- Derek Hamilton/Associated Press
Part of a 30-part series highlighting each team’s 2017 journey featuring a few of my favorite team attributes.
Another NLDS loss for the Washington Nationals. It has to feel like fait accompli to Nats fans each year as the team enters the postseason, and faith has to be waning this franchise will ever bring them the glory they desire.
Since 2012, only one team (Dodgers) has more wins than Washington’s 555 by just 4 wins; I guess the empathetic response here for Nats fans is the Dodgers have little to show for it either, albeit LA has at least advanced past the first round.
In the last six seasons it has been three different managers taking this Nats team to the playoffs, with none of them able to get past this invisible barrier that is the division series.
In 2018, pessimism pushed aside, they will hope the fourth manager is the secret ingredient.
I don’t want this entire piece to be about how managing has been the main culprit why this team hasn’t advanced in the postseason. I do enough Dusty Baker-bashing on Twitter if that’s what you’re looking for.
Instead lets look at what the players accomplished first and how it measured up to projections.
Did The Roster Meet Expectations?
The narrative for the entire season was always going to be focused around the blockbuster trade GM Mike Rizzo pulled off in the offseason. The Nationals were going for it — the now had taken precedent over the future. But in a cruel bit of irony, the prize package Adam Eaton was hurt just 107 plate appearances into the season. Washington was back to where it started, now with less depth in the pitching farm system as well.
The team did a great job in making the loss of Eaton go by without missing a beat. As the media panicked, browsing the trade market for a new center fielder, the forgotten Michael A. Taylor put up a three win season.
Taylor played an incredible defense — placing 26th in baseball in my catch probability metric — but it was the numbers on offense which were a surprise. The slender center fielder put up an above-average barrel rate (5.79% per PA), showing a likely effort to put the ball in the air more consistently; a point emphasized in a piece by Stephen Loftus at Fangraphs this week.
The loss was also made up by the other stars stepping up — Ryan Zimmerman had an incredible comeback to relevance season. Daniel Murphy put up another four-win season. Anthony Rendon thrust himself into the MVP conversation putting up a near-seven-win season. And Bryce Harper was having another terrific year, until a mid-August injury hurt his own MVP campaign.
With few fallback options in the farm system as rotation replacements, the four key starters all stepped up. Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, and Tanner Roark all threw at least 175 innings and put up two-win seasons, all near or surpassing expectations.
The bullpen was the letdown, granted many assumed the area would be an issue. But Rizzo entered the season with a closer-by-committee setup without a lot of proven commodities. Those first couple months were rough, but the front office did at least pull the plug at some point, and the weakness became a strength after three midseason bullpen-bolstering moves.
Losing a top-of-the-order everyday starter would be hard for any team to get through, but the Nats made everyone forget about Eaton with incredible performances up and down the roster.
Barrels by Nationals hitters — 268 (fourth in NL, 10th in MLB); Barrel/PA — 4.31% (fourth in NL, 11th in MLB)
Top barrel hitters:
· Ryan Zimmerman — 48 (8.33% (per PA))
· Bryce Harper — 34 (6.91%)
· Anthony Rendon — 26 (4.30%)
Barrels allowed by all Nationals pitchers — 223 (fifth in NL, sixth in MLB)
Barrel FIP by all Nationals pitchers — 3.94 (third in NL, sixth in MLB)
Barrel FIP by Nationals bullpen — 4.04 (fourth in NL, 10th in MLB)
Top Barrel FIP (starters)
· Max Scherzer — 2.87
· Stephen Strasburg — 3.26
· Gio Gonzalez — 4.01
Top Barrel FIP (relievers)
· Matt Albers — 2.99
· Joe Blanton — 3.64
· Enny Romero — 3.79
Okay, may take this area to talk about Dusty Baker just a little bit.
Now it’s possible this criticism wouldn’t have taken place if Eaton never got hurt. The lineup almost wrote itself out as Eaton was acquired to be a top-of-the-lineup bat.
Eaton hit first or second every game (had one day off) until his injury on April 28. After Eaton was out of the lineup, Baker went through many selections for his number two hitter.
An interesting point to bring up here is when Trea Turner was hurt early in the season, it was mostly Rendon filling in at the second spot with Eaton moving to leadoff. However when Eaton got hurt, it wasn’t the top-six MVP guy being brought up to the top of the lineup.
From April 30 to June 9, here is the list of players who hit second in the Nationals lineup: Jayson Werth, Brian Goodwin, Chris Heisey, Wilmer Difo, Ryan Raburn. The quintet put up a .302 wOBA during the span, 20th in MLB for number two hitters.
On a team with seven above-average hitters (above 100 wRC+), the highest of those five was Brian Goodwin’s 105. Jayson Werth had an 88 wRC+ in 2017. The player with the most starts hitting second this season on the Nationals, Wilmer Difo… a 76 wRC+ on the season.
I have to bring up a barrel factoid at some point in this argument. In Difo’s 82 plate appearances this season with runners in scoring position, he hit one single barrel. What could have been with a player who had a little more pop in those situations…
The argument may be moot in 2018 as Eaton will be back available and should slate back into the top of the lineup. But there’s a good bet a lot of managers outside of Dusty Baker would not have had the same guys hitting second last season, nor will if the situation comes up again.
What to Expect
Here comes Dave Martinez in as manager. Learning behind Joe Maddon in smart organizations like Tampa Bay and Chicago should give him a good head start on his first attempt in management. For plenty of reading on what different directions Martinez may take the Nats, please read this piece from TalkNats.com.
In addition, Werth is likely gone, as is Howie Kendrick, Adam Lind, Ryan Raburn, and Alejandro de Aza. With Eaton’s return, those outfield depth pieces won’t hurt to lose, but the next set will have to show their heads, with the most likely new-ish face being ultra-prospect Victor Robles.
The front office had the foresight in their bullpen rebuild to not acquire rentals. Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson will continue as the back-end of the pen, even if Brandon Kintzler does find a new home.
The starting rotation will be tested after a busy season, attempting to avoid injury after the additional fatigue due to making the post-season. While Strasburg specifically will be one to watch as the long line of injuries stalled mostly in 2017 but the concern remains.
The Nationals did get close to acquiring Chris Sale last off-season, and there has already been some discussion the team could be interested in another big name starting pitcher this winter. Clearly the team is interested in making a strength stronger.
Will this be the season the Nationals finally get to a league championship? It feels like it has to happen eventually. The NL remains incredibly strong at the top; it certainly won’t be handed to them. But this is a very good team whose front office is looking to get this team over that hump. Perhaps 2018 is when they finally get that baseball to bounce their way.