Most of us are familiar with “win probability added” (WPA) – a metric which lets you identify which play in a game most contributed to a victory or loss, based on the difference between the probability of winning the game before and after the play takes place. In a close game, the biggest play usually comes late in the game, when a lead is taken or the win is assured. In a blowout, on the other hand, the biggest play may occur much earlier when the team takes an early lead that is never given up.
The same concept can apply to games played—we can look at all of the games played in the season and see how the probability of winning the pennant changes with each game played. In a tight pennant race, the biggest game usually takes place near the end of the season when a crucial game shifts the odds decisively in favor of the winning team. On the other hand, for a race that isn’t so close, such as this year’s NL East race, the biggest game may take place weeks before the end of the season.
I’ve been tracking the probability of the Nats winning the division on the Fangraphs site (though several other sites offer alternative sets of probabilities). Unlike WPA, however, the game-by-game change in the probability of winning the division is not necessarily the most appropriate guide to the biggest games of the season because the change in probability is affected not only by what happens in the game the Nats were playing, but also by what happened in the game played by their rival. (In contrast, for WPA every positive change in probability is matched by a negative change in probability for your opponent).
So I used game-by-game changes in probability to help find some candidates for biggest game of the season, but I combined it with some judgment rather than simply taking the numbers by themselves. I’m pretty confident, though, that the game I’ve identified was clearly the Nats’ “biggest” single game of the season in terms of moving them toward their divisional championship.
On July 7, the Nats began a 4-game series against the Mets in New York. When the series began, the Nats were 4 games ahead of the Mets, and their probability of winning the division, according to Fangraphs, was 77%. If the Mets won the series, they would be right in the race with the Nats, whereas if the Nats won the series, the Mets would be at least 6 games behind. The Mets won the first game, narrowing the margin to 3 games and reducing the Nats division probability to 74.5%.
On July 8, Stephen Strasburg faced “Thor,” Noah Syndergaard, in a matchup of aces. Although Syndergaard had recently been diagnosed with bone spurs, he had pitched brilliantly in his previous start.
Strasburg pitched a superb game, striking out 9 and allowing only two hits and one run in 7 innings, giving up the run on a homer by Asdrubal Cabrera. For the Nats, Clint Robinson hit a two-run homer and Daniel Murphy added an RBI double. Syndergaard had to leave the game in the fifth as his velocity dropped, and Cespedes also left with an injury. The Nats won 3 to 1, and the Nats lead returned to 4 games, with a division winning probability of 83%. Their lead would never again drop below 4 games. It was their biggest win of the season.
The Nats went on to win games 3 and 4 of the series and went into the All-Star break with a 6-game lead. While it isn’t clear whether Strasburg will be able to contribute to the Nationals this post-season, he deserves credit for winning their biggest game of the regular season.
I apologize for posting this so late. I had it mostly finished before the end of August, but then I was traveling in early September and didn’t get it finished, and haven’t been motivated to finally finish it up. I hope a few readers still find it interesting.
August began with the Nats 17 games over .500, holding a 4 game lead in their division over the Marlins. Fangraphs showed their probability of winning their division at 88.4%. After going 17–11 in August, the Nats finished the month 23 games over .500 and with a 9-game lead over the Mets (and an 11-game lead over the faltering Marlins). Their probability of winning the division had soared to 99.8%. By mid-month, Harper Gordek of the Nationals Baseball blog had alteready called the division for the Nats.
The month began auspiciously with the Nats finishing a western road trip with a series against the Diamondbacks, which they swept. Returning home, they took two of three against the Giants. Ryan Zimmerman went on the disabled list with a wrist contusion suffered when he was hit by a pitch on the last day of July. Continuing the home stand, the Nats split two games with the Indians, then took two of three against the Braves. Bryce Harper was out of the lineup for a week with a stiff neck during the latter part of the home stand, following a stretch of very poor hitting. Near the end of the home stand, the Nats released former closer Jonathan Papelbon.
With three days off during the first 11 days of the month, the Nats schedule seemed pretty easy, but the remainder of the month would feature a 20-day stretch without a day off.
The Nats’ next road trip began with three games against the Rockies in Colorado. The Nats scored 17 runs but gave up 22 in the series, and lost two of the three games. Needless to say, the bullpen got used a lot, and Sammy Solis went on the DL. Next came a 4-game set against Braves, which the Nats won three games to one. Zimmerman and Jose Lobaton returned from their DL stints. The road trip finished near home with two games in Baltimore, and the Orioles won both games. Stephen Strasburg went on the DL with “right elbow soreness,” though the front office hinted that it was more a chance for him to rest after some rough starts.
These were followed by two games against the Orioles in Washington, which the Nats split. In a trade with the Oakland A’s, the Nats acquired left-handed relief pitcher Marc Rzepczynski. The Nats then hosted the Rockies for three games, winning the first game and losing the last two. The month ended in Philadelphia, where the Nats swept a three-game series with the Phillies.
The Nats’ offense excelled in August. Their 157 runs scored ranked second in the National League, and their weighted runs created (wRC+) of 109 ranked third. Led by Trea Turner, they ranked second in the league in FanGraph’s measure of baserunning (BsR).
The starting pitching also did well, ranking third in the National League in ERA adjusted for ballpark (ERA–) with 98 and second in adjusted fielding independent pitching (FIP–) with 95. The relief pitching was the problem area; the Nats’ relievers ranked seventh in RE24 (–2.73), seventh in ERA– (100), and ninth in FIP– (99).
17–11 (5.64 R/G – 4.61 RA/G)
Trea Turner (.357/.366/.571, 27 G, 5 HR, 27 R, 15 RBI, 11 SB, 1.4 fWAR). Honorable mention goes to Anthony Rendon (.324/.390/.539, 1.3 fWAR).
Most valuable starting pitcher:
Tanner Roark (4–1, 2.79 RA/9, 6 G, 38-2/3 IP, 6.1 K/9, .325 opp OBP, 1.3 RA9-WAR). Honorable mention goes to Max Scherzer (4–1, 3.27 RA/9, 1.1 RA9-WAR).
Most valuable relief pitcher:
Mark Melancon (0–0, 0.66 RA/9, 15 G, 13-2/3 IP, 9.2 K/9, .204 opp OBP, 3.00 RE24, 0.7 RA9-WAR, 6 shutdowns, 0 meltdown).
Stephen Strasburg (1–3, 10.19 RA/9, 4 G, 17-2/3 IP, 12.2 K/9, .402 opp OBP, –0.7 RA9-WAR) went on the disabled list after three consecutive poor performances.
Best start this month:
Max Scherzer (August 25, 4–0 win over the Orioles at home) got 10 strikeouts in 8 scoreless innings, allowing 2 hits and no walks, for a game score of 88.
Stephen Strasburg (August 17, 12–10 loss to the Rockies in Colorado) gave up 9 runs on 9 hits in 1-2/3 innings, with 3 walks and 3 strikeouts (game score 1).
- Max Scherzer (August 9, 3–1 loss to the Indians at home) gave up 2 runs (of which only 1 was earned) on 3 hits and 1 walk with 10 strikeouts in 7 innings (game score 74).
- AJ Cole (August 22, 4–3 loss to the Orioles in Baltimore) gave up 4 runs on 5 hits and 2 walks with 8 strikeouts in 7 innings (game score 57).
- Gio Gonzalez (August 10, 7–4 win over the Indians at home) gave up 4 runs on 7 hits and 1 walk with 5 strikeouts in 5 innings (game score 41).
- Max Scherzer (August 20, 11–9 win over the Braves in Atlanta) gave up 4 runs on 6 hits and 3 walks with 6 strikeouts in 6-1/3 innings (game score 48).
Blake Treinen (August 21, 7–6 loss to the Braves in Atlanta in 10 innings). Treinen pitched the eighth and ninth innings without giving up a run or a hit, allowing one walk. (Win probability added .334).
Yusmeiro Petit (August 27, 9–4 loss to the Rockies at home). Asked to pitch in the top of the 11th inning of a tie game, and with no one available in the bullpen to bail him out, Petit gave up 5 runs on 7 hits including 2 homers.
Jayson Werth (August 27, 9–4 loss to the Rockies at home in 11 innings). With two out in the bottom of the 9th, with the Nats trailing 4–3, Werth homered to send the game to extra innings.(WPA .466). Unfortunately, Petit allowed five Rockies runs in the 11th.
Ryan Zimmerman (August 24, 10–8 loss to the Orioles at home. The Nats entered the bottom of the 9th trailing 10–3. But after a grand slam by Daniel Murphy and an RBI double by Anthony Rendon, the Nats had runners on first and second with only one out, and an impossible comeback now seemed possible. But Zimmerman grounded into a game ending double play, ending the hope for a most remarkable comeback (WPA –.191).
Playing most of their games at home, the Nats should have widened their divisional lead in July. Instead, they turned in a mixed bag, winning important series against the Mets and Pirates, but losing series to the Brewers, Dodgers, and Padres. With a 13–12 record for the month, the Nats saw their lead over the resurgent Marlins shrink from 6.5 games to 4, even while their lead over the faltering Mets expanded from 6 games to 6.5.
The month began with the Nats at home playing the last three games of a 4-game set against the Reds. The Nats won two of three (and three of the four games in the series). Joe Ross was sent to the DL with shoulder inflammation, even while Stephen Strasburg returned to the active roster. The Nats then faced the Brewers in a series starting on Independence Day. Max Scherzer pitched well in the first game, but he took the loss when he gave up a run while the Nats were shut out with only 2 hits. The Nats lost the second game and won the third, losing the series.
The Nats went to New York to face the Mets in their final series before the All-Star break. Ryan Zimmerman went on the DL and Trea Turner was called up, and before the month was over would play both second base and center field and move into a near-regular role. The Nats lost the first game of the series, but then won the last three to go into the All-Star break with a 6-game lead.
The Nats had five players selected to the All-Star team, four of whom played—Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy, Wilson Ramos, and Scherzer (who replaced Strasburg). Playing in San Diego, Harper and Murphy each had hits, and Scherzer pitched a scoreless inning.
After the break, the Nats faced the Pirates at home. They won the first two games (giving them 5 in a row), but lost the finale, an 18-inning marathon (the longest in Nats history). They next lost two of three to the Dodgers and 2 of 3 to the Padres. In the final game against the Padres, the Nats were ahead 6–4 after seven innings, but Shawn Kelley gave up 2 runs in the 8th, tying the game, and Jonathan Papelbon surrendered 4 runs in the 9th for a 10–6 loss.
The Nats then went on the road. Playing a 2-game set with the Indians in Cleveland, Papelbon blew a save with a 6–4 lead, failing to get an out and leaving the game with the score tied and the bases loaded. Behind Strasburg, the Nats won the second game, though the bullpen again gave the team a scare in the 9th when Felipe Rivero allowed a run to score and two more batters to reach, before Blake Treinen came in and got a double play to close the game.
The month ended with a 4-game set against the Giants in San Francisco. The Nats took the first two games, but lost the last two. At the trade deadline, Rivero was dealt to the Pirates in exchange for closer Mark Melancon.
The Nats’ batters didn’t hit well during July. Their .309 OBP ranked 12th of 15 NL teams, and their .412 slugging percentage ranked 6th. Harper, in particular, remained in a terrible slump, hitting .176/.303/.319. Ben Revere also remained in a slump (.198/.235/.333) and by the end of the month Turner was starting to find playing time in center field.
The Nationals’ starting pitching, on the other hand, held the team together this month. The starting pitchers’ 3.10 ERA was best in the NL, and Scherzer, Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, and Tanner Roark all had ERAs below 3.20. Only their rookie starters, Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez—called up to fill in while Ross was on the DL—disappointed.
The Nats’ relief pitching was a mixed bag. While their earned run average of 2.94 ranked 7th in the league, they ranked 5th in both win probability added (WPA) and in RE24. But their 17 “meltdowns” was 2nd-worst in the NL, while their 22 “shutdowns” ranked only 8th. The bullpen meltdowns were concentrated in the last seven games of the month—the final game of the Padres series, along with the Indians and Giants series.
15–10 (4.32 R/G – 3.56 RA/G)
Max Scherzer (2–1, 1.59 RA/9, 5 G, 34 IP, 10.3 K/9, .242 opp OBP, 1.7 RA9-WAR). Honorable mention goes to Stephen Strasburg (4–1, 2.08 RA/9, 1.5 RA9-WAR).
Most valuable position player:
Daniel Murphy (.346/.372/.744, 22 G, 6 HR, 13 R, 23 RBI, 1.1 fWAR). Honorable mention goes to Anthony Rendon (.259/.355/.519, 1.0 fWAR).
Most valuable relief pitcher:
Though traded to the Pirates at the end of the month, the award goes to Felipe Rivero (0–0, 1.32 RA/9, 9 G, 13-2/3 IP, 7.2 K/9, .298 opp OBP, 4.61 RE24, 0.5 RA9-WAR, 2 shutdowns, 1 meltdown).
Jonathan Papelbon (1–2, 9.00 RA/9, 10 G, 8 IP, 12.4 K/9, .375 opp OBP, –4.48 RE24, –0.5 RA9-WAR, 3 shutdowns, 2 meltdowns) lost his job as closer after a very bad week.
Best start this month:
I usually pick the best start based on game scores, but this month the Nats had 4 starts with game scores of 76, as well as a couple more 75s. Based on quality of opponent and not allowing a run to score, I’m going with Stephen Strasburg (July 27, 4–1 win over the Indians), who got 7 strikeouts in 7 scoreless innings, allowing 3 hits and 2 walks, for a game score of 76.
In his major league debut, Reynaldo Lopez (July 19, 8–4 loss to the Dodgers at home) gave up 6 runs on 10 hits in 4-2/3 innings, with 1 walks and an impressive 9 strikeouts (game score 28).
- Max Scherzer (July 4, 1–0 loss to the Brewers at home) gave up 1 run on 4 hits and 3 walks with 7 strikeouts in 6 innings (game score 64).
- Gio Gonzalez (July 31, 3–1 loss to the Giants in San Francisco) gave up 2 runs (1 earned) on 6 hits and 2 walks with 1 strikeout in 6 innings (game score 53).
Felipe Rivero (July 17, 2–1 loss to the Pirates at home in 18 innings). Rivero pitched the 14th, 15th, and 16 innings, giving up 1 walk and one double, and kept the game tied with the help of a spectacular relay throw to home by Danny Espinosa. (Win probability added .397).
Jonathan Papelbon (July 26, 7–6 loss to the Indians in Cleveland). Called on to pitch the bottom of the 9th with a 6–4 lead, Papelbon faced 5 batters without getting an out. He walked the leadoff hitter, gave up an RBI double, and then the tying run scored on Ryan Zimmerman‘s errant throw to first on a sacrifice bunt attempt. After an intentional walk, he gave up a single to load the bases, still with no outs (WPA –.850). Oliver Perez was then brought in and got one out before giving up the game-winning hit. Papelbon was given one more save opportunity two nights later, but was pulled early and then lost his job.
Daniel Murphy (July 17, 2–1 loss to the Pirates at home in 18 innings). With two outs in the bottom of the 9th, with the Nats trailing 1–0, Murphy homered and sent the game to extra innings (WPA .489). Alas, 9 long innings later the Pirates finally broke the tie and held on to beat the Nats.
Stephen Drew (July 17, 2–1 loss to the Pirates at home in 18 innings – hey, in an 18 inning game you’re going to get a lot of high leverage plate appearance). In the bottom of the 10th, Drew came to bat with one out, runners on first and second, and the game tied 1–1, and grounded into a rally-ending double play (WPA –.204).
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.