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May 3, 2017 / Nat Anacostia

Nats’ April in review: Our pitching was, you know, just amazing

As the season kicked off in early April, the Nats were NL East favorites in most—but not all—of the preseason projections. The Mets were projected as their main rivals. When the month ended, the Nationals’ 17–8 record was the best in baseball and they were 5 games ahead of their closest divisional rivals. But the end of the month also brought the team its first major injury when Adam Eaton suffered a season-ending torn ACL.

The Nats opened the season at home on April 3, winning against the Marlins. They won the second game of the series as well, before losing the finale, taking two of three. For their next series, they faced the Phillies in Philadelphia. After winning the first game, they brought in Jeremy Guthrie to pitch the second game because their projected fifth starter, Joe Ross, had been optioned to Syracuse. Guthrie’s start was a disaster, with the Phillies scoring 12 runs (10 of them charged to Guthrie) by the end of the first inning in what would be a 17 to 3 loss. The Nats also lost the third game and the series. They ended their first week of play with a 3–3 record in a four-way tie for first place.

Returning home, the Nats won two of three against the Cardinals, and then took two of three against the Phillies.

Despite the team’s winning record, drama was brewing as the bullpen struggled, including the Nats new closer, Blake Treinen. He blew a save in the last game of the season opening series against the Marlins and suffered another meltdown in the last game of the home series against the Phillies, giving up the go-ahead run to the visitors in the top of the ninth and leaving the game with the bases loaded. (Shawn Kelley, though, came in and got the final out, then the Nats’ offense came back in the bottom of the inning and ended the game with a walk-off homer from Bryce Harper). In the next game, against the Braves in Atlanta, Treinen again failed to get the save when he came into the ninth with a 3-run lead, but gave up run and had the bases loaded with one out when Dusty Baker pulled him again for Kelley. Kelly got the last two outs without giving up a run, and Treinen was done as the closer. In his 8 relief appearances while serving as the team’s closer, he had a 7.11 ERA while giving up 10 hits and 6 walks in 6-1/3 innings. Closing duties would pass initially to Kelley and then to Koda Glover.

The Atlanta series was the first of a grueling 10-day, 10-game road trip. The Nats swept their three games against the Braves, then went to New York to face the Mets.  The Nats won all three games against the Mets, with the first game going to 11 innings. The road trip concluded with 4 games in Denver against the Rockies. After an all-night flight, the Nats lost their first game against the Rockies, but then won the last three games at altitude by scores that seem more appropriate for football than baseball—15 to 12, 11 to 4, and 16 to 5. They went 9–1 on the road trip and came home with a 4 game lead in the division race.

Their final series of April was at home against the Mets. In the first game, the Nats entered the bottom of the ninth trailing 7 to 5. But after a pair of singles to lead off the inning, Adam Eaton hit a ground ball and had a chance to beat out the throw for an infield single. Running at full speed, he managed to beat the throw, but while stretching to touch the base he tore his ACL, an injury that will probably cost him the rest of his season. Alas, it was all for naught, as the Nats were unable to score a run, despite loading the bases with no outs. The Nats also lost the second game.

The final game of the Mets series was one for the record books, as the Nats beat the visitors 23 to 5. Anthony Rendon led the offense in the blowout, going 6 for 6 with 3 home runs and 10 RBIs. The Nats’ 23 runs were a team record, as they ended the day with 23 hits including 7 home runs. Rendon’s 10 RBIs were a franchise record and the most in an MLB game since 2007, as he became the 13th MLB player to reach that mark. He’s also one of only six players in MLB history to have 6 hits and 3 home runs in a game. The Nats became the first team in MLB history to score 14 or more runs in 5 games in April.

The Nats’ success was fueled by their offense. (The subtitle of this post is quoting an ironic comment made by Rendon in an interview after his historic April 30 game.) In April, the Nats led the majors in most major offensive categories including runs (170; a Nats record for a single month), average (.295), s (on-base percentage (.369), slugging (.510), weighted on-base average or wOBA (.372), weighted runs created or wRC+ (128), and wins above replacement or WAR (7.5). They were second in homers with 43. Ryan Zimmerman particularly stood out, with a .420/.458/.886 slash line, 11 home runs (tied for the MLB lead), and 29 RBIs (leading MLB). Zimmerman’s performance was a marked turnaround after a 2016 season that was among the worst in baseball. Zim’s goal to elevate the baseball seems to have really paid off. But Harper also returned to his MVP form, with a .391/.509/.772 slash line, an MLB-leading 32 runs scored, 9 home runs, and 26 RBIs. They were joined by the other six regulars, all of whom were above-average offensive players for the month as measured by wRC+.

The Nats’ starting pitching wasn’t quite as impressive, as their ERA– (earned run average adjusted for parks and relative to league average) was 91, ranking 6th among the 15 NL teams. The Nats’ top 4 starters all performed well, with ERAs ranging from 1.62 (Gio Gonzalez) to 3.64 (Tanner Roark). But the fifth/sixth starter role was a problem; Ross’s ERA in three starts was 7.47 and Guthrie’s one ill-fated start resulted in an ERA of 135.00 in 2/3 of an inning. Jacob Turner was the other pitcher tried out in a fifth/sixth starter role, and he was more successful with a 4.50 ERA in his six innings in Colorado.

The relief staff was the team’s Achilles heel. Their RE24 (a measure of runs allowed relative to average, which accounts for the situation when a pitcher is brought into or leaves the game) was a poor –12.54, ranking 14th of the 15 NL teams. The relievers’ ERA– of 133 was worst in the league, and their fielding independent pitching (FIP–) of 123 was 14th of 15 teams. The Nats bullpen recorded 21 shutdowns while suffering 16 meltdowns.

Record:

17–8 (.680)

Pythagorean Record:

17–8 (6.80 R/G – 4.88 RA/G)

April MVP:

Bryce Harper (.391/.509/.772 25 G, 9 HR, 32 R, 26 RBI, 2.0 fWAR). While there’s certainly also a case to be made for Ryan Zimmerman (.420/.458/.886, 11 HR, 29 RBI, 1.8 fWAR), I think the difference in fWAR correctly reflects Harper’s relative advantage in on-base percentage and playing time (18 more plate appearances than Zim).

Most valuable starting pitcher:

Gio Gonzalez (3–0, 2.16 RA/9, 5 G, 33-1/3 IP, 7.0 K/9, .295 opp OBP, 1.4 RA9-WAR).

Most valuable relief pitcher:

Matt Albers (1–0, 0.00 RA/9, 7 G, 9-1/3 IP, .161 opp OBP, 6.21 RE24, 0.4 RA9-WAR, 1 shutdown, 0 meltdown). He wasn’t used much in high-leverage situations, but Albers really was the Nats’ most effective reliever in April.

Worst month:

I’ll call this a tie between starter Jeremy Guthrie (0–1, 135.00 RA/9, 1 G, 2/3 IP, .833 opp OBP, –0.6 RA9-WAR), and reliever Joe Blanton (0–2, 10.80 RA/9, 10 G, 10 IP, 4 HR, –8.48 RE24, .370 opp OBP, –0.6 RA9-WAR), with dishonorable mention going to Blake Treinen (9.00 RA/9, –0.5 RA9-WAR).

Best start this month:

Max Scherzer (April 18, 3–1 win over the Braves in Atlanta) got 7 strikeouts in 7 scoreless innings, allowing 2 hits and 3 walks, for a game score of 77.

Worst start:

Jeremy Guthrie we already talked about this one, on his 38th birthday no less (April 8, 17–3 loss to the Phillies in Philadelphia). He gave up 10 runs on 6 hits and 4 walks, while recording only 2 outs, neither of them strikeouts (game score –4). He was subsequently designated for assignment and granted free agency; I suspect this may have been his last major league game.

Tough losses:

  • Max Scherzer (April 12, 6–1 loss to the Cardinals at home) gave up 3 runs (1 earned run) on 4 hits and 2 walks with 10 strikeouts in 6 innings (game score 64).
  • Stephen Strasburg (April 29, 5–3 loss to the Mets at home) gave up 3 runs on 6 hits with no walks and 2 strikeouts in 7 innings (game score 55).

Cheap wins: 

  • Tanner Roark (April 10, 14–6 win over the Cardinals at home) gave up 5 runs (3 earned runs) on 7 hits with no walks and 3 strikeouts in 5 innings (game score 40).
  • Tanner Roark (April 26, 11–4 win over the Rockies in Denver) gave up 2 runs on 5 hits and 4 walks with 4 strikeouts in 5 innings (game score 49). This actually wasn’t such a bad start considering it was pitched in Colorado; I sort of think the threshold for cheap wins (a game score of 49 or lower) ought to be lower for games played at mile high altitude.

Best shutdown: 

Shawn Kelley (April 18, 3–1 win over the Braves in Atlanta). This was Treinen’s final outing as the team’s closer. Kelley relieved Treinen in the bottom of the ninth with one out and the bases loaded, with the Nats leading 3 to 1. He got Bonifacio to foul out, then struck out Chase d’Arnaud to get the save (win probability added .329).

Worst meltdown:

Koda Glover (April 9, 4–3 loss to the Phillies in Philadelphia). Entering in the bottom of the ninth with the score tied 3 to 3, Glover walked Nava to the lead off the inning. One out later, he allowed a single to Galvis, with Nava advancing to third. After another out on an infield fly, Glover then gave up the walk-off single to Hernandez (WPA –.365).

Clutch hit:

Bryce Harper (April 16, 6–4 win over the Phillies at home). With two outs in the bottom of the 9th, runners on first and second, and the Nats trailing 4 to 3, Harper hit a walk-off home run (WPA .828).

Choke:

Bryce Harper (April 28, 7–5 loss to the Mets at home). One out after the play in which Eaton tore his ACL, Harper came to bat with the bases loaded, one out, and the Nats trailing by two. Terry Collins made a gutsy, controversial move by pulling his closer, Familia, to bring in lefty Josh Edgin to face Harper. It paid off for the Mets manager as Harper hit a weak one-hopper to the pitcher, resulting in a game-ending 1–2–3 double play.

Favorite Defensive Play:

This category is obviously subjective. My favorite play was this diving stop by Anthony Rendon in the Nationals 3 to 2 win over the Braves on April 20.

 

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