The Nationals’ Five Greatest Hitters
Tim Raines (1979-1990, 2001)
The petite but well-built switch-hitter who thrived on the nickname “Rock” was the best of a rich tradition of speedburners in Montreal as he quickly proved that he was more than just fast legs.
Raines sprang upon the major league scene in the strike-shortened 1981 season, stealing 71 bases in 88 games to win the first of four straight stolen base titles in the National League while finishing a very close second in Rookie of the Year voting to the media-saturated Fernando Valenzuela. The strike kept Raines from reaching 100 thefts and, quite possibly, having a crack at Lou Brock’s then-season record of 118. His career high would be established two years later when he stole 90 bags in 1983.
Although he would never lead the league in stolen bases after 1984, Raines was no less efficient when he tried. With the Expos, he successfully swiped the next base 85% of the time and finished his long, 23-year career with the highest success rate among players with 300 or more steals. (Carlos Beltran recently has topped him.)
Raines’ career was nearly derailed before it peaked. In 1982, he became heavily addicted to cocaine; he was so hooked, he never slid into a bag feet first out of fear it might break the small vile of coke he had stashed in his back pocket and took between innings. With assistance from teammates, Raines cleaned up and never relapsed.
Properly rehabbed, Raines showed off his elite level of play through the 1980s for Montreal, transcending the mere threat of stealing bases. He was a constant .300 threat—.400 in the category of on-base percentage once his healthy amassment of walks were figured in; he won a NL batting title in 1986 when he hit .334 and finished sixth in the NL MVP vote. A free agent following that sterling season, Raines was stunned to field offers lower than the annual $1.5 million fee he’d been earning in Montreal. Only the Expos would match that figure, and an insulted Raines held out until May, when the two sides finally agreed to a yearly $1.67 million figure; Raines celebrated his return by tripling in his first at-bat and knocking out a game-winning, tenth-inning grand slam at New York against the Mets. It was the start of, arguably, Raines most complete and celebrated year, hitting .330, smacking a career-high 18 home runs, leading the majors with 123 runs, hitting for the cycle and being named that year’s All-Star Game MVP when he collected three hits (including a triple) with two RBIs and a stolen base. It was later revealed that major league owners colluded against Raines and many other players seeking fair monetary value, resulting in a staggering (and well-deserved) $280 million gut punch against the Lords.
A series of injuries precipitated a dropoff over Raines’ next three years, and he was traded following the 1990 season to the Chicago White Sox. At age 41, Raines briefly rejoined the Expos in 2001, counting among his teammates his son, Tim Raines Jr.—making the two the second father-son duo (after the Griffeys) to play same time, same team.
Andre Dawson (1976-86)
A five-tool prospect shouldering immense expectations, Dawson approached—but didn’t quite meet—superstar status, yet he was nonetheless an outstanding ballplayer who didn’t go unnoticed by Hall-of-Fame voters who elected him to Cooperstown, albeit after nine years of eligibility.
Tall and trim, Dawson was an aggressive hitter who crowded the plate, rarely walked and patrolled the outfield with expansive range, earning him the nickname Hawk and eight Gold Gloves—six with the Expos—before the harsh, artificial Olympic Stadium turf gave him frequent-visitor status in the operating room. After winning Rookie of the Year honors in 1977, baseball experts continuously talked up Dawson as the next Willie Mays, an unfair burden on a player who was just a level below—averaging a still-respectable 25 homers, 90 homers, 30 steals and, sometimes, a .300-plus average. He marveled here and there, twice hitting two homers in an inning (a feat equaled only by Willie McCovey) and finishing second in the NL MVP race in 1981 and 1983. He was selected to three All-Star Games in a Montreal uniform.
Like Raines, Dawson became a free agent after 1986 and thus was also a victim of the owners’ collusive efforts to quell spiraling free agency contracts; unlike Raines, Dawson became so incensed at Montreal management that he refused to return, boldly opting to crash Chicago training camp and allowing the Cubs to write in whatever salary they pleased; they penned $500,000—one-third what he made with the Expos a year earlier—and Dawson proceeded to have his most prodigious season, belting 49 homers and knocking in 137 runs while winning the NL MVP for a last-place team.
Vladimir Guerrero (1996-2003)
An aggressive hitter much in the mold of Dawson whose knees suffered the same fate on the hard Expos’ home turf, Guerrero was a dominant force with highly impressive numbers that still managed to fly under the radar within baseball, due to the crowded market of stat-inflated sluggers during his time and the obscure existence of the skeletal-budget, poorly-attended Expos just prior to their move to Washington.
Guerrero never hit below .300 as an Expo and often hit well above it—peaking in 2000 with a .345 average—and added voluminous power, twice notching over 40 home runs; his career .323 mark and 234 blasts both rank first in franchise history. Further adding to his multi-talented resume, Guerrero collected a team-record 31-game hitting streak in 1999, hit for the cycle in one of his last games as an Expo in 2003 (before moving onto Anaheim) and showed a streak of speed, falling one homer shy of a 40-40 campaign in 2002. What’s astounding is that while most of the above numbers suggest a highly disciplined batting style, Guerrero entertained fans with one the game’s most breathtaking swings, a furiously wicked arc of the bat that left witnesses to drop what else they might have been doing at the moment; even more amazing, Guerrero never struck out more than 100 times.
A four-time All-Star, Guerrero made the Midsummer Classic solely for his bat—and not his glove. He led all NL outfielders in errors every year while in Montreal (topping out in 1999 with 19) and his Expos career fielding percentage of .963 is lower than what most infielders record playing more demanding positions.
Bryce Harper (2012-present)
When the Nationals, on their way to a second straight 100-loss season and a #1 pick in the next amateur draft, got wind of a 16-year-old kid out in Las Vegas who could mash 500-foot home runs, hurl fastballs near 100 MPH and run like a gazelle, they had to be pinching themselves. A year later, they picked the mega-talented, brash Harper as their top draft choice and, after a little growing up, he appears to have met the franchise’s highest expectations.
Harper debuted early in the 2012 season at age 19 and showed that all the preliminary pomp was no exaggeration. He grabbed NL Rookie of the Year honors with a .270 average, 22 homers, 59 RBIs, 18 steals and 98 runs scored in 139 games, while being rewarded for his work at midseason by earning a spot on the NL All-Star team. Over his next two years, Harper’s career growth was stunted due to a number of injuries partially created by his all-out approach to outfield defense—best illustrated in 2013 when he ran at full speed right into the wall at Los Angeles’ Dodger Stadium, as if he didn’t know an outfield wall even existed. Harper was unapologetic in defense of his defense, using his Twitter account to proclaim, “I’ll play this game hard for the rest of my life even if it kills me.”
Overwhelmingly tagged in an ESPN player poll as baseball’s most overrated major leaguer on the eve of the 2015 season, Harper went out and convinced almost everyone that he’d likely never receive such a dishonor ever again. In a spectacular breakout campaign, Harper belted 42 homers, hit .330 with 124 walks and scored a NL-high 118 runs. It was a Ted Williams-like performance at age 22 that made him the first player in franchise history to win the MVP—and the youngest-ever major leaguer to be honored unanimously. He sustained a somewhat alarming drop in 2016—batting just .243 with 24 homers—but his 108 walks still ranked him near the league’s top ten in on-base percentage.
As Harper’s game matures toward the stratosphere, his sulky attitude will hopefully mature as well. Once angered by a slump, he took to the clubhouse and smashed away with a bat—which splintered and ricocheted below his eye, causing a cut that required ten stitches. He was once benched for failing to run out a ground ball and, more memorably at the end of his 2015 MVP campaign, was choked in the dugout by teammate Jonathan Papelbon for failing to run out a pop fly. The Nationals will tolerate these moments so long as Harper plays at the elite level they had long expected.
Ryan Zimmerman (2005-present)
The trusty third baseman from Washington—that’s Washington, North Carolina—has made his mark in Washington, D.C. for the Nationals, becoming one of the few homegrown success stories for the franchise since its move from Montreal.
Zimmerman had a terrific call-up session in 2005—the team’s first year in the Nation’s Capitol—batting .397 with ten doubles in just 58 at-bats. He followed that up with an impressive first full season, hitting .287 with 47 more doubles, 20 home runs and 110 RBIs before barely being edged out by Hanley Ramirez for NL Rookie of the Year honors. In an injury-marred 2008 campaign, he helped christen in Nationals Park with a walk-off homer to defeat Atlanta, and a year later set career marks with 33 homers, 110 runs scored and 72 walks—while engaging himself in a hitting streak that ended just one game shy of Guerrero’s team-record 31.
Injuries have hampered Zimmerman’s playing time and hitting potentcy during his later years, but the sum total of his efforts have landed him near the top of the franchise’s all-time offensive charts.
Washington Nationals Team History: Year-by year records, statistics and an oral history of the Nationals, decade by decade.
The Nationals' Five Greatest Pitchers: A list of the five greatest pitchers based on their productivity and efficiency.
The Nationals' Five Greatest Games: A list of five memorable games and other notable personal achievements that have defined the Nationals' history.
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