What went right and wrong with the 2020 #Nats is printed on FanGraphs!

There is your Nats Top-3 in WAR; Photo from Nationals official Instagram

To quote Daniel Murphy, “Do you go to FanGraphs at all?” If you do visit FanGraphs on a regular basis, you know that your Washington Nationals have two MVP candidates. While neither will win the prestigious award, there is an argument to support Juan Soto as the best player in baseball, and his teammate, Trea Turner, was not far behind him in 2020.

Soto missed thirteen games this season which hurt his cumulative numbers such as home runs, RBIs, and runs scored. Of course RBIs and runs scored are statistics of opportunity in which your numbers are bolstered by those around you. Of Soto’s 196 plate appearances, he was walked 20.9% every time he stepped up to the plate. You need to have to be pitched to for more RBI opportunities and of course it helps to have runners-on-base. In order to score more runs, you need batters behind you who can drive you in. Those opportunities were lacking for Soto, and missing those thirteen games hurt, of which eight games, Soto was absent due to a “fake” positive on a COVID test.  Averages are averages and you have those no matter how many games you play, and fortunately Soto had enough plate appearances to still qualify for the batting crown which he won with a .351 batting average.

For Trea Turner, we knew he was good, and at times, elite. This year was elite as was his rookie season in which he batted .342 and a .937 OPS along with 33 steals in just 73 games. Last year, if you remove his first 50 at-bats after Trea returned from broken fingers, Turner batted .308, and you could see his maturation. Turner came in second in ROY voting behind Corey Seager who won with a much weaker slash line, but had a full year of games and his 26 home runs seemed to impress the voters — Turner had 13 in fewer than half as many games. To Turner’s downside, in his last “full year” in 2018, he batted just .271 with a .760 OPS. We believe the “real” Trea Turner is closer to this year’s version as he grinded out at-bats and as we showed in previous graphics started to control the outside of the strike zone. Opponents could not effectively shift on Trea this season as he sprayed balls all around the park.

FanGraphs final WAR for Nats players Top-10

There are some impressive names on that list like the bullpen arms and rookie Kyle Finnegan who made his MLB debut on July 25, 2020 and was 40 days short of his 29th birthday, Finny was part of the 2020 debut crew of Los Viejos and maybe the one who will stick. Tanner Rainey and Wander Suero from the bullpen are on that list, and all three contributed to a bullpen that was one of the strengths of the 2020 team.

While Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin are three and four respectively on the WAR list, neither pitched like aces, but they were head and shoulders above the rest of the rotation which was the weakness of this 2020 team. The starter’s combined ERA was an horrific 5.38 in the final tally with a won/loss record of 15-27. That red ink was the reason the Nats were golfing on September 28th and probably again today and tomorrow.

For those who followed our commentary on TalkNats this year, Scherzer made a switch the final two games to Yan Gomes as his catcher. My 2¢ on that was that Scherzer knew that Suzuki would not be returning for 2021 and was turning the page to test it out. It got no mention on MASN, but you could see a difference where Max was pounding the bottom of the zone more with Gomes. While the sample size was small with just two games, the results were encouraging as Max pitched to a 2.31 ERA with Gomes. Compare that to the 4.04 ERA with Suzuki, and maybe a catcher change is just what Max needed. Also we have heard the whispers that Rizzo is not thrilled with the handling of the starting pitcher. You cannot be this bad with the most expensive starting pitching staff with no ramifications although it is unlikely that any changes are made at pitching coach.

The final statline for Corbin was not as encouraging. His 4.66 ERA and 2-7 record were part of the Nats failures on the season. While last year was great for the lefty who got $140 million from the Nats, we think we found Corbin’s problem in 2020. He struggled in road games this year with a 6.59 ERA compared to 3.29 in Nats Park. He got smashed in Miami, Baltimore and Atlanta. Contrast the lefty in two consecutive starts against the Braves, one on the road and one at home, 5 1/3 innings in Atlanta he gave up 5 runs then returns to DC and pitches 7.0 innings against those Braves and held them to 2 runs.

Some would say that manager Dave Martinez did not have a quick enough hook for his starting pitchers in 2020. Others would say Davey did not show the urgency in a short-season to pull his starters including Max when they were struggling. After 100 pitches, Max was getting hit at a .455 batting average and a 1.526 OPS. Nothing is conclusive on Max but his stress point as I pointed to in August, seemed to be around 93-95 pitches he was chucking and ducking. That is not the Scherzer we know. He suffered through some different ailments in 2020, and never seemed like himself where he could not “empty the tank” and dominate in his final innings of work like we saw in prior years.

Yes, Yan Gomes made the list. Combine a short-season as it was with playing in exactly half the games, you have a sample size of thirty games with a +0.2 WAR. In a regular season, maybe that translates to a +0.6, and it kind of points to the need for adding an impact catcher in 2021 plus that is the final season on Gomes deal with the Nats as a 34 year old. As we mentioned a few weeks ago, the Nats should look at free agent James McCann who debuted in 2014 with the Tigers as Max Scherzer’s teammate. He was an All-Star in 2019, and turned in an even better season this year in the small sample size.

The other two players on the list were also pleasant surprises during the 2020 season as Andrew Stevenson for a dozen games was en fuego and has everyone wondering how his contact rate increased and his “hard hit” rate went to 43.3% and his “exit velo” on all batted balls was an eye-popping 92.2 mph. Stevo batted .366 on his very short season, and what we don’t know is if this is a glimpse of a new Stevo or just a hot streak that cannot be replicated. Sure, we know he won’t hit .366 for a full season, but could we see the batter we hoped to see who led LSU to a College World Series along with teammates Alex Bregman and Aaron Nola.

Let’s talk more about Stevo. He saw almost an equal amount of pitches from last year to this year (184 vs. 191). That allows us to compare the biggest difference was Stevo put 30 balls into play this year versus 19 last year. BABIP worked for him due to the higher exit velo and even though he hit fastballs better last year (.471 BA vs. .423 BA), it was his ability to put off-speed into play this year for hits (.400 BA vs. .250 BA).

So Stevo had less swing and miss, more contact, more plate patience where he was not swinging at the first pitch as much, and more exit velo. The mechanical difference was staying back on pitches more which allowed him to connect with more off-speed.

Modified Baseball Savant chart with Stevenson’s batting averages. Orange marks are on the directionals of his problematic zones.

Stevo’s in-the-zone batting average was spectacular. Out of the zone, not so much as you would expect. He did his most damage middle and up, and batted 1.000 on up and in and low and middle. The rest is recognizing breaking pitches low and in, and fastballs up and away.

The last player on that WAR list is Josh Harrison. What a pleasant surprise on a player who the Phillies released in Spring Training 2.0. After his first 15 at-bats, JHay raked the rest of the way (.313/.405/.438/.843). He mostly came off of the bench in favorable lefty/righty matchups but had almost identical batting averages against lefties and righties (.278/.279). He took five of his six walks against RHPs if you can believe that, but the power stroke came against the lefties where he had all but one extra base hit.

What we have here is three of the five bench players for the Nats with Gomes, Stevenson, and Harrison. That would leave just two spots left for general manager Mike Rizzo to fill if he can ink Harrison for another year. It is anybody’s guess if Rizzo and Martinez would fill those two remaining spots with Brock Holt, Howie Kendrick, Asdrubal Cabrera or Ryan Zimmerman. The latter three were part of the 2019 Los Viejos and they will be two years older next season!

The team has holes to fill of course in the fourth starting pitcher, a corner outfield spot, first base, and starting catcher if you want upgrades. Of course, they could fill every spot from in-house too if the budget won’t allow it, and the team would probably contend for third place in the NL East.

Getting back Stephen Strasburg will feel like a huge acquisition for the Nats, and Starlin Castro should definitely be moved to third base allowing Luis Garcia and Carter Kieboom to compete for second base. If Victor Robles struggles in 2021, the team will have Andrew Stevenson to take some games, and who knows what will happen if Stevo can emerge as a starter.

The fact is the Nats suffered offensively and defensively in rightfield with Adam Eaton this year, and with Robles on the offensive side. First base was a black hole as the Eric Thames acquisition did not work out, and Zimmerman opted-out. The Nats were second worst in the Majors according to FanGraphs. If the short season, it was wise that Rizzo did not make any deadline trades, but he should consider looking at Josh Bell this off-season as a trade candidate. Bell had a season to forget and is not a sure thing to rebound from his poor 2020 season, but he looks ripe as a change of scenery upgrade.

You might be surprised that the Nationals were fourth in the Majors in batting average. In fact four of the five top teams in batting average did not make the postseason. The issue with the Nats was beyond Soto, Turner, Garcia, Gomes, and Castro, the other starters were well below the average. Again, the Nats woes really all go back to starting pitching.

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