Late last season, I wrote about the Nationals’ disappointing 2018 season. The team was just coming off getting shutout for an unthinkable third consecutive game, and their season looked all but lost. At the time, they were only two games below .500, but 8.5 games out of first place and 3.5 games out of a very competitive NL Wild Card slot. However, at this time last year, they were several games over .500 and in the midst of a six-game winning streak. They were actually tied for first place at the end of May!
It is hard to believe that this season could prove to be worse than last year’s, especially considering the talent on this team, but it’s happening. They are currently one of the worst teams in baseball at 22-31. Last week they suffered an embarrassing four-game sweep against the Mets, the team I hate to love. This was a series where Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin all pitched, as well. At least it is possible that the Nats will have swept the Marlins by the time you read this, and after a brief two-game series against the Braves, their schedule will not be too difficult until they host the Phillies on June 17th.
The problem is that even if the Nationals make a run, the hole they have dug themselves might be too deep. According to FanGraphs, they only have an 11.4 percent chance to win the division, and just a 14.7 percent chance at a Wild Card. This is the same team that was the pre-season favorites to win the division. FanGraphs had them as having over a 50 percent chance of doing so as a projected 90-game winner, with the Phillies the ‘next-favorite’ at only 19 percent with 85 wins. Personally, I was torn between those two teams as division winners, but settled on the Phillies by a game or two over the Nats.
The biggest problem, as I am sure you have heard, is the bullpen. Saying it has been a dumpster fire is being kind. It is a dumpster fire doused in white phosphorous followed by someone throwing in a chunk of elemental potassium. Their 7.46 RA9 is by far the worst in baseball, and over a run worse than the runner-up Orioles’ 6.36 RA9. Park-adjusting these stats gives us a 158 RA9- for the Nationals and a 132 RA9- for the Orioles. Their peripherals are not good either, though at least their 124 FIP- is not the worst in baseball, their 18.7 K% is.
The only good reliever in this bullpen is Sean Doolittle, and even he has an unremarkable 3.68 RA9 and 4.27 DRA. For all the deserved criticism given to teams that did not try and improve this offseason and should have, the Nats are not one of those teams. The Nats acquired Tony Sipp, Kyle Barraclough, and Trevor Rosenthal — all reasonable acquisitions. Craig Kimbrel would have been a better acquisition, but let’s be honest, even peak Kimbrel would not be enough to fix this bullpen. Sure, there was no way Sipp was going to repeat his 1.86 RA9 from the year before, and the other two sure were not elite, but they looked like they would be at least moderate improvements to a bullpen that struggled last year, too. The results, however, have been disastrous.
Sipp has a 6.30 RA9, Barraclough a 5.59 RA9, and the less said about Rosenthal the better. Doolittle was acquired from the A’s in 2017, and while that has worked out pretty well so far, the Nationals gave up Blake Treinen and Jesús Luzardo as part of the trade. Treinen has been one of the best relievers in baseball since moving to Oakland, with a 2.00 RA9 over that span. Luzardo has easily become not only the A’s best prospect, but one of the best prospects in baseball. Baseball Prospectus ranked him all the way up at 13. Fun fact: when he makes the majors, he will be the first Peruvian-born player to have done so!
The defense is not doing the pitchers any favors, either. The Nats’ defense was pretty bad last year, and even though a good chunk of that was from Bryce Harper forgetting how to field, their defense looks even worse this year. Their defense is among the worst in baseball by both DRS and UZR.
The Nationals’ offense is not nearly as bad as its defense, but it is struggling, and it would not be doing much better even had the team retained Harper, who has a disappointing 112 wRC+ so far. Their offense is currently tied with the White Sox for 18th-best in baseball when adjusting for league and park effects.
The frequently under the radar Anthony Rendón is having a fantastic contract year, hitting .324/.417/.669 with a league-leading 18 doubles. His 178 wRC+ is ranked fourth in baseball among qualified hitters, and his 2.2 WAR ranks in the top fifteen at FanGraphs. Juan Soto is continuing what was an excellent rookie season at the plate, but he is still struggling defensively. Howie Kendrick is hitting pretty well, with a line of .291/.336/.521, though the juiced balls probably have something to do with that. He already has seven home runs this year as someone who has not cracked double digits in that category since 2013.
There is a pretty big drop-off after those three. Adam Eaton and Trea Turner are not hitting much, though Turner’s struggles might be from having broken his finger earlier this season. Víctor Robles was a top prospect who is not exactly raking right now, but is doing okay overall, going into Memorial Day hitting .247/.322/.444.
The starting pitching has actually been among the best in baseball, thanks mostly to a great top three. A 4.23 RA9 might not look too impressive, but bear in mind the team’s poor defense. The rotation’s 3.56 DRA is the third-best in baseball. Also, Scherzer, Strasburg, and Corbin have combined for a 3.46 RA9. The rotation suffers from getting basically nothing from the fourth and fifth starters, but even if that were not the case, it would not be enough to make up for the team’s other shortcomings.
Manager Dave Martínez seems to be taking a lot of the blame for what is turning out to be a disastrous season for the Nationals. Anybody familiar with my work probably will not be surprised to hear that I do not have much of an opinion on the matter, because I believe that many people pretend to have a much better understanding of a manager’s impact on a team than reality would dictate. Short of deeply reported information of what is going on behind the scenes, I will continue to not have much of an opinion on the matter.
I understand that over the past several years, the Nationals were at their best when they had veteran manager Dusty Baker leading the team. However, correlation does not equal causation, especially when it comes to the black box of baseball managing. That being said, I think it is safe to say that firing Martínez is not going to save the Nats’ season, though it might happen just to shake things up a bit.
This team is so perplexing, because they should be so much better than they are. This whole decade should have been so much better than it has been. Other than the glaring problem of the bullpen, this will be pretty difficult for GM Mike Rizzo to solve, that is, if he is even still around after this season. He is only under contract for one more year after 2019.
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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.