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May 1, 2015 / Nat Anacostia

Nats’ April in review: Just maybe a little bit of frustration

The Nationals kicked off the season as the consensus choice to win the NL East, with many prognosticators picking them to win the pennant or even the World Series. They utterly failed to meet expectations. They finished the month in 4th place with a 10–13 record, 5 games behind the division leading Mets. The season is still young, and projection methods still indicate that they have a good chance to turn things around. (FanGraphs show them with a 70.9 percent chance of winning the division, down from 86.4 percent at the beginning of the month.) But they need to turn things around soon.

The season began on April 6, when the Nationals hosted the Mets. The Nats lost the opener based on—in what would become a pattern—their sloppy defense. The opening day lineup had major holes. With Anthony Rendon, Jayson Werth, Denard Span, and Casey Janssen all out with injuries, the opening day lineup featured Michael A. Taylor in center field, Tyler Moore in left, and Dan Uggla at second base. The Nats won the second game, but lost the third game and the series.

The pattern of losing continued on their first road trip, when they lost two of three to both the Phillies and the Red Sox. Werth was activated in time for the series in Boston, but would spend the rest of the month trying to regain his stroke. The injuries continued to mount, however, when Craig Stammen suffered a torn flexor injury on his right elbow, which required surgery and left him disabled for the rest of the season.

During the next home stand, the team seemed to be coming together. The Nats won three of four against the Phillies, and Span rejoined the team for the last game of the series. Taylor, who had been hitting well, was sent to Syracuse so he could get regular at bats. The Phils were followed by the NL Central-leading Cardinals, who have been the Nationals’ nemesis in recent years. The Nats won the first game 2 to 1 in the 10th inning, but then lost the second and third games, with bullpen meltdowns contributing to the losses.

The month ended with a road trip that got off to an ugly start. The Nats were swept by the Marlins, and looked really bad. Next the Braves beat them in the next game, extending their losing streak to six games. The next night, the Nats appeared to have reached their nadir when they reached the end of the fourth inning trailing 10 to 2. But the bats came alive that evening and after Dan Uggla hit a 3-run homer in the top of the ninth, they closed a 13-12 comeback win. The bats stayed alive the next two nights, with a 13 to 4 win in the rubber game of the Braves series and an 8 to 2 win over the Mets on the last day of the month for the opener of a 4-game series in New York.

In April, the hitting died. The Nats hit .236/.307/.378 and ranked 11th in the NL in park-adjusted weighted runs created (wRC+) with 89. The defense was also awful, ranking 13th of 15 teams in the NL in defensive runs saved.

For relief pitching, my preferred metric is  RE24, which takes account of game situations, such as inherited runners. The Nats relievers ranked 8th in the NL in April with an RE24 of 2.05. They were tied for 8th in the league in shutdowns, with 16, but also tied for the most meltdowns, with 14.

The Nats’ vaunted rotation didn’t live up to the lofty expectations. The starters were 9th in the NL in ERA– with 104 (or 4% worse than the average team)—this is a measure of ERA that is park-adjusted and measured relative to the league. They showed up better in fielding independendent metrics, ranking 3rd in the league in FIP-, or park-adjusted fielding independent pitching with 81, which is 19% better than average.

Record:

10-13 (.435)

Pythagorean Record:

11-12 (4.48 R/G – 4.65 RA/G)

April MVP:

Max Scherzer (1-2, 2.20 RA/9, 4 G, 28-2/3 IP, 9.1 K/9, .221 opp OBP, 1.1 RA9-WAR).

Most valuable position player:

Bryce Harper (.286/.440/.545, 23 G, 5 HR, 18 R, 15 RBI, 0.6 fWAR). (Fangraphs actually gives Danny Espinosa higher WAR with 0.7, with a .255/.377/.431 line and great defense, but I’m sticking with Harper because he played every day.)

Most valuable relief pitcher:

Matt Thornton (0-0, 4.50 RA/9, 9 G, 6 IP, 4.5 K/9, .200 opp OBP, 3.71 RE24, 0.0 RA9-WAR). This was a tough category. Usually, 4.5 runs allowed per 9 innings would have been insufficient for a monthly award, but 2 of his 3 runs allowed were scored on an error by Blake Treinen after Thornton was pulled from the game, and one of those runners had reached on an Ian Desmond error. And all of the other relievers have their own flaws.

Worst month:

Jayson Werth (.175/.254/.211, 15 G, -0.5 fWAR).

Best start this month:

Max Scherzer (April 17, 7–2 win over the Phillies in Washington) gave up 1 run on 4 hits in 8 innings, striking out 9 and not issuing any walks, for a game score of 79.

Worst start:

Jordan Zimmermann (April 13, 9–4 loss to the Red Sox in Boston) gave up 8 runs on 9 hits, 1 walk, and 2 hit batsmen in 2-1/3 innings, while not getting any strikeouts. His game score was 8.

Tough losses:

  • Max Scherzer (April 6, 3–1 loss to the Mets in Washington on opening day) gave up 3 unearned runs on 4 hits and 2 walks in 7-2/3 innings with 8 strikeouts (game score 71).
  • Gio Gonzalez (April 10, 4–1 loss to the Phillies in Philadelphia) gave up 3 runs on 5 hits and 4 walks in 6-1/3 innings with 4 strikeouts (game score 51).
  • Jordan Zimmermann (April 18, 5–3 loss to the Phillies in Washington) gave up 4 runs on 4 hits and 4 walks in 6-1/3 innings with 3 strikeouts (game score 52).

Cheap wins: 

  • Gio Gonzalez (April 15, 10–5 win over the Red Sox in Boston) gave up 5 runs (4 earned) on 6 hits and 2 walks in 6 innings with 6 strikeouts (game score 46).

Best shutdown: 

Drew Storen (April 28, 13–12 win over the Braves in Atlanta). It was a fairly routine save in a one-run game on the road, albeit a most remarkable game in which the Nats came back from an 8-run deficit, the largest comeback in Nationals history. Storen allowed one walk, but got 3 outs without allowing a runner to reach scoring position. (Win probability added .162)

Worst meltdown:

Blake Treinen (April 14, 8–7 loss to the Red Sox in Boston). Treinen came in with one out in the bottom of the seventh with the Nats leading 7 to 5 and runners on first and second. He proceeded to hit the first batter he faced, loading the bases. On a comebacker to the mound, he first failed to field it, then threw the ball away, committing 2 errors and allowing 2 runs to score. Another run scored on a groundout to the shortstop, and the Nats were trailing 8 to 7 by the time Treinen got the third out. He returned in the eighth to pitch a scoreless inning, but by then the damage was done. (WPA –.406)

Clutch hit:

Dan Uggla (April 28, 13–12 win over the Braves in Atlanta—see “Best shutdown”). After being down 9 to 1 and then 10 to 2, the Nats had scored 8 more runs and were trailing the Braves 12 to 10 in the top of the ninth. Jose Lobaton singled and Danny Espinosa walked, so there were runners on first and second with one out when Uggla came to the plate. Atlanta fans had booed Uggla relentlessly during the series. After getting behind 0-2 against Atlanta closer, Jason Grilli, Uggla hammered the next pitch into the left field stands, giving the Nats a 13 to 12 lead (WPA .709).

Choke:

Ian Desmond (April 21, 2–1 win over the Cardinals in Washington). In the bottom of the ninth with the score tied 1 to 1 and the bases loaded with one out, Desmond struck out. (WPA –.175). In the 10th, however, Yunel Escobar undid the damage with a two-out solo walk-off homer.

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