Friday night, as the Washington Nationals’ inconsistent April seemed to drag its ugliness into a previously exempt May, they amassed 14 strikeouts. The total was eye-popping, a season-high mark that tied one they’d set just four days earlier, and the ninth time this season they had struck out 10 times or more in a game.
The next day, manager Davey Johnson held a team meeting — something he is generally loath to do. His message was simple: relax.
“Across the board, we’re not playing up to our potential,” Johnson later told reporters. “[Let’s] make it simpler. Let’s keep having fun. Let’s do the things we’re capable of.
“Key guys are struggling a little bit. But we know we’re not going to keep struggling.”
And really, Johnson is right. Particularly when it comes to that last part and his offense.
The Nationals’ slow offensive start has been concerning to some, worrisome to others and downright nerve-fraying to certain factions of the fan base. For plenty, it’s been maddening to watch them strike out, swinging or looking, so often. To see them come up small in large situations. To hit the ball on the screws, and right at a waiting fielder.
But there’s just as much evidence to suggest that an offensive turnaround is in their future, and it starts with their work in spring training.
Johnson is a veteran manager, and as such he trusts his established players to tell him how much work they generally need to prepare themselves for a season. Jayson Werth had just 55 at-bats in spring training. Ryan Zimmerman got 57. Adam LaRoche amassed 55.
The list of regulars with more than 65 at-bats in the spring is as follows: Ian Desmond (67), Bryce Harper (67) and Danny Espinosa (78).
Compare that to the Nationals’ closest competitors, the Atlanta Braves, and the difference is telling.
The Braves, who opened the season hotter than anyone but have come back to earth a bit lately, played the spring a bit differently. First baseman Freddie Freeman got 76 at-bats in the Grapefruit League. Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton had 75; Chris Johnson 72; Justin Upton 70. Outside of Andrelton Simmons, who spent most of the spring in the World Baseball Classic, Jason Heyward was the low regular on the totem pole with 67 at-bats.
The idea behind Johnson’s plan, of course, is that he has no desire to wear his players down in the spring, when he needs them fresher over the long haul. Even if that means they’re not as sharp, or their timing is not as perfect, to open the season.
But that is really just one point. Certainly plenty of teams that have had good offensive starts, such as the Brewers, didn’t give their main guys an obscene number of spring at-bats.
The other reasons hinge more upon the stats — and the fact that hitting in April is generally a difficult thing to do.
There were 18 postponements of major league games in April, which, according to ESPN, is tied for the fourth most in any April since baseball began keeping track in 1986. Snow-outs, cold-outs and the good old fashioned rain-outs.
The games that were played, some in temperatures so cold hitting coach Rick Eckstein once caught his pants on fire in the Nationals’ dugout trying to get warm, weren’t always much better. Ask just about any hitter in the major leagues and they’ll tell you trying to hit an inside fastball in 40 degree temperatures, and often below, it’s not a very pleasant experience.
In 2012, the National League hit at an average of .247 in April, had a .314 on-base percentage and slugged .383. In May those figures jumped to .256/.323/.406. The Nationals hit .226/.304/.328 in April of last season. In May? .257/.320/.447. They never hit below .254 in a month for the rest of the year.
In 2013, the Nationals hit .234 with a .296 on-base percentage and a .391 slugging percentage in April. The league hit .247/.313/.391.
They’re not drastically bad, even if they are drastically unlucky — the Nationals’ batting average on balls in play was just .276 at the close of business Sunday, the sixth-worst mark in all of the majors. As players see more pitches, as they sharpen their timing, as certain hitters like Adam LaRoche break out of the cold funk they began the season in, that figure will likely correct itself. Those balls will likely begin to fall with more frequency.
Before Johnson called his players together for his brief meeting in Pittsburgh, he took a bat into the cage at PNC Park and took what he estimated was about 40 swings. He swung until he developed a blister. He said he went in to see if it was actually that hard to hit a baseball. He never mentioned if he found the answer.
By Sunday evening, his team had outscored the Pirates 11-6 in the final two games of the series, both wins.
The Nationals have not performed as well as they can offensively. But there’s plenty of time, and plenty of reason to think they will. Soon.