Nats’ May in review: It’s frustrating
In May, the Nats’ offense died and the team went 11–15. Fortunately, the Braves (13–16) did almost as poorly, so the Nats lost only a half game in the standings, ending in third place with a .500 record (27–27), 1/2 game behind the surging second-place Marlins and 2-1/2 games behind the Braves.
Of course, injuries were the Nats big problem. Despite several players returning from the disabled list, Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman spent the entire month on the DL. Furthermore, several players who had played well in April, including Danny Espinosa and Anthony Rendon, went into slumps. Despite the return of Doug Fister from the DL, the starting pitching was still hit-or-miss, with Gio Gonzalez having a couple of awful outings, then going on the DL, and Jordan Zimmermann also performing below average.
The Nats had trouble scoring runs when they needed them, going 2–7 in one-run games. If their runs scored and given up were distributed more evenly (their “Pythagorean win-loss record), they would have gone a more respectable 13–13. They had a long stretch where the pitching was good enough to win, but they couldn’t scratch out the runs.
The Nats started the month on the road facing the Phillies, and lost that series 2 games to 1. They then faced the Dodgers at home, with Scott Hairston and Wilson Ramos coming off the disabled list. They took that series 2 games to 1. Next came a road trip. Fister was activated. The Nats were swept in three games by the Athletics, but they managed to win two of three against the Diamondbacks. After the first Oakland game, Adam LaRoche went on the DL with a right quad strain.
At home, the Nats took two of three against the Mets. At that point, the Nats were still 3 games above .500 (23–20), but then the month went downhill fast. In the first of three games against the Reds, they lost a 15-inning heart breaker, in which several opportunities to win were lost, including a couple of highlight reel plays by the Reds. The Nats lost two of three to the Reds, then went to Pittsburgh where they lost three of four, with LaRoche back in the lineup for the victory in game 4. At home facing the Marlins, they were swept in two games. Now two games below .500, the bats suddenly came alive as they beat the Rangers by scores of 9–2 and 10–2 to end the month.
Despite the return of Ramos, the team’s offense was awful as several players went into month-long slumps. The Nats finished 14th (or next to last) in the National League in runs scored with 96 and 13th in weighted runs created relative to league (wRC+) with 86 (that is, they created 14% fewer runs than the average team, taking account of park effects and quality of the league). Their defense, on the other hand, went from worst in the league in April to merely below average in May, with UZR of –3.2.
The starters’ ERA– (earned run average adjusted for park and league quality) was 107 (that is, 7% worse than average), ranking 9th in the NL. The poor defense obviously hurt their performance in terms of runs allowed, and the starters fared better on the fielding independent measures, with a FIP– of 100 (league average), which ranked sixth, and an xFIP– of 97, which was ninth in the NL.
The relievers were the bright spot, with an ERA– of 61 (39% better than the league average), which ranked first. Their FIP– of 81 ranked second, but their xFIP– of 106 ranked 12th. The difference between FIP– and xFIP– reflects their low rate of home runs allowed (0.33 per 9 innings), second best in the league.
13-13 (3.69 R/G – 3.77 RA/G)
Tyler Clippard (2-0, 6 holds, 0.00 RA/9, 13 G, 11-2/3 IP, 10.0 K/9, 3.1 BB/9, 4.6 H/9, 5.72 RE24, 0.89 WPA, 7 shutdowns, 0 meltdown).
Most valuable position player
Ian Desmond (.229/.327/.458, 26 G, 110 PA, 6 HR, 10 R, 16 RBI, 0.6 fWAR, 5.90 RE24). Honorable mention goes to Adam LaRoche (.341/.417/.585), but in only 12 G and 48 PA due to a stint on the DL.
Most valuable starting pitcher:
Stephen Strasburg (2-2, 3.35 RA/9, 6 G, 40-1/3 IP, 8.3 K/9, 1.6 BB/9, 2.56 RE24, 0.8 rWAR).
I’m going to declare it a 3-way tie between Danny Espinosa (.125/.195/.263, 24 G, 87 PA, –0.5 fWAR), Ross Detwiler (0–1, 1 meltdown, 10.38 RA/9, 15.6 H/9, 3 HR in 8-2/3 IP, –0.5 rWAR), and Gio Gonzalez (0–3, 7.98 RA/9, 12.3 H/9, 3 HR in 14-2/3 IP, –0.6 rWAR) before going on the disabled list.
Doug Fister led the National League in strikeout-to-walk ratio in May with 11.5 (23 strikeouts and 2 walks allowed). Tyler Clippard was one of seven National League relievers with an ERA of 0.00 for the month. On the other side of the ledger, Danny Espinosa led the majors in strikeouts (37) and in strikeout percentage (42.5%; it was a dominating lead with # 2 at 33.7%). He also had MLB’s lowest batting average (.125) and on-base percentage (.195), and the NL’s lowest on-base plus slugging (OPS) with .458, lowest weighted on-base average (wOBA) with .205, and lowest weighted runs created (wRC+) with 22. Jordan Zimmermann led the NL in highest batting average allowed (.342). Ross Detwiler led MLB relievers in highest ERA (10.38).
Best start this month:
Tanner Roark (May 10, 4–3 loss to the Athletics in Oakland) got a no-decision, but he gave up only 1 run (a solo home run) and 2 hits in 7-2/3 innings. He didn’t walk anyone and had 5 strikeouts for a game score of 76. He left the game in the bottom of the 8th with a 3–1 lead, and Clippard got the last out of the inning. But Rafael Soriano blew the save, giving up two runs in the 9th, and Drew Storen gave up another run in the bottom of the 10th for the loss.
Gio Gonzalez (May 10, 9–1 loss to the A’s in Oakland) gave up 9 hits, 7 runs, 3 walks, and 2 home runs in 4-1/3 innings, while getting 4 K and a game score of 18.
The idea of a “tough loss,” which Bill James introduced in one of his Abstracts, is to illustrate the effect of offensive support by identifying games where a pitcher is charged with a loss despite pitching well enough to win. It’s defined as a game where the pitcher is charged with a loss despite a game score of 50 or higher. The Nats had quite a few tough losses this month:
- Gio Gonzalez (May 4, 1–0 loss to the Phillies in Philadelphia) gave up 1 run on 4 hits with 2 walks and 7 strikeouts in 7-1/3 innings (game score 71).
- Stephen Strasburg (May 13, 3–1 loss to the Diamondbacks in Arizona) gave up 3 runs on 8 hits with no walks and 6 strikeouts in 7 innings (game score 55).
- Tanner Roark (May 21, 2–1 loss to the Reds in Cincinnati) gave up 2 runs (1 earned) on 6 hits with 3 walks and 2 strikeouts in 6 innings (game score 53).
- Blake Treinen (May 22, 3–1 loss to the Pirates in Pittsburgh) gave up 2 runs on 4 hits with 5 walks and 4 strikeouts in 5-2/3 innings (game score 52).
- Stephen Strasburg (May 24, 3–2 loss to the Pirates in Pittsburgh) gave up 3 runs on 7 hits with 2 walks and 7 strikeouts in 7 innings (game score 56).
- Tanner Roark (May 26, 3–2 loss to the Marlins at home) gave up 3 runs on 5 hits with 1 walk and 4 strikeouts in 7 innings (game score 58).
The opposite of of a tough loss, a cheap win is when a starter is credited with the win despite a game score of 49 or less:
- Jordan Zimmermann (May 18, 6–3 win over the Mets at home) gave up 3 runs on 8 hits with 2 walks and 1 strikeout in 6 innings (game score 43).
Aaron Barrett (May 19, 4–3 loss to the Reds at home in 15 innings) pitched the 13th and 14th innings without giving up a run, with the score 2–2. In the 13th, he got a double play to get out of the inning, and in the 14th, after letting the leadoff hitter on, who was sacrificed to second, he struck out the last two batters to get out of the inning. (Win probability added .255). In the 15th, Detwiler gave up a two-run homer to lose the game.
Rafael Soriano (May 10, 4–3 loss to the A’s in Oakland). I already described this game in the item on the best start. Soriano entered the bottom of the 9th protecting a 3–1 lead. The first three batters all got hits—a single by Jaso, a double by Lowrie to drive in Jaso, and a single by Donaldson to drive in Lowrie. Soriano did get the next three outs to finish the inning with the score still tied. (Win probability added –.421) Storen gave up the deciding run in the bottom of the 10th.
Kevin Frandsen (May 12, 6–5 win over the Diamondbacks in Arizona). With the score tied 5–5 and two outs in the top of the 9th, Frandsen hit a home run to take the lead (WPA .419). In the bottom of the 9th, Soriano gave up two hits but still managed to get the save.
Scott Hairston (May 22, 3–1 loss to the Pirates in Pittsburgh) came to bat as a pinch hitter facing lefty Tony Watson in the top of the 8th inning with two outs and the bases loaded, and the Nats trailing 2–1. He popped out to shortstop to end the inning (WPA –.174).
Addenda – I meant to include this:
Playoff odds at the end of the month:
Baseball Prospectus: 44.4% for Division championship, 57.8% for playoffs
FanGraphs (projection mode): 47.7% for Division, 68.9% for playoffs
FanGraphs (season-to-date mode): 25.9% for Division, 39.6% for playoffs