Before Game 6, I started on my customary report card for the 2019 Washington Nationals. And after handing out some A’s, B’s, C’s, D’s, etc., I ended up getting caught up in the drama and excitement of the game. The Nats won. Then on Wednesday, the Nats won again.
Sure, some players did better than others. There are some players I definitely want to see more of in 2020, and some players I could do without. But man, I’m high on this team. They’re having a parade this Saturday. Why would I want to, proverbially, rain on that parade? How can I give any 2019 National a failing grade when they collectively aced the year?
So instead of picking through all of the stats for every player, looking for good signs and bad signs and reasons to give them anything but a solid C, I’m going to do something different this year…and pick out some of the wildest stats from the wildest of seasons. We need to appreciate how crazy this season was, and some of the incredible performances that finally got us to the promised land.
In the playoffs
Anthony Rendon and the clutch gene
The “experts” say there’s no such thing as the clutch gene. It’s a myth. It’s all random noise. Well, I’d like to hear the “experts” explain how Anthony Rendon, in the seventh inning or later of the five elimination games the Nats played and won this October, went 6-for-8 with three home runs, two doubles, and a walk.
Let’s flash back to exactly what each of those plate appearances meant, exactly. The first was against Josh Hader in the Wild Card Game, when he drew a two-out walk to load the bases. Anyone remember what happened after that? The second was in Game 5 of the National League Division Series, when he homered off Clayton Kershaw to bring the Nats within a run. Anyone remember what happened after that? Later in that game, he hit a ground-rule double off Joe Kelly in the tenth inning. Anyone remember what happened after that?
Fourth was in Game 6 of the World Series. Trea Turner had just been called out on an obscene “interference” call by home plate umpire Sam Holbrook, carrying on the proud tradition of World Series umps jobbing the Nats across the first six games. Yan Gomes was still standing on first base. Rendon stepped up, the Nats’ last hope to make something out of a once-promising inning and boost a reed-thin one-run lead, and he lammed a Will Harris pitch into the Crawford Boxes. He got one more at-bat that game in the ninth inning and added a two-run double.
Sixth, seventh, and eighth were in Game 7. Rendon had the audacity to make outs on two of them, hitting pop flies that were caught. On the other one, he homered off Zach Greinke to cut the Houston Astros’ lead in half. Slacker.
In conclusion, this is irrefutable proof of the clutch gene. It’s also basically impossible and will probably never be replicated in another 115 years of baseball. Go figure.
Howie Kendrick and the clutch gene
Fun fact: Before 2019, no player had ever hit two go-ahead home runs in elimination games in the same postseason. Howie Kendrick has put that particular bit of trivia to bed, writing his name into the history books with a titanic clout off Kelly for a go-ahead Game 5 grand slam in the NLDS and then a line drive off Harris that clanged off the right field foul pole to put the Nats on top in Game 7 of the World Series.
I’ll come back to Kendrick, because his season was truly improbable, but let’s really appreciate the National League Championship Series Most Valuable Player a bit more. At age 36, Kendrick hit .286 in the playoffs with six extra base hits. Both of his home runs were incredibly clutch. His homer off Harris rates as the tenth-biggest hit by championship win probability adjusted in baseball history.
Again, I’ll come back to Kendrick. Because, wow.
Stephen Strasburg, the unbeatable
Somewhat controversially, the Nats gave Max Scherzer the ball for the Wild Card Game, one month and half a lifetime ago. But it was Stephen Strasburg who got the win, blanking the Milwaukee Brewers over three innings. Then he got the win in Game 2 of the NLDS, despite pitching on just two days’ rest. Then he started Game 5 of the NLDS, a no-decision. Then he got the win in Game 3 of the NLCS. Then he got the win in Game 2 of the World Series. Then, finally, he got the win in Game 6 of the World Series.
How many other pitchers have gone 5–0 in a postseason before? None. It’s never happened before. Not until Strasburg in 2019.
And listen: We already knew Strasburg was a playoff machine. Forget the shutdown in 2012 — it doesn’t matter anymore, if it ever did. Strasburg was supposedly too sick to pitch in Game 4 of the NLDS in 2017, against the Chicago Cubs. Then he took the ball anyway and mowed the Cubs down, striking out twelve and scattering three hits over seven innings.
For his career, Strasburg owns a 1.46 ERA over eight postseason starts (not counting his Wild Card Game relief appearance). That’s not a record. The record is held by Christy Mathewson, who owns a career 0.97 ERA over eight postseason starts. Strasburg is second.
Juan Soto, the wunderkind
After Alex Bregman homered and carried his bat around first base in Game 6 of the World Series, the operator of the Astros’ Twitter account was very excited to share a fun fact with followers: At the tender age of almost 26, Bregman was the youngest American League player since Mickey Mantle to homer thrice in a World Series. Quite an accomplishment!
Then Juan Soto, who turned 21 last week, hit one into orbit and carried his bat to first base, too. How many homers did that give him in the World Series? Would you have guessed three?
Juan Soto just broke a stat like an hour and a half later that Alex Bregman JUST previously recorded after Mickey Mantle WOAH pic.twitter.com/4QqmVBndjD
— Meghan (@redsoxbros) October 30, 2019
I’d say it’s not a competition, but it is a competition, and Soto won it. He finished his first playoff campaign with five longballs, 14 RBIs, a .277/.927 batting line, and, oh, a World Series ring. Not bad, kid. How many people have earned the privilege of never having to pay for a drink again in the DMV by the time they turn 21?
In the regular season
Andrew Stevenson, finding his niche
“Andrew Stevenson?” you’re asking. OK, I get it. Andrew Stevenson is a slap-hitting fifth outfielder who got intermittent opportunities with the Nats, who were mostly blessed with good health in the outfield this year, throughout the season. In fact, Stevenson made just three starts all year, and in those three starts, he hit .250/.583 while only playing left field. Not exactly “put me in, coach” material, right?
Except Stevenson actually got most of his plate appearances coming off the bench, because why start anyone other than the three guys the Nats started all year in the outfield? In all, Stevenson made 25 plate appearances as a pinch-hitter, which isn’t too bad for a guy who spent nearly the whole year as minor league depth. In those plate appearances, he somehow hit .421/1.139. Those are video game numbers. That’s right — in what is widely regarded as the most challenging situation for a hitter to be put in, coming in cold off the bench to see a pitcher, usually a reliever, for the first time all day, this humble reserve outfielder got on base 56% of the time.
Now, how much damage Stevenson did, exactly, is hard to quantify. In just three of his plate appearances with the Nats all year did he come to bat with runners in scoring position, and he drove in no runs. But pinch-hitting is hard, and Stevenson is apparently a legitimately great pinch-hitter. Maybe the Nats could try having him hit with men on base next season?
Howie Kendrick and the clutch gene, part 2
By now, you get it, no doubt: Howie Kendrick had an amazing year, despite being an old guy who missed most of 2018 with an Achilles tendon injury and wasn’t a sure bet to play in 2019 as a result. Well, Kendrick did play in 2019, and in addition to his October heroics, he hit .344, which would have won the batting title going away if he had enough plate appearances to qualify.
Of course, as a batter, it’s a lot harder to hit when a pitcher gets two strikes on you. One more swing and miss, or foul tip, or foul bunt, or called strike, and the at-bat is over and you’re out. Consequently, even many great hitters have terrible batting numbers in two-strike counts. Even Soto, famed for his two-strike approach, saw his batting average plunge to the Mendoza line when a pitcher got two strikes on him during the regular season this year.
Well, Kendrick hit .297/.838 in two-strike counts during the season. So there. On 2–2 counts, he hit .327/.957. On full counts, he hit .476/1.425. He only struck out four times in 38 plate appearances on a full count during the season. That’s basically not possible. By way of comparison, Christian Yelich hit .237/.792 in two-strike counts; that’s not bad, and his .338/1.162 line on full counts is quite good. You can see why he’s the likely National League MVP. But in 108 plate appearances that went to a full count for Yelich, he fanned 24 times. In other words, what a human person does when they’re a strike away from punching out. Mike Trout, you say? On a two-strike count, Trout hit .194/.780 this season. In 125 plate appearances with a full count, Trout struck out 33 times. These are the best of the best, with Trout a no-doubt Hall of Famer and Yelich building a strong case. And they weren’t even approaching Kendrick’s league in these situations this season.
Daniel Hudson, scourge of inherited runners
What an exciting situation you have! You’ve put a runner or two or three on base, chasing the opposing pitcher, forcing the opposing manager to reach deeper into his beleaguered bullpen. What a great opportunity for a crooked inning, taking advantage of the — oh #@$^, he’s bringing in Daniel Hudson!?
Hudson inherited 36 baserunners this season. Only six of them scored. His best work in this regard was with the Toronto Blue Jays, who traded Hudson for a middling return at the deadline after he stranded 21 of 22 inherited runners. Even with the Nats, though, Hudson inherited runners in seven regular-season games, and in just three of them did he allow any to score. His worst effort was an August 20 game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, when he came in with the bases loaded and nobody out and everyone scored. Tough break.
Basically, Hudson spent the entire season earning free steak dinners from teammates, as well as the undying gratitude of his managers. The fact that he put up a 1.44 ERA after being traded to the Nats and then closed out six playoff games, despite coming to the team with scant experience as a closer, also helped.
Victor Robles, human Patriot missile battery
There was a time, long ago, in April 2019, when Victor Robles’ erratic play in center field seemed genuinely alarming. Wasn’t he supposed to be an elite defender? What the heck is he doing out there? Can we have Michael A. Taylor back now? Oh, man, do those memories seem faded now.
Robles may have gotten off to a bumpy start, but as Davey Martinez said, bumpy roads can lead to beautiful places, and Robles got to a beautiful place. At some point, all five of his tools clicked into gear, and Robles became a ball hawk of epic proportions. He didn’t just lead Major League Baseball in outs above average, as measured by Statcast — he crushed it. During the regular season, the number-crunchers credited Robles with 23 OAA. His next closest competitor? Tampa Bay Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier, widely regarded as perhaps the finest defensive outfielder of his generation, with a mere 17 OAA. Next closest in the National League? Milwaukee’s Lorenzo Cain, who had a spectacular season in the field despite playing with several nagging injuries, and was credited with 14 OAA. Harrison Bader of the St. Louis Cardinals, quick and sure-handed: 13 OAA.
Not only was Robles’ total the best of 2019, but among qualifying National League fielders, since Statcast began calculating and tracking OAA as a stat in 2016, Robles’ 23 OAA rates as the best in any year. Overall, it’s second only to Byron Buxton’s 26 OAA in 2017. Will Robles win a Gold Glove Award this year, in recognition of his outstanding defensive play? If he doesn’t get a Gold Glove for all that robbery, it’d be robbery.
Anibal Sanchez, who just decided he was done with losing
In another entry from the Department of Seeming Like Forever Ago, Anibal Sanchez — signed to a two-year guarantee to replace Tanner Roark in the rotation last winter — was absolutely gawd-awful to start the year with his new team. Sanchez somehow, awfully, took the loss in six of his first eight starts, and by the time he hit the injured list in May, he was winless and owner of a 5.10 ERA.
After a couple weeks on the shelf, Sanchez returned to action for his first start against his old team, the Atlanta Braves. He pitched six innings of one-hit ball for the win. In June, two starts later, he won again. Then again. Then again. By the end of August, Sanchez’s record had undergone a remarkable turnaround, from 0–6 to 8–6.
Baseball is a funny sport, and after not suffering a loss since May 10, Sanchez lost his first two starts of September. But he wasn’t out of gas, which he proved by reeling off three straight winning decisions to finish the year and making three postseason starts, including a 7⅔-inning gem against the Cardinals that saw him carry a no-hitter deeper into a playoff game than any National League pitcher not named Roy Halladay. Pretty good company, there.
In the minors
But let’s not forget that the Nats are just the uppermost echelon of an organization that includes seven minor league teams. The players on those teams don’t get rings, but some of them were pretty exceptional in their own right, which might bode well for the future…
Mario Sanchez and his amazing walk-to-strikeout ratio
Mario Sanchez turned 25 on Halloween. Arriving as a minor league free agent last winter, he was actually making a comeback to the Nats after being traded to the Philadelphia Phillies back in 2016 for Jimmy Cordero. And what a return for the right-hander, who spent most of the year with the Double-A Harrisburg Senators.
Sanchez’s 2.85 ERA and 0.98 WHIP at Double-A are impressive enough. But he also struck out 111 batters in 113⅔ innings…and walked just 17. That’s a K/BB ratio of 6.53. For comparison’s sake, likely National League Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom’s K/BB ratio this year was 5.80. We’re not quite in Max Scherzer territory here, but for a starting pitcher especially, that’s rarefied air. All the more remarkable, Sanchez wasn’t even regarded as a top prospect for the Nats this season, and he largely flew under the radar even though he was unquestionably the Senators’ ace.
Sanchez did appear in four games with the Triple-A Fresno Grizzlies and, like many Triple-A pitchers, he got knocked around a bit at that level. He’s eligible to become a minor league free agent again if the Nats don’t find room for him on their major league roster before Monday evening. But whatever the future holds for Sanchez, he can be proud of a heck of a season.
Andrew Istler, virtually unscored upon
The Nats acquired right-handed reliever Andrew Istler in a trade for Ryan Madson last year, with the Los Angeles Dodgers essentially paying Istler as their price for the pleasure of Madson almost singlehandedly losing the World Series to the Boston Red Sox. For unknown reasons, Istler didn’t appear in major league spring training even once, and it took a few weeks after the season started before he was assigned to High-A Potomac.
But between Potomac and Harrisburg, Istler contributed 36 innings during the regular season. In those 36 innings, he allowed three earned runs. Yes, that’s a 0.75 ERA. Istler’s peripherals were just OK, with him predictably dominating the lower level and having more mixed results at the higher level. But any time you’re preventing runs with that level of efficacy, you’re doing something right.
Istler is again eligible to be selected in the Rule 5 draft, and it seems unlikely the Nats will choose to protect him in advance. If he goes to another organization, best of luck to him in building on a strong season in the minors.
Yadiel Hernandez, terrifying batting monster
There was a time early this season, in early May or so, when it looked like the Nats would surely call on Hernandez. He was tearing up the Pacific Coast League with his left-handed bat, and the Nats had few options from the left side of the plate and were running low on outfielders. Of course, the Nats scooped up Gerardo Parra off the DFA pile, and the rest was history.
But although he never got a chance to contribute in The Show, let’s take a moment to admire the former Cuban star’s age-31 season with Triple-A Fresno. He was fifth in the Pacific Coast League in OPS with a 1.009 OPS, and one of only three in the top ten who played his home games at a ballpark lower than 2,000 feet above sea level. He hit 33 home runs, by far a career high. He got on base in 40.6% of his plate appearances; for reference, that’s better than Soto’s OBP during the season.
It’s a hard knock life for foreign players who sign minor league contracts in their late 20s and early 30s, and Hernandez is still years from getting to elect free agency, unless he asks for his release and the Nats decide to grant it. And it’s true the Triple-A ball will probably be un-juiced, maybe even in time for next season, and crazy batting lines like Hernandez’s will become rarer. But man, what an offensive year for a 5′ 9″ journeyman. Baseball is crazy.
Matt Cronin and his absurd strikeout rate
The Nats drafted Matt Cronin out of the University of Arkansas in the fourth round this year. All they ended up getting from him was a monster debut season in which the left-handed reliever went straight to Single-A Hagerstown and struck out 41 in 22 innings. That’s a strikeout rate of 16.8 K/9. That’s better than Josh Hader this season.
Cronin basically played the minor leagues, in his first taste of professional baseball, like they’re MLB The Show. His ERA was 0.82. His WHIP was 1.00. And he struck out nearly two batters per inning. Did someone tell this kid baseball is supposed to be hard?
While Cronin didn’t advance past Hagerstown this year, he could be a fast riser in 2020, with an outside chance of even making his major league debut the year after he was drafted, like some of his possible future teammates like Trea Turner and Koda Glover did. Remember the name, and keep an eye out for him.
Junior Martina, unheralded yet dominant
Cronin wasn’t the only 2019 Nats draftee who had a really impressive first year in pro ball. There was also Jackson Rutledge, their first-round pick who just got better and better as the year went on and he progressed across three levels. And there was Tyler Dyson, who was picked in the fifth round and then put up eight dominant starts with the Short Season-A Auburn Doubledays. And then there was Junior Martina.
Right. Who? Martina, born in Curaçao, was drafted in the sixteenth round out of a community college in Oklahoma. Then he was assigned to the Gulf Coast Nationals. Then he hit .338/.976. Including a brief cameo with the Doubledays at the tail end of the season, he reached base in 43.8% of his 186 plate appearances.
The Gulf Coast Nationals had a number of standout performers this year. But Martina stands out especially because it’s so unexpected. Here’s a middle infielder from a no-name school taken on Day 3 of the draft, and of every Nats minor leaguer not named Yadiel Hernandez, his season with the bat might have been the most impressive of all.