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September 1, 2015 / Nat Anacostia

Nats’ August in review: We’ve obviously dug ourselves a hole

As the month commenced, the Nats continued to be NL East favorites, leading the Mets by two games as they faced the New Yorkers for the last two games of a three-game series, with the Nats having lost game one. By the end of the month, the Nats had gone 12-17, while the red-hot Mets had gone 20–8 for the month, leaving the Nats 6-1/2 games behind and facing long odds for making the post-season.

In their first series, the Nats proceeded to lose the last two games for a Mets sweep and ended the series in a virtual tie for the division lead. The Nats’ offense was shut down by the Mets’ pitching, scoring only 5 runs in the three-game series. Matt Williams took a lot criticism for his handling of the bullpen in the series, as he failed to use either of his two bullpen aces—Drew Storen and Jonathan Papelbon—in a series of close games.

Returning home, the Nats dropped their first game against the Diamondbacks and slipped into second place for the first time since June 20. In the home stand, they split a four-game series with the D-backs and lost two of three to the Rockies, with their win coming with Stephen Strasburg‘s return from the disabled list. When they left on a road trip to the West, the Nats were trailing the Mets by 1-1/2 games.

Their first series in the West was against the Dodgers. They won the first game, but then lost the last two to Greinke and Kershaw. Next came a disastrous four-game series against the Giants. Strasburg pitched well in the first game, but the Nats’ offense was shut down by Peavy. Their pitching was the problem in the next three games, and the Nats were swept by the Giants. At that point, the Nats had won only 4 of their last 17 games and had dropped to 4-1/2 games back.

The road trip concluded in Denver, where the Nats took two of three from the Rockies. Returning home, they took took two of three against each of the Brewers, Padres, and Marlins, but continued to slip in the standings as the Mets continued to win. During the Padres series, Denard Span returned from the disabled list, giving the Nationals their full intended roster for the first time this season. But the return was short-lived, as Span went back on the DL after two games, facing season-ending hip surgery.

The month ended with the Nats in St. Louis playing the first game of a 3-game set against the NL-Central leading Cardinals. The Nats lost the game 8 to 5, as the bullpen failed to hold a 5–3 lead. According to FanGraphs, their odds of winning the division, which had stood at 83.1% at the beginning of the month, had plummeted to 13.1%.

What went wrong? The pitching, which had been one of the team’s strengths in the first half, failed them this month. The starters had an ERA of 4.40 and an ERA– of 114, or 14% worse than the MLB average, ranking 8th in the NL. Their fielding independent pitching relative to league (FIP–) was 107, or 7th in the NL, as they led the league in home runs allowed with 31. Max Scherzer‘s ERA was 6.43 with 7 home runs allowed, and Gio Gonzalez had an ERA of 5.46. The relievers were even worse, with an ERA– of 120, 12th in the league, and an RE24 of –10.65, 11th in the league.

The Nats’ batting statistics for August actually looked alright. They were tied for 4th in the NL in runs scored with 135 and were 4th in weighted runs created relative to league (wRC+) with 109, or 9% better than MLB average, based on a batting line of .254/.335/.425. These statistics, however, hide a dramatic difference between the first half and last half of the month, with the Nats scoring only 3.7 runs per game with an OPS of .671 in their first 16 games, compared with 5.8 runs per game and an OPS of .869 in their last 13.

Record:

12–17 (.414)

Pythagorean Record:

14–15 (4.66 R/G – 4.72 RA/G)

August MVPs:

I’m going to make it a joint award this month, given to two players each having an outstanding month—to Bryce Harper (.327/.460/.449, 28 G, 2 HR, 24 R, 9 RBI, 1.3 fWAR), who’s now won or shared all five monthly MVP awards, and to Ian Desmond (.314/.375/.539, 28 G, 6 HR, 14 R, 18 RBI, 1.2 fWAR).

Most valuable starting pitcher:

Stephen Strasburg (3–1, 3.00 RA/9, 5 G, 30 IP, 10.5 K/9, .216 opp OBP, 0.8 RA9-WAR).

Most valuable relief pitcher:

Blake Treinen (0–0, 0.00 RA/9, 11 G, 12-1/3 IP, 8.8 K/9, .225 opp OBP, 7.46 RE24, 0.5 RA9-WAR, 1 of 6 inherited runners scored). He had an excellent month that, unfortunately, had little effect, since—with one exception—he was always brought in to pitch in low leverage situations..

Worst month:

Drew Storen (1–2, 8.49 RA/9, 12 G, 11-2/3 IP, –5.63 RE24, –0.5 RA9-WAR). He had a rough spell when he allowed runs in 5 of his 6 appearances between August 7 and 23 (overwork may have been an issue).

Best start this month:

Stephen Strasburg (August 8, 6–1 win over the Rockies at home) gave up 1 run on 3 hits with no walks and 12 strikeouts in 7 innings. His game score was 79.

Worst start:

Gio Gonzalez (August 15, 12–6 loss to the Giants in San Francisco) gave up 6 runs on 5 hits and 2 walks in 2-2/3 innings, with 1 strikeout. His game score was 23.

Tough losses:

  • Jordan Zimmermann (August 12, 3–0 loss to the Dodgers in Los Angeles) gave up 1 run on 2 hits and 1 walk with 9 strikeouts in 7 innings (game score 77).
  • Stephen Strasburg (August 13, 3–1 loss to the Giants in San Francisco) gave up 2 runs on 7 hits and 2 walks with 8 strikeouts in 6 innings (game score 56).
  • Max Scherzer (August 28, 4–3 loss to the Marlins at home) gave up 4 runs on 6 hits and no walks with 8 strikeouts in 7 innings (game score 57).

Cheap wins: 

  • Jordan Zimmermann (August 18, 15–6 win over the Rockies in Denver) gave up 6 runs (4 of them earned) on 9 hits and 1 walk in 6 innings with 6 strikeouts (game score 39), though I’m a bit reluctant to label any win at Coors Field as “cheap.”
  • Jordan Zimmermann (August 23, 9–5 win over the Brewers at home) gave up 4 runs on 8 hits and 1 walk in 5-2/3 innings with 7 strikeouts (game score 43).

Best shutdown: 

Matt Thornton (August 6, 8–3 win over the Diamondbacks at home). He entered in the top of the seventh with the Nats ahead 4–3, one out, and runners on second and third. He got out of the inning on a fly ball and a ground out without allowing a run to score (win probability added .272). The offense later tacked on 4 insurance runs.

Worst meltdown:

Drew Storen (August 7, 5–4 loss to the Rockies at home). Although Storen had pitched on three of the last four days, he got the call to come into the top of the eighth in a routine set-up situation with a 4–1 lead. He got fly ball outs from two of the first three batters, walking the other one, and then the train went off the rails, as he gave up singles to Reyes and Arenado to load the bases, then a grand slam home run to Carlos Gonzalez, giving the Rockies a 5–4 lead. He finally struck out LeMahieu to get out of the inning. (WPA –.663)

Clutch hit:

Ryan Zimmerman (August 31, 8–5 loss to the Cardinals in St. Louis). In the top of the seventh, with the Nats trailing 3–2, two outs, and Bryce Harper and Danny Espinosa on first and second, Zimmerman launched a 3-run home run over the center field fence giving the Nats a 5–3 lead (WPA .535). Unfortunately, the bullpen was unable to hold it, when Casey Janssen and Felipe Rivero surrendered 5 runs in the bottom of the inning.

Choke:

Yunel Escobar (August 26, 6–5 loss to the Padres at home). In the bottom of the seventh, the Nats were coming back from a 6–2 deficit and were trailing 6 to 5 with the bases loaded with one out when Escobar came to bat. On a 3–0 pitch, he swung at a sinker low in the zone and grounded into a rally-ending double play (WPA –.256)

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