Winning a single series (finally) is a must, but Nats fans should be setting their sights higher.
With 10 games to go and a seemingly insurmountable 4.5 games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers for the National League’s top seed, the Nationals have little left to play for down the stretch. Yes, surpassing the Cleveland Indians (three losses back) or Houston Astros (one loss back) could be meaningful if they meet in the World Series, but that is far down the list of priorities when preparing for the post-season.
While keeping an eye on how hitters finish down the stretch, and setting the rotation for the NLDS, there isn’t (and you shouldn’t) put much on the results the final two weeks. Remaining healthy — and getting healthy (especially a certain flowy-haired right fielder) — should be the top request from everyone involved.
Predicting a playoff series is a fool’s errand — an entire 162 game season can be proved to be meaningless in a five game series — but that doesn’t mean people don’t want to read about how their team matches up and where they can gain an advantage. Nor does it mean I am against writing it.
While one can assume the Nationals’ first round opponent will be the Chicago Cubs, crazier things have happened. I’ll discuss the potential opposition throughout this piece, but I’ll stick with generalities for now as we forecast something which hasn’t been cemented.
The more certain task is to take a look at the Nationals, but therein lies issues of its own as right now — the status of one of their best players is still up in the air. One of the main points of this piece is to focus on how the team has been playing recently, but everyone knows if Harper was on the roster these past several weeks, the outcomes would have ended up differently.
Since Trea Turner returned to the starting lineup on August 29, he was stuck right back in his leadoff hitter role. Turner has hit very well since his return (.294/.368/.553), walking plenty (9.5 percent), and keeping his strikeouts down (17.9 percent). He has also stolen seven bags, proving his worth at the top of the lineup, and has not been caught this month.
The second spot of the lineup has been nowhere near as stable, as since Turner’s return, Howie Kendrick, Jayson Werth, Wilmer Difo, Adrian Sanchez, and Alejandro De Aza have all been penciled there by manager Dusty Baker.
The hope would be when Harper returns he could be placed there and only good things will happen. However, Harper has only hit five games in the second spot this season, and only four last year. Baker doesn’t exactly practice the theory of putting your best hitter in this spot — hopefully for the Nationals, things will be different if Harper is ready to go.
Daniel Murphy has been regularly in the third spot since Harper’s injury, but Baker has shown a reluctance to hit the two lefties back-to-back in the lineup. A simple solution would seem to be to put Anthony Rendon in between the two, and Baker gets his alternating top of the lineup.
For what it’s worth, since August 29 (Turner’s return), Murphy has hit .298/.394/.474 while Rendon has hit .318/.392/.530. They’re both incredibly solid, and it’s a luxury for Baker to have to choose a lineup with so much firepower.
This is before even mentioning the resurgent Ryan Zimmerman, who he himself is putting up a .319/.388/.569 slash in the same time frame. In fact, when looking at barrels (I had to go there), Zim has six barrels in the 20 games, more than Murphy (three) or Rendon (two). In fact, the only Nationals player with more in the time frame is Turner, who has an incredible seven barrels since returning from injury.
Any way you put the top of the order together, there should be plenty of people on base, and plenty of viable hitters to knock them in.
If Harper returns, the number six spot will essentially take care of itself, slotting in the left fielder of the day. Whether it’s Werth (31 wRC+ in the last 14 days), Kendrick (104), or Andrew Stevenson (55) — there isn’t a clear choice — Baker has normally been putting them in this spot behind the heart of the order.
Michael A. Taylor has done more than enough filling in for the loss of Adam Eaton, and he has been put in the number seven spot, perhaps in order to continue to have some production down the lineup. Taylor has also sizzled since that arbitrary selection of when Turner returned to the lineup — .306/.342/.542.
Matt Wieters has been the weak spot in the lineup, and unfortunately in an NL lineup, it puts two near-automatic outs at the bottom. This has been two straight seasons of below-expected production from the one-time top prospect, but he has been solid defensively, which I’ll look at in the next section.
The Nationals do not play favorites as far as which side of the mound the opposing pitcher throws from as they have a 101 wRC+ (4.32 barrel percentage per PA) facing righties and a 100 (4.37 percent) against lefties. They show enough versatility where they should not be overmatched by any staff.
No one would consider defense to be the Nationals’ strength, but their pitching has been so solid, it hasn’t cost them. However in the postseason, every single play increases in magnitude, and a liability in the field could be the difference between advancing or going home.
If the Nats pitchers could choose where to have all balls hit, it would be at third base. Rendon is the best defender on the team and places in the top four in DRS in MLB at third base.
The rest of the infield ranges between average (Turner), below average (Murphy), and “don’t hit it here” (Zimmerman). I don’t watch every Nationals game, and perhaps I will get some grief for this in the comments, but the numbers here raise some red flags.
If (again, another if) Harper is healthy, it at least shores up one extra outfield position. But without him, there will be question marks in both corner spots. Werth continues to struggle, Kendrick is a converted second baseman, and Alejandro De Aza has never been great in the outfield.
Fortunately even with the loss of Eaton, center field hasn’t been an issue on either side of the ball due to Taylor. Taylor has been worth six “outs above average” — the newest Statcast data point — the number is good for 18th in all of baseball, which is remarkable due to the amount of time Taylor missed due to his own injury.
I’ll wrap up with Wieters again here, whose numbers don’t jump off the page due to some websites in their differentiating ways of measuring ability behind the plate. Baseball Prospectus has Wieters as a negative defender while Fangraphs has him worth eight runs behind the plate, good for ninth in MLB among qualified catchers.
With fielding being a liability far more than hitting, it would seem the bench will more than likely be saved for defense. However, Adam Lind will certainly be used for one of the presumed four or five bench spots for pinch hit situations against right-handed pitching. It would also seem Kendrick will be on any playoff roster, and of course one backup catcher, likely Jose Lobaton.
Wilmer Difo’s versatility, providing backup at both infield and outfield, would more than likely land him a spot as well. He’s much better in the infield, but that is a strength the Nationals could use in late inning situations. He is also a switch hitter which comes with its own advantages.
One would believe the final spot on the playoff roster would go to a position player, but no one necessarily jumps off the page. If they did have to enter a series without Harper, De Aza and Stevenson probably both make the roster.
As strong as their core hitters are, no one would argue against the strength of the Nationals being their starting pitching. While most teams will struggle to fill three spots of a rotation for the postseason, choosing either putting pitchers on short rest or trying to get by with an all-staff game, Washington will have no issue putting out their top four guys.
Max Scherzer is almost undoubtedly the NL Cy Young for the second straight year (third overall). He hasn’t been at his best in September, pulled down by his seven run, six walk start on September 13 against Atlanta. Probably nothing to worry about here, and most should be eased by his rematch with the Braves on Tuesday when he put up a seven inning, one walk outing.
It’s a safe bet Mad Max will be starting Game 1 and ready to go for a deciding Game 5.
As I knock on every piece of wood around me, Stephen Strasburg timed his annual disabled list a little more efficiently this season, as he is ready to go for October, seemingly for the first time. He’s in fact peaking at the perfect time as well. In my Barrel FIP leaderboards, Strasburg ranks third in the last 30 days in all of baseball.
Just three spots below Strasburg (with, ho hum, Corey Kluber and Chris Sale sandwiched between them), is Tanner Roark. Also peaking as the season reaches its end, we’ve seen Roark already shine this calendar year. It was he who took the ball for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic final (how soon we forget) and shut down the incredible Puerto Rican Lineup to help his team win it all. He’s seen the big stage and has already proven himself; there are very few, if any, better number threes in all of baseball.
Baker could also go Gio Gonzalez in Game 3 if he feels a left-handed pitcher is better suited to face an opponent. Gonzalez’s numbers can tell a different tale depending on which is your go-to statistic, but just by results, he’s been successful. I tend to lean toward barrels, and Gonzalez has only one outing all season where he has allowed more than two barrels (Scherzer and Strasburg have three such starts, whereas Roark has yet to have one all year).
This rotation has been outstanding all year. If there is a gripe it may be they’ve been too good, meaning they have pitched a lot of innings. I mentioned Strasburg being healthy and he will be making a significant jump in innings from last season. Gonzalez will also be making a jump from the last two seasons.
But the goal is in sight and it’s time to push their limits. Even with their starters pitching the most innings in baseball, they have not shown reason to believe they are tiring. They do have a few weeks here to taper down before meaningful games begin again.
In an era where teams try to shorten games by using their bullpens at the earliest sign of struggle, don’t expect to see that from Baker and the Nationals. And that’s taking nothing away from an asset which has turned into a strength after the extreme struggles early on this season.
The thing is, the bullpen was probably never as horrible as it seemed, but replacing Blake Treinen and Shawn Kelley and Koda Glover — the “closer by committee” the Nats began the season using — with Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle was an incredible upgrade.
However the numbers would tell you, it’s been more using the right guys at the right time.
Bullpen Barrel FIP by Month
April — 4.64
May — 3.77
June — 3.97
July — 4.04
August — 4.13
September — 3.94
After you pick your jaws up off the floor, realize this is still a very good unit. Baker has generally always wanted a set order to his bullpen arms and that stabilized after the Nationals big trade.
The other bullpen addition this season, Brandon Kintzler, has had a rough go as of late. Since August 1, Kintzler has allowed four barrels, only matched by lefty Matt Grace out of the Nats pen. Matt Albers and Shawn Kelley have allowed three themselves. Besides Doolittle and Madson, Baker can still use Enny Romero, Sammy Solis, or Joe Blanton before going further down the list (I would guess those are the eight arms put on the roster).
Even with the strength of the entire pitching staff, this is where I will have my focus on how Baker manages. He has such a good rotation where you don’t want to panic, and you would like to lean on any of those guys can get out of trouble, but the postseason trend of late has been to use the pen when things get dicey. I’d expect Baker to stray from those thoughts, but it certainly has the possibility to bite him.
Between July 4 and September 12, there were 57 five-game “spans” in the Nationals season. They only lost nine of those spans, losing three or more, amazingly never losing four in any of them. That’s the first goal, remain consistent, and win three of five. Even if they’re facing the defending world champs, nothing this season has shown the Nationals shouldn’t be able to continue playing solid baseball.
Between July 7 and September 14, there were 54 seven-game spans. They only lost seven of those series. That would be the next goal. Again, this team is going to be hard to take out in any series.
Of course, Bryce Harper would make this challenge a touch easier and his status is where all eyes and ears will be up until the NLDS’s first pitch takes place in Washington DC.
But this is a team which has overcome a ton, and will carry on with or without their MVP. They lost their key off-season acquisition in April, lost multiple games they had in hand due to a bullpen which couldn’t find their footing. They lost their young stud shortstop for a long stretch before losing their best overall player for the last several weeks. Throughout all of those hurdles, the Nats never wavered on who was in control of the NL East, and have remained dominant for nearly all of an entire six month season.
The NL is incredibly top-heavy and it will be a gauntlet to get through for whichever team makes it to the World Series. But the Nationals are as good as any and this seems like the year they will finally get past the first series, and after breaking through, could be ready to play through until a champion is crowned.