Had you bothered to Google “Washington Nationals offense” earlier this week, you would have come across two headlines that said it all. 

One by Chelsea Janes of The Washington Post read: “A closer look at the Nationals‘ slumping offense.” The other, by Bill Ladson of MLB.com, read: “Nationals’ offense still searching for spark.”

Well, here’s the latest on this front: The Nationals offense has found a spark and is no longer slumping.

The Nationals won their third game in a row Thursday night against the New York Mets, and it was their offense that once again did the heavy lifting. After dropping 26 runs in two games on the Atlanta Braves, the Nationals registered eight versus the Mets for an 8-2 win.

The key hit was a three-run ninth-inning double by Bryce Harper that turned a 5-2 lead into an 8-2 advantage and in turn sent the masses at Citi Field headed in the direction of the exits. It was his second double of the night and his fourth in the last three games. He’s also walked in all three games.

So for him, pretty much business as usual.

But we’ll have more on that later. Right now, there’s more credit to dish out.

The recently activated Denard Span has also been in the middle of the action in the last three contests, collecting seven hits and a walk with seven runs and four RBI. Catchers Jose Lobaton and Wilson Ramos have combined for seven hits, five runs and six RBI. In the two high-scoring games in Atlanta, former Brave Dan Uggla pitched in four hits and seven RBI, three of which came on a game-winner Tuesday night.

This is what it looks like when an offense comes alive. And small sample size be damned, the shift in the numbers is staggering. A couple of days ago, the Nats were hitting .215 as a team and scoring 3.5 runs per game. In the last three, they’ve hit .350 and scored a total of 34 runs. 

An explanation, you say? Harper had a good one for what’s gone on after Wednesday’s game.

“It was a matter of time,” the 22-year-old right fielder told Jon Cooper of MLB.com. “We have a lot of confidence in everybody on this club, and we’re going to have some fun.”

Harper’s right. It always was a matter of time before the Nats offense came alive. According to FanGraphs, they entered the year projected to score more runs than any National League team except the Colorado Rockies.

Injuries to Span, Jayson Werth and Anthony Rendon made it tough for the offense to live up to that projection out of the gate. But now Span is back and raking and, after a very slow start, Werth has shown signs of life with three hits and a walk in the last two games. As a result, Washington’s lineup is looking and functioning like a much deeper unit.

And now it won’t be long before Rendon is back, too.

As Ladson reported, the All-Star third baseman’s recovery from an MCL sprain in his left knee saw him go through a full workout Thursday. Barring any setbacks, he’s a few rehab games away from rejoining the Nationals.

Once he does, the Nats will be regaining a guy who OPS’d .824 with 21 home runs and 17 stolen bases in 2014. Factor in the studly defense he played, and he was far and away Washington’s best player.

He might have trouble keeping that honor this year, though. Harper has a head start on Rendon, and the impact he’s made in the last three games is just a small part of what’s been a game-changing season.

Technically, Harper didn’t just finish off the best April of his career. It’s hard to top what he did in 2013, when he hit .344 with a 1.150 OPS and nine home runs. No matter who you are, that’s an epic April.

But while not quite “epic,” Harper’s 2015 was at least “stupendous.” Here’s Andrew Simon of MLB.com with the final numbers:

Those numbers look plenty good on their own, and they translate into an even better number. As of this writing, FanGraphs has Harper among the NL’s top hitters in adjusted offense with a 155 wRC+.

So, contrary to reports of him being overrated, you can consider this your annual reminder that Harper is an extremely talented young hitter when he’s healthy. That was the case in his Rookie of the Year season in 2012, early on in 2013 and late in 2014. When he’s physically able to hit, he hits.

And yet, there’s more to Harper’s recent batch of hot hitting than just good health. He’s the same hitter in many respects, but he’s also a much different player in others.

One storyline that’s gotten its share of play is all the walks Harper has been drawing. His 22 walks lead baseball and translate into a 22.0 BB% in 100 plate appearances. Even if you take away his five international walks, you still get an impressive 17.0 BB%.

The image of increased discipline that creates is no mirage. Harper has indeed made a change in his approach. And in his case, it’s one that’s overdue.

If you use Zone% to look up which hitters have seen the smallest percentage of pitches in the strike zone since Harper’s rookie season in 2012, here’s what you’ll see:

  1. Pablo Sandoval: 34.7%
  2. Josh Hamilton: 37.2%
  3. Bryce Harper: 38.3%

Translated: Harper has seen fewer good pitches to hit than all but two other hitters. Pitchers haven’t been making it easy on him.

What we’re seeing in 2015 is Harper finally responding to this. He used to oblige pitchers by chasing outside the zone with a high O-Swing%. But now, he’s doing this:

Pitchers are avoiding the strike zone at about their usual rate against Harper, but he’s fishing at a significantly lower percentage. When that happens, so do walks.

That’s definitely one way to take what pitchers are giving you, but it’s not the only approach. A hitter can take what he’s given when he swings the bat, too, and that’s something else Harper has been doing.

As they should be, pitchers have been frightened of going inside against Harper, lest they run afoul of his raw power. They’ve preferred to stay away from him instead, consistently pounding him on and beyond the outer third of the strike zone.

According to Baseball Savant, they’re doing that more than ever this year. One thing Harper is making clear, however, is that this game plan is quickly becoming obsolete:

It used to be reasonably safe to pound Harper away. But now? Considerably less so. Really, it’s not safe at all anymore.

We knew coming into 2015 that Harper had loads of natural ability. But from what we’ve seen, it sure looks like he’s developed some legit smarts to go with all his talent.

Looking at the numbers is one way we can tell. The other is simply taking his word for it.

In a recent interview with Tom Schad of The Washington Times, Harper said he’s no longer “trying to muscle up and hit a ball 900 feet.” Instead, he has a new game plan when he walks to the plate:

I’m trying to be quick, not as strong, do what I can to connect to the baseball, see my pitches, draw my walks if I need to. If they’re not giving in, keep throwing me offspeed or off the plate or anything like that, don’t chase. If you strike out on a good pitch, it happens. But draw your walks, try to get good pitches, and don’t miss ’em.

This would be the long-form way of saying, “I’m just being a hell of a lot smarter.” And based on just about every number out there, it’s putting Harper on track to have his best season yet.

Up until a couple of days ago, his efforts were counting for naught in an offense that just couldn’t get going. But now, it looks like they’re going to start counting for a lot more than naught in an offense that’s getting more dangerous by the day.


Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference unless otherwise noted/linked.

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