After 44 games played, the Nats are a little past the quarter season mark. Let’s take a look at their performance. My benchmark is what we would have expected from the team and from each player.
The team is in first place by 2-1/2 games with a 26-18 record, a .591 winning percentage, on pace for 96 wins. If you prefer Pythagorean winning percentage, their 212 runs scored and 187 runs allowed are consistent with a .562 winning percentage, or a 25-19 record so far. I think it’s fair to say that’s about how the team was expected to perform. Of course, it overlooks their horrendous 7-13 start, as well as their 19-5 record since April 28.
Their offense has been a little better than expected, with a .265/.336/.432 slash line and their .334 wOBA for their non-pitchers ranking 4th in MLB. But offsetting the good performance of their position player’s offense has been worse-than-expected defense, so I’d rate their position players performance overall as about the same as expected.
Of course, every group has individuals who surprise. On the upside, the really big surprise, of course, has been Bryce Harper. With his .326/.464/.729 slash line, he leads the majors in on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and with an fWAR of 3.1, leads the majors in wins above replacement. While we all expected Bryce to play at an all-star level, for the early part of this season he’s made the leap to MVP-level performance. Furthermore, the leap in walks and improved patience and pitch recognition suggest that the improvement may be permanent. No, I’m not expecting a .729 slugging percentage for the season, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him end with 40+ home runs and an OBP above .400.
The other big positive surprise has been Danny Espinosa. With Anthony Rendon out due to injury, Espinosa has made up the difference with his unexpected .261/.359/.459 slash line and 1.0 fWAR. That was quite a step up from his .200/.255/.326 slash line over 2013–14. He’s also contributed with the glove.
Offsetting the positive surprises are the negative ones. The big one is Jayson Werth, whose .208/.294/.287 slash line and –0.6 fWAR is unprecedented in his career. Coming back from injury, it appears that he rushed back too soon, and over his first 19 games back (from April 13 to May 4) hit only .176/.247/.203. From May 8 to May 15, he hit a more respectable .296/.412/.519 over 34 plate appearances, before he went on the DL again after hurting his wrist.
We’ve already mentioned Anthony Rendon, who is a disappointment in the sense that we were expecting a lot from him and he hasn’t been able to play due to various injuries. The other player I’ll describe as a disappointment is Ian Desmond, whose .246/299/.392 slash line and 0.3 fWAR are worse than expected, and whose defensive miscues have also hurt the team.
Turning to pitching, I’ll mention that opinions on the team’s performance–especially that of the starting pitchers, is likely to vary depending on how much weight you give to fielding independent metrics such as FIP (or fWAR, which is based on FIP), and how much you give to traditional metrics such as ERA, RA/9, and rWAR or RA9-WAR, which are based on RA/9. According to FIP and fWAR, the Nationals starters are the best in baseball, but according to RA/9, their starters’ 4.86 ranks 25th among MLB rotations.
The one individual starter about whom there is no question is Max Scherzer. His 2.02 FIP is lowest among qualified major league pitchers, and his 1.67 ERA is fourth lowest. He’s started the season as a contender for the NL Cy Young Award.
Offsetting Scherzer’s strong performance have been major disappointments in the performance of Stephen Strasburg and Doug Fister. Strasburg’s 6.50 ERA is second highest among qualified MLB pitchers, even though his 3.65 FIP is better than the league average of 3.90. Even his better-than-average FIP, however, is a disappointment compared to his career marks. Coming into the season, his career FIP had been 2.84 and his career ERA had been 3.02, while for 2014 his FIP had been 2.94 and his ERA had been 3.14. Fister’s season hasn’t been quite so extreme, but his 4.31 ERA and 4.69 FIP are significantly worse than his averages over the last three seasons, 3.22 for ERA and 3.51 for FIP.
In the bullpen, Drew Storen has had a surprisingly good performance, with 13 saves and only one blown save, a 0.98 ERA, and a 1.28 FIP. Furthermore, 7 of his saves have preserved one-run leads. The rest of the bullpen has been pretty much about what was expected, which was sort of an average major-league bullpen.
The Nats have been in the somewhat unusual situation where most of their negative surprises have been offset by positive ones. Some regression is expected, but it doesn’t fundamentally change the prospect that this looks like a really good team.
I know I’m late to this discussion. I’m in the camp that Bryce Harper, Matt Williams, and umpire Marvin Hudson all shared in the blame. Since I don’t know what Harper said to Hudson, I don’t know whether he deserved his ejection.
I did want to make one point about Hudson’s actions that I’m not sure I’ve seen in other commentary. I think that MLB ought to instruct umpires never to stop a game to talk to, or argue with a manager or coach in the dugout about what he’s saying. It’s ok to stop the game to toss the manager if he’s crossed the line, but if you’re just irritated with the chirping that’s coming from the dugout, wait until the end of the inning, then go over to the dugout and warn them, explain your call, or say whatever needs to be said. Forty thousand people have paid to attend the game, plus thousands more are watching on television. Nothing that’s being said in the dugout can’t wait until the inning break to be resolved.
To me, this seems like simple respect for the fans who are paying the bill. Furthermore, in a situation like Wednesday night’s game, waiting will give everyone a chance to cool off and hopefully avoid an unnecessary confrontation and ejection.
How about it?
The Nationals kicked off the season as the consensus choice to win the NL East, with many prognosticators picking them to win the pennant or even the World Series. They utterly failed to meet expectations. They finished the month in 4th place with a 10–13 record, 5 games behind the division leading Mets. The season is still young, and projection methods still indicate that they have a good chance to turn things around. (FanGraphs show them with a 70.9 percent chance of winning the division, down from 86.4 percent at the beginning of the month.) But they need to turn things around soon.
The season began on April 6, when the Nationals hosted the Mets. The Nats lost the opener based on—in what would become a pattern—their sloppy defense. The opening day lineup had major holes. With Anthony Rendon, Jayson Werth, Denard Span, and Casey Janssen all out with injuries, the opening day lineup featured Michael A. Taylor in center field, Tyler Moore in left, and Dan Uggla at second base. The Nats won the second game, but lost the third game and the series.
The pattern of losing continued on their first road trip, when they lost two of three to both the Phillies and the Red Sox. Werth was activated in time for the series in Boston, but would spend the rest of the month trying to regain his stroke. The injuries continued to mount, however, when Craig Stammen suffered a torn flexor injury on his right elbow, which required surgery and left him disabled for the rest of the season.
During the next home stand, the team seemed to be coming together. The Nats won three of four against the Phillies, and Span rejoined the team for the last game of the series. Taylor, who had been hitting well, was sent to Syracuse so he could get regular at bats. The Phils were followed by the NL Central-leading Cardinals, who have been the Nationals’ nemesis in recent years. The Nats won the first game 2 to 1 in the 10th inning, but then lost the second and third games, with bullpen meltdowns contributing to the losses.
The month ended with a road trip that got off to an ugly start. The Nats were swept by the Marlins, and looked really bad. Next the Braves beat them in the next game, extending their losing streak to six games. The next night, the Nats appeared to have reached their nadir when they reached the end of the fourth inning trailing 10 to 2. But the bats came alive that evening and after Dan Uggla hit a 3-run homer in the top of the ninth, they closed a 13-12 comeback win. The bats stayed alive the next two nights, with a 13 to 4 win in the rubber game of the Braves series and an 8 to 2 win over the Mets on the last day of the month for the opener of a 4-game series in New York.
In April, the hitting died. The Nats hit .236/.307/.378 and ranked 11th in the NL in park-adjusted weighted runs created (wRC+) with 89. The defense was also awful, ranking 13th of 15 teams in the NL in defensive runs saved.
For relief pitching, my preferred metric is RE24, which takes account of game situations, such as inherited runners. The Nats relievers ranked 8th in the NL in April with an RE24 of 2.05. They were tied for 8th in the league in shutdowns, with 16, but also tied for the most meltdowns, with 14.
The Nats’ vaunted rotation didn’t live up to the lofty expectations. The starters were 9th in the NL in ERA– with 104 (or 4% worse than the average team)—this is a measure of ERA that is park-adjusted and measured relative to the league. They showed up better in fielding independendent metrics, ranking 3rd in the league in FIP-, or park-adjusted fielding independent pitching with 81, which is 19% better than average.
11-12 (4.48 R/G – 4.65 RA/G)
Max Scherzer (1-2, 2.20 RA/9, 4 G, 28-2/3 IP, 9.1 K/9, .221 opp OBP, 1.1 RA9-WAR).
Most valuable position player:
Bryce Harper (.286/.440/.545, 23 G, 5 HR, 18 R, 15 RBI, 0.6 fWAR). (Fangraphs actually gives Danny Espinosa higher WAR with 0.7, with a .255/.377/.431 line and great defense, but I’m sticking with Harper because he played every day.)
Most valuable relief pitcher:
Matt Thornton (0-0, 4.50 RA/9, 9 G, 6 IP, 4.5 K/9, .200 opp OBP, 3.71 RE24, 0.0 RA9-WAR). This was a tough category. Usually, 4.5 runs allowed per 9 innings would have been insufficient for a monthly award, but 2 of his 3 runs allowed were scored on an error by Blake Treinen after Thornton was pulled from the game, and one of those runners had reached on an Ian Desmond error. And all of the other relievers have their own flaws.
Jayson Werth (.175/.254/.211, 15 G, -0.5 fWAR).
Best start this month:
Max Scherzer (April 17, 7–2 win over the Phillies in Washington) gave up 1 run on 4 hits in 8 innings, striking out 9 and not issuing any walks, for a game score of 79.
Jordan Zimmermann (April 13, 9–4 loss to the Red Sox in Boston) gave up 8 runs on 9 hits, 1 walk, and 2 hit batsmen in 2-1/3 innings, while not getting any strikeouts. His game score was 8.
- Max Scherzer (April 6, 3–1 loss to the Mets in Washington on opening day) gave up 3 unearned runs on 4 hits and 2 walks in 7-2/3 innings with 8 strikeouts (game score 71).
- Gio Gonzalez (April 10, 4–1 loss to the Phillies in Philadelphia) gave up 3 runs on 5 hits and 4 walks in 6-1/3 innings with 4 strikeouts (game score 51).
- Jordan Zimmermann (April 18, 5–3 loss to the Phillies in Washington) gave up 4 runs on 4 hits and 4 walks in 6-1/3 innings with 3 strikeouts (game score 52).
- Gio Gonzalez (April 15, 10–5 win over the Red Sox in Boston) gave up 5 runs (4 earned) on 6 hits and 2 walks in 6 innings with 6 strikeouts (game score 46).
Drew Storen (April 28, 13–12 win over the Braves in Atlanta). It was a fairly routine save in a one-run game on the road, albeit a most remarkable game in which the Nats came back from an 8-run deficit, the largest comeback in Nationals history. Storen allowed one walk, but got 3 outs without allowing a runner to reach scoring position. (Win probability added .162)
Blake Treinen (April 14, 8–7 loss to the Red Sox in Boston). Treinen came in with one out in the bottom of the seventh with the Nats leading 7 to 5 and runners on first and second. He proceeded to hit the first batter he faced, loading the bases. On a comebacker to the mound, he first failed to field it, then threw the ball away, committing 2 errors and allowing 2 runs to score. Another run scored on a groundout to the shortstop, and the Nats were trailing 8 to 7 by the time Treinen got the third out. He returned in the eighth to pitch a scoreless inning, but by then the damage was done. (WPA –.406)
Dan Uggla (April 28, 13–12 win over the Braves in Atlanta—see “Best shutdown”). After being down 9 to 1 and then 10 to 2, the Nats had scored 8 more runs and were trailing the Braves 12 to 10 in the top of the ninth. Jose Lobaton singled and Danny Espinosa walked, so there were runners on first and second with one out when Uggla came to the plate. Atlanta fans had booed Uggla relentlessly during the series. After getting behind 0-2 against Atlanta closer, Jason Grilli, Uggla hammered the next pitch into the left field stands, giving the Nats a 13 to 12 lead (WPA .709).
Ian Desmond (April 21, 2–1 win over the Cardinals in Washington). In the bottom of the ninth with the score tied 1 to 1 and the bases loaded with one out, Desmond struck out. (WPA –.175). In the 10th, however, Yunel Escobar undid the damage with a two-out solo walk-off homer.
Baseball’s big news this holiday Monday is that the Nats have signed free agent pitcher Max Scherzer to a contract reported to be roughly $210 million over 7 years.
What does it mean for the Nationals, this year and beyond? I feel like I’m at the end of the first act of a play, waiting to judge the play until I’ve seen the rest of it. The move could be a win-now move or a win-later move, depending on what happens next. Do the Nats sit tight with an overloaded pitching staff? Or do they try to deal one of their other starters, as they’ve been rumored to be looking to do all winter.
- Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs describes the Nats with Scherzer as a potential “super-team.” Pitchers with records similar to Scherzer’s during their age 27–29 seasons have gone on to average 22 wins above replacement during their age 30–36 seasons.
- Dave Cameron of FanGraphs explains that the deferred money in Scherzer’s contract means that the $210 million obligation is costing the Nats only about $170 million in today’s dollars.
- Garrett Hooe of Federal Baseball breaks down Scherzer’s pitch selection and location.
- Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post sees the signing as a big improvement for the team.
- Rob Neyer of Fox Sports cautions that teams that have won 96 games have a strong tendency to regress, so we shouldn’t assume that the Nats will be better this year.
- Grant Brisbee of SB Nation looks for, and finds, cautionary tales—teams that appeared to be shoo-ins for pennants or World Series that went on to disappoint.
- Jonah Keri of Grantland looks at some of the potential ripple effects if, for example, they move Jordan Zimmermann or Doug Fister.
- One of the rumors that started floating shortly after the Scherzer signing was announced was that the Nats are now making Stephen Strasburg available. Jeff Sullivan looks at the enormous haul of prime prospects that a Strasburg trade might yield.
How does the Scherzer signing compare with a potential signing or extension of Zimmermann? My own view is that Scherzer is the better long-term risk. Yes, Scherzer is older and has pitched more innings, but Zimmermann has had Tommy John and lives more on control than on missing bats. Strikeouts and whiffs are fairly good predictors of a pitcher’s long-term prospects.
The other thing I think I’ve learned is that the Nats actually are willing to spend money to win. That’s assuming, of course, that they don’t dump the extra salary costs by trading off other assets. One of my big uncertainties about the team is how committed the ownership is to winning. This signing is a positive indicator—perhaps the best indicator we’ve seen since the Jayson Werth signing four years ago.
A shortstop with Oakland, Escobar is likely to play second base for the Nats. He’ll be 32 years old next season and has 2 years ($12 million) remaining on his contract, plus a team option for $7 million for 2017. Over his last three seasons (with Toronto in 2012 and with Tampa Bay in 2013–14) he’s averaged .256/.318/.350 (numbers that are similar to his Steamer projection for 2015 of .258/.324/.351) and averaged an 87 OPS+ and 145 games per season. His defense at shortstop is also considered average, though he’s likely to be considered above average at second base. He’s averaged 2 wins above replacement per season—again, about what you’d expect from an average player.
So, in general, the Nats are getting a player who is pretty much average—average at getting on base, below average in power, and maybe a little above average as a second baseman. Not something to get too excited about, but it does fill the team’s biggest weakness, which was the prospect of having to play Danny Espinosa or Dan Uggla at second base.
In trading away Clippard, the Nats are giving up their best reliever, albeit one who has only one season left on his contract. Eno Sarris of Fangraphs presents the statistics demonstrating that Clip has been one of the 20 best relievers in baseball over the last five seasons. The Nats bullpen was not an area of strength even before the trade—the Fangraphs projections, which don’t yet reflect the trade, show the Nats bullpen ranked #19 of the 30 teams. Now it should be considered perhaps the team’s biggest weakness. Unfortunately, because last season the bullpen had better results than they should have, based on fundamentals, I think the weakness of the bullpen may not be well understood and could lead to disappointment. I’d suggest that the Nats perhaps try to pry Papelbon away from the Phillies.
But overall, it’s good to see the Nats make a move to fill a weak spot, even if it does somewhat exacerbate another weakness. I look forward to Escobar joining the team and bid a fond goodbye to Clippard.
Of course, the selection of such a team is going to be largely determined by the rules that the writer sets. Here are the rules I’ve decided to go by:
- All performance (and value) while playing for the Washington Nationals counts. The rest of the player’s career doesn’t count. My metric is closer to cumulative value rather than peak value, and counts value at all positions played (not just at the position for which the player is selected).
- For the starting position players, a player must have played at least 100 games for the Nationals at the position. Also, the games played at that position must represent at least 35% of all games played for the Nationals. In other words, I’m trying to avoid slotting players at positions where they didn’t spend much time.
- The team composition should reflect a typical, standard roster—that is, in addition to 8 starting position players, I’ll have 5 starting pitchers, 7 relief pitchers, a backup catcher, and 4 other bench players. The bench must versatile enough to cover an injury at any position.
- I try, as best I can, to account for all aspects of performance, including batting, fielding, base running, etc. Length of service also counts. I pay especial attention to wins above replacement (WAR). However, I don’t go strictly by WAR – for example, Adam Dunn’s WAR is low partly because of low fielding scores when the Nats had him playing in the outfield—an obvious misuse of Dunn’s talents.
For each position, I’ll list the candidates (that is, the players with at least 100 games) and my selection.
- Catcher – Candidates: Brian Schneider (358 games), Wilson Ramos (311), Jesus Flores (263), Wil Nieves (183), Ivan Rodriguez (136), Kurt Suzuki (120). My selection is Wilson Ramos (2010–2014). His batting has been strong enough (.268, .317, .432, 105 wRC+, that is, “weighted runs created relative to league”) to more than make up for the difference with Schneider in service time. The knock against Ramos is health, but a strong bat from a defense-first position can make up for a lot of qualms about health.
- First base – Candidates: Adam LaRoche (481 games), Nick Johnson (407), Adam Dunn (220), Dmitri Young (154), Michael Morse (116). My selection is Nick Johnson (2005–2009). Again, the bat is able to overcome the effects of his injuries. Johnson’s (.286, .416, .471, 137 wRC+) statistical line is well above LaRoche’s (113 wRC+), and Johnson was probably the better defensive player too.
- Second base – Candidates: Danny Espinosa (441 games), Ronnie Belliard (194), Jose Vidro (186), Felipe Lopez (121), Anthony Rendon (110), Steve Lombardozzi (102). This is probably the toughest choice, but I’m going to go with Anthony Rendon (2013–14; .279, .343, .445, 119 wRC+) over Espinosa. Both Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs suggest that Espinosa’s 2010–2012 were nearly as valuable as Rendon’s 2013–2014, and Rendon has played more games (and better) at third base than at second. But Espinosa’s last two seasons have had little, if any, value, and Rendon’s overall hitting has been more valuable than Espinosa’s defense and home runs.
- Third base – Candidates: Ryan Zimmerman (1,133 games), Rendon (149), Vinny Castilla (138). The selection is Ryan Zimmerman (2005–2014; .286, .352, .476, 120 wRC+). Well, that one was easy!
- Shortstop – Candidates: Ian Desmond (758 games), Cristian Guzman (459), Felipe Lopez (190). The selection is Ian Desmond (2009–2014; .270, .317, .431, 104 wRC+). Again, a pretty easy selection.
- Left field – Candidates: Josh Willingham (195 games), Bryce Harper (194), Willie Harris (177), Roger Bernadina (173), Alfonso Soriano (158), Ryan Church (144), Michael Morse (124). As you can see, this has been the Nats’ least settled position. My selection is Bryce Harper (2012–2014; .272, .351, .465, 125 wRC+). Harper benefits from my decision to include his value from other positions; if I were going just based on his time in left field, I would have gone with Soriano. But Harper has put together substantial value at a remarkably young age.
- Center field – Candidates: Denard Span (300 games), Nyjer Morgan (181), Rick Ankiel (167), Roger Bernadina (140), Lastings Milledge (139), Nook Logan (137), Ryan Church (112), Bryce Harper (108). My selection is Denard Span (2013–2014; .290, .341, .398; 107 wRC+). Ryan Church is another plausible choice, but I prefer Span’s glove to Church’s bat.
- Right field – Candidates: Jayson Werth (475 games), Austin Kearns (356), Jose Guillen (208), Elijah Dukes (134), Roger Bernadina (123), Michael Morse (111). My selection is Jayson Werth (2011–2014; .282, .375, .452, 131 wRC+).
- Starting pitchers – My selections are: (1) Jordan Zimmermann (2009–2014; 57–40, 3.24, 739 K), (2) Stephen Strasburg (2010–2014; 43–30, 3.02, 746 K), (3) Gio Gonzalez (2012–2014; 42–26, 3.25, 561 K), (4) John Lannan (2007–2012; 42–52, 4.01, 410 K), and (5) Livan Hernandez (2005–2006, 2009–2011; 44–47, 4.32, 476 K).
- Relief pitchers – My selections are: (1) Tyler Clippard (2008–2014; 414 games, 34 saves, 2.68), (2) Drew Storen (2010–2014; 297, 66, 2.94), (3) Chad Cordero (2005–2008; 224, 113, 2.78), (4) Jon Rauch (2005–2008; 236, 23, 3.40), (5) Craig Stammen (2009–2014, 224, 1, 3.94), (6) Sean Burnett (2009–2012; 245, 9, 2.81), and (7) Saul Rivera (2006–2009; 245, 4, 4.05).
- Backup catcher – Brian Schneider (2005–2007; .253, .325, .356, 79). He was an able defensive catcher and a fan favorite.
- Bench – My selections are: (1) Danny Espinosa (backup at 2B/SS, could cover 3B in a pinch, though it would make more sense to move Rendon to third and Espinosa to second) (2010–2014; .228/.299/.387; 87); (2) Ryan Church (OF; 2005–2007; .277, .354, .478, 118); (3) Alfonso Soriano (LF; 2006; .277, .351, .560, 129)—only one season in Washington, but it was a great one; (4) Adam Dunn (1B/PH; 2009–2010; .264, .378, .533, 139)—despite the poor defense and the ugly years after leaving Washington, we shouldn’t forget that he could really hit.
The outcome of this exercise is that the Nats’ all-stars look a lot like the team that’s been playing for Washington over the last three seasons. I guess that shouldn’t have been surprising, since looking at these names, it’s clear that the quality of the team’s lineup is much better now than it was during the team’s first six years in Washington. There are some names listed among “Candidates” that I’d really like to forget, but they are part of the team’s history too. I guess the other thing I learned is that the Nats have always been able to put together at least a semi-decent bullpen. Maybe that’s the easiest thing for a weak team to cobble together.
Let’s enjoy the current version of the Nats while they’re still together.