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June 1, 2018 / Nat Anacostia

Nats’ May in review: Every man is stepping up

The Nats went 19–7 in May—their best monthly winning percentage since June 2005, when the recently arrived franchise shocked the baseball world by going 20–6. Beginning the month in fourth place, 5-1/2 games behind the Mets, they finished it in second place, only a half game behind the Braves. At month’s end, the FanGraphs site indicates the Nats’ chances of winning the division at 82.4% (and of making the playoffs at 92.5%), whereas the less optimistic FiveThirtyEight site indicates a probability of winning the division of 59%, and a 77% chance of making the playoffs. The Baseball Prospectus site shows a probability of winning the division of 53.6% and a probability of making the playoffs of 73.1%.

May began with the  Nats at home facing the Pirates, having won the first game of a four-game series. Bryce Harper had gotten into a slump as opposing teams pitched around him, so Dave Martinez decided to bat him in the lead-off spot. It seemed to work, as Harper hit a 3-run homer and scored two runs in a 12–4 win for the Nats. Harper stayed in the lead-off spot, and for the first four games it seemed work, as he went 6 for 17 with 4 home runs, 9 RBIs, and 6 runs scored. After that, he cooled off, and on May 11 he was moved to the second spot in the batting order.

The Nats went on to win the last two games of the Pirates series, sweeping the Bucs. The home-stand concluded with a three-game series against the Phillies, which the Nats won, two games to one. Anthony Rendon returned from the disabled list after three weeks out with a toe injury. Contrary to earlier reports, Rendon admitted that there had been a hairline fracture of the toe.

After finishing their home-stand with a 7–3 record, the Nats traveled to the west coast, where they took two out of three against the Padres. Next they played a four-game set against the Diamondbacks in Phoenix, which the Nats were able to sweep, resulting in a 6–1 road trip. Adam Eaton, who had been on the DL for a month, had surgery to remove a cartrilage flap on his ankle that had been impeding his recovery. He was moved to the 60-day disabled list, as Matt Wieters (left hamstring strain) and Ryan Zimmerman (right oblique strain) were placed on the 10-day DL. Pedro Severino took over at catcher and Mark Reynolds, who had signed a minor league contract, was called up to play first. When Reynolds debuted in the final game against the Diamondbacks, he hit two homers, including a clutch 2-run homer in the 8th-inning that put the Nats on top.

The Nats returned home to face the Yankees, Dodgers, and Padres. After an off-day on Monday, the Nats were scheduled to face the Yankees on Tuesday and Wednesday. Unfortunately, Washington seemed to be experiencing a monsoon that week. The Tuesday game was suspended due to rain after 5-1/2 innings, tied 3-3, and although they hoped to complete it the next day, both games on Wednesday had to be postponed. The first game against the Dodgers was scheduled for Friday, but it also had to be postponed and was played as a doubleheader on Saturday. By that time, the Nats hitters and relief pitchers seemed to be rusty after nearly a five-day break, and the Dodgers swept the three-game series despite strong pitching performances from all three Nats starters.

The Nats took two of three against the Padres to finish the home-stand with a 2–4 record. During the home-stand, Howie Kendrick experienced an Achilles rupture that will leave him unable to play the rest of the season. The Nats called up the 19-year-old outfielder Juan Soto, who took over in left field and quickly exhibited hitting ability beyond his years. He hit a home run in his second major league at-bat, becoming the first teenager to hit a home run in the majors since Bryce Harper in 2012.

The month concluded with a road trip to Miami, Baltimore, and Atlanta. The Nats swept three games each against the Marlins and the Orioles before losing their final game of the month, the opener of a four-game series against the Braves in Atlanta. After the sweep of the Orioles, the Nats briefly regained first place, but then dropped a half-game out with their loss on the 31st to their division rivals. Daniel Murphy, who had been out all season recovering from right knee surgery, ended the month on a rehab assignment.

The Nats’ success in May was overwhelmingly attributable to their starting pitching. Both their starters’ park-adjusted ERA relative to league (ERA–) of 57 for May (that is, 43% better than league average) and their fielding-independent measure (FIP–) of 71 were the best in MLB. All of their five main starters contributed, with each recording an ERA– of 80 or better. In particular, their new fifth starter, Jeremy Hellickson, while kept on a short-leash, had remarkable results, with a 2–0 record and an ERA of 1.30 for the month.

The hitters performed well when taking account of the large number of substitutes filling in for injured regulars. Their 41 home runs led the National League for the month, and their weighted runs created relative to league (wRC+) of 101 ranked sixth in the NL. Their on-base percentage of .312 ranked 10th, while their slugging percentage of .439 ranked fifth.

The bullpen performed better than average. 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) of 11.37 for the month ranked sixth in the NL, and they tied for the league lead for fewest meltdowns with 9. They ranked fifth in the NL in shutdowns with 27.  Their ERA– of 79 ranked fifth in the NL, and their FIP– of 88 ranked third.

Record:

19–7 (.731)

Pythagorean Record:

19–7 (4.33 R/G – 2.63 RA/G)

May MVP:

Max Scherzer (4–0, 2.21 RA/9, 6 G, 40-2/3 IP, 13.9 K/9, .238 opp OBP, 1.6 RA9-WAR), with honorable mention going to Jeremy Hellickson (2–0, 1.30 RA/9, 27-2/3 IP, 1.5 RA9-WAR)

Addendum: For the second consecutive month, Scherzer was named the NL Pitcher of the Month.

Most valuable position player:

Anthony Rendon (.263/.355/.550, 22 G, 5 HR, 9 R, 13 RBI, 0.9 fWAR).

Most valuable relief pitcher:

Sean Doolittle (2–1, 1.46 RA/9, 11 G, 12-1/3 IP, .213 opp OBP, 5.39 RE24, 0.8 RA9-WAR, 8 shutdowns, 1 meltdown)

Worst month:

Andrew Stevenson (.188/.270/.188, 17 G, 0 HR, 5 R, 3 RBI, –0.3 fWAR)

Best start this month:

Max Scherzer (May 30, 2–0 win over the Orioles in Baltimore) pitched 8 shutout innings while giving up 2 hits and 1 walk, striking out 12, for a game score of 89.

Worst start:

Nats pitchers didn’t have any really awful starts this month—just three starts with game scores below 50. The worst one was by Tanner Roark (May 31, 4–2 loss to the Braves in Atlanta), who gave up 4 runs in 6-2/3 innings while allowing 7 hits and 5 walks and striking out 3, for a game score of 42.

Tough losses:

  • Tanner Roark (May 5, 3–1 loss to the Phillies at home) gave up 3 runs on 6 hits and 3 walks with 9 strikeouts in 6-1/3 innings (game score 55).
  • Tanner Roark (May 19, 4–1 loss to the Dodgers at home) gave up 3 runs on 6 hits and 1 walk with 8 strikeouts in 7 innings (game score 60).
  • Stephen Strasburg (May 20, 7–2 loss to the Dodgers at home) gave up 3 runs on 5 hits and 4 walks with 7 strikeouts in 6-2/3 innings (game score 55).
  • Erick Fedde (May 23, 3–1 loss to the Padres at home) gave up 3 runs on 6 hits and 1 walk with 6 strikeouts in 5-2/3 innings (game score 50).

Cheap wins: 

  • Max Scherzer (May 25, 9–5 win over the Marlins in Miami) gave up 4 runs on 7 hits and 2 walks with 4 strikeouts in 6 innings (game score 44).

Best shutdown: 

Ryan Madson (May 12, 2–1 win over the Diamondbacks in Phoenix) pitched a scoreless ninth inning with a one-run lead to get the save. The first batter Madson faced, Ketel Marte, reached on an error by Wilmer Difo and then advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt. After that, Madson got a strikeout and a ground-out to secure the win (win probability added .225).

Worst meltdown:

Sean Doolittle (May 19, 5–4 loss to the Dodgers at home). Entering in the top of the ninth with the Nats leading 4 to 3, Doolittle allowed two singles and a 2-run double to the first three batters he faced, blowing the save and leaving the Nats behind 5 to 4. Although he got the next three outs, the damage had been done. The Nats were unable to come back in the bottom of the inning, and Doolittle was charged with the loss (WPA –.622).

Clutch hit:

Mark Reynolds (May 26, 4–1 win over the Marlins in Miami). Leading off the top of the ninth with the score tied 1 to 1, Reynolds hit a home run and gave the Nats the lead (WPA .340). The team would add on two more runs before the end of the inning, and Doolittle would shut down the Marlins in the bottom of the ninth for the save.

Choke:

Spencer Kieboom (May 23, 3–1 loss to the Padres at home). With the Nats trailing by two, Kieboom came to bat in the bottom of the ninth with runners on first and third and one out. He hit into a game-ending double play (WPA –.221).

Favorite defensive plays:

  • Wilmer Difo made a diving stop on a grounder from Matt Kemp and threw him out.
  • Michael A. Taylor throws out Jose Pirela at home.
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