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August 3, 2018 / Nat Anacostia

Nats’ July in review: I believe in this team

After a terrible June, the Nats opened July with a 42–39 record, in third place and five games out in the divisional race, and in fifth place for the wild card. Despite intermittent claims that they were finally turning things around, they ultimately failed to do so. They went 11–14 for the month, and finished the month with a 53–53 record, still in third place and 5-1/2 games behind. The Braves, who had been in first place at the start of the month, went 10–13, but the Phillies swooped in to take first place in the division with a 15–11 month.

With continued backsliding and time running out, all of the projections show the Nats’ postseason chances fading, though they differ quite a bit in how bleak things appear. Fangraphs continues to provide the more optimistic projection, showing them with a 31% chance of winning the division (down from 64% at the end of June) and a 41% chance of making the playoffs. Bleaker assessments come from FiveThirtyEight (a 16% chance of winning the division) and Baseball Prospectus (11%).

July began with the Nats in Philadelphia, playing the fourth game of a series that they were trailing two games to one. After a 13-inning marathon, they lost 4 to 3. Despite outscoring the Phillies in the series 25 to 18, they lost it three games to one.

Returning home, they had a three-game set finishing on Independence Day against the Red Sox, who were then neck-and-neck with the Yankees for the best record in baseball. With Max Scherzer pitching the first game, the Nats were hopeful that they’d start the series with a win, but they lost the game 4 to 3. They also lost the final two games and were swept by the Sox, giving the Nats their fifth consecutive loss.

Next came the Marlins, and in the first game the Nats appeared to be one the way for the sixth loss in a row, as they were trailing 9–0 after the top of the fourth. But with a run in the fourth, four runs in the fifth, and another five runs in the sixth, the Nats took the lead and ultimately won the game 14 to 12, for the largest comeback in club history. The Nats won the next game with a Mark Reynolds walkoff home run, and routed the Marlins in game three, 18 to 4, before losing game four.

In the last week before the All-Star break, the Nats traveled to Pittsburgh, where they lost two of three games to the Pirates. Matt Wieters came off the disabled list, but then closer Sean Doolittle was placed on the DL with a toe injury. The road trip concluded in New York with a four-game series against the Mets. The Nats won the first game, then lost two, and concluded the series with a win for a series split.

The 2018 All-Star Game was played at Nationals Park, and the Nats had three players selected for the NL All-Star team—Max Scherzer, Bryce Harper, and Sean Doolittle. Harper had agreed to compete in the home run derby and won the contest with the support of the home-town crowd. Scherzer and Harper were both starters in the All-Star game, with Max pitching two innings and giving up one run on a homer by Aaron Judge. The game featured lots of strikeouts and home runs, and the AL ultimately won it 8 to 6 in 10 innings. Doolittle was scratched from the team because he was on the DL.

After the break, the Nats faced the Braves at home. Ryan Zimmerman and Stephen Strasburg returned from the DL. Zim would have to share playing time at first base with Matt Adams, who was hitting too well to be left out of the lineup against most right-handers. Strasburg started the first game of the Braves series. However, it turned out Stephen wasn’t healthy yet—he gave up six runs in 4-2/3 innings in an 8 to 5 loss. After Strasburg was knocked out, the TV cameras spotted Stephen and Max exchanging words in the dugout—the team’s emotions were running high. Strasburg then went back on the DL with cervical neck impingement. Former Nat, Tommy Milone, returned to the team after a six-season hiatus and took Stephen’s place in the rotation. Game two of the Braves series was rained out, and the Nats won the final game to split the series at one game apiece.

After just two games at home, the Nats were back on the road with a three-game set against the Brewers in Milwaukee. They lost the first two games, then won the finale. They next played the Marlins in a four-game series in Miami, where they won the first two games 10 to 3 and 9 to 1, before losing the third game 2 to 1 in 10 innings, and getting shut out 5 to 0 in the finale for a series split. The month concluded at home with the first game of a two-game set against the Mets. With the trade deadline just past, and almost the entire team still intact, the Nats celebrated by beating the Mets 25 to 4, setting a new club record for runs scored in a game.

In an odd coda to the Mets game, Shawn Kelley was brought in to pitch the ninth inning with a 25 to 1 lead. Apparently upset about being asked to pitch in a blowout, and getting contradictory messages from two umpires about the pace of play, he allowed a couple of hits followed by a home run, giving up three runs. He slammed down his glove and stared into the Nats dugout, appearing to express frustration toward manager Davey Martinez. The next morning, Mike Rizzo announced that Kelley had been designated for assignment for showing up the manager.

As the trade deadline approached, the baseball world debated whether the Nationals should be buyers or sellers. The Nats front office was cagey, saying they would decide after the Marlins series ended, less than 48 hours before the deadline. The next evening, there were reports that the Nats were entertaining offers for Bryce Harper and baseball media started going crazy with speculation. The next morning, however, about five hours before the deadline, Rizzo ended the speculation, announcing, “Bryce is not going anywhere, I believe in this team.”

The Nationals wound up making only two trade deals during July. They traded Brian Goodwin to the Royals and Brandon Kintzler to the Cubs, in each case receiving only a Grade C prospect in exchange. The Goodwin trade was mostly about clearing a roster spot. With Adam Eaton and Ryan Zimmerman back from the DL and Goodwin out of options, there was no longer room for him on the bench. The Kintzler trade, which was announced during the last hour before the deadline, was somewhat of a surprise. It might be seen as clearing some $6 million in payroll over the next two years. There was also speculation that the move was related to a view of Kintzler as a malcontent in the clubhouse. Overall, however, the Nats mostly stood pat, which seems like a reasonable strategy for a team that is a long-shot but not really out of the race. I would have preferred to see the team make a couple of modest acquisitions to shore up their holes—a catcher who can hit, such as Alex Avila or former Nat Wilson Ramos (who went to the Phillies), and maybe a starting pitcher. But with their record at the deadline, it didn’t make sense to either make major acquisitions or to throw in the towel.

Why did the team perform so poorly in July? The starting pitching was the biggest single problem. The starters’ ERA for the month of 5.20, and ERA relative to league (ERA–) of 127, with each ranking 13th among the 15 NL teams.

Another way to look at it is using game scores—a statistic that measures the quality of a starting pitcher’s performance on a scale centered at 50. A score of 50 or above means the starting pitcher has performed well enough that with ordinary run support and without a bullpen failure, the team should be able to win, whereas a score of 49 or below means that the starting pitcher hasn’t really done his job. In July, the Nats’ starters had only 10 starts with a game score of 50 or more and 15 starts with game scores of 49 or less. In contrast, during April and May—when the starters were doing well—they had 45 starts with game scores of at least 50, versus 11 starts with game scores of 49 or less.

The Nats starters’ fielding independent pitching relative to league (FIP–) of 97 ranked 7th, but their opponents’ batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of .333 was dead-last in the league. Their left-on-base percentage of 66% was 14th. The starting pitching was bad, but mostly in categories that seem likely to regress toward at least league-average performance.

The Nats’ batting, on the other hand, appeared to be great. Their on-base percentage for the month of .355 ranked first in the NL, and their batting average of .273 and slugging percentage of .445 each ranked third. In counting stats, their 140 runs scored ranked first and their 35 home runs ranked second.

But appearances can be deceptive, and there were definitely some areas of concern. For example, it should be noted that more than half of their runs (76) were scored in just five games—the games in which the Nats scored nine or more runs. These games were all played against weak divisional rivals—four against the Marlins and a 25-run blowout against the Mets. Conversely, the Nats were shut out in three games and scored just a single run in two more. This weird feast-or-famine distribution of their run scoring, along with their 2–4 record in one-run games, contributed to a big difference between their actual record of 11–14 and their Pythagorean record (what their record should have been based on their runs scored and allowed) of 15–10.

Another problem with the performance of the Nats’ position players in July was a deterioration in team defense. The players returning from the DL, particularly Adam Eaton and Daniel Murphy, were not yet playing at full speed, and they were taking the place of much better defensive players in Michael A. Taylor and Wilmer Difo. The Fangraphs measure of the team’s defense for July of 3.0 ranked 12th in the NL. In contrast, during May (when both Eaton and Murphy were out) the Nats’ defense measure was 7.9, which ranked sixth in the league. Perhaps the relatively poor defense was also a contributing factor to the starting pitchers’ unusually high BABIP and the gap between their ERA and the fielding-independent measure.

The Nats’ bullpen was generally fine, or at least adequate. Their July ERA– of 75 ranked fourth in the NL, while ther FIP– of 93 ranked eighth. The bullpen’s left-on-base percentage of 82.1%, second in the league, also helped. They ranked fifth in RE24 (a measure which accounts for performance with inherited runs) at 9.24. Their 20 shutdowns compared with 10 meltdowns was also a good ratio.


11–14 (.440)

Pythagorean Record:

15–10 (5.60 R/G – 4.56 RA/G)

July MVP:

Max Scherzer (4–1, 3.44 RA/9, 5 G, 34 IP, 9.3 K/9, .287 opp OBP, 0.8 RA9-WAR) wins this award for the fourth consecutive month. It was a tougher call this time, as his pitching performance didn’t match his first three months (9.3 K/9 compared with 13.0 K/9 during the first three months, opp OBP of .287 compared with .232). Nevertheless, by giving the Nats a chance to win every time his turn came around, Max’s contributions were as valuable as anyone’s, and he deserves a bit of extra credit for contributing with the bat (4 for 11, or .364, with two sacrifice bunts).

Most valuable position player:

Anthony Rendon (.277/.337/.482, 20 G, 4 HR, 15 R, 16 RBI, 118 wRC+, 0.8 fWAR). If we were simply basing this award on hitting statistics, there were about six Nats who would rank ahead of Rendon, including Mark Reynolds (211 wRC+), Juan Soto (145), Daniel Murphy (158), Bryce Harper (127), Adam Eaton (128), and Matt Adams (146). But defense matters too, and Rendon contributed a lot with the glove. So in this case, I think the fWAR leader is the right player for the award.

By the way, for the second consecutive month Juan Soto won the NL Rookie of the Month Award in July.

Most valuable relief pitcher:

I know it’s weird, but this award goes to just-traded Brandon Kintzler (0–0, 2.03 RA/9, 13 G, 13-1/3 IP, 6.8 K/9, .220 opp OBP, 4.15 RE24, 0.4 RA9-WAR, 4 shutdowns, 2 meltdowns).

Worst month:

Matt Wieters (.152/.250/.196, 13 G, 0 HR, 5 R, 3 RBI, –0.3 fWAR)

Best start this month:

Tanner Roark (July 25, 7–3 win over the Brewers in Milwaukee) pitched 8 scoreless innings while giving up 3 hits and 1 walk, striking out 11, for a game score of 86.

Worst start:

Jeremy Hellickson (July 5, 14–12 win over the Marlins at home) gave up 9 runs in 4 innings, while allowing 9 hits (including 2 home runs) and 1 walk, and striking out 2, for a game score of 11. He left the game with the Nats trailing 9–0, but the team mounted an historic comeback to win the game.

Tough losses:

  • Max Scherzer (July 2, 4–3 loss to the Red Sox at home) gave up 3 runs on 4 hits and 3 walks with 9 strikeouts in 6 innings (game score 58).
  • Gio Gonzalez (July 11, 2–0 loss to the Pirates in Pittsburgh) gave up 2 runs on 6 hits and 1 walk with 4 strikeouts in 6 innings (game score 55).

Cheap wins: 

  • Max Scherzer (July 7, 18–4 win over the Marlins at home) gave up 4 runs on 7 hits (including 3 home runs) and 2 walks with 3 strikeouts in 7 innings (game score 48).

Best shutdown: 

Sean Doolittle (July 1, 4–3 loss to the Phillies in Philadelphia in 13 innings) entered in the bottom of the ninth with the game tied 3 to 3, one out, and runners on first and second. The first batter he faced, Carlos Santana, grounded into an inning-ending double play. In the tenth inning he retired all three batters on a ground-out and two strikeouts (win probability added .351). The game remained tied until the 13th inning, when Justin Miller allowed a walk-off home run to Andrew Knapp.

Worst meltdown:

Kelvin Herrera (July 28, 2–1 loss to the Marlins in Miami). In the top of the ninth, Daniel Murphy had driven in a run to tie the game 1 to 1. The game went to extra innings, and Herrera came in in the bottom of the tenth. He gave up a bunt single to the first Marlins batter, then the second one also bunted and reached on a weird catcher obstruction call. Spencer Kieboom bumped the batter while trying to field the bunt, though Davey Martinez and most of the Nationals analysts thought the umpire blew the call. The next Marlin batter got a bloop single, and the bases were loaded with no outs. Davey then decided to use a five-man infield. Realmuto hit a soft fly ball down the right-field line that would have been easily caught with normal outfield positioning, but Michael A. Taylor was unable to run it down from his position in right center, so the Marlins won the game. (WPA –.365)

Clutch hit:

Trea Turner (July 5, 14–12 win over the Marlins at home). During the fourth, fifth, and sixth innings, the Nats had clawed back from a 9–0 deficit, and when Turner came to bat in the bottom of the sixth the Nats were trailing 9–6. The bases were loaded with two outs. Turner hit a line drive that cleared the left-field wall into the bullpen for a grand-slam home run and a 10–9 Nationals lead. (WPA .496)


Adam Eaton (July 1, 4–3 loss to the Phillies in Philadelphia). The game was tied 3 to 3 in the top of the 12th, and Wilmer Difo had just led off the inning with a walk. Eaton then grounded into a double play, stifling a possible extra-inning rally. (WPA –.188)

Favorite defensive plays:

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