Heading into the All-Star break, Tanner Roark was in a rut.
The MLB All-Star Game and its corresponding festivities have hit the nation’s capital, a fitting sign that DC is as prominent as it has ever been in the baseball landscape. The Washington Nationals are now one of the most stable and successful franchises in the Major Leagues, backed by a city that has only shown increased support since the club started trending upwards in 2011.
So, due to the fact that the current Nationals team is hiccupping their way to the midseason break and I’m in the All-Star spirit, I decided to put together an all-time Nationals All-Star team, showcasing the franchise’s best players and best individual seasons. My totally random criteria is below.
Figuring out what has gone wrong with the 2018 Nationals is a multi-pronged study in disappointment. Few of the stars are starring, injuries have riddled the lineup and rotation and a certain swagger seems to be missing. Whether or not that’s because a certain bearded guy and a certain well-seasoned manager are both not around anymore, I’m not sure. But I’ve talked to numerous other Nats fans over the last few weeks and each one has mentioned how the boys don’t really seem to be enjoying themselves. Now, obviously, it’s a lot easier to have fun when you’re winning than when you’re losing, but there’s a malaise settling over this team that we never saw from the Dusty Baker-led group of 2017. Hopefully, that changes after Thursday night’s thrilling comeback victory over the Marlins.
But let’s not fool ourselves. The Nats are still just 45-44 and in a tight spot in the playoff race. The margin for error is gone already, a situation the team never even came close to facing last season. I decided to look back at the 2017 squad to try and figure out what the hell has happened this year.
The National League is no joke this year.
One would be forgiven if in making preseason predictions, you didn’t give more than a minute’s thought to the eventual division winners. The East, Central and West had the same three victors the last two seasons: the Nats (winners of four of the last six NL East titles), the Cubs (who even won 97 games as a wild card in 2015) and the Dodgers (winners of the last five NL West titles). All three rosters looked formidable enough to take their respective divisions again this year, even as other NL teams like the Phillies, Brewers and Giants made drastic moves to improve.
Daniel Murphy’s prolonged absence from the Nationals’ lineup, which thankfully concluded on June 12, was quite possibly the biggest reason for the team’s status as a sleeping giant. Yes, I realize the club sits well over .500 thanks to a 26-12 stretch after a 11-16 start, but the squad undeniably receives a super boost with the return of one of MLB’s finest sluggers – if that slugger can return to his 2016-17 form, a notion that is in doubt.
When Max Scherzer signed a 7-year, $210 million contract with the Nationals prior to the 2015 season, the move was universally seen as a great move that could take an extremely talented team into the stratosphere.
Last month, I dove into the Nats’, a period that ended with Washington sitting below .500, performing well below expectations and nursing injuries. The latter is still true, but the team managed to put together an outstanding month of May as numerous replacements performed well above expectations, leading to a 19-7 record. The other key to this surge: outstanding starting pitching and a much, much improved bullpen. And the injured troops are steadily on their way back, at the perfect time.
Let’s dive into the numbers.
All stats are through May 31, courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.com.
.312 OBP – 10th in NL
.439 SLG – 5th in NL
101 wRC+ – 6th in NL
12 stolen bases – 8th in NL
What sticks out here? Power. The Nats led the National League in homers for the month of May with 41, leading to a 41-point improvement in team slugging over the month of April. Bryce Harper unsurprisingly led the team with 10 dingers, while Matt Adams was not far behind with 9. Next on the list is Mark Reynolds, who has taken 6 balls out of the park in just 14 games (47 plate appearances). Talk about a big May addition. I have no idea what the Nats are going to do when Ryan Zimmerman comes off the disabled list, because carrying three first basemen seems counterproductive. One or two big power bats could end up on the bench – or one of Adams and Reynolds could be traded out of town.
Anthony Rendon has rounded into form since coming off the disabled list, posting a 137 wRC+ in 22 games in May. Wilmer Difo, as I’ve discussed previously, continues to make outstanding contributions, posting a 121 wRC+ and providing spectacular defense. And of course, there’s the welcome debut of one Juan Soto, who has posted a .333/.415/.500 line in his first 41 Major League plate appearances. With Michael Taylor continuing to struggle (51 wRC+ in May), Brian Goodwin set to return and Adam Eaton making his way through rehab, the outfield is going to be log-jammed very soon, just like the first base position. My guess as to how the Nats handle this: Taylor only starts against lefties, with Goodwin rotating in against righties to give Eaton some rest as he returns from another extended absence.
One last thing: I can’t wait for Daniel Murphy to come back.
171.0 IP – 1st in NL
2.26 ERA – 1st in NL
2.81 FIP – 1st in NL
9.95 K/9 – T-2nd in NL
2.47 BB/9 – 2nd in NL
0.63 HR/9 – 1st in NL
Here’s where the Nats made their hay in the month of May (sorry, I had to). I mean, wow. Literally first or second in every category here.
This is an appropriate time to admire just how fantastic the Nationals’ rotation has been over the years. Having four pitchers that you can rely on for stable production in Scherzer, Strasburg, Gonzalez and Roark means the Nats are never truly out of any pennant race if all of them can get locked in at the same time. That’s exactly what happened in May. The offense was solid, but the Nats are not even sniffing first place right now without the rotation going all scorched-Earth for an entire month.
Yikes – I didn’t even mention Jeremy Hellickson. Like Mark Reynolds, Hellickson is a veteran who sat around waiting for an opportunity in spring training and is now contributing healthily to a contending team. In five May starts, Hellickson posted a 1.30 ERA backed up by a 2.69 FIP, with a ridiculous 0.65 BB/9 and a 0.65 HR/9. I highly doubt this will keep up, especially when I see the .246 BABIP against, but five starts worth of elite production out of Hellickson is something I never expected.
Now, one standout May number for each of the Nats’ big four:
– 63 strikeouts in 40.2 innings for Max Scherzer. Just give him the Cy Young already.
– Just 3 home runs allowed by Stephen Strasburg in 32.1 innings, after surrendering 7 home runs in 39.2 innings prior to May.
– 1.47 ERA for Gio, who continues to find a way to strand runners and limit damage.
– 0.26 HR/9 for Tanner Roark. The crafty veteran may give up his share of runners, but limiting the long ball goes a long way to him being able to pitch late into games.
3.13 ERA – 6th in NL
3.47 FIP – 3rd in NL
9.26 K/9 – 3rd in NL
2.74 BB/9 – 2nd in NL
0.91 HR/9 – 6th in NL
This is where the Nats saw the most improvement from the first month. The bullpen finally stabilized, cutting way down on home runs and walks given up. Much like the lineup, contributions were made from unlikely places.
Justin Miller and Tim Collins have made a combined 8 appearances and registered just 15 outs, but it feels like more than that. Miller is a journeyman who has somehow K’d 5 of the 8 batters he’s faced. Collins provides another lefty option beyond Sammy Solis, who was again relied on heavily in May, with 14 appearances. The duo helped bridge the gap to Brandon Kintzler and Sean Doolittle, as has Wander Suero, another call-up that pitched to a 2.70 ERA in 10 innings this past month.
Speaking of Kintzler and Doolittle: their top-notch performances made up for the absence of Ryan Madson, who has now returned to the ‘pen after a DL stint. Brandon somehow navigated through a .432 BABIP for the month to post a 2.65 FIP in 10.2 innings. As for Doolittle – total dominance. In May, a total of 2 runs given up in 12.1 innings, which both came in his lone blown save of the year on May 19 vs. the Dodgers. On the season, the bespectacled beast is second in reliever WAR. It’s about time the Nats had the closer position figured out before the trade deadline.
With Solo opening this weekend, I very much wanted to lead this off with a Han Solo-Juan Soto joke. But I’ve got nothing. So let’s just talk about Juan Soto, and what he could mean to the Nats going forward, both this season and beyond.
Okay, sorry. Now that I’ve gotten my Uncle Buck/bug-gnat-Nats reference out of the way, let’s talk about the squad’s injury issues and how they’re countering them.
The Nationals could potentially lose a franchise mainstay this coming offseason. A player who has brought magic to Nats fans, one whose arrival signified a turning point from mediocrity to excellence. A player who has had frustrating moments that make you scratch your head, but also moments of brilliance that make your jaw drop.
No, I’m not talking about Bryce Harper. I’m talking about Gio Gonzalez.