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June 2, 2019 / Nat Anacostia

Nats’ May in review: Sometimes you got it, sometimes you don’t

The Nationals opened the month of May in fourth place with a 12–16 record, trailing the division-leading Phillies by only 3.5 games. But injuries were a problem, with Trea Turner, Ryan Zimmerman, and Anthony Rendon on the injured list, and the team’s bullpen had struggled mightily.

The Nats began the month at home playing the last two games of a four-game series against the Cardinals—they had lost the first two games. They lost the third game, then won the finale to lose the series three games to one. Juan Soto was added to the injured list with back spasms.

Next came a challenging ten-game road trip. Two of the three teams they would face—the Phillies and Dodgers—were leading their divisions when the Nats played them, while the Brewers were just out of first place in the Central. The Nats lost the series against the Phillies two games to one. Matt Adams was added to the injured list with a shoulder strain. By this point, almost all of the Nats big bats were injured, and the offense failed to score runs. To make matters worse, as the Nationals were leaving Philadelphia, their team plane was grounded for eight hours on the tarmac with mechanical problems. The Brewers swept the Nationals in a three-game series, with the Nats scoring only 6 runs. But then injured players started returning, beginning with Rendon and Soto, and the team signed free agent Gerardo Parra who had been released by the Giants. The Nationals split their four-game series with the Dodgers, finishing their road trip with a 3–7 record. They had fallen to 7.5 games behind in the NL East.

Back home, the Nats took two of three against the Mets, their first series win in a month. They then lost two of three against the Cubs, the leaders in the NL Central. Turner returned, but his injured finger still seemed to be bothering him as his power was down and he was charged with five errors over the last half of the month.

The Nats next went to New York for a four-game series against the Mets, and their season reached rock bottom. The Mets swept the Nats, even though in the last three games the Nats went into the bottom of the eighth inning ahead. It seemed that there was no one in the bullpen that could be relied on to get outs. At the end of the series, their record was 19–31, 10 games out of first place and only 1.5 games ahead of the last place Marlins.

But the Nats returned home to face the Marlins and their fortune started turning up, The team took three of four from the Marlins, then swept a two-game series in Atlanta against the Braves. The second game against the Braves turned into a laugher, won 14 to 4. On the last day of May the Nats played the Reds in Cincinnati in the first game of a three-game series and lost 9 to 3.

The Nats went 12–17 in May and finished the month with a 24–33 record, in fourth place, 9 games behind the division-leading Phillies. According to the Nats-friendly Fangraphs website, the Nats probability of winning the division was 16% (down from 39% at the end of April) and their probability of making the playoffs was 32%.  Less favorable projections showed up on the websites FiveThirtyEight (18% probability of making the playoffs) and Baseball Prospectus (11%). While a Nats comeback in the pennant race isn’t impossible, it’s now certainly improbable.

The Nats’ starting pitchers performed admirably during May. Their park-adjusted ERA– of 71 in May (that is, 29% better than an average team) ranked second in the National League behind the Dodgers. The fielding independent measure (FIP–) was 77, third in the NL just behind the Dodgers and Diamondbacks. They were second in the NL in strikeout rate (26.2%) behind the Reds, and were second behind the Diamondbacks in their home runs allowed per nine innings at 0.82.

As good as the Nats’ starting pitchers were, the relief pitchers were comparably bad. The relief staff’s ERA– of 184 in May was far-and-away the worst in the majors. Their fielding independent FIP– of 133 managed to only be second worst in the majors (and worst in National League). The leverage-sensitive metric win-probability added, at –4.49, was by far the worst in the majors, as was their RE24 (–41.54). In other words, with an average bullpen, the Nats would have had between four and five fewer losses in May. It’s hard to overstate just how awful the Nats’ bullpen was during the month.

The batters, finally, were mediocre. Their on-base percentage of .320 was eighth of 15 teams in the NL, while their slugging percentage of .398 ranked 12th. The comprehensive and park-adjusted weighted runs created measure (wRC+) was 86 in May, 14% below average and 11th in the National League. The defense was also a problem, with the Nats, according to advanced metrics like defensive runs saved (DRS) and ultimate zone rating (UZR) having one of the worst defenses in the league.

Record:

12–17 (.414)

Pythagorean Record:

12–17 (4.34 R/G – 5.17 RA/G)

May MVP:

Max Scherzer (1–2, 2.61 RA/9, 6 G, 38 IP, 11.4 K/9, .311 opp OBP, 1.5 RA9-WAR) continues to perform as one of the best pitchers in baseball, even if it’s not reflected in his win-loss record—in his three no-decisions during May he pitched 18 innings, gave up only 3 runs, and left all three games with the Nats ahead only to have the bullpen to blow the lead. A close runner-up for May MVP is Stephen Strasburg (3–2, 3.05 RA/9, 6 G, 41-1/3 IP, 10.9 K/9, 1.4 RA9-WAR).

Most valuable position player:

Shared by Anthony Rendon (.277/.400/.566, 23 G, 4 HR, 20 R, 16 RBI, 145 wRC+, 0.9 fWAR) and Juan Soto (.380/.451/.676, 19 G, 4 HR, 16 R, 16 RBI, 189 wRC+, 0.9 fWAR).

Most valuable relief pitcher:

This month the category probably should be renamed “least terrible relief pitcher.” I’ll go with Justin Miller (0–0, 2.84 RA/9, 7 G, 6-1/3 IP, 2.8 K/9, .292 opp OBP, 0.74 RE24, 0.1 RA9-WAR, 1 shutdown, 1 meltdown), even though Miller spent the last half of the month on the injured list.

Worst month:

I’ll go with Joe Ross (0–0, 16.20 RA/9, 9 G, 6-2/3 IP, 9.5 K/9, .487 opp OBP, –0.6 RA9-WAR, 0 shutdowns, 3 meltdowns), though I could just as well have gone with Dan Jennings (18.00 RA/9 in 7 G) or Kyle Barraclough (10.45 RA/9 in 13 G, 2 shutdowns, 5 meltdowns) or Matt Grace (9.82 RA/9 in 12 G).

Best start this month:

Patrick Corbin (May 25, 5–0 win over the Marlins at home) pitched a complete game shutout, giving up 4 hits and 1 walk and striking out 5, for a game score of 83.

Worst start:

Also Patrick Corbin (May 31, 9–3 loss to the Reds in Denver), who gave up 8 runs and 11 hits in 2-2/3 innings, while striking out 2 and not allowing any walks, for a game score of 10.

Tough losses:

  • Max Scherzer (May 1, 5–1 loss to the Cardinals at home) gave up 3 runs on 8 hits and 2 walks with 8 strikeouts in 7 innings, for a game score of 55.
  • Anibal Sanchez (May 5, 7–1 loss to the Phillies in Philadelphia) gave up 2 unearned runs on 2 hits and 4 walks with 9 strikeouts in 4-2/3 innings, for a game score of 61. Defensive gaffes led to two runs in the first inning and pushed up his pitch count, and when he left the game the Nats were trailing 2 to 1.
  • Stephen Strasburg (May 7, 6–0 loss to the Brewers in Milwaukee) gave up 4 runs on 6 hits and 2 walks with 11 strikeouts in 6-2/3 innings, for a game score of 55.
  • Stephen Strasburg (May 12, 6–0 loss to the Dodgers in Los Angeles) gave up 2 runs on 4 hits and 2 walks with 7 strikeouts in 6 innings, for a game score of 61.
  • Max Scherzer (May 17, 14–6 loss to the Cubs at home)  gave up 3 runs on 6 hits and 4 walks with 8 strikeouts in 6 innings, for a game score of 52. He left the game with the Nats trailing 3 to 2.

Cheap wins:

  • None

Best shutdown: 

Sean Doolittle (May 2, 2–1 win over the Cardinals at home). Doolittle entered in the top of the eighth with runners on first and second, two outs, and the Nats leading 2 to 1. After walking the first batter he faced, he struck out Goldschmidt to get out of the inning. He then pitched a scoreless frame in the ninth for a 4-out save (win probability added .268).

Worst meltdown:

Sean Doolittle (May 22, 6–1 loss to the Mets in New York). Doolittle came into the game in the bottom of the eighth with runners on first and second, two outs, and the Nats leading 1 to 0. He hit the first batter he faced, then gave up a three-run double followed by an intentional walk and a three-run home run. He was then pulled, charged with 4 runs and 2 inherited runners scoring without getting an out (WPA –.736).  I’m awarding this category to Doolittle rather than Joe Ross (May 4, 10–8 win over the Phillies in Philadelphia) because the Nats came back late to win the game in Philly. Ross came into the game in the bottom of the seventh with the Nats holding a 5–3 lead and gave up five runs on four doubles, a single, a walk, and a wild pitch, while only getting one out (WPA –.745).

Clutch hit:

Gerardo Parra (May 11, 5–2 win over the Dodgers in Los Angeles). Playing his second game for the Nationals, Parra came to bat in the top of the eighth with the bases loaded, two outs, and the Nats trailing 2 to 1. He hammered a 2–2 fastball into the right-center-field seats for a grand slam home run and his first hit as a Nat. (WPA .636)

Choke: 

Juan Soto (May 27, 3–2 loss to the Marlins at home). In the bottom of the eight with the Nats trailing 3 to 2, two outs, and the bases loaded, Soto lined out to left field (WPA –.198). I’m giving it to Soto instead of Gerardo Parra (May 24, 12–10 win over the Marlins at home) because the Nats later came back to win that one. Parra came to bat with runners on first and third and grounded into a double play to end the seventh with the score tied 8 to 8 (WPA –.206).

Favorite Defensive Plays:

 

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