Last Thursday, the Washington Nationals lost a 7-6 contest versus the Los Angeles Dodgers, sealing the team's second straight 100-loss season. As Justin Bopp highlighted last week, this is only the fourth season in which the Nationals/Expos organization has lost over a 100 games.
The futility of the organization hasn't just remained on the field. At the end of last season, the club was unable to sign top draft pick Aaron Crow on a disagreement of around $700K. At the start of this season, general manager Jim Bowden resigned while under federal investigation for allegations that he and special assistant Jose Rijo were involved in a bonus skimming scheme involving Dominican players. And among other things, there was the whole Natinals thing that made the organization the butt of many jokes over the following few weeks.
When faced with a stretch of futility like this, fans can only help but ask whether their team will ever get better. The good news is that the team probably is better than their win-loss record would suggest, though not by a whole lot. The bad news is the organization has not spent money in an efficient fashion in order to produce more wins.Are they actually a 100-loss team?
As of this writing, the Nationals have 103 losses on the season. But looking at their component statistics, they haven't performed like a 103-loss team. If we consider that the replacement level team is a .300 team, we would expect that team to have won 46 games through the 155 games the Nationals have played so far. According to FanGraphs, the Nats have recorded around 18 WAR between position players and pitchers this season, meaning the team should have around 64 wins, which would give them a win% of .416. Our own latest BtB Power Rankings have the Nationals at a component win% of .392, second worst in baseball, but still six losses shy of 100.
This isn't new for the team. Here are the WAR-projected values for each of the seasons since the team moved to Washington. In the replacement bar you can see the total projected wins and the actual team wins for that season.
The last three or four years the Nationals have been more or less the same team, with a mediocre set of position players and some of the worst pitching in baseball. In fact, three of the last five seasons the Nationals have had the lowest pitching WAR in baseball according to FanGraphs.
Bullpen's a crapshoot, and the Nationals do not roll dice well
The Nationals have the lowest pitching WAR in baseball this year, and much of that distinction can be laid at the feet of the bullpen. The Nats bullpen has been worth 27 runs below replacement level, almost twice the number of runs worse the next lowest team, the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Nationals have a 5.03 FIP by FanGraphs and a 5.40 tRA by StatCorner.
The pitching staff has also struggled when it counts. Using the data from the Nationals' 2009 splits from Baseball Reference, I approximated the team's FIP in high leverage situations. Using the usual additive factor of 3.2, the Nationals staff has an approximate FIP of 5.40 in 1148 high leverage (LI>1.5) situations. This number should not surprise anyone; witness the top five Nationals relievers in terms of high leverage appearances and their corresponding updated ZiPS projected FIP for the end of the season.
Of course, Hanrahan and Beimel were both traded, Hanrahan after posting a ludicrous 7.71 ERA that he was massively outperforming according to his FIP (at the time of the trade, Hanrahan had a FIP of 3.62). It speaks volumes that the team's primary late inning and high leverage options, Ron Villone and Mike MacDougal, have both walked as many or more than they have struck out this season.
Plethora of pitching problems
This is not to say that this is the primary problem with the team; the starting staff is still third worst in baseball in terms of runs above average, so clearly the bullpen cannot be entirely to blame. The last two seasons the Nationals starters have been among the worst in baseball.
While the Nationals have been able to stay around the league average in walks, they've been at or near the bottom of the pack in strikeouts the last two seasons and have allowed an above average number of home runs, making for two straight appearances at the tail end of the FIP rankings. While the bullpen has contributed to its share of issues with leverage and performance, the starters have not allayed these problems by keeping the team in games. Combine that with the Nationals' below average defense (-16.2 team bUZR over the last two seasons) and you can see why the team has given up an average of 5.3 runs per game over the span of two years.
What can (or could have been) done?
Regardless of whether or not the team should have hit 100 losses these last two years is not particularly relevant. The team performance has been abysmal whether you look at it through their actual, Pythaganpat, or component Pythagenpat record. The question really is whether the Nationals could have helped to avoid this by more wisely spending the resources they had. In the next installment of the Road to 100 Losses, I'll look at two signings that did happen and one that didn't, and how the Nationals could have better spent those funds.