasn't. Part of the difference is that Oakland, playing in the American League, gets to use a designated hitter. And RFK is a terrible hitter's park. But that doesn't explain away a 102-run difference.
Altogether, let's sing a chorus of "Moneyball." Stat-worshipping general manager Billy Beane and his A's know something that the Nats clearly don't about how to build an offense. Or, perhaps, about what to avoid if you want to score runs.
Oakland's basic lineup should shame the Nats. Here's the comparison with accompanying OPS, a statistic combining slugging average and on-base percentage that the A's love. (The average major league OPS this year is .755. An OPS over .900 is great. An OPS under .600 is atrocious.)
Jason Kendall (catcher) .678.
Mark Kotsay (center field) .716.
Bobby Crosby (shortstop) .834.
Eric Chavez (third base) .791.
Dan Johnson (first base) .895.
Jay Payton (leftfield) .799.
Scott Hatteberg (designated hitter) .731.
Nick Swisher (right field) .793.
Mark Ellis (second base) .758.
Two other A's rotate through the batting order -- infielder Marco Scutaro (.701) and outfielder Bobby Kielty (.789).
This is a lineup devoid of stars. No Athletic is on a pace to score or drive in 100 runs. Chavez and Swisher are the only players on pace to hit more than 15 homers for Oakland this year (26 and 23 respectively).
There are no trick numbers here. None of these 11 players have any secret skills. The A's have no base-stealing speed whatsoever. Their 22 stolen bases are dead last in baseball, even behind the Nats. Though plenty of the A's are decent at drawing a walk, Kielty is the team leader with just 42. The A's have little power; their 90 homers are ranked 22nd in baseball. In fact, the Nats have almost as many extra base hits as the A's, 292 to 312.
So where do those 102 extra runs come from? Look at the Nats' basic lineup, with OPS, and see what jumps out.
Brad Wilkerson (left field) .772.
Jose Vidro (second base) .787.
Jose Guillen(right field) .864.
Nick Johnson (first base) .947.
Ryan Church (center field) .869.
Vinnie Castilla (third base) .699.
Brian Schneider (catcher) .747.
Cristian Guzman (shortstop) .502.
Pitchers, about .400.
Washington also regularly uses infielder Jamie Carroll (.577), catcher Gary Bennett (.634), Carlos Baerga (.686) and, until recently, had given 157 at-bats to Marlon Byrd (.609) and even 51 to Wil Cordero (.318).
At seven spots in the batting order, the Nationals ought to be roughly as good an offensive team as Oakland, if not slightly better. What stands out is that the A's don't have a single truly bad offensive player who is allowed to set foot on the field and contaminate the offensive proceedings. Nobody's great. But nobody is an instant rally killer either. Kendall, who has no homers but a solid .353 on-base percentage, is the weakest A's OPS player.
No simple fix would make the Nationals a good hitting team, especially not with the anchor of 81 games in RFK with its ludicrous 395-foot power allies. However, the Nats may have made one very large mistake that the stat-conscious A's obviously avoided. Washington has allowed several of its worst offensive players to get a large number of at bats. Guzman, Carroll and Byrd -- each with an OPS far worse than any Oakland player -- have 667 at-bats this season. That's about as many at bats as Johnson, Vidro and Church combined (671).
So, the worst neutralize the best.
Given this analysis, what would it take for the Nats' offense to start resembling Oakland's, minus the DH factor?
First, it would help if the Nationals had normal health for the rest of the season. One reason that Carroll, Byrd, Baerga and Cordero played so much was because Johnson, Vidro and Church were all hurt for one-to-two month periods.
Second, Guzman and Carroll need to return to their career-long offensive levels. Carroll entered the year with a .720 career OPS. While others have praised his grittiness, he's been annoyed for weeks at what he considers a very poor offensive year. Guzman, of course, is a mystery for the ages. On Sunday, he had two hits and two walks -- on base four-for-four. The earth did not stop rotating on its axis. But seismologists and astronomers are keeping close watch if there's a repeat performance.
Despite everything -- injuries, RFK power allies and the Curse of Cristian -- the Nationals' offense should be better than it is. Scoring less than four runs a game when the first seven hitters in your batting order are better than the first seven in the Oakland attack is just -- as Frank Robinson says -- "unacceptable."
If Oakland can score 4.82 runs a game with the mishmash mess it puts on the field every night, how can the Nats pass the buck and the blame for scoring 3.85 when the top seven guys in their order have, at the least, average big-league offensive talent?
If the Nats, from Robinson on down, continue to moan and groan about what a lousy limited offense they have, then it will probably become a self-fulfilling prophecy. And the next two months may be quite forgettable.
However, the Nats of the first half of the season, like the currently scalding hot A's, did not think that way. They believed that with proper execution and determined confidence, they had just enough ability to score enough runs to get the job done.
This season, baseball may see a truly remarkable underdog make the playoffs. But, right now, it looks like that team may be the Oakland A's -- a club that, top to bottom, has no more talent than the Nats.