Heart of the Nationals’ order just keeps beating expectations
This past week in Pittsburgh, Daniel Murphy flicked his bat at a lowinside curveball and appeared to hit a glancing blow for a flyball destined to land in the right fielder’s glove. Instead, he barreled the ball perfectly on the sweet spot, and it fell into a fan’s lap in the second row of the bleachers for a home run.
Later, Ryan Zimmerman poked his bat at a low-away change-up and seemed to hit a one-handed blooper over the second baseman’s head. Yet his balance and timing were so ideal that the ball hit the top of the 21foot right-field wall for a double.
When you’re hot, you do things you can’t repeat, can’t explain and don’t want to understand fully because you’d be scared half to death by the difficulty and improbability of what you’re accomplishing. When you do those deeds in the first quarter of the season, the way Zimmerman, Murphy and Bryce Harper have been for the Washington Nationals, those early weeks of unsustainable brilliance can form the bedrock of what, over the whole summer, become
monster career years.
If they continued all year at their paces entering Saturday, Harper would hit .355 with 51 homers and 142 RBI, which might bring him a Triple Crown, like the one Mickey Mantle won at the same age of 24 with 52 homers, 130 RBI and a .353 average.
Zimmerman would bat .375 with 63 doubles, 51 homers and 150 RBI. And poor Murphy would have to settle for batting .325 with 32 homers and 126 RBI. You would have one of the best Nos. 3-4-5 left-right-left hearts of the order in decades.
Of course, they can’t do that. Because they never have before.
Harper’s 2015 MVP season hinted that such a year might happen someday. And Murphy basically put up those numbers last season, when he hit .347 with 25 homers and 104 RBI while finishing second for MVP.
No, Zimmerman can’t hit .375. But he did have 33 homers and 110 RBI in 2009.
What Harp, Zim and Murph — the Nats don’t do well on colorful nicknames — have already done, besides delight their fans, is transform the first quarter of the Nats season and make serious problems, which might seem Radio: WJFK (106.7 FM) crushing otherwise, look like they might be endured, then surmounted.
Those three hitters — and the synergy they have helped bring to the offense, which leads MLB in scoring — are the prime reason that the Nats are 25-17 and lead the National League East by six games after their loss Saturday.
That trio, plus strong springs by starters Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez, have given the Nats time to figure out how to improve their so-far awful bullpen. They have let the Nats relax while Tanner Roark tries to reclaim the movement and command of his bread-and-butter pitch: that swing-back two-seam fastball. Nobody’s panicked while Joe Ross works out his mechanics in Class AAA.
The Nats, at least for now, can enjoy the half-dozen gold-star defensive plays by shortstop Trea Turner in the past week and shrug off his .235 batting average and a couple of recent tough errors.
Offense can forgive more sins than the pope. But it also can lead to delusions. No Washington team, including all the Senators teams from 1901 to 1971, scored more than the 892 runs of the 1930 Senators, who, in a juicedball season, had four Hall of Famer hitters, plus Buddy Myer, who won a batting title.
The current Nats are on pace to score 952 runs. Last year they had just 763. This should be sobering, more than encouraging, to those who run the team. In MLB, everything tends to normalize. The streakers slump, and the slumpers catch fire. But overall, this cascade of Nats runs will slow down, maybe a lot. Don’t wait too long to fix that bullpen, just because a lame NL East helps you look powerful.
On the other hand, great spring starts by an entire unit — like a starting rotation or the middle of an order — can end up defining a team’s whole season. Last May, baseball admired the Cubs’ rotation, but most fans assumed that five pitchers couldn’t stay healthy and superb for an entire season. Why, their luck on batting average on balls in play was insane. Surely it would regress. And it has — this year. But not before the Cubs won a World Series.
Last year, the Cubs’ starting pitchers had a 2.96 ERA. Nextbest, miles behind, were the Nats at 3.60. Chicago’s hot pitching start energized its whole season. This year, with almost the same rotation, the Cubs starting ERA ranks 18th (4.47).
Baseball is the “individual team game.” The team comes first, but the individual hitter or pitcher performs alone for the most part. The team influences the individual — some. But bad Boston teams never kept Ted Williams from being Ted Williams. This team-individual duality is a reason fans identify intensely with individual players and their baseball life stories, not just with the whole team.
It would be hard to find three more fascinating stories, batting in a row, than Harper, who might or might not be the next Mantle; Zimmerman, the vet who looked washed up but may be in the midst of a career rebirth; and Murphy, who has made one of the most amazing journeyman-tostar-hitter transformations ever.
We need a reality check. What are the seasons of these three players most likely to resemble by October? Until recent years, there were few good guesses. Now there are. At MLB.com, disguised as Fantasy Projections so you’ll look at ’em, baseball has used advanced-metric research — on age and regression to career mean as well as extra weighting for recent years’ performance — to guesstimate final season stats. Include the hot or cold stat, then “normalize” production thereafter.
That’s good news for the Nats, even though the adjustments imply that Zimmerman, Murphy and Harper will miss 35, 18 and 13 games because of injuries over the rest of the season though they have missed just six games so far. Projections entering Friday:
Harper: 146 games, 116 runs, 38 homers, 110 RBI, .315 average and a 1.042 on-base-plusslugging percentage. If that doesn’t win another MVP, it will be close.
Zimmerman: 124 games but still with 35 doubles, 28 homers, 91 RBI and a .303 average in 462 at-bats.
The impact of this on the Nats could be enormous because Zimmerman is under team control through 2020, when he would still be “only” 35. Instead of spending $75 million for a new free agent first baseman, they might already have one. At least in theory, that puts money back on the table to make a long-term offer to Harper.
Murphy: 142 games, 39 doubles, 18 homers, 91 RBI, a .313 average with an .860 OPS. I’ll take the “over” on this one, thanks.
The Nats have lots of flaws to fix. And every one of their blazing hitters probably will have at least one major slump, more likely a couple.
But every Nats heart-of-theorder hitter probably will spend a long summer looking at his 200square-foot picture on the center field scoreboard — with his offensive numbers beside it — and thinking, “I’m having a great season. I could go 0 for next week and barely put a dent in it. Just relax. Time to get another hit.”
That’s how monster seasons are born. One, two or three could be on the way.