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The Nationals are doing it again

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The favorites to win the NL East suddenly find themselves with a worse record than the Giants.

Washington Nationals v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

During the 2018 Spring Training, newly minted Washington Nationals manager Dave Martinez brought three camels to camp. This vaguely parabolic gesture had two purposes.

  • Yay camels!
  • Delivering the message of “Embrace the hump.”

Martinez’s message might have sounded more like a line from a romance novel written by aliens, but it alluded to the Nationals’ frustrating history. Despite reaching October in four of the last six seasons, the Nationals had never won a playoff series. Ever. Even when they were the Montreal Expos.* Martinez had brought the camel in to show his players that this was the year they would finally make it past the divisional round, that they would finally get over the hump.

*Correction: Technically, the Expos did win a postseason series. Because the 1981 strike split the season into two, there was a five-game divisional series between the first and second half winners: the Phillies and Expos. The Expos won that series.

Then the 2018 season began, and suddenly, not only did it look like the Nationals weren’t going to make it over the hump, but they weren’t going to approach the hump at all. They spent almost the entire year looking up at the Phillies and the Braves. From June 1 to August 31, the Nationals went 34-45 despite outscoring their opponents 377 to 358.

They finished the season in second place thanks to a catastrophic collapse in Philadelphia but that still wasn’t enough for a playoff berth. They wound up 82 wins, a full eight games below their Pythagorean record. It’s safe to say that last season was a fluke. Even with Bryce Harper, the Nationals still had the most talented team in the division.

Surely 2019 will be the year they’ll finally get over the hump. Let’s check in on their playoff odds.

Oh, oh no.

I didn’t include the Phillies on the graph because FanGraphs uses the exact same color on their playoff odds chart, and it was confusing to read. But know that the Nationals were the favorites to win a tightly contested division, but now the Phillies have surpassed them in playoff odds.

Following their 5-0 loss against the Dodgers on Friday night, the Nationals are 15-23. The only National League team with a worse winning percentage is the Miami Marlins. They’re currently 6.5 games back of the Phillies and the Braves and Mets are sandwiched in between. It won’t be impossible to climb back to the top, but the path to a division title is a lot harder than it was supposed to be on Opening Day.

Washington’s bullpen failures have been well-documented. Their relievers are sitting on a league worst 6.24 ERA. That’s even been held down by Sean Doolittle and Kyle Barraclough each being almost three runs better than their DRAs.

The Nationals didn’t have to go out and sign Craig Kimbrel to fix their bullpen—though that’s inexplicably still an option and it would certainly help—there were plenty of low-cost bullpen arms that could have been had. Just looking at the guys the Giants picked up this offseason, Nick Vincent was available in February on a minor-league contract. The Nationals gave away Trevor Gott.

In the starting rotation, Max Scherzer has been better than ever, but he has also been one of the unluckiest pitchers in baseball. He’s striking out nine batters for every batter he walks, and he has given up just four homers in 52 1/3 innings. But his ERA is hovering near 4.00 in no small part because of Washington’s atrocious defense.

Defensive stats are extremely volatile in such a short time, but the Nationals rank 29th in defensive runs saved at -29. That helps explain why the pitchers are rocking the highest BABIP in the majors at .323. Carter Kieboom, who has been filling in for the injured Trea Turner, is one of the larger culprits. His -6 DRS is tied for third worst among shortstops. Juan Soto has also been a liability in the field, but he’s been one of the few Nationals that have been hitting.

Anthony Rendon recently returned from an injury, but when he and Turner were both out, the Nationals depended on Soto, Howie Kendrick, and Kurt Suzuki to carry them.

Offseason acquisitions Brian Dozier and Yan Gomes haven’t gotten things going. Michael A. Taylor has been absolutely lost at the plate. Matt Adams just got sent to the IL with a shoulder sprain. Before that, he was slugging but he also had a worse on-base percentage than Evan Longoria.

With Rendon, Soto, Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin, the Nationals have more than enough talent to get them into the postseason and over the hump. They’ve been unlucky with injuries, but that’s only highlighted how shallow the supporting cast is. The defense is bad enough to tank Scherzer’s ERA, the bullpen is depending on Kyle Barraclough to keep his ERA under 2.00.

The Nationals have embraced the hump in the sense that every game for them has been a struggle to get through. That any little outing by their carousel of relievers or misplay in the field could send them sliding back down and putting them back further than where they started.