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September 1, 2020 / Nat Anacostia

Nats’ August in review: ‘Just play baseball’

In August the Nats saw their shortened season slip away. They had a 9-16 record for the month, which tied with June 2018 as their worst since 2010. They began the month in third place in the NL East, only 1.5 games out and with—according to FanGraphs—a 67% chance of making the playoffs. By the end of the month, they were in last place with an overall 12–20 record, 7 games behind the Braves and with only a 10% chance at the playoffs.

The month began with a long layoff when a series in Miami was cancelled due to a Covid outbreak on the Marlins. After four days off, the Nats resumed play on August 4 with a two-game series at home against the Mets. They won the first game and lost the second, with Juan Soto joining the team for the first time after being held out for a positive Covid test that appeared to have been false. After another off-day, the Nats concluded their home stand with a three-game series against the Orioles. The O’s won the first two games of the series and were ahead in the third game when it was suspended because the grounds crew was unable to get the tarp on the field before it was drenched. Stephen Strasburg was making his season debut after a right wrist injury, but it appeared the injury was still bothering him.

At that point—two and a half weeks into the season—the Nats had played all of their games at Nationals Park (though two were treated as “away” games). The Nats’ first road trip began on August 10 in New York with a four-game series against the Mets. The Nats won the first game 16 to 4 and the second, a Max Scherzer start, 2 to 1. But then they lost the last two games, splitting the series.

The road trip continued in Baltimore, where the Nats began with a “partial” doubleheader by completing their suspended game from five days earlier. Unfortunately, Starlin Castro broke his wrist tying to make a play and appears to be out for the season. The Nats lost the suspended game (making the prior weekend’s series a sweep for the Birds), but won the full game that evening 15 to 3. But more than offsetting the lop-sided victory was the fact that Strasburg had to be pulled from the game in the first inning after facing only four hitters. He would go on the 60-game injured list and get surgery for right carpal tunnel neuritis. The series concluded with the Orioles winning the second game and the Nats narrowly winning the third, giving the Nats their only series win for the month. Soto was named NL Player of the Week after hitting .462 with 5 home runs, 12 RBIs, and 12 runs with a 1.610 OPS.

The Nats 20-year old prospect, Luis Garcia, was called up to make his major league debut (the youngest player in MLB) and given the opportunity to earn the second base position in Castro’s absence. Several Nats pitchers also made their MLB debuts this month—Dakota Bacus, Seth Romero, Wil Crowe, and Ben Braymer. 

The road trip concluded in Atlanta with a three-game series against the Braves. The Nats experienced a shocking loss in the first game when they entered the bottom of the ninth with a 3-run lead and were walked off. They came back to win the second game, and the third game was rained out.

The next home stand began with a five-game series against the Marlins that included a doubleheader. The Nats lost the first game, then split the doubleheader. All three games were close. Crowe made his MLB debut starting the doubleheader game that the Nats lost. The Nats won the fourth game of the series 9 to 3, but lost the finale and the series, three games to two.

The home stand continued with a three-game series against the Phillies. The Nats lost the first two games, then the players from both teams agreed to postpone the third game to call attention to social and racial injustice in the aftermath of the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The previous day the Milwaukee Bucks had refused to take the court for Game 5 of the NBA playoffs and many MLB teams followed suit.

The Nats began a road trip with a three game series in Boston against the Red Sox. The Nats took the first game 10 to 2, but lost the next two games. The month concluded with the Nats in Philadelphia playing, and losing the first game of a four-game series against the Phillies. The trade deadline was the 31st, but the Nats didn’t make any trades, with the signing of free agent veteran infielder Brock Holt their only late month acquisition.

Why did the Nats perform so poorly? The explanation starts with starting pitching—a surprise for a team that for many years has maintained one of the top rotations in baseball. The starters ERA was 6.46, 28th in MLB (ahead of only the Tigers and Red Sox) and the highest monthly ERA ever recorded by Nationals starters. With Strasburg mostly out of commission, only Scherzer and Patrick Corbin were somewhat reliable (though not reaching their expected performance). The other starters (Anibal Sanchez, Austin Voth, and Erick Fedde) were, with rare exceptions, dreadful.

The team’s batting, on the other hand, was fairly good (thanks in large measure to Soto and Trea Turner). The team’s on-base percentage during August of .344 ranked fourth in baseball, and their .469 slugging average ranked fifth. The park-adjusted overall offense number, wRC+, was 115, or 15% better than average, ranking sixth. But below-average defense held their offensive fWAR to 2.5, ranking 22nd.

The relief corps was merely bad, with a 5.12 ERA (23rd in baseball). The relievers had 19 meltdowns vs. 21 shutdowns (the average team had 17 meltdowns and 26 shutdowns). Their fielding independent pitching (FIP) was 4.45 (17th in baseball). Their opponents batting average on balls in play (BABIP) was .335 (ranking 27th).

Record:

9–16 (.360)

Pythagorean Record:

12–13 (5.24 R/G – 5.60 RA/G)

August MVP:

Trea Turner (.408/.465/.699, 25 G, 114 PA, 6 HR, 26 R, 16 RBI, 208 wRC+, 1.8 fWAR). Honorable mention goes to Juan Soto (.367/.452/.800, 24 G, 104 PA, 11 HR, 21 R. 25 RBI, 223 wRC+, 1.4 fWAR). Turner led MLB in batting average for the month, and Soto led in slugging and tied for the lead in home runs.

Most valuable starting pitcher:

Max Scherzer (3–0, 4.38 RA/9, 5 G, 24-2/3 IP, 12.4 K/9, .327 opp OPS, 0.5 RA9-WAR).

Most valuable relief pitcher:

Tanner Rainey (0–0, 0.93 RA/9, 9 G, 9-2/3 IP, 13.0 K/9, .229 opp OPS, 7.13 RE24, 0.7 RA9-WAR, 6 shutdowns, 0 meltdown). Honorable mention goes to Kyle Finnegan (1–0, 1.50 RA/9, 5.40 RE24, 0.5 RA9-WAR).

Worst month:

Daniel Hudson (0–2, 9.00 RA/9, 9 G, 8 IP, 12.4 K/9, .4 HR allowed, 368 opp OBP, –3.95 RE24, –0.83 WPA, –0.4 RA-9 WAR, 4 shutdowns, 2 (very big) meltdowns). I singled out Hudson because his poor performance came in high leverage situations leading directly to two losses, but others who could compete for this category include Austin Voth (0–3, 9.16 RA/9, –0.5 RA-9 WAR), Ryne Harper (0–0, 11.42 RA/9, –0.4 RA-9 WAR), Victor Robles (.214/.296/.300, –0.3 fWAR), and Carter Kieboom (.146/.308/.146, –0.2 fWAR).

Best start this month:

Anibal Sanchez (August 23, 9–3 win over the Marlins at home) pitched 7 innings, giving up 1 run on 5 hits and no walks and striking out 5 for a game score of 68. Unfortunately, his other four starts in August were bad.

Worst start:

Austin Voth (August 18, 8–5 win over the Braves in Atlanta) gave up 5 runs on 9 hits and 3 walks in 4 innings with 3 strikeouts, for a game score of 24. After Voth left the game with the Nats trailing 5 to 2, the Nats scored 6 more runs and the relievers shut down the Braves for 5 innings for the win.

Tough loss:

Patrick Corbin (August 21, 3–2 loss to the Marlins at home) gave up 3 runs on 8 hits and 2 walks in 6-1/3 innings, while striking out 9, for a game score of 52.

Cheap win:

Patrick Corbin (August 4, 5–3 win over the Mets at home) gave up 3 runs on 8 hits and 1 walk in 5-2/3 innings, while striking out 8, for a game score of 48.

Best shutdown:

Tanner Rainey (August 11, 2–1 win over the Mets in New York). Rainey entered in the bottom of the seventh with the Nats leading 2 to 1, one out, and runners on first and second, facing Jeff McNeil. He got a double play to get out of the inning, then retired the side in the eighth on two strikeouts and a groundout (win probability added .322).

Worst meltdown:

Daniel Hudson (August 17, 7–6 loss to the Braves in Atlanta). Hudson came in for the save in the bottom of the ninth with the Nats ahead 6 to 3. Nick Markakis was leading off for the Braves, and Hudson hit him with a pitch. The next batter, Adam Duvall, hit a home run, and the Nats lead was down to one run. Camargo singled, Hechavarria struck out, and Inciarte flied out. With two outs, Dansby Swanson homered to deep center field, giving the Braves a walk-off win. (WPA –0.954)

Clutch hit:

Howie Kendrick (August 26, 3–2 loss to the Phillies at home). Kendrick led off the bottom of the ninth with the Nats trailing 3 to 2 and hit a double to left field, sliding in just ahead of the tag (WPA 0.244). Despite Michael A. Taylor coming in to pinch run for Howie, the Nats were unable to score and lost the game.

Choke:

Eric Thames (August 26, 3–2 loss to the Phillies at home). In the same game, the bottom of the ninth, the Nats trailing 3 to 2, Thames came to bat with one out and runners on first and third. He struck out (WPA –0.260). He was followed by Victor Robles, who also struck out to end the game.

Favorite defensive plays:

 

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