How Good Are the Nationals?

After Monday’s victory over the Royals, optimism about the Nats seemingly reached a season high, at least among fans. The Nats are 4-0 to kick off a 10-game road trip many would have been happy to finish 4-6. At 18-7, they are on pace to win 117 games, which would break the MLB record of 116 set by the 2001 Mariners and the 1906 Cubs. That exact winning percentage seems a little unsustainable, but there’s no denying the Nats been very successful over the season’s opening month.

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Pitching Trends Emerge in Sweep

Sunday’s 6-1 win completed a series sweep for the Washington Nationals, who took three straight over the weekend from the St. Louis Cardinals.

The finale featured a few highlights of its own, mainly Max Scherzer’s dominant nine-strikeout performance and home runs from the trio of Danny Espinosa, Clint Robinson, and Chris Heisey. That made the win notable in and of itself, but a theme of the weekend was the sharp performance of the pitching staff.

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Defense Lifts Nats Pitchers

This weekend’s Nationals-Cardinals match up was billed as a test for one of the best pitching staffs in baseball — the Nationals — as they took on one of the best offenses in baseball: the Cardinals. The Cardinals have scored the most runs in baseball, ahead of even the high-powered Cubs lineup. Facing off against that offense was the Nationals’ pitching staff, owners of the second-best team ERA in the majors, trailing only the Cubs (aside: wow, the Cubs have been good and the match up in Chicago next week will be a fun one). As has been the case most of this season, the pitching has won out, with the Nats taking down the series versus the Cardinals. On the year, the Nationals’ pitchers have posted a stellar 2.42 ERA, good for second lowest in the majors.

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Nats Prove Their Mettle in Win over Cardinals

There’s no better way to bust a slump than by beating the class of the league. For most of the week, baseball had not been much fun in Washington, but the Nationals survived a scare in the 8th inning of Friday night’s matchup, beating the Cardinals 5-4.

Stephen Strasburg improved to 4-0 on the season and showed a lot of mental toughness throughout his outing. This win was a critical one for the Nats because it was the start of a ten game road trip in which they will face the Cardinals, Royals, and Cubs.

After being swept by the Phillies to start the week, all the doom and gloom predictions were starting up again. This post was practically writing itself, and fans were ready to give Dusty Baker the same treatment Matt Williams got. But everything looks brighter after a win.

The National League is going to be dogfight in 2016, (while the Nats were surviving in St. Louis, the Mets were thrashing the San Francisco Giants 13-1) and Dusty Baker’s team needs to prove early on that they can compete with the best.

The Nationals did just that on Friday night, getting their bats moving early when Michael Taylor took St. Louis pitcher Mike Leake deep in the first inning. After 22 straight innings without a run, it was like watching the cork finally, mercifully popping off the champagne bottle. For Taylor it was his first at-bat since being benched on Thursday. Danny Espinosa also chose an excellent time to hit his first homer of the year, a two run shot in the fourth that put the Nats ahead for good.

The baseball gods finally smiled on Washington as well, when Anthony Rendon was called out stealing second, but had the call overturned after Baker chose to challenge. That was another moment that bucked the current trend for the Nats who had not had much luck with that aspect of the game recently.

It’s important for us not to panic. It’s tough to put a losing streak in perspective while it’s happening — especially if it’s to the Phillies — but we need to be able to do it. That being said, it’s also critical for the Nats to win against playoff-caliber teams. You can start the season with as many wins as you want against the Braves and Twins, but until you win against St. Louis and Chicago, you cannot build sustained success.


Off-Field Recap: Everybody Wants to Be Like Bryce

In the last seven days, the Nationals played a 16-inning game and Tanner Roark struck out 15 (yes, in one game). The week hit some beautiful, wonderful, mystical high notes. But the piano cover shut on the keys last night when the Nats got swept by the Philadelphia Phillies. Baseball is characterized by peaks and valleys, but getting shut out by Philadelphia in back-to-back games might be a bummer that requires a distraction. And that’s where this recap comes in. Continue reading…


Why Baseball Is the Best

I have a friend who is not a baseball fan. In fact, he is almost militant in his disgust for the game of baseball. Somehow, we are still friends, but our friendship doesn’t keep us from vigorous debates over the merits of baseball.

His arguments are typical: baseball is boring, the DH is dumb, the fences are different for each park, etc. Each can be swiftly dismissed, but, alas, he cannot be counted among the converted. Yet.

In his honor, I dedicate this article. Why baseball is great as illustrated in a typical Thursday night game.

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What To Expect from May

The Washington Nationals are off to a hot start, winning 14 of their first 20 contests after Wednesday night’s loss to the Philadelphia Phillies. They’ve beaten up plenty on the dregs of the NL East, winning all 6 games they played against the Braves, and 3 of 5 against the Marlins. Throw in a sweep of the lowly Twins, and one thing is clear:

The Nationals are great against awful teams.

The double edged sword of this refrain implies that they won’t be as good against good teams and may even be downright bad against good teams. In fact, you may have already encountered folks on Twitter Dot Com and/or The Facebook heaving skepticism at the Nationals’ good start based on the quality of the opponent. These are the Starks of Natstown, proclaiming  “May is coming,” and that it would be disingenuous to act as if May was going to be anything like April.

Instead of awful to mediocre teams, May is full of mediocre to great teams. Starting this weekend through the first day of June, the Nats will play:

7 games against the perennially tough Cardinals,

6 against last year’s NL Champion Mets,

4 against the World Series favorite Cubs,

3 against the World Series champion Royals,

7 against the mediocre Marlins,

3 more against the mediocre Tigers,

and finally 3 against the Phillies.

That’s a top-heavy month of competition. Suffice to say, it is very likely the Nats won’t have the type of record over that stretch of 33 games that they’ve had over the first 20. This will be perfect fodder for the pessimistic DC sports fan to proclaim not only that the sky is falling, but that the Earth has opened up to eat us all.

What is worse (than those pessimistic fans who seem to literally live for the moment they can tell you everything is awful and that they knew everything would be awful and you’re a moron for thinking it might not be awful before they retreat into their cocoon of self-loathing) is that every terrible sports cliche will get thrown around on sports radio, further reinforcing the garbage mentality of those rays-o-bloody-sunshine around you.

(Aside: I once heard Brian Mitchell on the radio call a May series against the Texas Rangers a “must win.” B-Mitch. C’mon. Seriously.)

This is, in part, because even after 11 years with baseball back in the District, folks still try and cram a whole 162 game baseball season into their 16-game NFL frame of mind. So “you need to beat the good teams” and “you have to win the games in your division” go right to the top of the list when a baseball team doesn’t win a game in its division or beat a good team.

By the way: Both of those sentiments are wrong. When you play 162 games a year, you can lose a whole bunch to a division rival and still win the division. Also, if you define good teams as playoff teams, then every year half the “good teams” have losing records against the other half of good teams (go ahead. Do the very simple math).

No, what you need to do in baseball is win series. Win lots of them. Your best bet is to win series against terrible teams (like the Nats did all April) and split/win/tread water against better teams — which is what I suggest is the right way to look at May.

Rather than have some ridiculous expectation of repeating April in May, let’s try and figure out what is realistic. If we look at the old maxim of “win at home and split on the road” The Nats’ 33-game May should finish somewhere around 17-16 (again, I’m including the two April games against the Cards here and the first June game against the Phils as well). That’s a far cry from what April was, but then again the competition is way up. The important thing to remember is that .500ish May is not a bad May at all.

In fact May is so tough I’m going to say 14-19 is an acceptable May. That’s just one game for each road series, and two wins for each home series. Is that great? No. Is it good? Not really. Is it enough for now? Absolutely. That’s roughly 28-25 for the year, still above .500 and on pace for a mid-to-high-80s win total for the year. Really, it would project higher given that a lot of the tougher teams would be behind them. The Nats would still be in the playoff and NL East conversation at the end of the year.

At some point, it is more likely than not that May is going to be frustrating. Good pitchers will have bad nights, Batters will struggle to score, and even the mighty Bryce Harper may have a bad night or two. Rather than give into anger and pessimism, keep the big picture of May in mind — which is that there is a bigger picture than May at work here. Even if the Nats completely faceplant in May, there is still June, July, August, and September to fix it. “It’s early” is a real thing: Just ask the 2015 Mets.


Diagnosing Anthony Rendon

Last night’s loss to the Phillies aside, the Nationals have been one of the hottest teams in baseball. Amidst their hot streak, it’s easy to focus on the positives and to miss the things that haven’t been working well. Some of those negative are obvious, like Michael A. Taylor’s struggles in the leadoff role or the lack of a healthy Ben Revere. But there is one National whose struggles have flown mostly under the radar: Anthony Rendon. Sure, I see his batting average flash up on the screen when he comes to the plate but the depth of his struggles didn’t really register with me until Craig pointed it out in his Three Up, Three Down piece.

We are talking about a guy who slugged 21 home runs and was fifth in the NL MVP voting in 2014, his first full season in the big leagues. After an impressive college career, some people were even wondering if Rendon would end up being a more valuable player than Bryce Harper. Sure, 2015 wasn’t what everyone expected it would be for Rendon, but he never had a Spring Training, banging his knee diving for a groundball early on in camp and never really seeming to find his groove after that.

This season was supposed to be the year Rendon bounced back. He went through the spring healthy, moved back to his natural third base position, and slotted right in the middle of a potentially stacked Nationals lineup with protection in front and behind him in the order. Instead, Rendon has been mostly absent at the plate. His current .241 batting average and .279 on base percentage would be career lows by a healthy margin. He has only four extra base hits, all doubles, and his isolated slugging percentage sits at a lowly .051 — lower than pitcher Joe Ross. It feels like something must be amiss, that there should be something to point to explain why Rendon has struggled so much this season.

The first stat to consult for struggling hitters is Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP). It measures exactly what it says it does, batting average on balls that are put into play, so home runs and strikeouts are excluded. Over a long enough time frame, batters tend to have a baseline BABIP, usually around .300. Hitting significantly higher than your baseline? Expect to regress back to the norm and see your batting average fall with it. BABIP extraordinarily low? It’s likely due to some bad bounces and should come back to where it used to be, boosting the batting average at the same time. Rendon has historically run a BABIP of .312 over his major league career. This year, his BABIP sits at .286, suggesting some potential bad batted ball luck but not a huge red flag. Our search continues

It’s obviously early in the season, but it’s coming to the point where strikeout rate starts to wield some predictive value and walk rate won’t be too far behind, so perhaps the answer is here. Rendon’s walk rate is in line with 2014 and his strikeout rate is actually down a tick so far in 2016. That’s usually good news, of course, so likely not the culprit of his struggles. On to the next stat.

Take a closer look at Rendon’s swing rates and finally some anomalies pop up. Rendon has always been a patient hitter with a good understanding of the strike zone, rarely swinging at bad pitches out of the zone and waiting patiently for his pitch in the zone. That’s partially true this season, as Rendon continues to lay off pitches out of the zone. However, he’s become less selective on pitches in the strike zone. In the past, he’s swung only 61% of the time at pitches in the strike zone. This season, though, he’s letting fewer strikes go by and swinging away at those pitches over 70% of the time. It’s early in the year, but that’s a huge shift.

It seems like this newfound aggression in the strike zone may be the culprit of Rendon’s problems. Rendon continues to make contact at his usual rates, so he’s putting more balls in play early on the in the count. The results just haven’t been there on the batted balls. He’s popped up to the infield four times so far in 2016, already over 30% of the way to matching his 2014 total less than one month into the season. Infield pop ups are sure fire outs and indicative of bad contact. On top that, Rendon is hitting the ball the other way a little more often in 2016. Rendon has always been an all-fields hitter, but his opposite field hit rate so far this year is higher than his norm, suggesting that he may be going with pitches on the outside part of the plate and hitting them weakly the other way. Sure enough, Rendon’s rate of softly hit balls is up to 19% on the season after sitting at only 13% last year. The higher rate of infield pop ups and increased opposite field batted balls, combined with a higher than normal swing rate, sure paints a picture of a hitter swinging at strikes he should be taking. A more selective Rendon has equaled a more valuable hitter in the past. This new, more aggressive Rendon hasn’t been as effective. As the calendar turns to May, look for Rendon to break out of this slump by taking more strikes.


Three Up, Three Down for April

Monday’s off day gave us a chance to take stock of how the season has gone thus far. There has been a fair share of good things and slightly fewer bad things – as evidenced by the Nationals’ 14-4 record. Based on nothing more than arbitrary end points and my own opinion, I hereby present to you the official The Nats Blog 3 Up, 3 Down for the beginning of the 2016 season.

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The Eight Craziest Things From Sunday’s Game

Dusty Baker, Chris Speier, and Davey Lopes, baseball lifers with a combined age of 201, called the Nationals’ 6-5, 16-inning win over the Twins the craziest game they’d ever seen.

But just how crazy was it? To get a full appreciation for the chaos tornado that was Sunday’s win, let’s relive the eight wildest things about it.

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