First 18-gamer of 2018: Happy to escape at 9-9

Lots of us would rather just forget the beginning of this season, so I’m almost reluctant to bring back the 18-gamers.  But here we are – exactly 1/9th of the way through the season, so it’s time to take a look back at the first 18 games of the 2018 season

Because of the extraordinary growth of TalkNats over the past year, I’m sure there are some readers who are wondering where the idea of looking at the season in 18 game chunks came from.  If you’re one of those newish readers, or if you just want a reminder of why the heck I’m going this, check out the first few paragraphs of 2016’s first 18-gamer.  And if after reading this one, you want to look back at how the last two seasons looked, 18 games at a time, click here for links to all previous 18-gamers on this site.

The key concept in this review over time is that a team that averages 10-8 in its nine 18 game sets will have 90 wins and be in the hunt for a playoff spot at the end of the season. And the difference between a good season (90 wins) and a crappy season (72 wins) is just two games going the other way in each 18 game set.

Ok, with that preamble out of the way, how did the first 18 games of this season look? Well, two nice wins in the first two games this week against the Mets brought us to 9-9, and last season’s 97 wins included not one, but two 9-9 sets. So, clearly, all is not lost. But in the first 18 games last year, the Nats started 13-5, and in 2016 they went 14-4. In contrast, in 2015, they went 7-11.

Good starts have meant good things for this team. But a team’s record doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The reason the Nats’ slow start in 2015 was so damaging was that their biggest rival was on fire out of the gate. The Mets’ 14-4 start in 2015 gave them a 7-game lead over the Nats after 18 games. While the Nats eventually caught up with the Mets in late May, they would never lead the division by more than 4½ games and relinquished the lead back to the back the Mets for good on August 1

This year, the Nats trailed the Mets by 6 games going into their big series this week. Trailing by 9 games at the end of the series seemed a real possibility based on how the two fteams had been playing. Thankfully, the Nats turned things around in those first two games to claw back to a 9-9 start and only a four game deficit. That’s not an insurmountable lead by any means.

On the other hand, we shouldn’t let the good feelings of these last few days obscure the fact that the Nats of these first 18 games were not very good. Take a look at the hitting recap:

Pretty lackluster. Seven games where the Nats scored only 1 or 2 runs.  And it’s not like they ran into a lot of great starting pitching. In only 5 of the 18 games did the opposing starter have what Bill James would call a good outing (a Game Score of 60 or above), and two of those were by Jacob DeGrom. Take a look at the team total hitting stats for the first 18 games, compared to last year.

Pretty easy to see the difference between 9 wins and 13:  Sixty points of OPS, and a lot more strikeouts and men left on base.

Now here’s the game by game pitching recap for the set.

Last year, I started a regular analysis of the starting pitching alone, which proved to be useful point of comparison over the course of the season.  Looking at this for the first 18 games, we can confirm that Max was great, but the other starters were just pretty good. Even Stras, other than his one gem, wasn’t outstanding. Yet, overall, the pitching numbers aren’t much different than last year’s first 18 – until you take out Jeremy Guthrie’s historic one and only start for the Nats in fifth game of the season. Have a look:

Sixteen quality starts in the first 18 games, like we had last year, gives you a real leg up. Just eight puts you behind the 8-ball. And four of those eight quality starts for the set came in the first four games of the year, in which the Nats outscored the Reds in three games and the Braves in the fourth by a total of 29-13. After that, both the hitting and the pitching went south.

Adam Eaton’s return to the starting lineup after an absence of 153 games was pretty darn good. On Opening Day, he got a hit in his first AB and scored what turned out to be the winning run in the Nats’ 2-0 victory. Max was dominant in his first start, giving up five hits and one walk while striking out 10 in 6 innings.

Then in Game 2, this happened:

Eaton’s 5-5 game, a near cycle, keyed the Nats 13-7 win. And after going 2-5 with another homer in Game 3, which the Nats won 6-5, he earned NL Player of the Week. Or maybe it should have been called Player of the Weekend, since it only covered three games.

This year, Bryce waited until Game No. 3 to hit his first tater, leading a very loud fan to call him overrated, and, well, you know what happened next.

That homer turned out to be the winning run in the Nats 6-5 victory, saving Doolittle, who gave up a 2-run bomb in the 9th, from a blown save.

After winning their fourth straight game in the first game of their series on Atlanta, the Nats went on to drop the next two. A.J. Cole was rocked for 10 runs, including two 3-run jacks, in 3 2/3 innings, injecting a serious note of caution into the plan to have him fill the No. 5 starter position.  And then Max got beat up in the first inning of his next start, also giving up a 3-run tater although all three runs were unearned because of an unfortunate miscue by Wilmer Difo at second base.  On the other side of the defensive ledger, Max benefited from this outstanding catch by Adam Eaton.

Returning home with a 4-2 record, but definitely humbled by two straight bad losses to the Braves, the Nats pretty much tanked against their toughest rivals, the streaking New York Mets.  Stras lost his battle with Mets’ ace Jacob DeGrom in the home opener, though the wheels only really came off in the 7th inning, when Kintzler gave up a hit and two walks and then a grandslam by prodigal son Jay Bruce.  The sellout crowd went home quite unhappy, having endured windy 40 degree weather and an 8-2 loss.

The second game was tighter, but Kintzler again couldn’t keep the Mets off the board in the 7th, and the Nats went down weakly at the end, giving Jeurys Familia a five out save and the Mets a 3-2 win.

Then, before you could say, “Eaton is back,” he was gone – felled by an ankle injury suffered on this ill-advised send by Bobby Hendley in the home opener.

Eaton’s slashline when he left that gaame was .455/.520/.864/1.384. And he actually played in two games after the injury occurred, including going 0-6 and making the final out with the tying run in scoring position in the Nats 12-inning, 6-5 loss to the Mets in the Sunday night ESPN game. After that, the Nats sent him to the DL with a “deep bone bruise,” and we all still anxiously await his return.

Getting swept by the Mets at home, and losing Eaton, was not a good omen for the rest of the set. Luckily the Nats had Max on tap to stop the five-game losing streak when the Braves came to town. His two hit, no walk, 10 Ks, complete game shutout was one of best performances of his career. And he even got a hit and got his first major league steal.

Jayson Werth was not amused.

The next night, the Braves faced Stras, and before the game their TV network was optimistic:

Unfortunately for them, FFF went 0-3 and suffered two of Stras’s 8 Ks.  #ChopOn indeed!  Stras didn’t steal a base and he only went 8 innings, but he was dominant and even got a hit in the Nats’ 4-1 victory.

The next day, A.J. Cole somewhat atoned for his disastrous first start giving up only 2 runs in 5 1/3 innings of work, and the Nats had numerous chances to win a tight and tense afternoon series finale.  Trailing 2-1 in the 9th, Matt Adams crushed a homer off the Braves’ closer, Arodys Vizcaino, to tie the game, and the Nats had chances to win with a runner in scoring position in the 9th and the 11th inning but couldn’t come up with a game-winning hit. The Braves won it in the 12th.

Then the Rockies came to town for a four game series. With Gio and Roark starting in the first two games and not pitching badly, the Nats could manage only 2 runs and 8 hits altogether, and not a single run in the final four innings of both games against a tough Rockies bullpen. Needless to say, they lost both. In the third game, behind Max, they found their bats. (Funny how that happens.) Matt Wieters, who returned to the lineup just two days before after a DL stint that started after the first two games of the season, ripped a homer. TTO showed signs of life with a hit, a walk, and a steal. But the key play was a well-executed safety squeeze by MAT, with Bryce beating a shovel pass by old friend Ian Desmond, as confirmed by a replay review. (Yay for replay!!).

Unfortunately, Desi would take his revenge the next day, winning a see-saw affair with a homer on a 3-2 pitch from Sean Doolittle in the 9th. That over shadowed a crazy play that saw the Nats score two runs to take the lead on a passed ball.

Of course, it helps when your two fastest runners are on base.  MAT, by the way, despite his sub-Mendoza batting average in the first 18 games, already has 6 steals and has yet to be caught. He also plays a mean centerfield and hasn’t been injured yet, unlike Eaton and 4th outfielder Brian Goodwin. Don’t think he’s going anywhere, anytime soon.

So the Nats then headed to Citi Field, trailing the red-hot Mets by six games, and without Max or Stras scheduled to pitch in the series.  Lots of tension in Natstown.  And the first seven innings of the first game of the series seemed to confirm all of our fears, with the Nats falling behind 6-1, even though Jeremy Hellickson didn’t pitch horribly in his first audition for the 5th starter spot. But then the Nats surprised us, putting together an epic six-run rally against the Mets vaunted bullpen. Even Familia, on to attempt another multi-inning save, couldn’t put out the fire. As MLB.TV says, this rally is a “Must C.”

Not lost in the heroics, and important to note in this recap, because it was just so amazing, was this first inning home run:

Speaking of Bryce, let’s take a minute to pause and marvel. He’s having yet another incredible April. Take a look at his 18 game numbers. Just for fun, I’ve included in this chart the first 18 games of all his full seasons in the majors. Might as well call him Mr. April.

We can debate whether his best opening to a season was last year with his 1.340 OPS, or 2016 with 9 homers in only 74 PAs.  But take a look a closer look at this year. For one thing, his BABIP is only .220, compared to .422 last season. Imagine what he might have done if his hits were falling in. Second, he had 23 walks this year, far more than any previous year, and only 2 of them were intentional. He also struck out the least of any season other than 2016 when he had 9 fewer PAs. Teams are pitching him very carefully, and he’s not taking the bait. Instead, he’s taking his walks, scoring runs, and doing huge damage when he gets pitches to hit. Extraordinary.

For now, Bryce is the only Nat whose performance merits an 18 game chart.  Pedro Severino and Howie Kendrick have OPS’s over .800, but one is a part time player and other probably will be mostly a pinch hitter come some time in May. Both have had very nice starts to the season, however, no doubt about it.  Not so Ryan Zimmerman, who sports an anemic .410 OPS after 18 games, offering zero protection to Bryce in the lineup, and more importantly, almost zero run production with men on base in front of him.  (Yes, I know he hit two homers last night.  Let’s hope that that’s a sign of good things to come.)

But perhaps others will catch fire and join Bryce as the season goes on.  Trea Turner could be a candidate if his performance in the last game of the set is an indication that his bat is waking up. TTO went 3-4 with two doubles and scored two runs, leading the Nats to a 5-2 win.  He also made this nifty defensive play.  What was that some people said about his arm strength a a few years ago?

And so the first 18 games concluded with the Nats having a 9-9 record, sitting four games back of the division leading Mets. Our biggest fears seem to have abated with the two wins at Citi Field. But there’s still plenty to be nervous about. Just don’t get too worked up this early. It could have been a lot worse.

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