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August 2, 2020 / Nat Anacostia

Nats’ July in review: ‘Getting some mojo going’

After a pandemic-induced delay of nearly four months, the world champion Nationals kicked off their 2020 season on July 23. The home opener against the Yankees ended early, called after 5-1/3 innings due to a thunderstorm. The month also ended early for the Nats when a Covid-19 outbreak on the Marlins led to the cancellation of their scheduled series in Miami. In the seven games the Nats were able to play, they went 3-4, ending the month tied for third place, a game and a half behind the Braves.

Let’s start with a quick rundown of the off season. The Nationals coming off their World Series victory were the oldest team in baseball, so they had a lot of players entering free agency. Many of the free agents were willing to return to Washington. The big news was re-signing Stephen Strasburg to a 7-year, $245 million contract. Other players who were re-signed included Yan Gomes, Howie Kendrick, Asdrubal Cabrera, Daniel Hudson, and Ryan Zimmerman. Also, Javy Guerra was re-signed to a minor league contract.

But the Nats did part ways with several players from their championship squad. Most prominently, Anthony Rendon, who had placed third in the 2019 NL Most Valuable Player vote, signed with the Angels for a 7-year, $245 million contract. The Washington Post reported that the Nats’ offer had been 7 years at $210 to 215 million. Clearly, ownership had decided to pursue Strasburg instead. Matt Adams was eventually signed by the Braves, Brian Dozier and Hunter Strickland by the Mets, and Fernando Rodney by the Astros. Gerardo Parra signed in Japan with the Yomiuri Giants.

The Nats brought in several new players. Relief pitcher Will Harris signed a 3-year, $24 million contract. Infielder Starlin Castro signed a 2-year, $12 million contract. The Nats also signed left-handed first baseman Eric Thames, relief pitcher Kyle Finnegan, utility player and former Nat Emilio Bonifacio, and catcher Wellington Castillo, with the last two signing minor league contracts. Shortly after the season began, the Nats inked infielder Josh Harrison. Via trade, the Nats picked up relief pitcher Ryne Harper from the Twins.

On March 12, as the nation started shutting down in response to the Covid19 pandemic, MLB announced that the start of the season would be postponed. Eventually they agreed to a 60-game schedule starting on July 23. A number of other changes were made. Games would be played in empty stadiums with piped-in crowd noise. The NL would adopt the designated hitter. If a game went to extra innings, each inning would begin with a runner on second base (the last batter to have batted in the previous inning). Furthermore, the minor leagues were shut down. Instead of relying on minor leaguers, each MLB team has an “alternate site,” giving them access to up to 60 players overall. The initial active roster would be 30 players. Just before the season commenced, MLB announced that the post season would expand from 10 teams to 16, with those teams each playing a three-game wild card series to kick off the post season. Finally, near the end of the first week of the season MLB announced that games in double headers would be played for seven innings.

“Summer training” began July 3 at Nationals Park with mostly intra-squad competition and only three true exhibition games. News during the run-up to the season was dominated by the virus. Ryan Zimmerman, Joe Ross, and Wellington Castillo all decided to opt out of the season and were placed on the restricted list (though Castillo probably would have been at the alternate site). Just before opening day, Juan Soto tested positive for the coronavirus despite showing no symptoms. He was quarantined and would miss the rest of July, though subsequent negative tests suggested that the original test had been a false positive. Another blow came when Strasburg had to be scratched as the starter of the season’s second game with nerve pain in his right hand. He would also miss the rest of July.

The season kicked off at home against the Yankees. Max Scherzer faced Gerrit Cole—his opponent in Game 1 of the World Series. The Yanks won the rain-shortened game 4 to 1. The Nats’ bats came alive in the second game, which they won 9 to 2. But in game 3, the Nats’ bullpen was not able to hold onto a lead and the Nats fell 3 to 2.

The next four games were against the Blue Jays. The first two were at home, and the next two were scheduled for the road. But the Blue Jays were not allowed to play in Toronto, and their new temporary ballpark in Buffalo would not be ready in time. So for the last two games the Jays remained in Nationals Park, wore their home uniforms, and batted last. The game on July 29 was officially the Blue Jays’ home opener.

In the first two games, the Nats hitters were unable to drive in runners and the pitchers gave up a bunch of solo home runs. The Jays swept the Nats’ “home” series. The “road” series kicked off with a pitching duel between Scherzer and the Jays’ heralded rookie Nate Pearson making his major league debut. The game was still scoreless after nine, so the Nats got to try out the new extra inning rules. It went well, as the Nats were able to score 4 in the tenth inning and win 4 to 0. They won the second game also, sweeping the “road” series.

Meanwhile, the Miami Marlins had experienced a major outbreak of Covid, with 18 players and 2 coaches testing positive. The Nats’ series that was scheduled for the weekend of July 31 to August 2 was cancelled, and after the first seven games the Nats faced a four-day hiatus.

It’s hard to make much of seven days of statistics, but so far the Nats batters have been weak. Their .306 on-base percentage ranks 12th in the NL, and their .398 slugging percentage ranks 9th. Their starting pitching was a bit better; their 3.47 ERA ranks 6th, and their 10.2 K/9 ranks 4th. But Nats’ starters were worst in the league in home runs allowed per nine innings with 2.5. The relief pitchers’ ERA of 1.50 was 3rd in the NL.

According to the Fangraphs estimates, the Nats’ 3–4 record caused their probability of winning the division to fall from 33.2% to 22.6%, while their probability of reaching the playoffs fell from 76.7% to 67.0%.

Record:

3–4 (.429)

Pythagorean Record:

4–3 (3.43 R/G – 3.14 RA/G)

July MVP:

Patrick Corbin (0–0, 1.42 RA/9, 1 G, 6-1/3 IP, 11.4 K/9, .333 opp OPS, 0.4 RA9-WAR). Honorable mention goes to Max Scherzer (0–1, 2.84 RA/9, 2 G, 12-2/3 IP, 14.9 K/9, .606 opp OPS, 0.4 RA9-WAR).

Most valuable position player:

Starlin Castro (.360/.385/.520, 7 G, 26 PA, 3 R, 0 RBI, 147 wRC+, 0.2 fWAR).

Most valuable relief pitcher:

Daniel Hudson (1–0, 0.00 RA/9, 3 G, 3-2/3 IP, 12.3 K/9, .273 opp OPS, 2.89 RE24, 0.3 RA9-WAR, 2 shutdowns, 0 meltdown). Honorable mention goes to Ryne Harper (1–0, 0.00 RA/9, 4 G, 5 IP, 10.8 K/9, .399 opp OPS, 3.69 RE24, 0.3 RA9-WAR, 1 shutdown, 0 meltdown).

Worst month:

Howie Kendrick (.125/.222/.188, 5 G, 18 PA, 1 R, 1 RBI, –22 wRC+, –0.3 fWAR). Kendrick was pulled from the last two games due to upper back tightness.

Best start this month:

Max Scherzer (July 29, 4–0 win over the Blue Jays in an “away” game at Nats Park) pitched 7-1/3 scoreless innings, giving up 3 hits and 3 walks and striking out 10 for a game score of 79. The bullpen held the Jays scoreless the rest of the way as the Nats won in 10 innings.

Worst start:

Erick Fedde (July 30, 6–4 win over the Blue Jays in an “away” game at Nats Park) gave up 2 runs on 6 hits and 2 walks in 3-1/3 innings with no strikeouts, for a game score of 38.

Tough loss:

  • Austin Voth (July 28, 5–1 loss to the Blue Jays at home) gave up 3 runs (2 earned) on 4 hits and 0 walks in 5 innings, while striking out 2, for a game score of 51.

Best shutdown: 

Daniel Hudson (July 29, 4–0 win over the Blue Jays in an “away” game at Nats Park). Hudson entered in the bottom of the eighth with a scoreless tie, one out, and runners on first and third, facing the top of the Jays’ order. He got a double play to get out of the eighth, then in the ninth struck out their # 2, 3, and 4 hitters, sending it to the tenth. (win probability added .397). The Nats scored 4 runs in the top of the tenth to give Hudson the win.

Worst meltdown:

Sean Doolittle (July 26, 3–2 loss to the Yankees at home). Doolittle entered in the top of the eighth with the game tied 2–2. He walked the first batter, got a strikeout, then gave up a single. Judge lined out to left for the second out, but then Torres singled to give the Yanks the lead. Tanner Rainey came in to get the final out, but the Nats would not regain the lead. (WPA –0.226)

Clutch hit:

Asdrubal Cabrera (July 29, 4–0 win over the Blue Jays in an “away” game). Just before Cabrera came to bat in the top of the tenth inning, Adam Eaton had managed a two-out infield hit with the bases loaded to give the Nats a 1–0 lead. But because the Jays would start the bottom of the inning with a runner on second, it wasn’t apparent that a one-run lead would suffice. Cabrera hit a triple down the right field line, clearing the bases and giving the Nats a 4–0 lead. (WPA 0.29) Rainey held the Jays scoreless in the bottom of the inning to give the Nats the win. (Note – usually I use Fangraphs for WPA statistics, but they seem to have a glitch in their calculations with the new extra-innings runner-on-second format, so I’ve used Baseball Reference’s version in this case.) 

Choke: 

Emilio Bonifacio (July 26, 3–2 loss to the Yankees at home). In the bottom of the ninth, the Nats were trailing 3 to 2. Cabrera led off with a single, and Bonifacio was sent in as a pinch runner. He made it to second on a passed ball, and then, with a 3–2 count for Victor Robles, Bonifacio attempted to steal third. Robles drew a walk, but Bonifacio over-slid and was thrown out. This was not a situation that called for a stolen base attempt. Instead of runners at first and second with no outs, the Nats had a runner at first with one out. Two outs later the game would be over.

Favorite defensive plays:

 

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