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August 15, 2015 / Nat Anacostia

Nats’ 2015 season is slip slidin’ away

Over the last four weeks, Nats fans have watched the team’s season unravel. After losing the second game of a 4-game set against the Giants, our odds of reaching the playoffs, which recently had stood at 90% or higher, have plunged to 36% according to FanGraphs and 21% according to Baseball Prospectus. What happened? And more importantly, what can be done to turn things around?

We can break up the season into three periods. At the end of the first 45 games, May 25 (after the first game of a series in Wrigley against the Cubs) the Nats record stood at 27–18, a .600 winning percentage, or on pace for 97 wins. Although the Nats led the surprisingly strong Mets by only 2-1/2 games, the forecasts favored the Nats’ stronger talent to easily win the division—according to FanGraphs, their odds of winning the division stood at 95%, and of reaching the playoffs at 98%. The Nats had played well, scoring 4.8 runs per game while hitting .257/.324/.417, while allowing 4.2 runs per game, recording 8.1 strikeouts, 2.4 walks, and 0.6 home runs per 9 innings.

Looking deeper, there were some causes for concern. Several key players were out with injuries (Anthony Rendon, Jayson Werth, Denard Span, Doug Fister) while others seemed to be struggling (Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond, Stephen Strasburg). The team appeared to be overly reliant on two big stars—Bryce Harper, who had emerged as perhaps the best player in the National League, and Max Scherzer, who was dominating National League hitters. Another pleasant surprise was the renewal of Danny Espinosa‘s ability to hit.

Our second period runs from May 26 through July 17, the first game after the All-Star Game (that bizarre game when the lights kept going out, which was won the next day on Matt den Dekker‘s 8th inning home run). During that period, the Nats went 22–21, or just a little over .500. Their hitters fell to 3.8 runs scored per game during that span, while the pitchers improved to 3.5 runs allowed per game.  The team, which was suffering from injuries, wasn’t playing great, but the Mets were also playing .500 ball so the Nats still had a 3-game lead. At that point, the Nats were 10 games over .500 and on pace to win 90 games.

During that period, Strasburg, Zimmerman, and Span went out on injuries, and Rendon came back and played 18 games, then went on the DL again. The team became increasingly reliant on Harper and Scherzer.

Over the four weeks from July 18 to August 14, the Nats have gone 9–18, and are now trailing the Mets by 4 games, only one game over .500. They’ve scored only 3.6 runs per game, while they’ve allowed an average of 4.3 runs per game. They are striking out more (23.7% compared to 20.7% through July 17) and are walking less (7.9% compared to 8.2%). Their batting average is down more than 30 points (.224 compared to .255) and slugging is down 45 points (.357 compared to .402).

It’s true that the Nats have faced some tough pitching. Kershaw, Greinke, Harvey, deGrom, Cole, and Fernandez would be on anyone’s list of the top 15 starters in the NL.* If starts were distributed randomly, the Nats would expect to face one of the top 15 starters in 20% of the games, whereas they’ve faced these pitchers 10 times in the last 27 games—and have lost 9 of  10! They’ve also lost games to pedestrian starters like Rubby de la Rosa and Ryan Vogelsong.

I think the key reason that I’m pessimistic is that the Nats seem to be straining. In the second half, their “whiff” (swinging strike) rate of 12.4% is the highest of all major league teams. In comparison, in the first half their 9.9% rate was only slightly higher than the major league average (9.7%). As the situation becomes ever more dire, they are chasing pitches and trying to hit home runs, leading instead to more strikeouts.

Mike Rizzo missed an opportunity at the trade deadline to try repair the team’s weak bench and provide the depth that’s needed. What can they still do? Here are my suggestions:

  • Move Werth into a partial platoon with Clint Robinson. Werth came back to soon and is still struggling to find his stroke. It isn’t clear yet whether he’ll find it this season, but for now, I’d have Robinson start in his place about half the games we play against right-handed pitchers, or 2 or 3 times a week. I’d also have him replace Zimmerman once a week against right handers to give Zim some rest.
  • I’d also try to start Espinosa at least three times a week, spelling Rendon, Desmond, and Yunel Escobar. Between his glove and his power, he’s a valuable player and should be used regularly, both to keep him sharp and to keep the others rested.
  • I’d try to pick up a bench player (preferably left handed) with good on-base skills. Having a bench with Espinosa, Tyler Moore, and Dan Uggla, all of whom are home run threats but severely deficient in getting on base, gives us an extremely unbalanced bench. Sometimes you need a pinch hiter who can lead off an inning and get something going. It would be even better if this bench player were a decent defensive outfielder. It’s hard to get a prime player at this time of year, but something may be available on a waiver deal. When such a player is found, I’d release Moore. (I’d be happy to release Uggla as well if we can find two decent bench players.)
  • Never again bat Michael A. Taylor in the lead-off spot. It reflects terribly on Matt Williams as a manager that he’s asked Taylor—who has a .286 on-base percentage and a 31% strikeout rate —26 times to start a game as the lead-off hitter. That’s really, really poor percentage baseball. Unfortunately, with Span gone, Rendon and Escobar are the only really viable options to lead off. (If Werth’s on-base skills come back, but not his power, he might also be considered as a lead-off option.)
  • Scherzer looks like he may have a sore arm. If nothing warrants putting him on the DL, I’d at least consider letting him rest for one turn through the rotation, skipping his next start that’s scheduled in Colorado. While Williams can be forgiven for letting him pitch complete games in his 1-hitter and no-hitter, he clearly overworked him in several subsequent games, and I’m wondering if Scherzer’s arm is now paying the price.
  • The bullpen is mediocre, and although Rizzo made a move at the trade deadline, it’s really a problem that was foreseeable and should have been repaired last winter. I’m doubtful that much can be done with a waivers deal, so my best advice is to ask Williams to focus on: a) making sure that the relief pitchers are used regularly, neither over-worked nor under-worked; b) concentrate on using the lefties, Matt Thornton and especially Felipe Rivero in favorable platoon matchups. Right-handed batters have an .851 OPS against Rivero, compared to .468 by lefties. Yet 57% of the batters that Rivero has faced have been right-handed. In too many games, I see Williams send out pitchers in seeming disregard for the platoon advantage.
  • I guess the last thing is somehow, let’s try to get the confidence and the swagger. This team is good—I think it’s still fundamentally a better team than the Mets—and it only takes a few victories to start turning things around.

*Update – I guess if I’m going to refer to the top 15 starters in the NL, I probably ought to give my list. Here it is, based both on this season’s statistics and on the projections shown at FanGraphs: 1) Clayton Kershaw, 2) Zack Greinke, 3) Jose Fernandez, 4) Jacob deGrom, 5) Max Scherzer, 6) Jake Arrieta, 7) Jaime Garcia, 8) Gerrit Cole, 9) Jon Lester, 10) Matt Harvey, 11) Madison Bumgarner (would rank higher if we included his hitting), 12) Shelby Miller, 13) Noah Syndergaard, 14) Tyson Ross, and 15) Stephen Strasburg (yes, I still rank him ahead of Zimmermann!).

In giving the statistics above, I debated whether to include Syndergaard, who—as you see—makes my own top 15, but the way I worded it was they’d be on “anyone’s list,” so I decided to leave Sydergaard off. Frankly, things get really fuzzy after # 11, so it isn’t clear that number 12 through 15 are any better than pitchers ranked 16 through 25. To fill things out, here are the near misses for my top 15 list: 16) Lance Lynn, 17) Michael Wacha, 18) Mike Bolsinger, 19) Francisco Liriano, 20) Carlos Martinez, 21) Jordan Zimmermann, 22) Gio Gonzalez, 23) John Lackey, 24) Taylor Jungmann, 25) Jason Hammel.

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