Monday, May 30, 2005

Taking Stock

I've always believed that you can't really assess your team until Memorial Day, roughly 1/3 of the way into the season. Until then, slumps and streaks, and unbalanced schedules play havoc with your efforts.

Well, we're there. And what do we know?

We're only three games out of first place!

But, we're only at .500, in 4th place, and only 1.5 out of last place.

Does this look like a contending team to you?

I'm not sure it does to me.

The offense has been putrid. We're now down to 14th in the league in runs scored, and we're closer to last, than we are to 13th.

The injury excuse can only take you so far. Yes, Jose Vidro's out (And will be to the All-Star break, at a minimum), but he's just one batter. And his being out for the last few weeks wouldn't make the difference in the 30 runs this team would need to get back to average.

You've seen the games. You know the two major reasons this team can't score runs: Poor clutch hitting, and Cristian Guzman.

With the team's lack of patience, it almost forces the Nats to get three consecutive singles to score a run. Rallies seemingly have to be more a function of luck and timing than anything. If the right batters aren't coming up, or they're not getting on like they should, we have next to zero chance of scoring in any given inning.

Part of that obviously lies on the bat of Cristian Guzman. At which point does a streak transcend flukiness and show an actual level of ability?

He's now 'hitting' .186/ .226/ .234. His .460 OPS would make him the 4th best-hitting pitching staff in the league. (For comparison's sake, Atlanta's pitchers are hitting .221/ .253/ .295)

A Leage Average shorstop is hitting .253/ .305/ .369, which is probably lowered significantly by the amount of consistent playing time he's received.

I always look at OBP as non-out percentage. If you turn it around, it means that Guzman is making an out 77.4% of the times he comes to the plate. Yeesh!

With our chain-style offense, it's simply impossible to mount that many rallies with a nearly automatic out, even at the bottom of the lineup.

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Our pitching has been solid, but not quite spectacular. Vargas' and Day's efforts really drag down the overall numbers of the staff, but the starters have put up a 4.19 ERA, good for 10th in the league. Without the Vargas experiment, we'd probably be in the top 5.

Our relievers rank 8th in the league with a 4.22 ERA. They suffer the same problem with a few disasterous outings overshadowing what has been an excellent core: Cordero, Ayala, Majewski.

Pitching certainly has been the least of this team's problems.

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Grit and Toughness and all those other positive character attributes we like to attribute to our teams (And believe me, ALL fans do it) can only carry you so far. You still need talent and performance.

And so far, this team's talent looks about where we'd expected it to be at the beginning of the season.

So, why does .500 feel so disappointing then? Especially when we all believed that .500 would be as high as they could achieve?

Baseball is a game of constantly shifting expectations. With a season so long, it's hard to remember the trends from a month or two ago. Instead, you tend to emphasize the recent past -- a past that's been pretty wretched for us.

Instead, it's sometimes important to focus on the larger picture.

Think back to the West Coast trip. We started off red-hot before dropping two close games to San Francisco. Although we had a bitter taste in our mouth, the road trip was an overwhelming success.

We need to look at this season the same way. Yes, it's possible with a better manager that we could have a few more wins than we do now, but does this really like a team that can win 90+ games and get into the playoffs? The pace we were playing earlier probably wasn't the true talent level of the team. It was just a streak.

Remember the old baseball truism, "You're never as good as you look on a winning streak, nor as bad as you look on a losing streak."

That's something to keep in mind -- even now after getting our collective sphincters returned to us in a pretty little box by St. Louis and Cinci.

So, look at the big picture. This is a .500 team.

And that's an 81-game improvement over last year.

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