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How the Nationals Went From Ewing Theory Contender to Early-Season Disaster

Washington was supposed to make the playoffs despite losing Bryce Harper. Instead, the Nats have been one of the worst teams in the league. What went wrong? And can they fix it in time?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The 2018 Washington Nationals finished a disappointing 82-80, then over the offseason lost their franchise outfielder, Bryce Harper, to division-rival Philadelphia as a free agent. But there was plenty of reason to be optimistic about the Nats in 2019: They brought back the best pitcher in baseball, Max Scherzer, outfield wunderkind Juan Soto, slugging third baseman Anthony Rendon, baserunning menace Trea Turner, OBP machine Adam Eaton, and All-Star pitchers Sean Doolittle and Stephen Strasburg. They were able to call up top prospect Víctor Robles to take Harper’s spot in the outfield.

While securing Harper is a great way for a baseball team to spend $25 million a year (the Nationals reportedly offered him even more on a shorter deal than the one he signed with the Phillies), there are other smart ways to spend that money. And as teams like the Dodgers and Indians scaled back their payrolls this offseason, Washington and GM Mike Rizzo took the money they weren’t spending on Harper and reinvested it in the club. Rizzo signed the top pitcher on the market, Patrick Corbin, to a six-year, $140 million deal. They also made more modest investments in no. 4 starter Aníbal Sánchez, relievers Trevor Rosenthal and Tony Sipp, and second baseman Brian Dozier for a solid combination of proven big league producers and bounce-back candidates with upside. He also raided salary-dumping teams for All-Star catcher Yan Gomes and former closer Kyle Barraclough. The Nats still had plenty of star power without Harper, and much more depth.

So even in the super-competitive NL East, the Nats looked like a good bet for some post-Harper Ewing Theory success, an idea Zach Kram explored in detail this past March. The rest of us at The Ringer bought in too: All five members of our staff predictions panel picked the Nationals to make the playoffs, four of us (including me) picked them to win the pennant, and Kram had Washington winning the World Series.

We weren’t the only ones. All six members of Yahoo’s panel had Washington in the postseason, as did five of seven at USA Today, four of five at CBS, and 22 of 31 at ESPN. And yet in the face of overwhelming critical consensus, the Nationals have underperformed to say the least. Washington is 15-22. That’s the second-worst record in the National League, ahead of only the Marlins, a team that barely outspends the Miami Hurricanes’ baseball team. Before the season, FanGraphs’ projections gave Washington a nearly four-in-five shot of making the postseason, but as of May 9, their playoff odds are already below 50/50. It’s not impossible to recover from a start like this, but it’s damned difficult. So what the hell happened, and can they overcome it?

Injuries

This is obvious, but important. Turner came out of the gates on fire, with three extra-base hits and four stolen bases in his first four games of the season, then broke the index finger on his throwing hand trying to bunt and hasn’t played since. Soto, Rendon, Ryan Zimmerman, Matt Adams, and Sipp have all suffered minor injuries and spent time on the IL. So has Rosenthal, who’s currently out with a viral infection, but his struggles predate his trip to the IL. Both he and the team might be better off if he sits out for a while.

The biggest reason to believe the Nationals could weather Harper’s departure was the fact that Turner, Eaton, Rendon, and Soto gave Washington a killer top half of the lineup; Eaton was a six-win player the last time he was healthy for a full season, and Turner, Rendon, and Soto all have the potential to end up in the top three in NL MVP voting someday. But those four have appeared in the same lineup just four times this year; Nats manager Davey Martinez has been able to write three of them into the same lineup only 19 times in 37 games. Take two of the best four hitters out of any lineup in baseball and it’s going to be tough sledding.

The Yankees have certainly had it worse, having lost essentially their entire starting lineup at one point or another, but they’re 22-15, so a rash of injuries isn’t a death sentence. Even so, when looking for reasons a preseason favorite isn’t playing up to expectations, Occam’s razor says this is where to start.

A Thousand Small Cuts From Position Players

The fact that the Nats have suffered not one catastrophic injury but several annoying injuries fits this team from a narrative standpoint. Rendon (.325/.415/.675) has been awesome. Catcher Kurt Suzuki (five home runs in 21 games) and veteran utilityman Howie Kendrick (.320/.382/.560) have been good. And just about every other hitter on the team has been … kind of moderately disappointing.

Dozier hit 34 home runs and won a Gold Glove in 2017 before a down year in 2018, and his production has resembled the latter more than the former in 2019: .196/.308/.348. Gomes has been decent for a catcher (.253/.330/.367) but not as good as hoped. Zimmerman was hitting .213/.302/.373 before he got hurt, and Eaton’s been about an average hitter (.293/.348/.408) instead of an elite on-base guy.

Dozier, Gomes, Zimmerman, and Suzuki are all on the downside of their careers. So is Kendrick, who’s going to hit .290/.335/.410 every year until he turns 60 if he wants to, but can’t play second base every day anymore. Sometimes that kind of player has one more good year in his 30s, sometimes not.

Washington Nationals v Milwaukee Brewers
Víctor Robles
Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

But the Nationals have also integrated two 21-year-olds into their lineup: Robles and shortstop Carter Kieboom, the fifth- and 16th-ranked prospects, respectively, on this past winter’s Baseball Prospectus top 101 prospects list. The history of such prospects turning into instant stars over the 2010s has probably inflated expectations: Harper, Kris Bryant, Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, Ronald Acuña Jr. The Nats could be forgiven for expecting too much from their rookies, because just last year a 19-year-old Soto hit like a freshly decanted Joey Votto clone. But Robles and Kieboom have been a little underwhelming.

Robles had cameo appearances in 2017 and 2018, and he’s held his own so far in 2019, showing off the spectacular tools that got him into the top five on a global prospect ranking with six home runs and an NL-leading eight stolen bases in 36 games. But he’s also striking out a lot (41 K’s in 145 plate appearances, the 24th-highest rate out of 178 qualified hitters) and he’s drawn just five walks, giving him the sixth-worst walk rate among qualified hitters. It’s a mixed bag, and while there’s plenty of reason for optimism, as of right now—which is what counts toward the standings—Robles has been just average.

Kieboom, on the other hand, homered in his MLB debut, but hit just .128/.209/.282 overall in 11 games before being sent back down to the minors. That’s not cause for alarm—plenty of elite hitters, like Mike Trout and Alex Bregman, were absolutely awful in their first couple of dozen MLB games before everything clicked—but it’s not a like-for-like replacement for Turner.

None of these developments would be worth panicking over on its own, but taken as a whole, they’ve had a huge cumulative impact.

The Bullpen

Doolittle (1.15 ERA) and Barraclough (1.32 ERA) have been awesome this year. Seven other Nationals pitchers have made at least five relief appearances this season, and of those, only Justin Miller has an ERA under 6.00. Three of the other six pitchers have ERAs in the double digits. Washington’s bullpen has been a problem since time immemorial, but the numbers right now are particularly ugly.

Washington’s relievers—perhaps unsurprisingly given those numbers above—are dead last in MLB in both ERA- and win probability added. The Nationals have devoted fewer innings to the bullpen than any other team in baseball, but their relievers have allowed the fifth-most runs; the Rays lean much more heavily on their relievers, who have allowed 15 fewer runs in 58 more innings pitched.

That this is not a new issue for Washington does not diminish how frustrating it is. A good team with a crappy bullpen is like a football team undone by its special teams: They do everything well for most of the game, and then the least-used unit tosses all that hard work away. And it’s not like Rizzo hasn’t tried to solve this problem, signing free agents with good MLB track records, even buying an entire bullpen wholesale in the middle of the 2017 season.

But even when it works, it’s not an unqualified success. Last year’s Oakland A’s won 97 games on the strength of a fantastic bullpen, led by right-handers Blake Treinen and Lou Trivino. Trivino was a non-prospect who rolled out of bed one morning, made one change to his windup, and added six miles an hour to his fastball. Not only have the Nationals been unable to replicate that developmental success and build their own Trivino, they tried out Treinen as a closer in 2017. But when Treinen struggled, they sent him to Oakland, along with Jesus Luzardo, who might be the best left-handed pitching prospect in the minors, for Doolittle and Ryan Madson. Doolittle, it bears repeating, is the best reliever Washington’s had since Drew Storen melted down in the 2012 playoffs, and even his success is only a reminder of a trade they’re going to end up losing.

Inexplicable Weird Shit

Of course, no discussion of Washington’s bullpen would be complete without mentioning Rosenthal’s unique struggles. Rosenthal missed all of 2018 while recovering from Tommy John surgery, but signed with the Nationals for $7 million this year and a vesting option for 2020 that could be worth up to $15 million if he turned out to be the same guy who notched back-to-back 40-save seasons for the Cardinals a few years back. Rosenthal’s spring training was a little weird, as he walked eight in 10 appearances but still managed an ERA of 3.00, but nothing portended what would happen once the season started.

The first seven batters he faced this season scored, and the first 10 reached. It wasn’t until his fifth appearance of the season, when Martinez found a 15-run lead for Rosenthal to protect, that Rosenthal finally recorded an out. By the time he went on the IL, his 2019 regular-season ERA was all the way down from infinity to an even 36.00.

Then there’s Scherzer. A look at his peripheral numbers indicates that the Nats’ ace is pitching as well as ever: His walk rate (3.7 percent) is the lowest of his career, and he’s striking out a third of opposing hitters, a higher rate than he posted in two of his three Cy Young seasons. His DRA is 2.42, which is in line with his performance since 2012, in which time his full-season DRA has always been between 2.14 and 3.04. His FIP, 1.95, is the best of any qualified starter.

And yet Scherzer’s ERA, 3.78, is nearly double that, which is disappointing but not unheard of this early in the season. The truly eye-popping number is that the Nationals are 1-7 in Scherzer’s starts, in which the Nationals’ bullpen blew a lead just once. Scherzer’s first start was a loss to a dominant Jacob deGrom on Opening Day. His next start, the Phillies worked enough deep counts that he threw 96 pitches over five innings, while Zach Eflin had the best start of his career, and everything fell apart in one bad sixth inning against Miami on April 20. The only consistent trend is a lack of run support: The Nats scored 12 runs in Scherzer’s only win, but in his other seven starts they’ve scored just 15 runs total, and never more than three in a single game.

From 2015 to 2018, the Nationals were 85-46 in games Scherzer started. If they’d been winning his starts at that rate this season, they’d be 19-20 in a virtual tie for second place in the division, not 15-22.

When the sky falls and nobody knows why, the manager usually takes the brunt of the blame, and Martinez is certainly on the hot seat. Hired off Joe Maddon’s staff to take the Nats to the second round after Dusty Baker failed to do so, Martinez has a winning record in just three of the 10 months he’s helmed the Nats—one of those was a 2-0 record in March 2018, which was followed by an 11-16 record in April.

Some of the misfortune that’s befallen the Nationals so far this year will even out—Turner and Soto will be back soon, and the Nationals will probably go on to win more of Scherzer’s starts than they lose this year. They have 16 games left against the hapless Marlins, which could allow them to make up ground quickly on the first-place Phillies. Maybe the Nationals’ luck will change about the same time they fire Martinez, and he’ll make for a convenient scapegoat. But they’ve wasted their margin for error. The Nationals have to turn things around soon, and drastically, or else they’ll be stuck watching Harper on TV this October.

All stats updated through Wednesday’s games.