It’s obviously early in the season — small sample size and all that — but there are some Nationals who have clearly started the season hot and others… who have not. So let’s pick a couple Nats who are hot right now, and some who are not and figure out if they will stay that way.
Ryan Zimmerman: Looking rejuvenated, Ryan Zimmerman is hitting .382 with three home runs already. It’s not even the gaudy numbers that are hot, it’s how Zimmerman has looked doing it. He’s hitting more line drives this year and pulling the ball a lot more while doing so. Typically an all-fields hitter, Zimmerman has pulled 46% of his batted balls and gone the other way only 17% of the time. Expect that to even out as the season wears on, but it’s certainly a good sign that Zimmerman is pulling the ball in the air, something he struggled to do in 2016. Zimmerman continues to hammer the ball, with nearly half of his batted balls in 2017 topping 100 MPH in exit velocity. Of course, he was an exit velocity champ in 2016 too. The difference in 2017 has come in launch angle. In 2016, he hit a lot of balls right into the ground. In 2017, though, he’s getting more loft on his batted balls. While it’s a hot start over a small sample size, the combo of hard hit balls and better launch angle portend good things for the rest of the season.
Daniel Murphy: Although Murphy was glued to the bench for practically the entire WBC, he doesn’t seem any worse off as a result. In fact, he picked the 2017 season up right where he left off in 2016. All he’s done so far is get on base in nearly half of his at bats while slugging two home runs and five doubles. He’s currently carrying a 10-game hitting streak, notching a base hit in every game so far this season. At this point, the changes Murphy made to his swing are well known, but the effects of those changes continue to pay dividends for the Nationals. As long as Murphy is in the lineup, expect him to keep hitting.
Bryce Harper: It’s becoming clearer every day that Harper’s disappointing 2016 came as a result of injuries that Bryce has thankfully put in the rearview mirror. He’s hitting .314 with two home runs and two doubles and has looked like his old self in doing so. It’s easy to pick out mind blowing stats that relate to Bryce Harper, but I have a new one for you: Bryce has registered only one batted ball classified as soft hit by Fangraphs. It’s a crazy stat, and also the most encouraging stat for Nationals’ fans. In 2016, Bryce struggled to square the ball up and create hard contact. Now healthy, Bryce is back to blasting balls all over the field. Of course, Bryce was a monster in April of 2016 too, so let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Expect Bryce to keep producing if he is healthy, and pray that he doesn’t run face first into any more walls.
Gio Gonzalez: Where can’t we start with Gio? He’s striking out a batter an inning, averaging less than one walk per nine innings, and sports a shiny 0.69 ERA as a result. It’s an exciting start, but unlike the offensive stars, the odds of Gio keeping this up are slim. Recall that he had a similar start to the 2016 season, only to regress all the way to his worst ERA as a National. Dig into Gio’s two starts in 2017, and the signs of regression are there. He’s given up 13 hits in 13 innings pitched and stranded those baserunners 96% of the time, an unsustainable rate considering the league averages a strand rate closer to 70%. Celebrate what Gio has accomplished so far, but let’s wait another month or two before a final verdict.
Anthony Rendon: Stop me if you have heard this before: Anthony Rendon dealt with an injury at the end of Spring Training and has had a slow start to the season. So far in 2017, he’s hitting only .133, is striking out nearly twice as often as he did in 2016, and had zero extra base hits in the 8 games he has played in before his double against the Phillies. Most disturbing, he has already registered two errors in those eight games after only 9 errors in all of 2016. It really does feel like a repeat of 2016, though. Rendon also started last season very slowly, hitting only .242 in April. Just like last season, Rendon is swinging at more pitches than he normally does. Expect Rendon to start being more selective at the plate the season wears on and he returns to being a productive hitter.
The Bullpen: The bullpen has easily been the most disappointing part of the Nationals 2017 season so far. As a group, the relievers have posted the 4th worst bullpen ERA in all of baseball, though they have lowered it to under 7.00! It’s been a collective effort to stink so badly. Joe Blanton has been the most consistently effective pitcher so far, but even he has only a 4.50 ERA. It’s hard to imagine this collection of arms being this bad over the course of a whole season though. There are plenty of reasons for optimism once you dig into the details. And Mike Rizzo clearly isn’t done tinkering with the makeup of the bullpen, calling up Matt Albers just this week. The bullpen will continue to be frustrating, because that’s what bullpens do. But the pitchers that make up the bullpen are too talented to keep pitching so poorly. Worst case scenario, the bullpen is also the easiest part of the team to upgrade via trade or minor league call ups.Anthony Rendon, Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy, Gio Gonzalez, Jeremy Guthrie, Nationals, Nats, Ryan Zimmerman, Washington Nationals