Diagnosing the Late Summer Swoon

As we all know, the Nats seemed to be in a decent position headed into the All Star Break. They were 48-39, and two games up on the Mets.  But more importantly, they were just two weeks away from regaining the services of Ryan Zimmerman, Anthony Rendon, and Jayson Werth.  Despite facing a veritable plethora of Cy Young candidates right out of the box in the second half (Kershaw, Grienke, Harvey, de Grom, Syndergaard, Liriano, AJ Burnett, Cole, Jose Fernandez), they still managed 6-8 for the rest of July, and despite losing to the Mets on the last day of the month, they still had a two game lead as July ended.

But then August came and the bottom fell out.  The Nats were 12-17 in August while the Mets went 20-8, resulting in an 8.5 game loss in the standings.

What in the world happened?

There were a number of reasons.  Pitching, both starting and relief, disappeared.  The Nats team ERA was 4.48 in August, compared to 3.23 in July.  Scherzer went 0-3 in 5 starts, with an ERA of 6.43 for the month.  Storen, after allowing only 4 hits and 0 runs in July, started August with 3 hitless innings, but then had an incredibly horrible streak of four straight games where he gave up at least two runs.  And then another run two appearances later.  (Other pitchers faltered, too, but those two examples are enough)

But there was another major factor that was a bit less obvious: that three stars came back in the space of three days, and all had prolonged trouble at the plate, as they were playing their spring training in August.  I find the following statistics eye-popping:

Werth returned July 28.  In his first 19 games back (after missing 60), he hit .145 — since then, in the 15 games since then, he’s hit .303 with 3 HR’s (and 6 doubles, a triple, and 15 runs scored).

Rendon returned July 25, after coming back from his second injury.  In his first 23 games back he hit .200. Since then, in 12 games, he’s hit .362 — and has a 12 game hitting streak going.

During those 19 games when neither Werth nor Rendon were hitting, Nats were 5-14.  In the last 16, the Nats are 10-6, despite continued inconsistent pitching.

Ryan Zimmerman came back hitting the ball hard (on July 28), but not quite for average.  In his first 25 games back from injury, after missing 39 games, he hit .253 — but that’s a bit deceptive.  It consisted of 9 games hitting .219, followed by 5 great games at .563, but ended with 11 games batting .129 (during which the Nats were 3-8).  But since then, in his last 11 games, he’s .405 with 7 HR’s, 6 doubles, and 23 RBIs.

Williams and Rizzo faced a tough situation.  They knew these hitters would eventually get on track – they always have – but they also knew that they’d have to suffer through their “spring trainings” for a while to get there.  And not only that, but to have three guys in the lineup going through spring training at the same time was going to hurt.  Would it be worth it?  Or should the team continue to play the likes of Clint Robinson, et al, in the field?  The certainly bench did a yeoman’s job before the All Star Break — and, after all, they helped the team to 1st place.  On the other hand, do you really want to go into the September stretch relying on CRob and Espinosa rather than Werth, Two Bags, and Zim?

So, the Nats bit the bullet, and played these guys through their August spring training.  It certainly seemed like the typical smart long range plan that Rizzo is well known for; and, at the least, it was a defensible decision.  And, just as the organization hoped, all three have gotten their hitting groove back and then some.  Having all three hitting over .300 for a stretch (while Harper and Escobar continue to hit at .300+) is exactly what we’ve been waiting for all season.  But we all know the problem: the spring training cold spell perfectly coincided with the Mets getting super hot.  After hitting .227 in June and .237 in July, the Mets hit .269 in August and scored 150 more runs than the month prior.

So now the Nats seem to be hitting September on most of their cylinders, at least on offense.  Can they put together a streak and catch the Mets?  But, just as certain as their hitting seems to be right now, they certainly haven’t left themselves a lot of time, and certainly still have a number of questions regarding their pitching: can Scherzer get it together again?  (He showed promise two night ago)  Ditto for Storen.  How long will Joe Ross last?  What’s up with Strasburg’s newest back kink?  Is Gio reverting to the “bad” Gio we saw in April and May?  Will Roark regain last year’s form now that he’s starting?

But of course the Mets have questions, too.  And the most obvious ones relate to their three young guns and whether they are running out of gas (Syndergaard, who just turned 23 last week, has allowed 3 runs or more in 5 of his last 6 starts) or will hit innings limits (the 26 year old Harvey, 1 year after TJ surgery is at 166 innings; deGrom is 27, pitched 140 last year, and is up to 163).  Their team ERA for August was over a 1/2 run higher than July, but few noticed because their offense was so explosive.  But as their offense reverts to the mean, all eyes will be on the incredibly talented young trio they’ve assembled.

The Nats went through a fairly unique situation: having three very talented stars (some forget how good they’ve been: during the 2012 thru 2014 seasons combined, Werth hit  .303, with an OBP of .394, and his OPS was top 10 in NL in each of 2013 & 2014; Rendon finished 5th in MVP last year, won a silver slugger, and finished 2nd in the NL in bWAR for position players) — all three coming back at exactly the same time, and all three battling spring-training slumps at the same time.  That wasn’t the sole cause of the swoon, but it was a big factor.  Thankfully, that’s over now, and we have every baseball fan’s wish: meaningful games in September and a pennant race — although the hole is uncomfortably deep.

Here’s hoping that with the last two nights, the summer swoon is over, and the Nats can reel off some serious winning streaks – including that three game series with the Mets coming up!

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