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August 3, 2017 / Nat Anacostia

Nats’ July in review: It’s a continual experiment

In July, the Nats sent five players to the All-Star game and traded for three relievers—all with experience as closers—as well as for an experienced utility player. They also battled injuries and were giving a lot of playing time to the backup players. Their record in July was 16–8, and they ended the month with a 14-game lead in the NL East and a playoff berth almost guaranteed.

The month began with the Nationals in St. Louis, playing the last two games of a 3-game series against the Cardinals. They had lost Game 1 on the last day of June. They lost Game 2 also, though  it was close—a 2 to 1 loss with the last out recorded with the bases loaded in the top of the ninth. In Game 3, which was televised nationally, Bryce Harper hit two home runs and Max Scherzer pitched 7 shutout innings as the Nats avoided being swept.

Returning home, the Nationals swept the first two games of a series against the Mets, the second an 11 to 4 Independence Day victory. Game 3 was postponed due to a heavy rainstorm. The start of the first game of the next series, a four-game set against the Braves, was delayed three hours based on faulty weather forecast of heavy rain that never materialized. The result was a rare home game that was played after most fans were asleep. The Nationals lost the game and Michael A. Taylor suffered an oblique strain that sent him to the disabled list for the rest of the month. The next night Brian Goodwin took over the center field position, and the Nats came back from a three-run deficit to tie the game in the ninth and win the game 5 to 4 in the tenth. In the following game, Stephen Strasburg was hit in the hip by a come-backer and left the game after three rough innings. The Nats lost 13–0, suffering their first shutout of the season. (They would suffer two more before the end of the month.) The Nats won the final game of the series 10 to 5, garnering a split just before the All-Star break. But even the victory was costly, as starter Joe Ross had to leave the game with an injury. A few days later we would learn that his season was over, as he had to undergo Tommy John surgery.

The Nats were represented at the All-Star Game by starters Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy, and Ryan Zimmerman, and Max Scherzer was the starting pitcher for the NL squad. Stephen Strasburg also made the team, though he didn’t appear in the game. Scherzer pitched a scoreless first inning with two strikeouts. Harper went 1 for 1 with a walk and gave a live on-air interview while playing right field. Murphy went 1 for 2, and Zimmerman went 0 for 2. The National League lost the game 2 to 1 in 10 innings.

There was some good legal news during the break, as an Appellate Court ruled in favor of the Nationals in their long-standing legal battle with the Orioles over their share of MASN revenues. The court ruled that their share of TV rights should be determined by an MLB committee, as the Nationals had argued. While there is no immediate financial effect, hopefully it will eventually shore up the long-term finances of the team.

After the break, the Nats began a road trip against the Reds in Cincinnati. They took advantage of the short fences and swept the four-game series, scoring 35 runs. We also learned that the foot injury that had kept Jayson Werth out since early June involved a fracture in addition to the previously announced bone bruise. Meanwhile, GM Mike Rizzo helped fix the team’s bullpen problem by trading with the Oakland A’s for relievers Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle. The Nats had to give up Blake Treinen, who had been ineffective this season with the Nationals, and two prospects, Jesus Luzardo and Sheldon Neuse.

The Nats next went to Anaheim to face the Angels in a two-game series. In the first game, Edwin Jackson returned to the Nats for the first time since 2012, taking Ross’s place. But the media was focused on the fact that Harper was facing off against AL superstar Mike Trout for only the second time. Each player hit a solo home run in the first inning, but Harper went on to win the match, going 4 for 4. He only missed hitting for a cycle because he was thrown out at second by former Nat Ben Revere while trying to stretch a single. His lead-off triple in the eighth inning allowed him to score the go-ahead run in what would be a 4 to 3 Nats victory. Harper missed Game 2, which the Nats lost 7 to 0. They won the last series of their road trip in Arizona against the Diamondbacks two games to one, going 7–2 overall on the road trip. In the final game in Arizona, Strasburg had to leave the game early and was placed on the disabled list with “right elbow nerve impingement.”

Returning home, the Nats faced the Brewers and lost the first game 8 to 0, their third shutout in less than three weeks. But their offense was either hot or cold. The next night, Harper came to bat in the bottom of the eighth with the scored tied 2 to 2, one out, and runners on first and third. He struck out, but angrily argued a strike call and got ejected. The next batter, Zimmerman, hit a double, driving in two runs and giving the Nats the lead, and the Nats went on to score 6 two-out runs, ultimately winning the game 8 to 5. The next game, the Nats offense exploded for 15 runs, including 8 homers. In the third inning, the Nats hit four consecutive home runs (tying the MLB record) and five home runs overall.

For the next series, they hosted the Rockies. The first game was rained out, and would be made up in a Sunday doubleheader. With the trade deadline looming, the Nats traded for Howie Kendrick, who took Chris Heisey‘s place as the right-handed bench player. The Nats lost the first game against the Rockies, then split the doubleheader. On the last day of the month, the team made its final trade just minutes before the deadline, getting relief pitcher Brandon Kintzler from the Twins. The last game of the month was against the Marlins in Miami, taking place on the 25th birthday of the late Marlins pitcher, Jose Fernandez, ten months after his death. Gio Gonzalez, a Miami native and friend of Fernandez, got the start for the Nationals and took a no-hitter into the bottom of the ninth, when Dee Gordon broke it up with a lead-off single. Doolittle then came into the 1–0 game and got the save.

As in the previous months, the Nats success in July derived from the offense and starting pitching. Their on-base percentage, .330, ranked seventh in the National League; their slugging percentage, .475, ranked fourth, their batting average, .268, ranked sixth; they were second in home runs with 37, third in runs with 128, and fifth in weighted runs created (wRC+) with 106.

The starting pitchers ranked second in the NL in park-adjusted ERA relative to league (ERA–) with 69, and ranked fourth in fielding-independent pitching relative to league (FIP–) with 89. The relief pitching continued to be below average. They ranked 14th of 15 NL teams in RE24 (–8.65), 9th in shutdowns (16), 12th in ERA– with 113, and 10th in FIP– with 103.  The trades have upgraded the bullpen but results haven’t yet showed up in the numbers.

Record:

16–8 (.667)

Pythagorean Record:

15–9 (5.33 R/G – 4.17 RA/G)

July MVP:

A tie between Bryce Harper (.378/.456/.778, 23 G, 9 HR, 26 R, 22 RBI, 1.8 fWAR) and Anthony Rendon (.392/.500/.689, 22 G, 5 HR, 13 R, 19 RBI, 1.8 fWAR). They were the top two players in fWAR in the NL for July, though the league’s player-of-the-month award went to fifth-ranking Nolan Arenado.

Most valuable starting pitcher:

Gio Gonzalez (2–3, 2.14 RA/9, 6 G, 42 IP,  7.9 K/9, .235 opp OBP, 1.9 RA9-WAR).

Most valuable relief pitcher:

Ryan Madson (1–0, 0.00 RA/9, 5 G, 5 IP, .222 opp OBP, 2.57 RE24, 0.4 RA9-WAR, 4 shutdowns, 0 meltdown).

Worst month:

Sammy Solis (0–0, 18.00 RA/9, 4 IP, .500 opp OBP, –5.64 RE24, –0.4 RA9-WAR, 0 shutdown, 1 meltdown).

Best start this month:

Max Scherzer (July 2, 7–2 win over the Cardinals in St. Louis). Scherzer pitched 7 shutout innings with 12 strikeouts, allowing 2 hits and 2 walks, for a game score of 83. Runner up is Gio Gonzalez (July 31, 1–0 win over the Marlins in Miami). Gonzalez carried a no hitter for 8 innings before giving up a lead-off single in the ninth. He struck out 5 and gave up 3 walks and one hit batsman, for a game score of 82.

Worst start:

Erick Fedde (July 30, 10–6 loss to the Rockies at home in the first game of a doubleheader). In the major league debut of the Nats’ top pitching prospect, Fedde gave up 7 runs on 10 hits and 2 walks with 3 strikeouts in 4 innings (game score 15). I wonder how long he’ll have to carry that 15.75 ERA.

Tough losses:

  • Gio Gonzalez (July 1, 2–1 loss to the Cardinals in St. Louis) gave up 1 run on 2 hits and 2 walks with 9 strikeouts in 7 innings (game score 76).  
  • Gio Gonzalez (July 6, 5–2 loss to the Braves at home) gave up 3 runs on 7 hits and 2 walks with 6 strikeouts in 6 innings (game score 50).

Cheap win: 

  • None

Best shutdown: 

Sean Doolittle (July 31, 1–0 win over the Marlins in Miami). With a 1–0 lead, Gio Gonzalez had  given up a lead-off single in the bottom of the ninth, breaking up his no-hit bid. With the heart of the Marlins order coming up, Dusty Baker brought in Doolittle for the save. He got Giancarlo Stanton to ground into a double play. Then, after giving up a single to Christian Yelich, Doolittle got a pop-up from Marcell Ozuna to end the game (win probability added .329).

Worst meltdown:

Enny Romero (July 21, 6–5 loss to the Diamondbacks in Phoenix). Romero got the call to pitch the bottom of the ninth in a game that was tied 5–5. He gave a lead-off triple to A.J. Pollock, leaving him in a bind. Baker ordered intentional walks to Jake Lamb and Paul Goldschmidt, loading the bases with no outs. (NOTE: I don’t approve of issuing intentional walks to load the bases, especially with a pitcher who walks nearly 10% of the batters he faces.) After getting the first out on a short flyball, Romero gave up a single to Brandon Drury to lose the game (WPA –.353).

Clutch hit:

Ryan Raburn (July 3, 3–2 win over the Mets at home). With two outs in the bottom of the 9th, runners on first and third, and the score tied 2 to 2, Raburn hit a blooper to left that Yoenis Cespedes trapped, driving in the winning run. On replay review, the call was upheld, giving the Nats the victory (WPA .362). Raburn has been a pretty marginal player this year, but for at least one game he was the hero.

Choke:

The statistics say this should go to Adrian Sanchez (July 1, 2–1 loss to the Cardinals in St. Louis). In the bottom of the ninth, trailing 2 to 0, the Nats had rallied to score a run and had the bases loaded with two outs, when Sanchez, in his major league debut, got the call to come to bat as a pinch hitter. Facing Cardinal reliever Matthew Bowman, Sanchez battled to a 3–2 count. The ninth pitch of the at-bat came in outside, and Sanchez took it; he should have driven in the tying run. But umpire Manny Gonzalez called “strike 3” instead, and the game was over (WPA –.230). I think you can identify the pitch—the only red dot of the night that’s clearly outside the strike zone:

 

So I’m going to give the “Choke” award to umpire Manny Gonzalez instead of Sanchez, who deserved a better outcome than that from an outstanding first plate appearance.

Favorite defensive plays:

I’ll link to two of them this time.

  • Anthony Rendon dives into the stands to catch a foulball, with Stephen Drew falling in there behind him, in the first inning of the July 1 game in St. Louis.
  • Brian Goodwin ran in to make a diving catch to rob Mike Trout of a hit, in a game in Anaheim that at the time was tied 2–2 in the bottom of the seventh inning.
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