Health matters a lot over 162 games. Just ask the Washington Nationals. The Nationals used 53 players last season, which was the most that the team has needed since the 2009 version that lost 103 games. Washington used 31 pitchers, which set a new franchise high, including the Expos years. Over the previous eight seasons, the Nationals never used more than 26 pitchers.
Injuries weren’t the only problem. Something felt “off” about this team for most of the season. There was something missing. There was a short circuit in the team’s wiring. Maybe it was first-year manager Dave Martinez, who took over after Dusty Baker was fired following the team’s fourth Division Series exit in six years.
Maybe it was the bullpen. Two of the four most-used pitchers were Sammy Solis, who had the highest ERA on the team of anybody that pitched regularly, and Ryan Madson, who posted a 5.28 ERA in his age-37 season.
Maybe it was the rotation, as regression hit Gio Gonzalez like a ton of bricks and the team was forced to get 30 starts from the collection of Erick Fedde, Jefry Rodriguez, Tommy Milone, Joe Ross, Austin Voth, and AJ Cole.
For a team that had a Cy Young finalist in Max Scherzer, a full season from Trea Turner, the debuts of Juan Soto and Victor Robles, and another huge year from Anthony Rendon, falling short of the playoffs and barely finishing over .500 was a surprise.
These down seasons from usual contenders are always interesting to handicap. Is it a sign of aging? After all, the Nationals were one of the oldest pitching staffs in the big leagues last season. Is it simply a case of variance? Were the injuries really that much to overcome?
Was it just bad luck? The Nationals were 82-80, but posted a 90-72 Pythagorean Win-Loss record and an 89-73 BaseRuns record. Washington hasn’t finished lower than second in the NL East since 2011 and shouldn’t end that streak in 2019, but the division is getting a lot better around them.
This is one of the more interesting teams in baseball to profile for the upcoming season because there is a ton of talent on the roster, but we have to decide what the ceiling is for the Nationals. The floor should be high. The floor should basically be last year’s 82-win output. The season win total line is a lot higher than that and it will take some improvement to go over that number.
Season Win Total Odds
2018 Standings Data
Actual Record: 82-80
Run Differential: +89
Pythagorean W/L: 90-72
BaseRuns Record: 89-73
BaseRuns Run Differential: +76 (4.83/4.37)
3rd Order Win% Record: 90.7-71.3
Record in One-Run Games: 18-24
Additions: Brian Dozier, Yan Gomes, Kurt Suzuki, Patrick Corbin, Anibal Sanchez, Jeremy Hellickson, Trevor Rosenthal, Kyle Barraclough, Luis Sardinas, Chuck Taylor, Henderson Alvarez, Scott Copeland, Tanner Rainey, Vidal Nuno, Brandon Snyder, Tyler Goeddel, JJ Hoover
Losses: Matt Wieters, Mark Reynolds, Bryce Harper, Joaquin Benoit, Tim Collins, Kelvin Herrera, Greg Holland, Daniel Johnson, Jefry Rodriguez, Andruw Monasterio, Tanner Roark
The Nationals plugged some holes and made some plays that I believe have a lot of upside. Getting another front-of-the-rotation arm in Patrick Corbin to go along with always-reliable Max Scherzer and elite-when-healthy Stephen Strasburg was a good call. Adding depth to the rotation with Anibal Sanchez, who reinvented himself last year with the Braves, and Jeremy Hellickson means that the Nationals have one of the strongest rotations in baseball.
Catcher has been an area of need for a while for the Nationals, so they grabbed one of the better offensive guys in Yan Gomes and also got Kurt Suzuki, who is very familiar with a backup role. Brian Dozier is just one year removed from posting a .362 wOBA with a 125 wRC+ and two years removed from hitting 42 home runs. He was a good buy-low guy off an injury-plagued 2018 season.
Trevor Rosenthal and Kyle Barraclough can both miss a ton of bats and the Nationals had well-defined relief needs.
The most notable loss is obviously Bryce Harper. Harper’s production isn’t easy to replace, but the Nationals have tremendous outfield depth, so they didn’t have to cave to Harper’s financial demands. Joaquin Benoit is over 40 and missed last season and Kelvin Herrera and Greg Holland both have big injury worries.
The Nationals got a lot deeper over the winter.
BA: .254 (9th)
OBP: .335 (2nd)
SLG: .419 (10th)
wOBA: .325 (7th)
wRC+: 101 (9th)
BABIP: .297 (12th)
K%: 20.5% (6th)
BB%: 10.0% (2nd)
Losing Bryce Harper certainly doesn’t help. Harper led the team with 34 home runs and was second to rookie sensation Juan Soto in OBP among players that had at least 400 plate appearances. Many scoffed at Harper’s .249 average because those people don’t understand that gauging players by batting average in 2019 is asinine. He was on base 39.3 percent of the time and that’s what matters. That being said, Harper’s SLG did fall 99 points from 2017 to 2018. He hit 29 HR in 203 fewer plate appearances in 2017.
Losing a player that was 35 percent above league average is never easy, but there are a small number of teams able to overcome it. One is the Nationals. Between Juan Soto’s tremendous breakout, Victor Robles waiting in the wings, and Adam Eaton, who has always been productive when he’s been healthy, Washington is still in good hands. Michael A. Taylor is a good fourth outfielder. Harper’s loss should, at least in theory, be made up by a full year for Soto and Robles and hopefully more than half of a season for Eaton.
Soto slashed .292/.406/.517 with a .392 wOBA and a 146 wRC+. I was still perfecting my beer pong stroke at 19 and Soto was out there crushing MLB pitching. Robles won’t turn 22 until May. He slashed .288/.348/.525 in a quick cameo at the big league level in 66 plate appearances. It is fair to worry about his MLB readiness right out of the chute, as his 182 plate appearances at Triple-A were somewhat uninspiring with a .386 SLG. Projection systems are unsure of how to rate him, but many have him around average. Eaton, who was limited to 107 plate appearances in his first year with the Nats in 2017, managed just 370 this past season, but did slash .301/.394/.411.
Harper’s power production is the big loss for the Nationals. Anthony Rendon had a huge year and slashed .308/.374/.535 with 24 HR. Soto hit the 22 HR in 494 PA, so he could take a leap, but those were the only three players that eclipsed 20. Trea Turner hit 19. Matt Adams hit 18 in just 277 PA, but that seemed out of the ordinary for him. The Nationals will get on base a lot, as they have several guys capable of posting a decent average and walking a lot, but will those guys touch home plate? Home runs really, really help.
Brian Dozier could provide that power punch and Yan Gomes has 20-homer potential from behind the plate. Ryan Zimmerman hit 13 in 323 PA, so he could get there. But, there are a lot of injury questions and concerns with this offense. Furthermore, a lot seems to be riding on Soto avoiding the dreaded sophomore slump and Robles being ready to go. Eaton also hasn’t played a full season in three years.
ERA: 4.04 (15th)
FIP: 4.15 (19th)
xFIP: 4.13 (14th)
K%: 23.3% (11th)
BB%: 8.0% (8th)
LOB%: 74.8% (7th)
The 2018 season was not a great look for the Nationals pitching staff. Even with Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Sean Doolittle, the Nationals were middle of the pack in ERA, below average in FIP, and even ranked in the top 10 in BB% and LOB%. This isn’t quite a Phillies situation with a dumpster fire defense, though the Nationals were -55 in defensive runs saved and -13 in UZR. This was simply that the back of the rotation wasn’t good and the bullpen was constantly in a state of flux.
Fortunately for the Nationals and over bettors, Tanner Roark, who posted a 4.34 ERA with a 4.27 FIP and a 4.42 xFIP, is gone, along with Gio Gonzalez, who got smacked in the face by two years worth of ERA/xFIP regression to post a 4.57 ERA. As mentioned in the intro, Erick Fedde, Jefry Rodriguez, Tommy Milone, Joe Ross, Austin Voth, AJ Cole, and Kyle McGowin all turned in some rather putrid performances as both starters and relievers.
Scherzer turned in his usual strong season with a 2.53/2.65/3.06 pitcher slash and should be counted on for more of the same. When Strasburg was healthy, he was solid with a 3.74/3.62/3.28 pitcher slash over 130 innings. That was well above his career marks of 3.14/2.91/2.92 and he went from 5.7 fWAR in 2017 with a 2.52/2.72/3.27 to 2.3 fWAR in 2018. He’s a guy to look at for some surplus value.
Adding Patrick Corbin surely doesn’t hurt. Corbin hung a 3.15/2.47/2.61 pitcher slash with a career best in K% and a big drop in HR/FB%, as he went from 26 HR allowed in 189.2 innings to just 15 HR allowed in 200 innings. We’ll have to wait and see how much the newly-installed humidor at Chase Field helped with that. We’ll also have to see how Corbin responds to his slider-heavy arsenal. Over 41 percent of his pitches last season were sliders, which led to the strikeout gains and the lower home run rate.
Are we sure about Anibal Sanchez? Sanchez posted a 2.83 ERA with a 3.62 FIP and a 3.81 xFIP for the Braves in 136.2 innings last season. He actually posted his highest K% since 2013 and had a ton of good fortune in the batted ball department with a .255 BABIP against. He also posted a 79.4 percent LOB%. Regression is coming, but to what degree? Only Joakim Soria allowed a lower average exit velocity on balls in play last season, so Sanchez’s low BABIP may be repeatable, or at least something close to it. Sanchez went cutter-heavy last season, which seems to be all the rage in baseball again.
The pitching numbers for the Nationals could have been worse, but the bullpen managed to strand 77.2 percent of its runners. Only the Astros were better. That’s why the Nationals had a 4.05 bullpen ERA with a 4.51 FIP. Ironically, that is the opposite of where the full-staff numbers wound up. It is also a Nationals bullpen that had the second-lowest BABIP against. We’ll see how Sean Doolittle’s injury-ridden body parts hold up. We’ll see how Trevor Rosenthal comes back from missing all of 2018. Justin Miller is a good LOOGY and Kyle Barraclough is a strikeout artist that has a walk problem, but also misses barrels. This bullpen has some good potential, health permitting, of course.
Positives & Negatives
Once again, the broken record of the NL East for everybody except the Marlins is that this is a hotly-contested division with 57 really tough games against division opponents that don’t play in Florida.
I’m not really stoked about Dave Martinez. The early returns weren’t great and some people longed for the return of Dusty Baker, which says a lot. Martinez seemed to struggle with in-game decisions and bullpen leveraging. He certainly deserves a longer leash in light of the revolving bullpen door and the injuries across the roster, but people more in the know than me seemed to question his qualifications and acumen for the job as the season went along.
Pick: Over 88.5
So. Many. Health. Questions. But, let’s be honest, as the alternate standings metrics show, this is a team that, in spite of all of its injuries, should have won somewhere around 88-90 games. I won’t be invested here because of those health questions, but the Nationals do have the most upside of the four teams in this NL East mix because of the young offensive up-and-comers.
All four of these contenders are just really good and that doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room with a number this high. These teams may beat each other up for 57 games and split a lot of them. That would be fine, except the best team in the NL resides in the West and four of the five teams in the NL Central could conceivably win 80 games or more.
It likely comes down to which team stays the healthiest in the NL East race. The Nationals are somewhere around the Mets when it comes to injury risk, which puts them behind the Phillies and Braves. They also probably have the highest ceiling of the four teams.
As a result, the official pick would be on the over, but there are better betting opportunities out there around the Senior Circuit.