It has been a tough season for the Washington Nationals. They stand barely above .500 at 45-44, five games behind the division-leading Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves in the National League East. The good news is Washington had some success over the past few nights, scoring 37 runs in four games, including the largest come-from-behind victory in franchise history. Those runs were also scored against the Miami Marlins, a team languishing at the bottom of the standings while allowing a league-high 5.1 runs per game.
That’s why it is still difficult to feel good about Washington’s chances at a playoff spot, either by winning the division outright or via the wild card.
According to FanGraphs, the Nationals have a 62 percent chance of qualifying for the postseason. However, that assumes the team’s talent level is close to the one expected to win 92 games at the start of the season. Based on the team’s performance heading into Monday night, the Nationals’ playoff chances drop to 28 percent.
The truth likely lies somewhere in the middle, which doesn’t bode well for Washington. If they are to make the postseason, immediate improvements are needed both with the bats and on the mound.
As a team they are batting .243 with a .724 OPS, producing runs at a rate 6 percent lower than the league average after accounting for league and park effects (94 wRC+). Bryce Harper, a one-time unanimous MVP, is at the forefront of these issues, hitting a woeful .218 with a 24 percent strikeout rate. His weighted on-base average (.364), which combines all the aspects of hitting into one metric, weighting each of them in proportion to their actual run value, is also lower than expected. Harper’s 21 home runs alleviate some of the pain, but for a hitter that was projected to be among the most valuable this year, it’s an overall disappointment.
Sometimes when we see such a disparity between reality and expectations it is a function of bad luck. We would expect Harper, for example, to be batting .254, not .218, based on the exit velocities and launch angles of the balls he puts in play. His slugging percentage would also be expected to rise from .472 to .541, the difference between the 52nd- and 15th-best marks in the majors this year. Same for the rest of the team: The Nationals batting average should be .259 with a .770 OPS, and if they get more hits to fall like they did against Miami, their fortunes could turn.
Hitting is only part of the problem — the Nationals’ starting pitching, with the exception of Max Scherzer, is underwhelming. The rotation gets only an average amount of run support — 4.4 runs per start — but the pitchers also aren’t themselves. Gio Gonzalez, Tanner Roark and Jeremy Hellickson are 11-17 with a 4.20 combined ERA, striking out 20 percent of batters faced with a 9 percent walk rate. All of those metrics are below average.
Hellickson has allowed an extra-base hit once out of every 10 plate appearances, a team high. Roark has allowed 6.5 more runs than expected once you consider the men on base and outs remaining in the inning. And Gonzalez provides the team with a quality start only once every three games (6 out of 18), placing him 45th out of 66 qualifying pitchers. Hellickson is last with just one quality start in 11 tries, due to his short leash and an above-average amount of balls put in play (52 percent compared to 38 percent average) off his breaking balls.
Like the team’s hitting, the pitching should be getting better results. For example, Washington’s expected FIP from its starters — an ERA estimate that replaces a pitcher’s home run total with an estimate of how many home runs they should have allowed, given the number of fly balls surrendered — is 3.74, fifth-best in the NL. And with Stephen Strasburg due back from injury after the all-star break, the pitching woes could become a thing of the past.
The worry, though, is that the Braves and Phillies won’t fall back like most are expecting them to, or the Nats’ resurgence will come too late to matter.
FanGraphs projects the Nationals to hold a slight division lead by the end of the season over both clubs. Philadelphia has the fourth-easiest strength of schedule remaining per Baseball Prospectus, with 35 of their remaining 75 games at home, where they are 30-16. Atlanta has the 12th easiest remaining schedule, and Washington is projected to have the seventh-easiest, making it difficult for the Nationals to gain ground without one or both opponents collapsing. Barring that, Washington is left to take its chances in the wild-card hunt where the quality of teams ahead of them also poses a problem, particularly the Chicago Cubs and Los Angeles Dodgers, two teams considered World Series contenders at the beginning of the season.
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