Sports

Picking Splinters: The Nationals’ Déjà Vu

We’ve been here before. The Nationals, cruising along towards elimination and a top draft pick. Front office types eyeballing the team to figure out who’s part of the core and who’s not, trying to gage when it’s time to add a missing piece or two through free agency and finally consider themselves a contender.

Yes, we’ve been here before. This time however, feels different.

Maybe it’s that the Nats are coming off an eight game winning streak. Maybe it’s the statistical performances of Washington’s top five hitters. Something doesn’t feel exactly similar to past seasons. There’s actually, kinda, sorta, maybe, something that feels like … hope?

Nah!

Sorry to be the Splinters’ storm cloud Nats fans, but while this recent hot streak has been impressive and I do finally feel like the team has found a stable nucleus of players, I don’t quite think the team is contender worthy just yet.

Adam Dunn is a good hitter and his status as a consistent home run threat has drastically altered the Nationals lineup. If I was the front office, I would extend his deal in a heartbeat. However, there is no way that he’s as good a hitter as he’s showing this season.

Not to pick on the Post’s Tom Boswell, but in his column Wednesday he stacked Dunn’s season up to fellow big-time free agent Mark Teixeira, who signed for about $12 million more than Dunn with the New York Yankees. The statistical lines for each player (Dunn: .281 Avg., 30 HR, 84 RBI / Teixeira .286, 29, 83) are similar so he equates the two, giving a nod to Tex’s defensive superiority. Their stats may be similar this season, but Dunn is on a career-year tear at the plate. His average in 2009 is 31 points higher than his career average and his on-base percentage is 25 points higher. Only one other time in his entire career has he batted over .265, with a .266 mark in 2004.

Part of the reason for his higher average is his batting average on balls in play, or BABIP as stat-heads call it. BABIP is a way to measure a hitter’s luck, as it calculates the player’s batting average against the defense’s ability to make a play on him. The league average for BABIP is around .300 every season, meaning just fewer than one out of every three balls put into play falls in for a hit. Dunn’s BABIP for this season is .339, well above average, meaning he’s likely to regress towards the mean in the future.

As I’ve said, Dunn is a great hitter, but anyone expecting more than a .250 batting average going forward is either overly optimistic about the Big Donkey’s hitting stroke or his protection in the Nationals’ lineup. Which brings us to Josh Willingham.

Willingham’s .308 average and 18 HRs have people thinking he’s a perennial all-star. Let’s check those expectations. With a regular gig in the outfield, Willingham has shown himself to be a good hitter. Not a great hitter. Not a hitter you plug into the middle of the lineup on a team contending for a playoff spot.

Willingham is a career .273 hitter with a .491 slugging percentage. This season, he’s hitting 35 points over that mark and slugging a full 100 points higher. The numbers tell us this season is a blip on the radar. Again looking at his BABIP, he’s hitting .337, meaning he too is enjoying a little luck at the plate.

When two of your best hitters figure to swoon next season and the pitching staff is so toxic Captain Planet is starting to think it’s a hazard to Mother Earth, it doesn’t appear as if the Nats are ready for prime time just yet. The Nats have been here before, trying to find the silver lining at the end of the season, only to be disappointed again the next year.

But if you want to take someone else’s word on the matter, go to baseball-reference.com and look at Willingham’s Similarity Scores, which use his past stats to generate comparisons to other current and historical players. The third name down on the list? Ryan Church.

We’ve been here before, no?