The accolades are piling up for the Washington Nationals, but there is still 20% of the season to complete before we can fairly assess this full-season. The end of the season will prove whether this team is worthy of the accolades. It is the tale of two seasons — pre-May 24 and post-May 23. The pre-May 24 team I described as “the rollercoaster of ineptitude” which it was with the worst bullpen (7.02 ERA on May 23) that baseball has seen in decades. The post-May 23 team has once again reminded those that you never count a talented team out when a long winning streak can turn things around and two-thirds of the season remaining. We probably overused this one: “You’re never as good as you think you are when you win; and you’re never as bad as you look when you lose,” but it gave some perspective that the Nationals were better than what we saw pre-May 24.
Manager Dave Martinez, as we have written, should win the Manager of the Year if the Nationals grab at least the first Wild Card spot because baseball writers who vote love redemption stories, and should then give Brian Snitker second place in the voting if Atlanta wins the NL East — but not so fast. The key word is “If”. There is now 20% remaining in this 2019 regular season, and if the Nationals play the way they did this past weekend in Wrigley Field, the Braves fans should not be counting their chickens before they hatch. The Nats are clicking in all facets of the game. Their 1-to-4 in their lineup is as good as any team in baseball, and the starting pitching too.
This team is relentless. They will come after you even if you are able to knock them down. Against the Brewers on August 18th, they came back in that game four times from deficits of five runs, three runs, and twice by one run, and they had a two run deficit in the 14th inning and almost came back again. That loss seemed to expose the most pressing issue on the team — Sean Doolittle who we signaled even before that game that there was something wrong beyond baseball that he physically did not seem himself. Our article set off a lot of anger in the Twitterverse and beyond, but a day later after that person tagged Doolittle’s wife — we received an apology. Sometimes it has to go beyond fandom and go to baseball sense. There are no quick fixes in baseball. The do-overs do not change the past — but they can change the future. The Nationals have to live with that 19-31 record on May 23rd. That does not get erased even though the personnel has changed. The Nationals have 30 losses in the bullpen portion of the game, but many more could be attributed to them when Martinez stuck with starters too long early in the season because he feared the wrath of the bullpen.
Of those 30 bullpen losses, seven of them belong to Wander Suero, and four to Doolittle. Eight of those bullpen losses are from players who are no longer on the roster. The other eleven losses are shared equally among the rest of the active bullpenners. Incredibly though, 53% of this team’s losses were given away in the bullpen. The 47% of the losses from the starters includes Jeremy Hellickson‘s 2-3 record. The bullpen ERA is second worst in the Majors just in front of Baltimore at 5.92, but the worst in terms of blown saves (25) although that number is deceptive due to all the save chances where the Nats are 21st in save conversions. An above average bullpen would have yielded the Nats several more wins. Can we say best record in baseball IF the Nats had an above average bullpen?
On the offense, they are now +107 in run differential, and if we split the season back into the pre-May 24 and post-May 23 periods, the team went from a -40 run differential to a +147 since May 24th which is only second to the Dodgers. The Nationals have scored 158 runs in the month of August in just 22 games and that is an average of over a touchdown per game (7.18). Yes, that is excellent for baseball and best in the Majors.
The additions and contributions by Asdrubal Cabrera and Gerardo Parra have paid more dividends than Goldman Sachs! Much of what Parra has done goes beyond the stat sheets. Maybe it was that grand slam against the Dodgers on May 11th before Trea Turner was back with the team. It seemed to lay the foundation for what was to come. Even when Turner returned to the team, he needed those first 30-games to get back to form. If you remove those games and count the other 60 official games, Trea has batted .318 with a .382 OBP and an .886 OPS. Asdrubal has Trea beat, he is slashing .341/.434/.591/1.025 as a Nat and 16 RBIs in 10 games started and a .500 RISP BA. Parra is not far behind Cabrera in RISP BA at .417, but Parra’s numbers have dragged down a little bit as he has only been able to get 12 at-bats in the last two weeks. All three of these players still transcend their traditional stats with their unique intangibles. Nobody on the team has more than Turner’s three walk-off hits, and the team is 23 games over .500 in Trea games this season.
“We go as Trea goes,“ Martinez said.
Howie Kendrick just continues to do it all for this team, and while he is still considered a bench player, he still puts fear in opposing pitchers. When you try to think of who the MVP is on this team it still points to Anthony Rendon and his 100+ RBIs and +5.7 team leading WAR. If the BBWAA writers don’t vote for Rendon in their top-5, they should be stripped of voting privileges.
“I’ll make a case for [Rendon] right now, yeah,” Martinez said. “MVP, Gold Glove. My man, Anthony.”
The 20-year-old could be the greatest under-21 player in baseball history. His ability to protect Rendon in the lineup then stand in the batter’s box when all he usually sees is pitches on the edges and has to make do with a pitcher’s willingness to walk him is a tribute to Juan Soto to take what the game gives him which includes poor umpiring too often. When Howie Kendrick is in the lineup, Soto has protection, but otherwise pitchers are willing to nibble — but if you make a mistake, Soto will make you pay . Soto’s best friend, Victor Robles, has become one of the finest defenders in baseball and leads all centerfielder in outfield assists. The third regular in the outfield is Adam Eaton who is on one of his hottest stretches ever. He is batting .372 in the last two weeks with an insane 1.062 OPS over the last month.
For the jolt of reality, we have to keep an eye on starting pitchers usage. Two of them set highs for pitch counts this week with Anibal Sanchez going to 112 and Stephen Strasburg going to 113 yesterday. While both should have two days extra rest this week before they pitch this weekend against the Marlins, it is something on the “watch” list to be mildly concerned about. What should be more concerning is their catcher Kurt Suzuki. His defense is trending on a line straight down along with his offensive stats. He is not right, and we can start with the wild pitches that should be blocked. He has allowed 28 plus 6 passed balls and that comes in 561 innings compared to Yan Gomes who has caught 597 innings and only allowed 18 Wild Pitches and 8 passed balls. Gomes catches Patrick Corbin who lives in the dirt, and while many wild pitches are the pitchers fault, Suzuki has not shown good form behind the plate plus his framing skills have deteriorated as judged independently by Baseball Prospectus. Beyond that, Suzuki has a tendency to move his mitt down to the ball and side to side where he does not anticipate the movement which moves the ball out of the zone a few times a game.
On the stats, Fangraphs has shown Suzuki’s WAR value deteriorating and his value is only a +0.2. His offense in the second half of the season is decent for a catcher but going in the wrong direction at .253/.340/.345/.685. His caught stealing percentage is a poor 12% where league average is 27%. Contrastly, Gomes is above league average at 33%. Worst of all is how Suzuki stacks up with his peers defensively and he has now sunk below Wilson Ramos and Matt Wieters for the season. Suzuki ranks 95th of the 104 who have caught at least one game this season, but we are not here to talk about Omar Narvaez of the last place Mariners. Baseball Prospectus believes Suzuki has given up 5.9 runs in poor framing, 1.5 runs on poor blocking skills, and 0.9 runs due to the running game which adds up to 8.3 runs given up. In contrast, J.T. Realmuto has saved +15.9 runs according to Baseball Prospectus. The Braves have the 10th best defensive catcher in the Majors in Tyler Flowers who has saved +7.5 runs. Overall defense will make your pitchers look better or worse, and of course is more than just the catchers that make up total defense — but the Nats have a problem here. Gomes for comparison is just below league average at -1.8. These stats give the warning signs just like we saw with Doolittle that Suzuki is not right with deteriorating offense and defense.
Overall, the Nats are trending up as a team. But don’t rest on “great” being good enough. This team can improve further.
UPDATED: Per requests from people who wanted me to add catcher ERA to this article, much to my surprise Gomes ERA is over a ½ run better at 4.09 compared to Suzuki at 4.60. With Suzuki doing the bulk of the catching duties for Anibal Sanchez, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, you would think the opposite would be the case on ERAs.