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May 2, 2018 / Nat Anacostia

Nats’ April in review: This thing will change

The Nats went 13–16 in April for their worst monthly record since August 2015, and finished the month in fourth place, 5-1/2 games behind the 17–9 Mets.*

*Note: In this article, the “month of April” includes the two games played in March.

The 2018 season began with the Nationals, after two consecutive runaway divisional championships, again regarded as the consensus favorites. The FanGraphs website set the Nats’ preseason probability of winning the division at 77.8%, with an 89.3% chance of reaching the playoffs. Other sites were somewhat less optimistic but still considered the Nats to be favorites to win their division and make the postseason. (Baseball Prospectus estimated their preseason playoff probability at 67%, and FiveThirtyEight at 73%.)

The preseason forecasts generally saw the NL East division to be on the rise and no longer considered the weakest division in baseball. The Mets were recognized as real challengers, possessing an intimidating pitching staff if it could stay healthy. The Phillies had begun supplementing their talented young roster with free agents and were considered long-shot contenders. The Braves also had a talented young roster and were seen as improving, though most prognosticators thought they were still a year or two away from contending. Bringing up the rear were the Marlins, whose new owners had spent the winter trading away their star players in a salary dump, resulting in a consensus that the team would be pretty awful.

By the end of the April, the Nats’ advantage was gone, and the divisional race was seen as wide open among the Nats, Mets, Phillies, and Braves. According to FanGraphs (the more optimistic site), the Nats’ probability of winning the division had dropped to 55.4%, and their probability of making the playoffs to 72.2%. Other sites gave less favorable odds—for example, Baseball Prospectus showed them having a 33% probability of winning the division and a 46% probability of reaching the playoffs.

The season began well enough, with the Nats playing the Reds in Cincinnati. The team was mostly healthy, with the exception of Daniel Murphy, who was still recovering from knee surgery last October. The Nats swept the 3-game set against Reds, and Adam Eaton was named NL Player of the Week (it was a short, three-game opening week) after hitting .615 (8 for 13) with 2 home runs, 2 doubles, 5 RBI, and 7 runs scored.

Their next stop was a 3-game series in Atlanta against the Braves. The Nats won the first game and at that point had managed to take the lead in the first inning of each of their four games without ever giving it up. Their streak of holding the lead in 36 consecutive innings to start the season had last been accomplished in 1912. The euphoria began to fade with the next game, though, when the Braves torched the Nats’ fifth starter, A.J. Cole, for 10 runs and beat them 13 to 6. The Braves also won the third game and the Nats slipped out of the lead in the divisional race.

The Nats’ home opener was against the Mets, who were off to a hot start and had taken over the division lead with a 4–1 record. The Mets swept the series, winning the first game handily (8 to 2), and then taking the last two games by one-run margins, with the final game decided in the 12th inning. In addition to dropping three games in the standings, though, the series had an added cost for the Nats when Eaton hurt his ankle sliding into home in the third inning of the first game. He would come back in the third game and try to play through the injury, but ultimately went on the disabled list and was out for the rest of the month.

Next, the Nats hosted the Braves, and broke their five-game losing streak by winning the first two games. The Braves came back to win the third game in another extra-inning game that featured several late rallies by the Nats that ultimately fell short. The home stand concluded with a four-game series against the Rockies, which the visitors took three games to one. Perhaps the one positive aspect of the home stand was Max Scherzer, who won NL Player of the Week with a record of 2–0, an ERA of 1.13, and 21 strikeouts and only 1 walk in 16 innings, including a complete-game shutout of the Braves.  The Nats, however, by going 3–7 during the home stand, had dropped to two games below .500 and trailed the still streaking Mets by 6 games.

Anthony Rendon left the second game of the Rockies series after fouling a pitch off his big toe. At first, the team thought he would be able to return quickly, but ultimately he went on the disabled list and was out the rest of the month. The absence of Murphy, Eaton, and Rendon for the last half of the month took a big hit on the Nats’ offense.

Their road trip began with a 3-game series against the Mets in New York. In the first game, the Nats were trailing 6 to 1 after seven, but then rallied for 6 runs in the eighth before winning the game 8 to 6. They also won the second game, and in the third game were leading 4 to 2 entering the bottom of the eighth, seemingly poised to sweep the series. The Nats bullpen, however, had been overworked and unraveled, giving up 9 runs in the inning, with the Nats losing 11 to 5.

The road trip continued to Los Angeles where they faced the Dodgers. In the opener, Scherzer outpitched Clayton Kershaw, giving the Nats the victory. The Nats then lost the last two in Los Angeles and the first two against the Giants in San Francisco before winning the third game in a 15 to 2 blowout. The Nats’ 4–5 record on the road trip was disappointing, but not disastrous.

The month’s final home stand began with a 3-game set against the Diamondbacks, whose 17–7 record was tops in the National League. The Nats lost the first two games, then won the finale, with all three games decided by one or two runs. April concluded with the first game of a 4-game set against the Pirates, which the Nationals won.

With three key players out at least part of the month with injuries and Ryan Zimmerman in a slump, the Nationals’ offense was only average—their .331 on-base percentage was third among the 15 teams in the National League and their .389 slugging percentage ranked seventh. The comprehensive park-adjusted measure of weighted runs created (wRC+) of 97 was eighth in the league. Their 31 stolen bases (in 36 attempts) did lead the majors.

The Nationals starting pitchers were generally impressive, with a park-adjusted earned run average relative to league (ERA–) of 87, second in the National League. Their fielding-independent measure  (FIP–) of 94 wasn’t quite as impressive, but still ranked fifth in the league. The big question mark in the rotation was the fifth starter duties, which went to A.J. Cole for the first two starts to disastrous results, before being handed to Jeremy Hellickson.

The bullpen performed poorly. The team’s relievers had an RE24 (a measure of runs allowed relative to average, which accounts for the situation when a pitcher is brought into or leaves the game) of –1.68, which was 11th in the National  League. Their ERA– was 121, which ranked 12th in the league, and their FIP– was 107, which was 11th. With 26 shutdowns and 16 meltdowns, their ratio of shutdowns to meltdowns ranked 12th.

Even taking account of the Nats’ mediocre performance in batting and relief pitching, the team’s won-loss record was weaker than should have been expected. With 126 runs scored compared to 122 allowed, their expected (or “Pythagorean”) record should have been 15–14 rather than 13–16. This difference was reflected in their poor performance in one-run games, in which they had a 2–8 record.

But even their run differential under-performed when compared with their underlying statistics. The team’s batting OPS was .720, whereas their opponents’ OPS was only .685, to which we can add 31 stolen bases in 36 attempts for the Nationals compared to 12 stolen bases in 23 attempts for their opponents. Poor performance in clutch situations led the Nats to score fewer runs and allow more runs than they should have. There are several ways this can be measured—my favorite is the split that baseballreference.com calls “high leverage” situations (such as situations with runners on in the late innings of close games). In high leverage situations, the Nats’ batting OPS was only .622, whereas their opponents’ OPS was an elevated .783. Throughout the month, the Nats failed to score and to prevent runs in clutch situations, costing them wins. The one bright note is that researchers have found that under-performance in clutch situations tends not to be persistent, suggesting that the Nats are likely to revert to their expected performance. But it’s also true that the team has dug itself into a bit of a hole, and it shouldn’t be assumed that it will be easy to make up the lost ground.

Record:

13–16 (.448)

Pythagorean Record:

15–14 (4.34 R/G – 4.21 RA/G)

April MVP:

Max Scherzer (5–1, 2.31 RA/9, 6 G, 39 IP, 13.2 K/9, .227 opp OBP, 1.5 RA9-WAR)

Addendum: Scherzer was named the NL Pitcher of the Month for March/April.

Most valuable position player:

Trea Turner (.284/.381/.379, 29 G, 12 SB, 0 CS, 14 R, 7 RBI, 1.1 fWAR). Bryce Harper played the first ten games like an MVP (.345/.553/.966), but, as opponents began pitching around him, he spent the rest of the month in a slump (.200/.405/.317) , which allowed Turner, with his superior defense and base running, to pass Harper (0.9 fWAR) for the honor.

Most valuable relief pitcher:

Sean Doolittle (0–1, 2.08 RA/9, 13 G, 13 IP, .174 opp OBP, 3.75 RE24, 0.4 RA9-WAR, 5 shutdowns, 1 meltdown)

Worst month:

A.J. Cole (1–1, 13.06 RA/9, 4 G, 2 GS,  10-1/3 IP, .431 opp OBP, –0.7 RA9-WAR), after a couple of awful starts followed by a couple of awful relief appearances, got himself designated for assignment and then sold to the Yankees.

Best start this month:

Max Scherzer (April 9, 2–0 win over the Braves in Washington) pitched a 2-hit, complete-game shutout, striking out 10 without giving up a walk, for a game score of 93.

Worst start:

A.J. Cole (April 3, 13–6 loss to the Braves in Atlanta) gave up 10 runs in 3-2/3 innings, allowing 10 hits and 3 walks while striking out 4, for a game score of 2.

Tough losses:

  • Stephen Strasburg (April 5, 8–2 loss to the Mets at home) gave up 4 runs on 5 hits and 2 walks with 6 strikeouts in 6 innings (game score 50).
  • Gio Gonzalez (April 12, 5–1 loss to the Rockies at home) gave up 3 runs (2 earned) on 5 hits and 3 walks with 7 strikeouts in 5 innings (game score 51).
  • Tanner Roark (April 13, 2–1 loss to the Rockies at home) gave up 2 runs (1 earned) on 3 hits and 1 walk with 3 strikeouts in 6 innings (game score 62).
  • Stephen Strasburg (April 21, 4–0 loss to the Dodgers in Los Angeles) gave up 2 runs on 5 hits and 2 walks with 10 strikeouts in 7 innings (game score 67).

Cheap wins: 

  • Gio Gonzalez (April 17, 5–2 win over the Mets in New York) gave up 2 runs on 8 hits and 2 walks with 5 strikeouts in 5-1/3 innings (game score 47).

Best shutdown: 

Sammy Solis (April 8, 6–5 loss in 12 innings to the Mets at home) pitched scoreless frames in the 10th and 11th to keep the game tied 5–5, allowing just one single while striking out 5 (win probability added .286). In the 12th inning, Brandon Kintzler would give up the deciding run.

Worst meltdown:

Ryan Madson (April 18, 11–5 loss to the Mets in New York). Entering in the bottom of the eighth with the Nats leading 4 to 2, Madson faced 8 batters and gave up 4 singles, an intentional walk, and a double while getting just two outs. When he was finally pulled, the Nats were trailing 6 to 4 and runners were on second and third with two outs (WPA –.794). Then Solis and Cole would allow five more runs to score before the inning mercifully ended.

Clutch hit:

Matt Adams (April 11, 5–3 loss in 12 innings to the Braves at home). With the bases empty and one out in the bottom of the 9th and the Nats trailing 2 to 1, Adams hit a game-tying home run to deep left-center field, sending the game to extra innings (WPA .466). The Braves took the lead again in the 11th inning, and the Nats responded with some more clutch hitting to send it to the 12th, when the Braves were able to take a 2-run lead that the Nats weren’t able to match.

Choke:

Michael A. Taylor (April 28, 4–3 loss in 10 innings to the Diamondbacks at home). The D’backs had taken a one-run lead in the top of the tenth, but in the bottom of the inning the Nats had loaded the bases with two outs. Then Taylor grounded into a forceout at second, ending the game (WPA –.277).

Favorite defensive plays:

  • Michael A. Taylor made a diving catch that Statcast rated as a five-star play.
  • Trea Turner made a diving play on a grounder hit up the middle.
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