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September 2, 2019 / Nat Anacostia

Nats’ August in review: It’s fun when you win

The Nationals went 19–7 in August, one of their best monthly records in team history. While they solidified a lead in the race for the first wild card spot, they gained only one game on the division leading Atlanta Braves, who went 19–9. As the month ended, they remained 5-1/2 games behind in the divisional race, but held a 3-1/2 game lead for the first wild card spot and a 7 game lead for the second spot.

August began for the Nats with a road trip to the west. Max Scherzer and Ryan Zimmerman were on the injured list, and Joe Ross was filling in as the fifth starter. At the trade deadline, the team had added relief pitchers—Daniel Hudson and Hunter Strickland, who began covering high leverage situations, and lefty Roenis Elias, who went onto the injured list after a single appearance with the Nats.

Facing the Diamondbacks in a three-game series in Phoenix, the Nats took the first game 3 to 0, but then were crushed in the second game, 18 to 7. They concluded the series with a 7 to 5 loss. For their next series in San Francisco, the Nats had better fortune, sweeping the Giants in a three game set. The road trip finished with a three-game series in New York against the then red-hot Mets, who had won 13 of their last 14 games and had moved within a half game of the second wild-card spot. The Mets won each of the first two games by a single run, as the Nationals bullpen surrendered leads, first in the 9th inning and then in the 8th inning. The Nats, however, won the finale and avoided being swept in what turned out to be an exciting, hard-fought series. Despite losing two series, the Nats finished the road trip with a winning (5–4) record.

The subsequent home stand began with a three game series against the Reds, which the Nats swept. They won the third game of the series 17 to 7, which began a remarkable offensive stretch. In seven games against the Reds, Brewers, and Pirates from August 14 to 21, the Nats scored 74 runs, plating 11 or more runs in five of the games. After the Reds, the Nats played a three-game series against the Brewers and took two of three. The second game, which the Nats lost in 14 innings, was especially wild. With the Nats holding an 11–8 lead going into the top of the ninth, closer Sean Doolittle gave up 4 runs and the lead (just a week after he blew a similar three-run lead against the Mets). The Nats scored a run in the bottom of the ninth to send the game to extra innings, and the game ended in the 14th inning with the Brewers winning 15 to 14. The next day, Doolittle went on the injured list. The Nats’ record for the home stand was 5–1.

The Nats next went to Pittsburgh where they played four games against the Pirates. The Nats won three of four. Max Scherzer returned after three weeks on the injured list to pitch the finale of the Pittsburgh series. The Nats’ week-long road trip concluded with three games in Chicago against the Cubs, who were leading the Central Division when the series began. The Nats swept the Cubs, knocking them into second place in their division. The Nats’ record on the road trip was 6–1.

Returning home, the Nats played two games against the Orioles. The O’s won the first game, and the Nats won the second. They concluded the month with the first two games of a three-game set against the Marlins, winning both games.

Ending August with a 76–58 record, according to Fangraphs the Nats had a 98% chance of reaching the playoffs, up from 75% at the end of July. On the other hand, their probability of winning the division actually declined slightly, from 15% to 12%, as the Nats only narrowed their gap with the division leading Braves by a single game.

The Nationals’ success in August was fueled by offense. Their 180 runs scored in the month led the National League, and their 6.92 runs scored per game was second only to Astros in MLB. The Nats led the NL for the month in batting average (.292) on-base percentage (.370), slugging (.517), wOBA (.370), wRC+ (125), and stolen bases (26). Interestingly, they ranked only fifth in the NL in home runs with 46. Ranking 14th of 15 NL teams in batter strikeouts, the Nats were able to draw walks and put the ball in play and get extra base hits to drive their offense.

The Nats’ starters were also major contributors. Even with Scherzer spending most of the month on the IL, the Nats starters’ 3.12 ERA for the month led the National League. Their fielding-independent measure (FIP of 3.88) ranked fourth in the NL. Adjusting for park and relative to the rest of the league, the Nats’ starting pitchers’ ERA– of 69 led the NL, and their FIP– of 87 ranked third, behind the Dodgers and Braves.

Despite the personnel changes in the bullpen, the Nats’ relief pitching woes were not over. Their 5.71 ERA for the month ranked 14th of the 15 NL teams, and their ERA– of 125 ranked 13th. Measuring their performance by the fielding-independent metric didn’t help—their FIP– of 126 ranked 13th. They ranked 12th in win probability added (WPA) with –2.11, meaning that the bullpen cost them a little more than two wins compared with an average bullpen. Considering that four of the Nats’ seven losses during the month involved leads blown in the eighth or ninth innings, that certainly seems plausible. A couple of extra wins this month could have made the Nats real competitors rather than long shots for the division championship.

Record:

19–7 (.731)

Pythagorean Record:

19–7 (6.92 R/G – 4.23 RA/G)

August MVP:

Anthony Rendon (.394/.450/.712, 26 G, 8 HR, 23 R, 29 RBI, 189 wRC+, 1.9 fWAR). Honorable mentions go to Juan Soto (181 wRC+, 1.5 fWAR) and Adam Eaton (172 wRC+, 1.3 fWAR).

Most valuable starting pitcher:

Joe Ross (3–0, 1.05 RA/9, 5 G, 25-2/3 IP, 5.6 K/9, .568 opp OPS, 1.6 RA9-WAR). Based on what we saw from him in the first half of the season, this award is frankly kind of stunning, but even though I kept my fingers crossed each time he started, it’s hard to argue with his success this month.

Most valuable relief pitcher:

Daniel Hudson (2–0, 2.51 RA/9, 15 G, 14-1/3 IP, 9.4 K/9, .624 opp OPS, 3.28 RE24, 0.6 RA9-WAR, 6 shutdowns, 3 meltdowns). As the three meltdowns attest, Hudson’s entry into a game didn’t guarantee success. Nevertheless, he stepped into a critical bullpen role and brought the team more success than failure.

Worst month:

Sean Doolittle (0–1, 12.86 RA/9, 8 G, 7 IP, 6.4 K/9, 1.375 opp OPS, –0.6 RA9-WAR, –6.91 RE24, 2 shutdowns, 2 meltdowns). He seemed to have lost the movement on his fastball. Hopefully, his time on the injured list may help him recover his edge.

Best start this month:

Stephen Strasburg (August 31, 7–0 win over the Marlins at home) pitched 8 scoreless innings, giving up 2 hits and no walks and striking out 14, for a game score of 92.

Worst start:

Stephen Strasburg (August 3, 18–7 loss to the Diamondbacks in Phoenix) gave up 9 runs on 9 hits and 2 walks in 4-2/3 innings, while striking out 7, for a game score of 15. This unusual poor outing by the Cy Young contender led to speculation that he was tipping his pitches.

Tough losses:

  • Patrick Corbin (August 27, 2–0 loss to the Orioles at home) gave up 2 runs on 4 hits and no walks in 7 innings, while striking out 9, for a game score of 70. The offense, however, was unable to score a run.

Cheap wins:

  • Stephen Strasburg (August 14, 17–7 win over the Reds at home) gave up 4 runs on 7 hits and 3 walks with 4 strikeouts in 5-2/3 innings, for a game score of 40. In Stephen’s defense, he did contribute to the offensive support that enabled his win, hitting a key RBI single in the 10-run inning that blew the game open.
  • Erick Fedde (August 18, 16–8 win over the Brewers at home) gave up 4 runs on 10 hits and 2 walks with 2 strikeouts in 5 innings, for a game score of 31.

Best shutdown: 

Tanner Rainey (August 17, 15–14 loss to the Brewers at home). Rainey entered the 12–12 game in the top of the tenth and pitched two scoreless innings, getting four strikeouts and two ground outs, while allowing only a walk (win probability added .275).

Worst meltdown:

Sean Doolittle (August 9, 7–6 loss to the Mets in New York). Doo entered the game in the bottom of the ninth with a 6 to 3 lead. He gave up a double to lead-off hitter Davis, followed by a single to Ramos. The third batter he faced, Frazier, took him deep with a three-run homer down the left-field line, tying the game. Panik then singled, becaming the fourth consecutive Met to get a hit off Doolittle. A bunt failed to advance the runner and recorded the first out of the inning. The next batter flied out, but Rosario and Conforto followed with consecutive singles that resulted in the Mets’ walk-off win (WPA –.968).

Clutch hit:

Anthony Rendon (August 30, 7–6 win over the Marlins at home). Rendon came to bat with one out in the bottom of the ninth, runners on first and second, and the Nats trailing 6 to 5. The Marlins catcher allowed a passed ball that advanced the runners to second and third. Rendon then drove a single to left field. Howie Kendrick scored easily, and Trea Turner raced home ahead of the throw for the walk-off win (WPA .458).

Choke: 

I’ll award this one jointly to Trea Turner, Adam Eaton, and Anthony Rendon (August 17, 15–14 loss to the Brewers at home in 14 innings). The Brewers closer, Josh Hader, had taken a 12–11 lead into the bottom of the ninth and allowed a walk, a double by Kurt Suzuki, and a run-scoring single by Victor Robles, tying the game, with the runners advancing to second and third on the throw. The Brewers then issued an intentional walk to Howie Kendrick to load the bases with no outs and the scored tied 12 to 12. A hit, a walk, or a long fly ball could have won the game. In turn, Turner (WPA –.103), Eaton (–.175), and Rendon (–.159) each struck out to send the game to extra innings. I’ll note that Joe Ross actually recorded a worse WPA in the bottom of the 14th of the same game (-.200) when he was sent in as a pinch hitter and struck out to end the game. But cognizant that he was called into an unusual role in that clutch situation, I’ve decided to give this one instead to the three guys at the top of the batting order.

Favorite defensive plays:

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