In the last 19-games, the Washington Nationals are 11-8 since that trip to their distant cousins of the original Washington Senators in the l’étoile du nord, “the star of the north”, in Minnesota. Maybe the sight of that 1924 World Series banner was an inspiration. Whatever clicked in at that point in time has changed the axis for this team. Today, this team is on a 70-win pace given their .432 winning percentage, a marked improvement over a year ago.
If the Nats could continue that same pace for two more 19-game sets, that would get the team above .500 at 38-37 right at the 75 game mark, coincidentally when the Nats are in San Diego at the end of June to play the Padres — the team that made the blockbuster trade for Juan Soto last year. The trade that made most of this possible if you are buying the FanGraphs ranking of MacKenzie Gore as the Nats top player with that +0.8 WAR, and CJ Abrams at +0.1 WAR.
Before that Soto trade, Luis Garcia was the Nats’ starting shortstop, and that team was in a defensive disarray. Just adding Abrams to shortstop and relocating Garcia to second base has made a sizeable difference on the defense and in turn — the pitching. Yes, defense matters, and it is showing. Imagine your pitchers throwing to their spots and not worried about a groundball headed towards a meat cleaver. If the Nats CF-RF flyball defense can improve, this team will really be something to watch. That seems doable with coaching the players up and deeper positioning to reduce the XBH risk.
“We can do it. We can win. … Defensively we’re going to be better — I promise you which makes our pitching staff better — I promise you.”— General Manager Mike Rizzo said at a season ticket holder function this year
Yes, all of this is a lot of wishful thinking. The “if” factor with so many variables that we have no clue if this current pace can continue. The starter’s ERA improved to 4.37 — the best mark of the season. You could have predicted many things this season, but I would call you a liar if you told me you pegged Josiah Gray for a 2.96. Another pleasant surprise is that Patrick Corbin is pitching to a 3.56 ERA and a 3.94 FIP since Jackie Robinson Day.
The pitching revival is startling to say the least. Pitching coach Jim Hickey was on the fan’s hot seat to be fired, and now you would have to give him the credit since he took the blame before.
But really, maybe analytics is finally being used properly, and Gray and Corbin both made changes to their repertoires with Gray’s cutter, and Corbin with his new low-in-the-zone sinker and changeup combo. Both pitchers are relying less on their 4-seam fastballs and both working the lower edges of the zone to take advantage of their groundball defense. The improvement for both is fewer home runs, fewer walks, and more efficient pitch counts leading to better outings and improving ERAs.
With 23 percent of the season complete, we are just eight games from the 45-game mark in the season when you can really start to see what team you have. Even then you can be fooled as we learned with that 19-31 team of 2019. Looks can be deceiving. Manager Dave Martinez is playing for his next contract, and while general manager Mike Rizzo is almost assured of another extension, the jury is out on Martinez.
Maybe the Nats of September 2022 gave the right clues that we analyzed last year with that 9-7 run when Abrams arrived on the scene that a back to basics approach was enough to plug up the holes in that sinking ship. Add some youthful exuberance and kids who are naive enough to not know that they are supposed to be a bad team. The people who think they are bad are part of the uninformed fan base that have no clue about Alex Call‘s walk-off home run last week or Joey Meneses‘ 3-run game winning home run on Sunday that were a message to them that you didn’t need Soto to be a good team. Remember those who swore off the Nats when Soto was traded. The ones who burned their jerseys. That Soto-led 2022 team at this point last year was 12-25 and believed they were destined to lose. It was part mindset, and part of it was not caring.
This team cares, and they seem teachable. The position players lack a superstar by name and stats, but a guy with a bat can still do damage — even if he gets paid the league minimum. Again, this could all be naivete. They just don’t realize that they aren’t supposed to be winning.