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June 1, 2015 / Nat Anacostia

Nats’ May in review: What we’ve been waiting to see

May began with the Nationals in 4th place with a 10–13 record, 5 games behind the division leading Mets. This was the month when, for the first time, Bryce Harper played like the best player in baseball. The Nats went 18–9 and finished the month in first place in the NL East, with a 28–22 record and a half game ahead of the Mets. FanGraphs show them with a 88.2% chance of winning the division, up from 70.9% at the beginning of the month.

The month opened with the Nats in New York, playing the last three games of a 4 game set with Mets. On the 1st, Max Scherzer faced Matt Harvey and took another tough loss after allowing just one run in 7 innings, as the Nats were shut out. In the next two games, Gio Gonzalez and Doug Fister took the mound, and the Nats won both games by identical 1 to 0 scores, taking the series 3 games to 1.

Returning home, the Nats faced the Marlins and took two of three. In the third game of that series, May 6, Harper hit three home runs and drove in five in a 7 to 5 win. Harper had begun a remarkable hitting streak. In the next game against the Braves, he hit two home runs. In the following game, he hit his sixth home run in three games, this time a walk-off blast. Over 19 games from May 6 through 27, Harper hit 13 home runs, drove in 28, and hit .460/.570/1.175, while his team went 15–4. The Nats swept their three game set against the Braves to finish their home stand.

The next road trip was against the NL West. The Nats took two of three against the Diamondbacks, then took three of four against the Padres. The series in San Diego proved costly, however, as both Fister and Jayson Werth went down with injuries. When Werth, who hurt his wrist when he was hit by a pitch, failed to recover after a couple of weeks, a CT scan revealed two small fractures, meaning that he will be out for at least three months.

In the next home stand, the Nats played a two-game set against the Yankees, which the Nats swept, allowing them to move into first place in the NL East. This series was followed by a three game set against the Phillies, with the Nats winning two of them.

The month concluded with a road trip against the NL Central. On Memorial Day, they opened a three-game set against the Cubs. Tanner Roark took Fister’s place in the rotation, and the Nats won a tight 2 to 1 game. They lost the second game, then won the third game to win their eighth straight series. The streak ended, however, when they moved on to Cincinnati and were swept by the Reds, as the bullpen imploded in all three games. Stephen Strasburg left the first game in the second inning with tightness in the neck and back and was placed on the 15-day disabled list. The three games the Nats lost to the Reds were the first consecutive losses suffered by the Nats since their 6-game losing streak in April.

In May, the Nats were one of the better hitting teams in baseball. They hit .270/.339/.442 and ranked 2nd in the NL in park-adjusted weighted runs created (wRC+) with 112. It wasn’t all Harper, as Denard Span also hat an excellent month with the bat, and several other players hit well.

The Nats’ rotation was a mixed bag. Scherzer was arguably the best pitcher in baseball in May, and Jordan Zimmermann pitched well. On the other hand, Gonzalez’s performance was more of a mixed bag, and Strasburg pitched poorly in all but one of his starts. The starters were 7th in the NL in ERA– with 98 (or 2% better than the average team)—this is a measure of ERA that is park-adjusted and measured relative to the league. They ranked better in fielding independent metrics, ranking 2rd in the league in FIP–, or park-adjusted fielding independent pitching with 92.

For relief pitching, my preferred metric is  RE24, which takes account of game situations, such as inherited runners. The Nats relievers ranked only 10th in the NL in May with an RE24 of –1.10. They were tied for 5th in the league in shutdowns, with 27, but were also tied for the 5th most meltdowns, with 14. And the raw statistics disguised a lot of variability among the relievers, with Drew Storen pitching 9 shutdowns with no meltdowns, while Aaron Barrett and Matt Grace each had 5 meltdowns.

Record:

18–9 (.667)

Pythagorean Record:

16–11 (4.63 R/G – 3.89 RA/G)

May MVP:

Bryce Harper (.360/.495/.884, 26 G, 13 HR, 24 R, 28 RBI, 2.6 fWAR). He led the majors in slugging percentage and home runs for May, led the NL in on-base percentage, runs, and fWAR, and tied for the NL lead in RBI.

Most valuable starting pitcher:

Max Scherzer (5–1, 1.67 RA/9, 6 G, 43 IP, 11.7 K/9, .241 opp OBP, 2.0 RA9-WAR). He led NL starters in K/9, tied for the lead in wins, and led all MLB starters in fielding independent pitching with 1.88 and in fWAR with 1.7.

Most valuable relief pitcher:

Drew Storen (1–0, 0.00 RA/9, 13 G, 12-1/3 IP, 11.7 K/9, .178 opp OBP, 5.38 RE24, 1.0 RA9-WAR).

Worst month:

Stephen Strasburg (1–3, 11.25 RA/9, 5 G, 16 IP, 8.4 K/9, .402 opp OBP, –1.0 RA9-WAR).

Best start this month:

Max Scherzer (May 27, 3–0 win over the Cubs in Chicago) gave up no runs on 5 hits and 1 walk in 7 innings, striking out 13, for a game score of 79.

Worst start:

Doug Fister (May 14, 8–3 loss to the Padres in San Diego) gave up 7 runs on 8 hits and 1 walk in 2 innings, while getting only 1 strikeout. His game score was 12.

Tough loss:

  • Max Scherzer (May 1, 4–0 loss to the Mets in New York) gave up 1 run on 5 hits and 1 walk in 7 innings with 10 strikeouts (game score 72).

Cheap win: 

  • Max Scherzer (May 6, 7–5 win over the Marlins at home) gave up 5 runs on 10 hits (though no walks) in 7 innings with 10 strikeouts (game score 47). All of Scherzer’s three losses so far have come with game scores of 60+, so his one cheap win doesn’t seem unfair.

Best shutdown: 

Casey Janssen (May 27, 3–0 win over the Cubs in Chicago). The Nats were leading 2 to 0 when Grace opened the bottom of the 8th by allowing a double to Jorge Soler and then hitting Anthony Rizzo. Janssen entered with runners on first and second and no outs. He got Kris Bryant to fly out to first, then fielded a bunt from Dexter Fowler, throwing him out at first as the runners advanced. He got a ground ball from Starlin Castro to get the third out without any damage. (Win probability added .275)

Worst meltdown:

Casey Janssen (May 30, 8–5 loss to the Reds in Cincinnati). Janssen started the bottom of the eighth with the Nats leading 5 to 4. He got Joey Votto to ground out, then allowed a double, a walk, and a single to load the bases with one out. Marlon Byrd lined out to second for the second out, and there was still hope that he would get out of the inning. But then Zack Cozart doubled, scoring two and putting the Reds ahead. Janssen intentionally walked Skip Schumaker to load the bases again, then allowed a single to Billy Hamilton, giving the Reds a 3-run lead, before getting the third out. (WPA –.710)

Clutch hit:

Michael A. Taylor (May 13, 9–6 win over the Diamondbacks in Phoenix). In the top of the ninth, the Nats were trailing 6 to 5. With one out, Addison Reed gave up two singles and a walk to load the bases. Taylor then hit a grand slam home run to give the Nats a 9 to 6 lead. (WPA .507)

Choke:

Clint Robinson (May 31, 8–2 loss to the Reds in Cincinnati). In the top of the seventh with the score tied 2 to 2, runners on first and third, and one one out, Robinson came in as a pinch hitter. He lined the ball to first base and the first baseman stepped on the bag to get the third out. (WPA –.211)

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