Just How Good are the Washington Nationals?

Posted: 07/23/2016 by levcohen in Baseball

The Washington Nationals were clear World Series favorites before the 2015 season. ESPN polled 88 experts before the season, and a full 37 of those experts (42%!) picked the Nats to win it all. Meanwhile, 85 of the 88 experts picked the Nationals to at least win their division. Of course, the team didn’t even end up making the playoffs. They went 83-79, with a +68 run differential that indicated that they should have been better but still not playoff worthy (six NL teams had better run differentials). As you might have guessed, predictions for the team were less rosy heading into this season. Only one prognosticator, Eno Sarris, picked the Nationals to win the World Series, while two others picked the Nats to make the Series.

As these things often turn out, though, the Nationals are having the type of season that they were expected to have… one year later. They’re 57-40 with a +112 run differential that’s second in baseball. Fangraphs gives Washington a 95.7% chance to make the playoffs. It’s a pretty similar roster to the one that disappointed last season on the surface, but there are some notable differences. Last year’s second and third highest plate appearances accumulators — SS Ian Desmond and 3B Yunel Escobar — are gone. Escobar, who hit .314 and was arguably the Nats second most important offensive player, is now hitting .316 on the Angels. Meanwhile, Desmond really struggled in 2015, posting a .674 OPS and ending a streak of three straight 4+ WAR seasons. But this year, after signing with the Rangers, Desmond moved to centerfield and now has the fifth best WAR in baseball (4.7). He’s slashing .316/.369/.529 with great defense in center and has an outside chance of having a 30 home run/30 steal season. The Nats also lost Denard Span, an oft-injured CF who finished fifth among Nationals hitters in WAR despite playing just 61 games. And they lost starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann, a 30 year old workhorse with a career 3.37 ERA who provided valuable innings in the middle of the rotation.

After having a disappointing season and losing four of their top nine WAR accumulators, you would think that the Nationals would be preparing for a rebuild. But they’re better this year for a number of reasons. Anthony Rendon, a former top prospect who missed much of last year due to injury, has adequately plugged the hole that Escobar left at third base. He’s not living up to the expectations he set in 2014, when he added 6.5 WAR, but he’s been a solid third baseman. Danny Espinosa, an ex-second baseman, has moved over to short to fill the hole left by Desmond and has defended very well while posting the best OPS of his career. And Trea Turner, a top prospect, has been called up to start at second base. These are all holes that the Nationals filled without needing to look outside the organization for help. But the single biggest move Washington made was the signing of Daniel Murphy away from the rival Mets. Murphy has played second and is now at first after the injury to Ryan Zimmerman, but he’s provided far more value at the plate. Hitting right in front of Bryce Harper, he’s slashing .348/.387/.612, good for a 162 wRC+, sixth in baseball.

That’s a pretty big bat to add to the lineup, but is it enough to explain such a big uptick in team wins? Not really, especially since Harper, obviously key to any longterm success the Nationals may have, had an all-time great season last year and has been markedly worse this year. His wRC+ has dropped 73 points, while his triple slash line has gone from .330/.460/.649 to .248/.390/.473. He’s set to be worth about 5.5 WAR this year after his 9.5 WAR season. That 4 WAR is a huge drop; the Nationals have basically lost an all-star caliber player. Given that 1 WAR is worth about $7 million on the open market, Harper’s decline in play has cost the Nationals $28 million of on-field production. I find it hard to believe that Murphy’s outstanding play alone has made up for Harper’s precipitous drop in production… and then some.

S0 what else has been different? Well, it helps that Jayson Werth has gone from being one of the worst players in baseball last season (terrible defense, terrible offense) to at least a competent left fielder who has been hitting second in the lineup pretty consistently. The defense is still poor, but Werth’s rediscovered at least some of his old hitting ability in his age-37 season. Given that he generally hit in the middle of the lineup last year also, the fact that he hasn’t been detrimental at the plate has clearly been huge for the offense. But an even bigger improvement has come from catcher Wilson Ramos, who has followed up the worst season of his career with the best one. Last year, Ramos hit .229/.258/.358 with a 63 wRC+, third-worst in baseball. This year, he’s hitting .334/.386/.526 with a 144 wRC+, 12th-best in baseball. Ok, so this is like adding another Murphy, but perhaps even more valuable given that it’s coming from the catcher. Now I can kind of see why the Nationals have been so much more consistent this year despite losing a few key hitters and getting far less out of Harper. The average wRC+ of the top nine Nats in plate appearances last year was 101.9, very similar to this year’s 103.7. But that number was driven way up by Harper’s outlandish 197; the median wRC+ of the top nine was 94 last year and is 102 this year. That’s approximately the difference between the 10th and 20th best offenses in baseball. That the Nationals were a below-average offense last year even as they got the best offensive season out of a player since Barry Bonds is shocking, but after the disappointment of last year it makes sense that they’ve relied on a more balanced offensive attack. Even though Harper has not been as prolific, pitchers are surely warier of the Harper-Murphy-Ramos middle of the order this year than they were of a Harper-Werth-Desmond murderers row last season.

As for the pitching, ace Max Scherzer, who threw two no-hitters last season, hasn’t been quite as dominant this season as he was last year, but he’s still been pretty darn good. But Stephen Strasburg has been noticeably better this season than he was last year, and Tanner Roark has been very good in his return to the rotation, which calls into question why the Nationals took him out of the rotation after his 15-10, 2.85 ERA season in 2014. It was a good rotation last year, and it figures to be at least equally good this season. If any 1-2 starters in baseball can match up favorably with Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto, it may well be Scherzer and Strasburg. And Roark and Joe Ross have ensured that the loss of Zimmermann hasn’t been noticed too much.

I was surprised to see that the Nationals have the best bullpen ERA in baseball at 2.87. Until Sammy Solis hit the DL with knee inflammation a couple of weeks ago, the Nationals had the same eight man bullpen for the whole season. Four of those relievers (Shawn Kelley, 2.78 ERA; Matt Belisle, 1.93 ERA; Oliver Perez, 4.40 ERA; Yusmeiro Petit, 2.27 ERA) were signed this offseason, which is how the Nats have been able to replace capable relievers Drew Storen and Matt Thornton. With that being said, the Nationals are still reportedly looking to add a closer, as Jonathan Papelbon has long proven to be very inconsistent. If they can add, say, Aroldis Chapman, they’ll have a legitimate claim to a top bullpen.

I usually overlook the manager, but I think Dusty Baker deserves to be mentioned here too. It’s fair to wonder whether the team’s biggest change has been an improvement in team chemistry and morale. After the team fell apart under Matt Williams, with a dugout fight between Bryce Harper and Jonathan Papelbon serving as evidence, maybe this team just needed a player’s coach like Baker, who I’ve never considered to be a particularly good tactical manager, to improve the clubhouse dynamic. The players certainly think so.

Bottom Line: It makes sense to me that the Nationals are set to be one of the biggest trade deadline buyers. They’re playing really well right now, but I’m not sure they have the overall talent to compete with the Giants and Cubs in the NL. The wild card, of course, is Harper. If the Nationals can supplement their much improved overall lineup with 2015 Bryce Harper, they’ll be a force to be reckoned with. If either of those elements is missing, this is still a really good team but one that will rely heavily upon Scherzer, Strasburg, and the bullpen. That could work, but I it’ll likely take some improvement from Harper, who currently ranks just 25th in WAR, for the Nationals to become the best team in baseball. With that being said, this definitely feels like the season everyone thought they’d have last season, and it’ll likely end with at least an NL East championship.

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