Ian Desmond has committed seven of the Nationals' 18 errors this season.
One night, they look very much like the best team in baseball and certainly worthy of the preseason hype they received. The next, they look completely out of sync, unable to play clean ball and dropping games to lesser pitchers and opponents with far more frequency than you'd expect for a club with this much talent.
And yet the end result remains mildly positive: a 10-8 record good enough for second place in the NL East at the moment. Nobody wins a pennant in April. All you really need to do is stay in the thick of things and not dig yourself into a big hole.
So the Nationals are by no means a failure at this early stage of the season. They are, perhaps, a disappointment. And if you're wondering why that is, here are some possible reasons...
What was touted as one of the best defensive teams in baseball has been anything but so far. The Nationals have been charged with an MLB-high 18 errors in 18 games, a staggering total for a club that should be winning games with its gloves, not losing them.
We've examined Ryan Zimmerman's throwing issue enough, so no need to rehash that. But what to make of Ian Desmond's struggles so far? The All-Star shortstop, a Gold Glove finalist one year ago, has already committed seven errors, most in the majors.
In the process, Desmond is conjuring up some bad memories of his rookie season in 2010, when he was charged with a league-high 34 errors. He worked hard to fix that problem and reconstruct his image as a defensive liability. There's still time for him to get this straightened out this year, but the sloppy manner in which he's navigated his position — not to mention many of his teammates — to date is troublesome.
STARTERS NOT THROWING ENOUGH INNINGS
Though their overall numbers (including a 3.70 ERA) aren't bad, the Nationals' five starting pitchers collectively haven't held up their end of the bargain. How so? By not going deep enough into games to help take pressure off the bullpen.
Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Dan Haren and Ross Detwiler are averaging only 5.8 innings per start, a rate that ranks 17th in the majors. Not the kind of standing expected of this elite group of hurlers.
Now, some of this is attributable to Davey Johnson holding everyone back early on, especially during the first turn through the rotation. But more recently, these pitchers haven't given their manager reason to let them go deeper, because they're racking up huge pitch counts in the early innings.
Strasburg needed 114 pitches to complete 5 1/3 innings in Cincinnati. Gonzalez has failed to reach the sixth inning in three of his four starts despite throwing more than 90 pitches in each of them. Haren is averaging 20.4 pitches per inning. Even Zimmermann, who last week completed nine innings for the first time in his career, was knocked out yesterday after only five innings having thrown 96 pitches.
It's time for these guys to start displaying some efficiency.
RELIEVERS STILL DEVELOPING ROLES
This was supposed to be the deepest bullpen in baseball, and perhaps the last thing Johnson had to worry about. Well, three weeks in, the Nationals relief corps owns a collective 5.04 ERA, 26th out of 30 teams.
Not one member of the bullpen boasts an ERA lower than 4.15. Four of the seven are surrendering more than one hit per inning. Collectively, they're issuing 3.4 walks per nine innings.
What's going on here? Well, one possible explanation is that everyone's roles are still being sorted out. By the end of last season, there was never a doubt how the relievers would be used. Sean Burnett pitched the seventh. Tyler Clippard pitched the eighth. Drew Storen pitched the ninth. Ryan Mattheus pitched the sixth or seventh, depending on the situation. Craig Stammen and Tom Gorzelanny were the long men. Michael Gonzalez was the situational lefty.
The roles haven't been nearly as defined so far this year. Rafael Soriano, obviously, is the closer. But Storen and Clippard have been sharing eighth-inning responsibilities. Mattheus and Henry Rodriguez have been used in a variety of spots. Stammen and Zach Duke remain the long men.
These things can take some time. It's great to open a season with all the roles defined, but often it takes a month or two for this to sort itself out. Until it does, the Nationals can only hope each member of the pen begins to perform to a higher standard.
BENCH NOT PRODUCING
Not that everyone in the lineup is producing at full capacity, but the Nationals' bench has struggled in particular. Steve Lombardozzi has done well, especially playing at second base while Danny Espinosa was nursing a bruised hand. And Kurt Suzuki has been fantastic since taking over behind the plate for the injured Wilson Ramos.
But Chad Tracy (3-for-21), Tyler Moore (3-for-19, nine strikeouts) and Roger Bernadina (0-for-15) have been abysmal. Perhaps the lack of playing time has hurt, though each got a chance to start multiple games last week due to injuries, and that didn't seem to help much.
With the starting pitchers getting pulled as early as they have, the Nationals have needed to use pinch-hitters with great frequency. So far, they're hitting just .136 (3-for-22), 14th out of 15 teams in the NL.