The Washington Nationals finally got a solid pitching performance from Gio Gonzalez Wednesday but couldn’t provide enough run support for the win. The left-hander, winless in his last seven starts with a 7.18 ERA in 31 1⁄3 innings pitched, gave up just two earned runs in six innings — his seventh quality start of the year — yet was saddled with the loss after his teammates were shut out by the Pittsburgh Pirates. It’s been a sad and familiar refrain for Washington in 2018.
The Nats have lost 14 games in 2018 where their starting pitcher provided a quality start, the most in the majors and three more than both the New York Mets and Baltimore Orioles, two teams largely considered among the worst in baseball.
Leading the league in this category isn’t ideal, to say the least. Since 1994, the first year MLB expanded to three divisions, no team has had more than 23 tough losses and still qualified for the playoffs. And the Nationals don’t appear to be the team to buck this trend. Washington is on pace for 24 tough losses and, according to FanGraphs, it has a 59 percent chance of making the postseason using preseason strength of schedule data. That drops to 25 percent if you look solely at its performance to date.
Most of the blame can be laid at the feet of the offense. The Nationals provide a league average amount of run support to their starters (4.4 per game) with Tanner Roark and Gonzalez getting far less than that at 3.4 and 3.7 per start, respectively. Max Scherzer, on the other hand, gets a team-high 5.2 runs per start, which is remarkable considering the team provided zero runs for Scherzer in three of his starts in June.
One of the biggest challenges for Washington is getting that first man on base. With the bases empty they have a 71.6 percent out rate, the highest in the National League. Across the majors, only the Orioles, Minnesota Twins, Toronto Blue Jays and Los Angeles Angels produce more outs with the bases empty than the Nationals this season. Bryce Harper has been particularly poor in this aspect, creating an out almost 80 percent of the time when he is the first batter of the inning.
Harper isn’t chasing bad pitches — his walk rate is 14 percent when leading off an inning — but he is boom or bust in these situations: He is likely to hit a home run if given a steady diet of fastballs yet is 91 percent likely to produce an out off an off-speed pitch such as a change-up.
The good news is the team, as a whole, appears to be improving with runners in scoring position, which will no doubt help the Nationals plate some runs. The Nats produced an on-base-plus-slugging percentage of .719 in these situations in April, but that has ballooned to .813 in July, a month that also saw the team’s lowest strike out rate with men on second or third.
Who knows if it will be enough to put Washington back into playoff contention, but it certainly will help a team that’s left its starting rotation without much of a cushion.
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