June was punctuated by winning streaks and losing streaks as the Nats went 16–11 for the month and expanded their lead in the division over the slumping Mets to 6 games. With two long road trips, they played 17 of their 27 games on the road, and the second trip included a 7-game losing streak. But they turned things around and finished the month with 5 consecutive wins, including a sweep of the Mets.
As the month began, the Nats were in Philadelphia playing their third game against the Phillies. They won the game, giving them a sweep of the series, and traveled next to Cincinnati to face the Reds. Shortstop prospect Trea Turner was called up and would play two games while Ryan Zimmerman was on paternity leave. They lost the first two games against the Reds, but in game three they came back from a 5–0 deficit to win 10–9. Jonathan Papelbon had an unusual save, as he entered in the bottom of the ninth with a 2-run lead and allowed the first four batters to reach on a single, a double, and two walks (one intentional), allowing one run to score and loading the bases with no outs. He then proceeded to get out of the jam on an infield fly, a strikeout, and a fly ball.
The Nats next stop was in Chicago, where they won their first two games against the White Sox by scores of 10–5 and 11–4, matching a Nationals club record with three consecutive games scoring 10 or more runs. They lost the third game against the White Sox 3 to 1, and finished the road trip with a 6–3 record.
On June 9 in the MLB draft, the Nats selected shortstop Carter Kieboom and pitcher Dane Dunning in the first (compensatory) round. The Nats returned to Washington to face the Phillies, who had swept them in Washington in April, though the Nats had recently repaid with a sweep in Philadelphia. In this series, the Nats swept again. In the third game, Papelbon was called on to pitch the top of ninth with the score tied and allowed a lead-off home run, putting the Phils ahead. In the bottom of the inning, however, the Nats rallied and and with two outs Jayson Werth drove in the tying and go-ahead runs.
Next came a much-anticipated series against the Chicago Cubs, who in May had swept the Nats in Chicago. In the first game, Max Scherzer pitched one of his best games in a 4–1 Nats win. The Cubs won the second game 5 to 4. The finale began as a pitching duel between Stephen Strasburg and Jason Hammel, with each pitcher allowing 1 run in 7 innings. Then began a seesaw of clutch hits by both sides, and the game went to extra innings with the score tied at 3 apiece. In the top of the 12th, the Cubs scored to take the lead, but the Nats responded with two in the bottom of the inning to walk off. The Nats announced that Papelbon was going on the DL with an intercostal strain. After some initial indecision, Shawn Kelley would soon take over the closer role.
The Nats next began their first west coast trip with a four-game series with the Padres. They took the first two games, reaching 18 games above .500 and giving them a 6-game lead in the NL East. But they then lost the last two games with San Diego to split the series. Next they faced the Dodgers and were swept in three games. Proceeding to Milwaukee, they lost the first two games with the Brewers, giving them a 7-game losing streak and shrinking their divisional lead to two games.
The Nats really didn’t play poorly during their 7-game losing streak. They hit .256/.314/.407, which should have been worth more than 20 runs, but they hit poorly in clutch situations. They found a variety of ways to lose. In their first loss, with a 3–1 lead in the eighth, reliever Felipe Rivero gave up 6 runs without recording an out. Their next loss came because Gio Gonzalez was ineffective. In the first game against the Dodgers, they were facing Clayton Kershaw (enough said). Strasburg had been scheduled to start, but was scratched (and would later go on the DL with an upper back strain), and while long-man Yusmeiro Petit gave them a quality start, he was no match for the best pitcher in baseball. In the next game, the Nats were unable to get timely hits and Dusty Baker left Tanner Roark in for one too many batters, as Grandal hit a 3-run home run in the bottom of the eighth to give the Dodgers a 3–2 margin. The next night, the Nats took a one-run lead into the ninth, but Michael A. Taylor let a routine ground ball from Puig slip by, turning a single into a two-run walk-off little league home run. In Milwaukee, Scherzer gave up only 5 hits, but they were bunched together and included two home runs, as the Nats were unable to string together their 9 hits in their 5 to 3 loss. In their seventh loss, Gonzalez was again ineffective.
In their third game in Milwaukee, Jayson Werth gave Nats fans a scare when he lost a ninth inning fly ball in the afternoon sun, resulting in a two-out triple threatening the Nats one-run lead. But he caught the next one, allowing the Nats to hold on and win 3 to 2. Returning home, the Nats faced the Mets. In the first game, Joe Ross gave up 4 runs before getting the first out in the third inning, and the Nats appeared to be facing a loss. But after a trip to the mound by Baker, Ross settled down and Syndegard gave up 5 runs in the bottom of the third, with the Nats going on to win 11 to 4. The next game was the major league debut of Nats rookie pitcher Lucas Giolito. He pitched well, and the Nats won 5 to 0, though a rain delay prevented Giolito from being credited with a victory. In the third game Scherzer was lights out, and the Nats won 4 to 2 giving them a sweep. In their final game of the month, the first game of a series against the Reds, the Nats won 13 to 4.
The Nats’ offense excelled in June, with the Nats ranking 2nd in the NL in runs with 149 and first in weighted runs created (wRC+) with 113. They were 2nd in slugging percentage (.465), 3rd in home runs (38), and 3rd in on-base percentage (.346). Their offense was led by Danny Espinosa, Wilson Ramos, and Jayson Werth, as Daniel Murphy cooled off from his first two months and Bryce Harper continued to hit at a relatively disappointing (albeit, above average) pace.
During June, the Nats starters led the NL with park-adjusted fielding independent pitching (or FIP–) of 87, but their adjusted ERA– was 99, which was only sixth in the league. A relatively high batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of .314 and a mediocre left-on-base percentage of 71.9% help explain the gap between their strong fielding independent performance and their less stellar ability to keep runs off the board. In particular, Gio’s BABIP of .409 helped explain his poor ERA for the month of 6.95.
The Nats’ relief pitching slipped from the strong position it had maintained in the first two months of the season. The Nats relievers ranked ninth in the NL in June in both ERA (4.11) and in ERA– (98), fifth in RE24 (–0.67), sixth in FIP (3.79), and fifth in FIP– (93). Their 11 meltdowns was tied for the third lowest total in the NL.
17–10 (5.52 R/G – 4.15 RA/G)
Max Scherzer (4–1, 1.96 RA/9, 6 G, 41-1/3 IP, 12.6 K/9, .196 opp OBP, 1.9 RA9-WAR).
Most valuable position player:
Danny Espinosa (.309/.418/.704, 26 G, 9 HR, 21 R, 21 RBI, 1.7 fWAR). Honorable mention goes to Wilson Ramos (.364/.414/.636, 1.3 fWAR).
Most valuable relief pitcher:
Sammy Solis (1–1, 0.71 RA/9, 9 G, 12-2/3 IP, 12.1 K/9, .250 opp OBP, 4.92 RE24, 0.5 RA9-WAR, 3 shutdowns, 1 meltdown).
Felipe Rivero (0–2, 11.45 RA/9, 11 G, 11 IP, 8.2 K/9, .442 opp OBP, –5.93 RE24, –0.8 RA9-WAR, 2 shutdowns, 2 meltdowns).
Best start this month:
Max Scherzer (June 29, 4–2 win over the Mets) got 10 strikeouts in 7-1/3 scoreless innings, allowing 2 hits and 1 walk, for a game score of 83.
Tie: Tanner Roark (June 5, 10–9 win over the Reds in Cincinnati) gave up 5 runs on 7 hits in 3 innings, with 1 walks and 3 strikeouts (game score 27). Gio Gonzalez (June 25, 6–5 loss to the Brewers in Milwaukee) gave up 6 runs on 6 hits and a walk in 3 innings, getting 5 strikeouts (game score 27).
- Gio Gonzalez (June 9, 3–1 loss to the White Sox in Chicago) gave up 3 runs on 5 hits and 2 walks with 10 strikeouts in 7 innings (game score 63).
- Yusmeiro Petit (June 20, 4–1 loss to the Dodgers in Los Angeles) gave up 3 runs on 5 hits and 1 walk with 5 strikeouts in 6 innings (game score 54) in an emergency start facing Kershaw.
- Tanner Roark (June 21, 3–2 loss to the Dodgers in Los Angeles) gave up 3 runs on 6 hits and 1 walk with 5 strikeouts in 7-1/3 innings (game score 58).
- Tanner Roark (June 16, 8–5 win over the Padres in San Diego) gave up 4 runs on 7 hits and 2 walks with 5 strikeouts in 6 innings (game score 45).
- Joe Ross (June 27, 11–4 win over the Mets at home) gave up 4 runs on 10 hits and 1 walk, getting 7 strikeouts in 6 innings (game score 42). Ross did have one of the best recoveries I’ve seen—after allowing 9 hits and a walk from the first 16 batters he faced, he got outs from 11 of the last 12 (and the one runner he allowed was erased on a double play).
- Gio Gonzalez (June 30, 13–4 win over the Reds at home) gave up 4 runs on 6 hits and 4 walks with 9 strikeouts in 6 innings (game score 49).
Oliver Perez (June 22, 4–3 loss to the Dodgers in Los Angeles). Perez relieved Ross in the bottom of the seventh with a 2–2 tie, one out, and runners on second and third. He got a strikeout from Hernandez and a fly ball from Seager to get out of the jam without giving up a run. (Win probability added .235). This is the game that was lost in the ninth on Taylor’s error in fielding Puig’s ground ball single.
Felipe Rivero (June 18, 7–3 loss to the Padres in San Diego). With the Nats leading 3–1, Rivero came in for the bottom of the eighth. He gave up two singles and a walk, loading the bases. Wil Myers then hit a double, tying the game. Rivero then issued an intentional walk to load the bases and set up a double play. Wallace then hit a ground ball back to Rivero, and when he went home with the throw he hurled it past Ramos, giving the Padres the lead. After failing to retire any of the 6 batters he faced, he left with the bases loaded, still no outs, and the Nats trailing 4–3 (WPA –.819). Blake Treinen subsequently allowed all three baserunners to score, causing Rivero to be charged with a total of 6 runs allowed.
Jayson Werth (June 12, 5–4 win over the Phillies at home). In the bottom of the ninth, Werth came to bat with two outs, the bases loaded, and the Nats trailing 4 to 3. He smacked a ground ball up the middle, driving in two runs and giving the Nats a walk-off win (WPA .734).
Wilson Ramos (June 25, 6–5 loss to the Brewers in Milwaukee). Ramos came to bat in the top of the ninth with a runner on first, one out, and the Nats trailing 6–5, and grounded into a game-ending double play (WPA –.172).
Once again, we’re up to the deadline for all-star voting. Each year I put together an NL all-star team. For the last few years, I’ve used a systematic statistical method.
I won’t go through all the details of my methodology here (you can read another article if you’re interested), but the main idea is that I give weight to both this season and last season’s performance, plus a little bit of weight to career performance. I want to avoid selecting players who just hit a hot streak for three months. “Performance” includes defense. My method does allow an occasional exceptional player with limited playing time (for example, Corey Seager makes my team), but for the most part I’m looking for excellent play over the last year and a half.
Here’s my 2016 all-star team:
National League – Starters
C – Buster Posey – Giants
1B – Paul Goldschmidt – Diamondbacks
2B – Daniel Murphy – Nationals
3B – Nolan Arenado – Rockies
SS – Brandon Crawford – Giants
LF – Kris Bryant – Cubs
CF – Yoenis Cespedes – Mets
RF – Bryce Harper – Nationals
SP – Clayton Kershaw – Dodgers
C – Jonathan Lucroy – Brewers
C – Wilson Ramos – Nationals
1B – Anthony Rizzo – Cubs
1B – Joey Votto – Reds
1B – Freddie Freeman – Braves
2B – Ben Zobrist – Cubs
3B – Matt Carpenter – Cardinals
SS – Corey Seager – Dodgers
OF – Marcell Ozuna – Marlins
OF – Jason Heyward – Cubs
OF – Dexter Fowler – Cubs – on DL, replaced by:
OF – Starling Marte – Pirates
OF – Gregory Polanco – Pirates
OF – Odubel Herrera – Phillies
SP – Jake Arrieta – Cubs
SP – Zack Greinke – Diamondbacks
SP – Johnny Cueto – Giants
SP – Jon Lester – Cubs
SP – Madison Bumgarner – Giants
SP – Max Scherzer – Nationals
SP – John Lackey – Cubs
RP – Kenley Jansen – Dodgers
RP – Jeurys Familia – Mets
RP – Hector Rondon – Cubs
RP – Fernando Rodney – Padres
RP – A.J. Ramos – Marlins
Freddie Freeman and Odubel Herrera make my team because of the requirement that every team be represented; my statistical system would have picked Brandon Belt and Andrew McCutchen ahead of them.
In terms of Nationals who were near misses, Stephen Strasburg came closest to making my team, though my system still would have picked Noah Syndergaard and Jose Fernandez ahead of him.
The Nats went 16–14 in May and managed to pick up a game and a half on the 14–15 Mets. The Nats faced a much tougher schedule than they had in April—every team they played in May other than the Tigers ended the month with at least a .500 record (and the Tigers’ winning percentage was .471). The Nats finished the month with a 32–21 record, leading the division by two games over the second place Mets.
The month began with the Nats on the road, playing the third game of a 3-game set with the Cardinals. They won, giving them a sweep over the Cards. Next they faced the world champion Royals in Kansas City, and they took two of three. At that point they had won five of the first six games on a tough 10-game road trip. But their biggest challenge was still ahead of them in Chicago, where they had a 4-game series against the red hot Cubs, who at that point had a 20–6 record.
In the first game Joe Ross pitched well, allowing 2 runs on 5 hits and 2 walks in 6-2/3 innings, but the Nats managed only 2 hits against Cubs starter Hendricks (and 3 altogether) and lost the game 5–2. In the second game, Max Scherzer gave up 4 homers and 7 runs in 5 innings, and the Nats lost 8–6. The third game was a similar story, with Gio Gonzalez giving up 5 runs in 5-2/3 innings, and the Nats losing 8–5. In the final game, facing Cubs ace Jake Arrieta, the Nats finally seemed to have a chance to win, as they took a 3–1 lead into the 7th inning behind Tanner Roark‘s pitching. In the bottom of the 7th, the Cubs picked up two runs to tie it, and the game went to extra innings. The Nats had several opportunities to win. Their leadoff hitter reached base in the 9th and 10th innings, and they managed to load the bases in the 10th and 12th. But they weren’t able to score and Baez hit a walk-off homer in the 13th, with the Nats losing 4–3, the Cubs sweeping the series, and the Nats slipping into second place in the NL East.
The most notable aspect of the series was how Joe Maddon managed to shut down Bryce Harper, who was walked or hit by a pitch in 14 of his 19 plate appearances, including in all 7 of his plate appearances in the final extra-inning game. Ryan Zimmerman, who batted behind Harper, failed to protect Harper as he went 2 for 19 in the series. The ultimate insult came in the 10th and 12th innings of the final game, when Harper was intentionally walked in both innings to load the bases with two outs, only to have Zimmerman make the final out of each inning. Other opponents followed suit, as Harper was walked 15 times in the next 8 games. By that point, Harper’s timing was so messed up, batting only .195 through his first 16 games in May, that opposing pitchers finally began pitching to him again.
After the road trip, the Nats faced the Tigers at home. Stephen Strasburg won the first game as news came out that the Nats had signed him to a 7-year, $175 million contract extension. They lost the second game, but the third game was truly remarkable. Scherzer pitched a complete game and struck out 20 batters, tying record (with Roger Clemens, Kerry Wood, and Randy Johnson) for strikeouts in a 9-inning game. He faced 33 batters and threw 119 pitches, of which 96 were strikes, while allowing 6 hits and no walks. He gave up two home runs, however, making it a close game with the Nationals winning 3–2. The home runs were a persistent problem for Scherzer this month, as he gave up 10 home runs in his 6 starts during May.
The next and final series of the homestand was a 4-game set against the Marlins, including a Saturday day-night doubleheader. They won the first games, regaining the NL East lead. They then split the doubleheader and lost the finale the next day, splitting the series. Between games in the doubleheader, Nats owner Ted Lerner picked up the option for a 2-year extension on GM Mike Rizzo‘s contract, keeping him in Washington through 2018.
The next road trip began in New York with the Nats’ first series against their main rivals, the Mets. The Nats lost the first game—a pitching duel between Scherzer and Noah Syndegaard. They won the second game against an uncharacteristically wild Bartolo Colon and Mets bullpen, drawing 11 walks and 8 hits en route to a 7–1 Nats victory. In the third game, Strasburg pitched well and the Nats beat up on Matt Harvey, winning 9–1. They finished their road trip taking two of three against the Marlins.
Back in Washington, they had another 3-game set against the Mets. This time New York took two of three. This was followed by a 4-game set against the Cardinals, which they split. Back on the road in Philadelphia for the last 2 games of the month, the Nats won both games.
The Nats starters contributed to their success—their 3.70 ERA during May was 6th in the National League, and after park adjustment their ERA was 9% better than the league (an ERA– of 91), which was 5th behind the Cubs, Giants, Dodgers, and Braves. Their fielding independent pitching, or FIP, was Gonzalez struggled with a 5.23 ERA in May, but the other four starters all had ERAs below 4.00.
The relief pitching was outstanding, with the Nats relievers leading the NL in May in ERA (2.76) in ERA– (68), in RE24 (15.75), in FIP (2.82), and in FIP– (71). Their 9 meltdowns was the second lowest total in the NL.
The offense also contributed, with the Nats ranking 4th in the NL in runs with 133 and in weighted runs created (wRC+) with 101. They were 3rd in slugging percentage (.431) and 1st in home runs (43), even while Harper slumped with a .200 average and .363 slugging percentage. Zimmerman, Anthony Rendon, Wilson Ramos, and especially Daniel Murphy made up the slack. The team’s on-base percentage of .327 was 6th in the NL and a 20-point improvement from their April figure.
18–12 (4.43 R/G – 3.67 RA/G)
For the second consecutive month, this award goes to the NL Player of the Month, who this time is Daniel Murphy (.416/.424/.673, 29 G, 7 HR, 17 R, 23 RBI, 1.7 fWAR). (Harper had taken the award in April.)
Most valuable starting pitcher:
Stephen Strasburg (5–0, 3.11 RA/9, 6 G, 37-2/3 IP, 11.9 K/9, .285 opp OBP, 1.0 RA9-WAR).
Most valuable relief pitcher:
Yusmeiro Petit (0–0, 2.08 RA/9, 8 G, 13 IP, 7.6 K/9, .275 opp OBP, 4.22 RE24, 0.3 RA9-WAR, 2 of 5 inherited runners scored, 1 shutdown, 0 meltdowns).
Ben Revere (.170/.225/.266, –0.6 fWAR in 23 games and 102 plate appearances).
Best start this month:
Max Scherzer (May 11, 3–2 win over the Tigers) got 20 strikeouts in a complete game, tying the major league record for strikeouts in a 9-inning game, allowing 2 runs, 6 hits, and no walks, for a game score of 87.
Tanner Roark (May 14, 7–1 loss to the Marlins at home) gave up 7 runs on 8 hits in 5 innings, with 3 walks and 5 strikeouts. His game score was 25.
- Joe Ross (May 5, 5–2 loss to the Cubs in Chicago) gave up 2 runs on 5 hits and 2 walks with 9 strikeouts in 6-2/3 innings (game score 63).
- Max Scherzer (May 17, 2–0 loss to the Mets in New York) gave up 2 runs on 3 hits and 3 walks with 10 strikeouts in 6-1/3 innings (game score 66).
- Tanner Roark (May 25, 2–0 loss to the Mets at home) gave up 2 runs (1 earned) on 5 hits and 2 walks with 5 strikeouts in 7 innings (game score 64).
- Max Scherzer (May 27, 6–2 loss to the Cardinals at home) gave up 5 runs on 3 hits and 5 walks, which unfortunately were all bunched together, while striking out 6 in 7 innings (game score 53).
Jonathan Papelbon (May 8, 4–3 loss to the Cubs in 13 innings in Chicago). It wasn’t the prettiest performance—in two innings he gave up a single, a double, and a walk, and avoided giving up the winning run when Heyward was thrown out at home. But Papelbon did pitch scoreless 11th and 12th innings and gave the Nats opportunities to win, which they unfortunately weren’t able to take advantage of. (Win probability added .263).
Jonathan Papelbon (May 3, 7–6 loss to the Royals in Kansas City). With the Nats leading 6–4, Papelbon was called on to close it out in the bottom of the 9th. He gave up two singles and a stolen base, when Moustakas hit a one-out single to tie the game. After a fly-out and another single, Cain delivered the walk-off run with another single, the fifth in the inning. (WPA –.911)
Clint Robinson (May 9, 5–4 win over the Tigers at home). Called on to pinch hit with one out in the bottom of the 9th, with the bases empty and the score tied 4–4, Robinson hit a walk-off homer (WPA .424).
Jayson Werth (May 21, 3–2 loss to the Marlins in Miami). The Nats had entered the top of the ninth trailing 3–1, but after three singles and a walk the score was 3–2, and the Nats had the bases loaded with no outs. Werth hit a weak grounder to third. Prado stepped on third base to force out Michael A. Taylor, then threw home in time for the catcher to apply the tag to Murphy (WPA –.504). Jose Lobaton followed with a groundout to give the Marlins the win.
There’s an old saying, “You can’t fight city hall.” In baseball, the equivalent is “You can’t fight the umpire.”
In Monday’s game against the Tigers, Bryce Harper was ejected basically because umpire Brian Knight was thin skinned and wanted to make himself the center of the game. When Clint Robinson followed with a walk-off home run and Harper joined the celebration while dropping the f-bomb on the ump, the nation’s media weighed in. And while most of them condemned Harper, some of them also pointed to the arbitrary and unfair nature of Knight’s ejection of Harper that instigated the incident, thereby embarrassing the entire class of umpires. It was inevitable that they would take their revenge on the Nationals.
Their opportunity came in the top of the sixth inning of tonight’s game. Anthony Gose had just singled, loading the bases with the score tied 3 to 3 with one out. The next batter, Andrew Romine, grounded to second baseman Daniel Murphy, who flipped to shortstop Danny Espinosa for the force, but Espinosa’s throw to first was too late for an inning-ending double play, so the Tigers scored the go-ahead run.
The Nats infielders immediately pointed toward Gose, indicating that he had made an illegal slide into second base, and Dusty Baker called for umpire review. Based on the language of the rule, it seemed like an open-and-shut case. The rule says:
If a runner does not engage in a bona fide slide, and initiates (or attempts to make) contact with the fielder for the purpose of breaking up a double play, he should be called for interference under this Rule 6.01. A “bona fide slide” for purposes of Rule 6.01 occurs when the runner: (1) begins his slide (i.e., makes contact with the ground) before reaching the base; (2) is able and attempts to reach the base with his hand or foot; 2016 Official Baseball Rules (PDF)_2016 Official Baseball Rules 3/15/16 2:38 PM Page 70 Rule 6.01(j) to 6.02(a) 71 (3) is able and attempts to remain on the base (except home plate) after completion of the slide; and (4) slides within reach of the base without changing his pathway for the purpose of initiating contact with a fielder.
Gose was clearly not attempting to reach the base and was clearly attempting to break up the double play by forcing Espinosa to move out of his way. But the anonymous New York umpires reviewing the call would not be deterred in their efforts to punish the Nationals. They upheld the call, explaining that although Gose didn’t make a bona fide slide, “his actions did not hinder or impede the fielder.” Which, as F.P. Santangelo ranted, is clearly nonsense – Espinosa had to take an extra step before his throw to avoid Gose plowing into him. How couldn’t that not have hindered and impeded him as a fielder? Furthermore, what’s the point of having a rule against runners making illegal slides if the enforcement of the rule is going to be up to the arbitrary whims of the men in blue?
The umpires’ decision clearly changed the outcome of the game, and it was clearly contrary to the new stated rule, and also contrary to how similar slides have been called previously this year. But when the umpires as a class decide to gang up on a team and make them pay, resistance is futile. The umpires always get the last word. Although I wish the bad umpires could be fired, it’s not going to happen and they’re going to continue protect their own fraternity and to misuse their authority.
The other frustrating episode of tonight’s game came in the eighth inning, when Wilson Ramos singled with one out and the Nats trailing 5 to 4. My immediate thought was that Michael A. Taylor is still available and should pinch run for Ramos, who—as much as we all love him—has to be a leading contender for the title of slowest player in the majors. With two outs, Clint Robinson hit a double and Ramos was thrown out attempting to score from first. After the game, Baker said he was planning to pinch run for Ramos if he reached second. I”ve seen Baker do that a couple of times before and I haven’t understood it. If a pinch runner would be useful scoring from second on a single, wouldn’t he also be useful in scoring from first on a double, going from first to third on a single, preventing the double play, possibly stealing a base, and all the other ways a good runner can help you in the late innings of a close game? IMO, this wasn’t one of Baker’s better decisions.
I’m sorry that I’m late getting this finished and posted – a lot was going on this week.
The Nats’ 16–7 record was their most successful April ever. Of course, they were helped by facing the easiest schedule in baseball. And despite their hot start, they finished the month with only a half-game lead over the Mets, who started the season with a similarly hot 15–7 record.
The season opened on April 4 in Atlanta, where the Nats twice gave up the lead before winning the game 4–3 in 10 innings. Ben Revere was injured in the game and was on the disabled list for the rest of the month. They won the second game of the two-game set 3–1. Returning to Washington for the home opener against the Marlins, Tanner Roark gave up 4 runs (3 of them earned) in 4 innings of a rain-delayed 6–4 loss. After the second game of the series was cancelled due to bad weather, the Nats beat the Marlins 4–2 to split the series. The Nats then hosted the hapless Braves for a 4-game set and swept them.
The Nats then went to Philadelphia, where they won the first two of three games against the Phillies. After that second game, the Nats’ record was 9–1, best in baseball, and the team had a 5-game lead in the NL East. Bryce Harper homered in every game in the Philadelphia series, which along with a homer in the last game of the Braves series gave him homers in four consecutive games, and was later shared Player of the Week honors. His homer in the final game came in an especially critical spot, breaking a tie in the top of the tenth inning. Unfortunately, Jonathan Papelbon wasn’t able to hold the lead and took the loss in the bottom of the tenth for his first blown save. In Miami, the Nats split a 4-game set against the Marlins. In the second game of the series, Jayson Werth hit his 200th career home run as part of the 4 homer, 7 run seventh inning rally by the Nats.
After the Marlins series, the Nats returned home for their first interleague series against the Twins. The Nats swept the series, in which the final game was won 6–5 in the 16th inning on a Chris Heisey walkoff home run. But the Nats bats were stopped by the Phillies, who swept a 3-game series in which the Nats were shut out in the last two games. The month ended with the Nats winning two games in St. Louis against the Cardinals at the start of a challenging 10-game road trip.
After their 9–1 start through April 16, the Nats’ record slowed to 7–6 for the rest of the month, while the Mets started 4–6 but then went 11–1 to draw within a half game of the Nats by the end of the month. According to Fangraphs, the Nats’ odds of winning the division were 40.7% at the beginning of the season, but had slipped to 37.3% by the end of the month.
What went right for the Nats? Mostly the pitching—at 2.28 the team ranked second in the NL in starting pitcher ERA just behind the Cubs, and fourth in fielding independent pitching (FIP) at 2.91, behind the Mets, Phillies, and Cubs. The most surprising aspect of the success of their starting pitching was that it came even though their ace, Max Scherzer, had a disappointing month, with a 4.35 ERA and 4.50 FIP as he gave up 5 home runs in 5 starts.
The relief pitching was also quite successful, which may also have been a surprise. Nats relievers led the NL in ERA at 2.53 and in RE24 with 12.84, and were third in FIP at 3.21. They recorded the second-most shutdowns with 24, and had the second fewest meltdowns with 7.
The excellent pitching made up for an offense that depended heavily on just two highly successful hitters, Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy. The team’s on-base percentage of .307 was 11th in the NL and their slugging percentage of .384 ranked 9th, while their weighted runs created (wRC+) of 81 ranked 10th. This was despite Harper ranking fourth and Murphy sixth in the league in wRC+ during the month. However, the only Nats hitters besides Harper and Murphy with above average wRC+ for the month were Chris Heisey and Wilson Ramos. The others were generally disappointing.
16–7 (4.04 R/G – 2.61 RA/G)
The award goes to Bryce Harper (.286/.406/.714, 23 G, 9 HR, 16 R, 24 RBI, 1.2 fWAR), the 2015 MVP and April’s NL Player of the Month. Honorable mention goes to Daniel Murphy (.370/.433/.580, 1.0 fWAR).
Most valuable starting pitcher:
Stephen Strasburg (4–0, 2.25 RA/9, 5 G, 36 IP, 10.0 K/9, .267 opp OBP, 1.5 RA9-WAR).
Most valuable relief pitcher:
Shawn Kelley (0–0, 0.00 RA/9, 10 G, 8 IP, 12.4 K/9, .226 opp OBP, 2.80 RE24, 0.5 RA9-WAR, 3 of 8 inherited runners scored).
This award is shared by Clint Robinson (.050/.136/.050, –0.4 fWAR), and Michael A. Taylor (.183/.218/.317, –0.4 fWAR), with dishonorable mention going to Stephen Drew (.125/.160/.250, –0.3 fWAR) and Ryan Zimmerman (.219/.301/.301, –0.3 fWAR).
Best start this month:
Tanner Roark (April 23, 2–0 win over the Twins at home) got 15 strikeouts in 7 innings with no runs, 2 hits, and 3 walks allowed, for a game score of 85. His pitching performance was so unusual and unexpected that it led to, for example, this article by Owen Watson of Fangraphs. Honorable mention goes to Stephen Strasburg (April 19, 7–0 win over the Marlins in Miami) who pitched 8 shutout innings, giving up 3 hits and 2 walks with 10 strikeouts (game score of 84).
Tanner Roark (April 7, 6–4 loss to the Marlins in the Nationals’ home opener) gave up 4 runs on 9 hits in 4 innings, with 3 walks and 3 strikeouts. His game score was 30.
- Gio Gonzalez (April 27, 3–0 loss to the Phillies at home) gave up 2 runs on 5 hits and 3 walks with 5 strikeouts in 6-1/3 innings (game score 59).
- Max Scherzer (April 11, 6–4 win over the Braves at home) gave up 4 runs on 6 hits and 3 walks with 6 strikeouts in 6 innings (game score 47).
Blake Treinen (April 12, 2–1 win over the Braves at home). He entered in the top of the eighth with the scored tied 0–0, one out, and runners on first and second. After allowing a single to load the bases, he got a double play to get out of the inning without a run scoring. The Nats scored two in the bottom of the eighth on a Harper double. In the ninth, Treinen struck out the first two batters he faced before giving up a walk (Win probability added .210). Felipe Rivero was brought in to get the final out, and Rivero gave up a double with a run scoring before he struck out the final batter.
Jonathan Papelbon (April 17, 3–2 loss to the Phillies in Philadelphia). With the scored tied 1–1, the game had gone to extra innings. Harper hit a solo home run in the top of the tenth, and Papelbon came in to get the save in the bottom of the tenth. With one out, he gave up a double to Bourjos. He got a second out, then gave up a game-tying single to Blanco, followed by a walk-off double surrendered to Galvis. (WPA –.809)
This award is shared by two hitters in the same game, who made very different types of hits, but with similar results. In the 16-inning marathon that the Nats played against the Twins on April 24, the Nats were trailing 4–3 in the bottom of the ninth when Bryce Harper led off the inning with a game-saving and game-tying home run (WPA .441). But that wasn’t the highest win probability added of any Nats plate appearance that afternoon. In the 15th inning, the Twins had scored another run and the Nats were trailing 5–4. With 2 outs, Danny Espinosa walked and then stole second. The Nats bench was out of pinch hitters, so Oliver Perez came to bat. Bizarrely, he laid down a two-out bunt, hoping to beat it out for a hit. The Twins catcher, JR Murphy, reached the ball but turned and threw it away, allowing Espinosa to score from second and tying the game (WPA .466).
Jose Lobaton (April 24, the same 16-inning, 6–5 win over the Twins at home). In the bottom of the tenth inning with the score tied 4–4, Lobaton came to bat with one out and runners on first and second, and grounded into a rall-killing double play (WPA –.204).
It takes me a while to observe a manager, see how he handles various situations, and get a sense of how he deals with stress. So it’s way too early for me to evaluate Dusty Baker. But I do see some patterns emerging, some of which i like, others not so much.
We’re only three weeks into the season, but he’s already given almost all of the regulars a day off. I’ve frequently argued in favor of giving regulars—especially the older ones—periodic days off. This not only helps the player regroup during a long season, but also helps keep the bench fresh by giving them some at bats and time in the field. In contrast, Matt Williams tended to run out the same lineup week after week, giving bench players little opportunity to play.
Another contrast is that both Williams and Davey Johnson tended to set their bullpens an inning at a time, whereas Baker tends to be more willing to use a reliever for four or five outs, not necessarily starting or stopping at the beginning and end of an inning. I like Baker’s approach—again, it’s less rigid and gives more opportunities for getting the right match-ups. Baker also seems sensitive to giving his relievers rest when they’ve been used repeatedly.
My biggest complaint about Baker so far was for sticking with Stephen Strasburg too long yesterday. I’ve repeatedly complained that I don’t like letting the starter hit (rather than using a pinch hitter) late in a close game when it’s clear that the pitcher has at most one inning left. Yesterday, at the end of 7 innings Strasburg had thrown 90 pitches, but the game was tied and he had faced 25 batters, which meant he was approaching the ominous fourth time through the lineup. Almost all pitchers have worse results the fourth time facing a batter; for example, Strasburg’s career OPS allowed the fourth time through (albeit in only 57 plate appearances) is .868 (compared with .630 the third time through).
My other complaint is Baker sticking with Michael A. Taylor as the leadoff batter, a role that he’s clearly not suited for. It’s true that the Nats don’t have a classic leadoff man, but I’d probably ask Anthony Rendon or Jayson Werth to lead off.
The Nats have had some early luck, but it’s hard not to feel good about this season.
This winter it’s been tough for me to get excited about the Nats and baseball. Several long-time favorite players left via free agency. The team pursued several big-name players, but failed to land them. The main moves they did make—trading away Yunel Escobar and signing Daniel Murphy, trading away Drew Storen and signing Shawn Kelley, picking up Ben Revere—probably improved the team only slightly. The player I earnestly hoped they would trade, Jonathan Papelbon, is back. Meh.
Only in the last couple of weeks have I started warming up to this year’s Nats. It helps that they have the best player, and probably the second-best pitcher in the National League. And even though we all know spring training statistics are meaningless (or are they?), it still helped me feel better about the team to see them go 18–4 in the Grapefruit League. And even though this is probably the least impressive team the Nats have fielded in the last five years, playing in a weak division they still look to be quite competitive. Finally, a week ago I relented and bought opening day tickets.
With Bryce Harper (9.5 fWAR last year) and Max Scherzer (6.4 fWAR & RA9WAR) returning, the Nats have a solid foundation, even assuming some regression. (FanGraphs projects Harper at 7.3 fWAR for 2016 and Scherzer at 5.8.) Some of that regression should be offset by regression in the other direction from some of last year’s poor performers. For example, Jayson Werth‘s –0.3 fWAR from last season is projected to increase to +1.0 this season, and Wilson Ramos is projected to increase from 0.4 to 1.6.
But even in the NL East, the Nats will need more than Harper and Scherzer to secure a title. The key players in my view are Anthony Rendon and Stephen Strasburg. We need Rendon to play more like the 6.5 WAR, .186 ISO player we saw in 2014, rather than the injured 0.9 WAR, .100 ISO player we saw last season. And we need Strasburg to pitch like he did in the last two months last season, 92 strikeouts and only 8 walks in 66-1/3 innings, good for a 1.90 ERA and an 8–2 record. This spring he’s looked like he’s ready to return to that form.
This Nats team certainly also has its flaws. In particular, Ryan Zimmerman at first base, Revere and Michael A. Taylor platooning in center field, Ramos at catcher, and Werth in left field all project to be below average players. Tanner Roark as the fifth starter is a bit of a mystery—I wouldn’t be surprised to see him pitch terribly or to see him pitch very well. We’ve certainly seen both over the last two seasons, and the Nats need to find out which pitcher he is.
The good thing about a team with holes is that they can fill some of them with mid-season deals. One of Mike Rizzo‘s problems last season was that he didn’t think he had any holes and expected everything to be alright once everyone was back and healthy. So the only trade-deadline deal he made was the infamous Papelbon trade. The Mets, in contrast, recognized last July that they had several holes and set about making themselves better. Their second-half improvement wasn’t mainly due to their mid-season acquisitions—several of their players also started playing better—but they do show how it’s not always a bad thing for a team to have a few holes. Nevertheless, I think it’s generally better for a team to fill their holes during the off-season rather than waiting until the middle of the season to do so, and I wish the Nats had been more aggressive this winter.
My biggest question from this offseason, though, is why are the Nationals’ billionaire owners insisting that in order for any free-agent player to sign with them, the player needs to lend them money? Yes, deferred compensation is exactly that—the player receives part of his compensation as an IOU, meaning that the player is lending money to the owner. If the Lerners are that hard up for cash, why don’t they just go to a bank for a loan, rather than hitting up the players? I mean, it’s fine if a player (such as Scherzer) wants to lend them money, and there are even tax advantages to the player. But as far as I’m aware there aren’t any tax advantages to the employer. So why are the Lerners insisting that any player who wants to play for the team has to make them a loan? This odd insistence seems to have cost the Nats several excellent potential players this winter.