What’s changed for the Nationals this year? Only everything!

Ian Desmond and Bryce Harper are only two of the reasons for the Nationals rise to the top of the NL. (Joy R. Absalon/US Presswire)

A lot has been said about the 2012 Washington Nationals, and even more has been written. At the start of the season, they were viewed by most as an improving team moving towards being contenders in a couple of years. Good starting pitching and some excellent prospects in the farm system seemed to back up the theory.

Well, they’ve gone a bit better than most expectations and become the most successful team since the franchise relocation in 2005 and are currently on pace for 99 wins, which would make them the most successfully team in franchise history. More than that, though, they are also one of the best teams in MLB this year and look well on track to bring a World Series back to D.C. after a 79-year break.

A season like the Nats are putting together doesn’t just happen by accident; there have been some smart trades, some nice player development and the big players having big seasons have all contributed towards the current run.

Nationals fans had to sit through some pretty gruesome stuff over the last few years; remember when the rotation featured Ramon Ortiz and Tony Armas and the team ERA was above five? The pitching staff this year boasts a 3.27ERA (best in the NL) and features Gio Gonzalez and (for the next couple of weeks at least) Stephen Strasburg who own the best and second best record in baseball. The team also leads in hits, runs and earned runs allowed in the NL, while allowing just 0.8 HR/9 and fanning 8.1/9, both also leading the NL. The current rotation has a WAR of 14.2 the five pitchers with the most starts in 2009 had a WAR of five (based on the FanGraphs version of the stat).

The middle-infield has also come up good this year. Prior to Thursday’s game with the Cubs, Danny Espinosa and Ian Desmond have played 135 and 105 games each this year, and are hitting a combined .272 with a combined OBP of .323 with 131 runs and 114 knocked in.  Compare the offensive production with Ronnie Belliard and Christian Guzman, the highest appearing middle-infielders during the 2009 season. Although the 2009 pairing had a slightly higher batting average (.274) the OBP was much lower (.303). The 2012 edition also averages a RBI every two fewer ABs than their 2009 counterparts. The defensive side is also improved, with Desmond and Espinosa having a combined fielding percentage of .974.

With such a great season, it’s impossible to zero in on one player — especially when they haven’t been playing well in the last couple months — but an honorable mention has to go to Bryce Harper. Having started the season in the minors, an injury to Ryan Zimmerman against Los Angeles at the end of April, and some line-up changes meant that the 19-year-old was able to make his debut in the bigs well ahead of schedule, and he has not disappointed.

Harper now has more home runs before the age of 20 since Tony Conigiaro hit 24 for Boston in 1964-65. He’s also an outstanding outfielder with a laser arm, which has thrown runners out at all four bases and left most teams unwilling to tag on shallow fly balls. All of which combines to result in Harper saving 15 more runs than average. Given that the Nats have won more one-run games than anyone else in the majors, every run saved counts.

What’s more, the Nats seem to have discovered a ruthless streak which has enabled them to go 13-2 against the NL’s two worst teams and win 11 games which have gone into extra innings, exactly the sort of games they were losing 2 years ago. Against the Cubs, at the minute, the Nats are destroying the minor league pitching they’re facing, having back-to-back six homer nights, the fourth team in history to do so. They’re going to have to keep it up for the remaining 26 games though, 17 of them against teams under .500, if they are to bring the big-time back to the Capitol.

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