The Nationals Probably Can’t Repeat Last Year’s Dramatic Turnaroundon September 8, 2020 at 7:24 pm

The Nationals Probably Can’t Repeat Last Year’s Dramatic Turnaround

When telling the story of the 2019 World Series champion Washington Nationals, their lackluster start to the campaign played just as big of a role in the season’s narrative as their playoff woes of yesteryear, Howie Kendrick‘s homer off the foul pole, or Juan Soto‘s trademark shuffle. Last season’s Nationals were underdogs not only because they entered October as a Wild Card team, but also because of the 19-31 record they owned in May, a mark that had them sunk to fourth place in the division, 10 games out of first. In 2019, however, 50 games represented just over 30% of the season; over the remaining 112 contests, Washington methodically improved until it had re-established itself as one of baseball’s best teams over that stretch, something it was quick to prove in the postseason.

A year later, the Nationals have struggled out of the gates once again. This time, however, they don’t have the benefit of four months to turn things around. After 40 games — two-thirds of their season — the Nationals are 15-25, dead last in the NL East. Just two NL teams own worse records than the defending champs. While the expanded playoff field extends some help to everyone, and it remains possible for Washington to erase the five-game gap between itself and a Wild Card spot, time is quickly running out for the team to make another turnaround effort.

When the 2019 Nationals slumped out of the gates, the situation was considered dire enough that manager Dave Martinez’s job security was being openly speculated upon. But there were signs of hope, even at 19-31. The team had a number of players miss time with injuries, most of which were minor enough that players were still expected to remain active for most of the year. On the day of the team’s 31st loss, the Nationals also had the largest gap in the majors between their collective ERA (4.94) and FIP (4.23). In fact, their starters were leading the majors in WAR at that time despite ranking just ninth in ERA. The bullpen had a litany of issues (it held highest ERA in baseball by nearly a full run), but as a whole, the pitching staff seemed better than it appeared. A surge back into contention was far from inevitable, but the Nationals were still a team that had promise, even when they were at their worst.

It’s difficult to see that promise this year. Washington’s team ERA is 5.16, seventh-worst in baseball. Its team FIP, meanwhile, is 5.07 — third-worst in baseball. And those numbers aren’t just inflated by the bullpen. The Nationals, a team whose starters lifted them to their first championship in franchise history just over 10 months ago, have had one of the worst rotations in baseball in 2020. Max Scherzer has been as good as ever in the ace’s role, holding a 3.40 ERA and 3.03 FIP in his first 50.1 innings, but Stephen Strasburg‘s season-ending carpal tunnel surgery and Joe Ross‘s decision to opt out of the season have opened a couple of holes in a rotation that didn’t need any more.

Strasburg’s injury and a dip in production from Patrick Corbin have thinned the top of the rotation considerably, while the back half has simply nosedived. Anibal Sanchez is experiencing much worse luck in his HR/FB and BABIP rates than he did from 2018-19 while also allowing increased contact and batted balls in the air. All of that happening at once is a good way to add nearly three runs to one’s ERA, as Sanchez has experienced this year. Pre-arb righties Austin Voth and Erick Fedde, meanwhile, have also had tremendous difficulty settling in. Voth has seen his strikeouts and walks both move in the wrong direction while his HR/FB rate has more than doubled, and Fedde — who was already having difficulty missing bats in 2019 — is now walking more batters than he’s striking out.

When most of your rotation is pitching at or below replacement level, the bullpen can only help or hurt so much — which is a shame, because the Nationals’ bullpen in 2020 has actually represented quite an improvement over last year. It’s far from one of the league’s best, but it’s much closer to average than it has been in previous seasons. Tanner Rainey, who leads all Washington relievers with 18.1 innings pitched, has been the best arm out of the pen, owning a 2.45 ERA and 3.53 FIP while striking out nearly 14 batters per nine innings. Will Harris (10.1 IP, 2.61 ERA, 3.73 FIP), the former Astro who signed with Washington in the winter, has also enjoyed a productive beginning, while guys like Wander Suero and Ryne Harper have showed some promise despite disappointing ERAs. If Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson can shake off the homer-proneness they’ve suffered through this year, the Nationals’ bullpen wouldn’t look too shabby.

Washington can’t get back into the race without its pitching staff improving, but even that is only half the battle. On the position player side, the Nationals appear to be doing fine at first blush, with a 103 wRC+ that ranks them 15th in the majors. That mark, however, is being held up largely by just two hitters — Soto and Trea Turner. Since missing time early in the season on the COVID-19 list, Soto has returned with a force, slashing .354/.453/.758 with 11 homers and more walks than strikeouts, putting his wRC+ at 209. Turner, meanwhile, is on track for his best offensive season since 2016 thanks to an improved feel for contact, good power numbers, and favorable batted ball luck all adding up to a .362/.413/.626 line and 172 wRC+.

Aside from those two, however, just one of the other eight Nationals hitters to receive at least 75 plate appearances this season has a league-average batting line. Asdrubal Cabrera, Adam Eaton, Eric Thames, and Carter Kieboom all have a wRC+ below 80, while Victor Robles‘ sits at 83 and Kendrick’s is just 81. To compound the issues caused by having so many holes in the lineup, the Nationals also rank last in baserunning as well as defense by way of both defensive runs saved (-33) and ultimate zone rating (-9.6). Just a year ago, Washington ranked near the middle of the pack in each of those categories — 12th in BsR, 20th in DRS, and 14th in UZR.

Is there still hope for the Nationals? Mathematically speaking, absolutely. Of their final 20 games, 17 are against division opponents. Last year after starting 19-31, the team went 13-7 over its next 20 games. In the 20 games after that, they went 16-4. A stretch like either of those would turn the NL playoff picture on its head and give this team a real shot.

But imagining how that would actually be accomplished is difficult. There are no key players on the injured list who will be returning in the coming weeks. A return to form from pitchers like Corbin, Doolittle, and Hudson won’t have that much of an impact at this stage. And those who are struggling in the lineup could well just be showing their age, whether that applies to veterans like Kendrick, Cabrera, and Thames, or inexperienced youngsters like Kieboom. It’s easy to say now with the benefit of hindsight, but there were signs of a sleeping giant with last year’s Nationals team. Those signs simply aren’t here now. And judging from the team’s decision to stand pat at the trade deadline, Washington’s front office seems to know that.

If the ship has sailed on a run in 2020, where do the Nationals go from here? Soto, Robles, and Kieboom is certainly a respectable young core to build around, and Turner is still a couple of years away from free agency. Outside of those four, however, there is little written in stone beyond this season on the offensive side. Cabrera, Suzuki, and Kendrick are all free agents after this year, while Thames, Eaton, and recently-signed Brock Holt all have some kind of team option built in for next year.

That’s a lot of older veteran players currently eating up a large chunk of playing time who could potentially be gone this winter, with Sanchez and Doolittle possibly getting added to that on the pitching side. Considering that the Nationals farm system ranks 29th on THE BOARD, the set of in-house replacements for those players isn’t exactly robust. That places Washington at an interesting fork in the road where it could attempt to reload in free agency or swallow hard and enter a rebuilding phase. That decision point has been coming for a while for this team — it just hoped to salvage another playoff season with the group that earned a parade last year. That dream isn’t officially dead yet, but it soon could be. Two months of bad baseball usually only qualifies as a rough start. In 2020, however, it seems that’s all they’ll get.

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