The Washington Nationals have found 86 excruciating ways to lose so far this season, and with 16 remaining games, there will be several more to endure. A season that started with a black cloud over the team’s head with Opening Day postponed due to COVID, it just seems that we could have expected the worst. And we are living it game by game.
Stephen Strasburg was basically lost for the whole season, and Patrick Corbin has pitched to the level of a scrub. The bullpen is just awful, and yet, we still find reasons to watch this team because of players like Josh Rogers and Lane Thomas, and arguably the best player in baseball — Juan Soto.
Face of the Franchise
This could be the last season of Ryan Zimmerman, and if he does not return, there will be no farewell tour because the Face of the Franchise made it clear that he won’t make up his mind for months after the season ends.
“That’s a decision I’ll make in the offseason. I’ll sit down with my family and kind of see where we’re at,” Zimmerman said. “This year has gone pretty well. Depending on how I feel after the season, depending on how I feel December 1, honestly, if I want to start working out and getting ready to prepare to be productive for another Major League season. … That’s the hardest part.”
Zimmerman is one of the reasons to watch this game. He has been with the team since they came into existence in 2005, albeit he wasn’t a National until he was drafted out of the University of Virginia at fourth overall in that draft then Zim debuted in September of that season, and has been a fixture ever since. He has certainly seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. Nobody can ever take away his World Series ring, and that is what Zim always said you play for.
Strasburg and Corbin
This Nats team was 40-38 and in second place on June 30. The demise is startling and can shock your soul. How did it happen, and was this foreseeable? Of course some of this mess was foreseeable. Strasburg’s health was certainly a question mark, and Corbin’s poor 2020 season might have been predictive of a further demise for a pitcher who relies on an average fastball and a slider that has to be great or else he won’t be. It has been an issue with this pitching staff for so long that we just don’t see any continual improvement except for the years we had with Max Scherzer.
Scherzer: Heart of a Champion
But some would say the Nats were not winning with Scherzer if you look at the team at the trade deadline they were 48-55. While true, none of that was the fault of Scherzer. He did his job. Others can’t say the same.
Why do we have to constantly talk about people who want to get paid the big bucks but get so complacent that they do nothing to improve? Scherzer is the exception to the rule. When Rajat Singh Bagga wrote, “Reinvention is the mother of necessity,” he was not specifically referring to Scherzer, but the 37-year-old pitcher certainly fits that. Most pitchers retire before this age or are forced into unemployment because they just are not good enough and retirement is the end result. Reinventing himself is what Scherzer learned early on about making adjustments and continually trying to improve.
“Perfectionist is sometimes the wrong word… It means like you’re never satisfied, or you’re upset by every single failure — any type of failure, and so for me, I don’t look at failure as necessarily a bad thing as long as I’m able to learn from it and take something from it, so that next time I’m in that situation I know how to succeed,” Scherzer said.
Max talks about failure often. He said he learns more from what does not work than what does. But it comes down to the process and making adjustments.
“You worry about the process,” Scherzer said.”You worry about how you’re throwing the ball, how you’re executing your pitches.”
Scherzer does not want to talk about his future beyond this year. After his trade to the Dodgers, his future could still head to free agency and a change of teams after this 2021 season.
“You’ve got to get better every single year,” Scherzer said after winning his third Cy Young award. “It’s a new year. You have to find a way to improve yourself. You have to look back on everything that you’ve done and critique yourself and find the holes in your game that you can continue to get better.”
You can just cut and paste that comment every year. Some players make similar comments as some cliché. Scherzer lives this down to his core.
When Scherzer added a fourth pitch to his repertoire in 2013, it was the curveball to go with the 4-seamer, the slider, and changeup, and he won his first Cy Young award that year with Detroit. At the time Scherzer came to the Nats, he added a fifth pitch: the cutter. He dropped his 4-seam fastball usage steadily over the years and won two more Cy’s.
“I try new grips, new mechanics, new slots, and everything,” Scherzer said about Spring Training. “I want to see if there is anything in there that you can try something new and all of a sudden — something pops — and you say, ‘Hey that really works.’ And you can take that and run with it.”
“Sometimes it is really tough to experiment during the season. You have to get in the right situation when you do want to experiment. But you really know what you’re doing in-season but in Spring Training you don’t really care if you give up a homer. Hit it as far as you can. (Laughing). I’m working on stuff.”
If the former Nats’ ace sounds like a scientist doing experiments in a lab, it really is what he is all about in his bullpen sessions and side sessions plus all of his offseason work at the Cressey complex in Palm Beach. The Scherzer family moved their off-season home to Jupiter Florida so Max could be close to the Nats spring training facility in West Palm Beach and to be near Cressey. His desire to learn goes back to his youth and the classroom. He said he even learned about sports psychology in a class he took back in his days in college at Mizzou 2005. He took math and statistic classes which has helped him in this analytics evolution.
“I don’t like to give away my secrets,” Max said before divulging any tidbits. “I see it like this, ‘It’s a balance.’ You just can’t go out there with analytics and go out there and just pitch on those analytics. You can’t go out there and pitch solely on your strengths like I got a good fastball, a good curveball or slider and think I’m just going to pitch to my strengths. For me, I take a blend of both.”
“What do I do well? What are the analytics telling me? I come up with a good game plan between the pitching coach, catcher and myself. What do we want to try to accomplish here in a [particular] game? What do we think is going to work and what do we think is not going to work. And [then] try to reconvene throughout that game and see where we can make adjustments or not.”
Statistically, Max has gotten better with age and even past his 34th birthday, he still had a 2.92 ERA to celebrate his 35th birthday. But the COVID shortened 2020 season he believed was an outlier and on paper was his worst since 2010 in BB/9 when he gave up 3.2 on average. Scherzer was 25 then. This is now. Scherzer will have to show that 2020 was just a one-year aberration. He knows age is real, but he also just saw what a 43 year old Tom Brady did to win another Super Bowl. It is very possible that Scherzer will win a 4th Cy Young this year as he only got better after getting traded to the Dodgers.
“It is all about winning,” Scherzer said before. “When you get to the park and you come into the clubhouse, your only thought is about winning, and what it takes to do that.”
Winning. Scherzer has his ring, but still has the desire for more, and that is the mark of a champion. So what will it take for players to look inside and spend this lengthy offseason on improving themselves? The first thing is that you have to want to do it.
Now that we discussed the heart of the champion, we can discuss something that should blow your mind that the Nats have scored more runs per game since Trea Turner, Kyle Schwarber, Josh Harrison and Yan Gomes departed via trades at the end of July. Crazy, right? The team has scored 653 runs this season so far. A total of 451 runs to July 30 at 4.38 runs per game versus 202 runs since the trade deadline and that is 4.70 per game.
So if scoring runs is not the problem, maybe the team can stick with the lineup they currently have for 2022 and spend their money on the pitching.
It’s All About the Pitching
It is always about the pitching. That is how you win in baseball. You throw zeroes and good things will happen. Prior to the trade deadline, the team yielded 476 runs at 4.62 per game, and since the trade deadline, they have given up 256 runs at 5.95 a game. You don’t have to be a statistician to know that is not a formula for success. Basically, this pitching staff is allowing 6-runs per game on average.
How do you fix a system that is broken? The bullpen is a disaster, and the two best starting pitchers are being paid at the league’s minimum wage. General manager Mike Rizzo has his work cut out for him.
Where do you even start? The team is making the same mistakes with the young prospect Josiah Gray that they did with Lucas Giolito just five years ago. It is this continual cycle of repeating the same mistakes. Gray looked like a future ace based on his first five games and his 2.89 ERA. Then his last three games have been awful. His 12.75 ERA and the fact that his breaking pitches aren’t dancing like they were before have put him out there as a BP pitcher on the mound and looking like he has nothing left to give.
While Gray is not the only problem on this staff, the issue is who do we see as the savior for the 2022 rotation. You have Strasburg, Corbin, and Gray as all question marks. Where do you begin? Then you have the bullpen that is just a dumpster fire.
Everything points to a pitching staff that has to be fixed to see any level of success. This isn’t going to be easy, and we are feeling the pain with every loss.