The Nationals had lofty expectations going into this season, and justifiably so. They were coming off a 97-win season that was second-best in the NL to the Dodgers. They even won five more games than the defending 2016 champs!
The 2018 team was more or less the same as last year, so there was no reason to to believe they would not excel again. Sure, they were going to miss Daniel Murphy for awhile due to injury, and Gio González was bound to regress from his 6.4 WAR season, but Juan Soto and Víctor Robles were waiting in the minors, and they would be getting a full season of Adam Eaton. FanGraphs projected them to win 92 games this season. What’s the worst that could happen?
We are currently finding out. The Nationals got shut out for the third game in a row. In the first game of this streak, they got shut out by Aaron Nola. To be fair, there is certainly no shame in that. Nola is one of the front-runners for the Cy Young award with a 2.13 RA9, and he is currently leading the NL in pitcher WAR at 8.9.
(Notice I said pitcher WAR. If you factor in hitting, Max Scherzer is the leader. Whether or not that should factor into the Cy Young award is up for debate. My opinion is no, it is purely a pitching award. As for the MVP, on the other hand, it should all count. With the way the NL MVP race is shaking up, that could be a VERY interesting discussion...)
The following two games saw the Nats get shutout by the Mets. And no, neither Noah Syndergaard nor Jacob deGrom pitched in those games. They got shut out by Jason Vargas and Zack Wheeler. Wheeler is pitching quite well this season, but Vargas has been one of the worst starters in baseball with a 6.96 RA9 and 18.8 K%. I say this as a Mets fan: getting shutout by that team for two days in a row when Thor and deGrom didn’t pitch is just embarrassing. Thankfully, they followed that up by scoring 15 runs yesterday.
The Nationals are currently two games below .500 and 8.5 games out of first place. They are only 3.5 games out of the last Wild Card slot, but that race is so heavily competitive that FanGraphs gives them a better chance at winning the division, albeit at only a 3.7 percent chance.
Likely well aware of the fact that there season is over, the Nats traded away Daniel Murphy and Matt Adams last week. Bryce Harper was reportedly claimed by the Dodgers, but a trade could not be worked out.
For all the attention that the Nationals’ failures are getting them lately, their subpar performance is not a new thing. They had an excellent May, but have gone just 32-43 since then. The funny thing is that the team had a +58 run differential before yesterday’s lopsided win. In a world where sequencing is not a thing, they would have six more wins. We would be looking at the Nats very differently if they were 71-60.
A cause for underperforming your run differential is a poor bullpen, and the Nats’ bullpen just has not been the same since Sean Doolittle hit the DL on July 10th, and it is not clear when he is coming back. The bullpen has given up four walk-offs since then.
Because baseball is weird, the Nationals actually had a good bullpen when I wrote about the Kelvin Herrera acquisition in June. Since filling for Doolittle, Herrera has struggled with a 4.35 RA9 and 17.3 K%. Ryan Madson took over from there even though he has been bad all year. Since Doolittle hit the DL, he has had a 4.50 RA9. Brandon Kintzler has had a 5.52 RA9 and a paltry 15.4 K%. He is currently on the DL.
The Nationals were so desperate for bullpen help that they signed Greg Holland, who had been recently jettisoned by the Cardinals because of a ghastly 10.08 RA9 and 16.7 BB%, the latter of which was equal to his strikeout rate. It is perfectly understandable to cut a pitcher like that despite owing him over $6 million. What is not understandable is another team picking him up, even for the league minimum. Because baseball makes no sense, he has been incredible in his ten appearances so far with the Nats. He given up just one run and has great peripherals.
It is a minuscule sample size, but one has to wonder if Holland getting away from the since-fired Mike Matheny has anything to do with this. That bullpen clearly was a toxic place to be in.
Max Scherzer is far and away having the best season of anyone on the Nationals. In fact, he might have the best case for NL MVP. As far as voters have come in recent years, expecting them to vote for a pitcher on a non-playoff team is probably expecting a bit much.
When you click on a team page at Baseball Reference, you see a list of the team’s top 12 players by WAR. On the Nats’ page, I was surprised at the drop-off after Scherzer. Tanner Roark was actually in second place with 3.2 WAR. It is possible that the Nationals will have only one player finish with over 4 WAR. It is worth noting that Anthony Rendón is almost at 4 WAR over at FanGraphs.
Doolittle is ranked fifth with 2.2 WAR. When a reliever who has only played half a season has had the fifth-most valuable season on your team, that’s bad. Juan Soto has been a revelation at the plate, but he has struggled in the field. I am not just going by the defensive metrics, either. BtBS alumnus Audrey Stark goes to tons of Nats games, and she has also criticized Soto’s fielding.
Gio has indeed regressed down to a 4.54 RA9. Stephen Strasburg has made only 15 starts this season. He has made two starts since early June, and has given up a combined 11 runs over 8 2⁄3 IP. He has a 4.63 RA9 for the year, nearly two runs higher than 2017.
At the bottom of that top 12 list is Bryce Harper, though that is almost entirely due to defensive metrics. He has 1.1 bWAR vs 3.0 fWAR. DRS and UZR do agree on one thing: his defense has been bad this year.
Harper has had one of the most confusing and frustrating seasons a player has had in recent memory. He is hitting very well, with a line of .246/.376/.502 with 30 HR, but his .369 wOBA is down 47 points from last year. It is a batting line most players would love to have, but it is really disappointing coming from Harper.
The team has had some bad luck on the field. Nats’ hitters have a tOPS+ of 79 in both late & close situations and with bases loaded. Pitchers have a shockingly bad 185 tOPS+ with bases loaded and two outs.
I generally make it a rule to not comment on what a manager is doing behind the scenes unless a reporter can give us some fact-based insight on the matter. The aforementioned Mark Saxon piece is one example, or coincidentally, this article from Barry Svrluga on the disastrous 2015 season of Matt Williams. Those were both great pieces of reporting. All that being said, one really has to wonder about first-year manager Dave Martínez.
Dusty Baker was let go after two seasons for reasons that strain credulity. If he indeed was let go because of the Nationals’ lack of playoff success, that is disgraceful. Not knowing that the playoffs are a crapshoot demonstrates a catastrophic failure to understand the basics of the relationship between sample size and baseball. That is inexcusable coming from GM Mike Rizzo, a man who is paid to think about baseball at a higher level than just about anyone.
Rizzo replaced a lifer in the game of baseball with a rookie manager. Martínez certainly deserved the chance somewhere, to be fair. But now the Nationals are facing their second season in four years where they will miss the playoffs when they were expected to contend for the World Series, and those were the two years Baker did not manage.
What seems to get swept under the rug with regard to the 2015 season is how much injuries played a factor in the Nationals coming in way under the bar set for them. Honestly, I believe the injuries were more to blame than Williams. This season, though, that is a tougher argument to make. Sure, there have been injuries, but the bigger problem appears to be a lot of underperformance.
When the manager is publicly saying, “I don’t know what else to do,” that is a big problem. When the players you are counting on are performing below expectations, that is a big problem. When you are “very surprised” to hear that one of your players is injured, that is a big problem.
Intelligent people can find fair caveats with my Martínez criticism. We are also lacking any kind of big insider report to give us a higher level of insight. If Martínez is indeed struggling in the clubhouse, that is two bad hires in five years by Mike Rizzo. With Harper likely leaving in free agency this winter, Rizzo had better hope he did not close the team’s window early.
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.