Friday, June 19, 2015

Next Up: The Washington Nationals

On Wednesday, I mentioned that the Pirates' 30-inning stretch of no runs allowed was tied for the fifth longest in club history. It reached 35 innings that evening, tying for the third-longest in club history. (Historical footnote: I used a data source that goes back to 1914. According the Travis Sawchik, the longest streak in club history, 51 innings, was in 1903.) 

Anyway, after running up their winning streak to eight games against three of the worst teams in baseball--the Brewers (second-worst record), Phillies (worst record), and White Sox (seventh-worst)--they travel to the nation's capital to play three against a team with a winning record, the enigmatic Washington Nationals.

How Are They Doing Lately? I say enigmatic because the Nats were pretty much unanimous picks to win the National League East and were considered to be one of the best teams in baseball. I considered their prospects to finish first as one of the "five locks in baseball." (I'm currently two-for-five on my locks: The Dodgers are in first, and the Phillies are in last.) Instead, the Nationals enter the series against the hottest team in baseball (the Pirates' 21-6 record since May 20 is the best in baseball) just 34-33, a game and a half behind the Mets in the National League East, and just 11-16 over the last 30 days, the third-worst record in the league. The Nationals have scored runs (second in the league in runs per game, 4.4) but given up too many (4.3 per game, seventh most), betrayed by a terrible defense (turning 66% of balls in play into outs, the lowest percentage in the league). One of their marquee players, pitcher Stephen Strasburg, is on the disabled list with a 6.55 ERA. The other big star, 22-year-old Bryce Harper, is having an MVP-caliber season (third in batting average, first in on base percentage, first in slugging percentage, second in homers, first in home run frequency, fifth in runs scored, third in runs batted in, first in walks), strained his hamstring yesterday night and is day-to-day. Their shortstop, Ian Desmond, the National League's Sliver Slugger (awarded for offensive performance) in each of the past three seasons, is batting .224/.269/.346 (his career averages entering the season were .270/.317/.431) and he leads all National League fielders in errors with 15. Another star, left fielder Jayson Werth, is out until at least early August with a broken wrist. First baseman Ryan Zimmerman is disabled with plantar fasciitis. If you've ever had plantar fasciitis, you know that it's tough to guess how long he'll be out.

What's Going Right? The Nationals haven't been notably good at anything over the past 30 days. They're twelfth in the league in batting average, eleventh in on base percentage, and tenth in slugging percentage.  The starting pitchers' 4.20 ERA is exactly in the middle of the league, and the relievers' 4.21 ERA is third worst. How's this: Their pitchers have walked only 6% of the batters they've faced over the last 30 days, the second-lowest percentage in the league after the Pirates. There's that.

What's Going Wrong? Just as the Nationals haven't done anything particularly well of late, they haven't been really bad at anything, either. They're middle of the pack in home runs with 26 over the past 30 days, but Harper accounts for seven of them, so without him they've been short on power.

Who's Hot? Well, Harper, but he may not play in the series. Other than Harper (who, incidentally, earlier this month faced a pitcher younger than he for the first time in his entire professional career, including rehab stints at the A and AA levels in each of the past two seasons), the best Nationals hitter over the last 30 days has been third baseman Yunel Escobar, (who's been playing third largely because last year's third baseman, Anthony Rendon, has been hurt and ineffective), with a .326/.375/.421 slash line. Catcher Wilson Ramos has five homers over the past 30 days but little else (.182 batting average). On the mound, the winter's big free agent signing, Max Scherzer (seven years, $210 million), has a 2.21 ERA over the past 30 days with 47 strikeouts and just 24 hits and six walks in 36.2 innings. In his last start (Sunday against the Brewers) he pitched a complete-game one-hit, one-walk shutout, striking out 16 (thereby wisely limiting his fielders to eleven outs). Closer Drew Storen has a lackluster 4.15 ERA over the past 30 days but has pitched better than that'd indicate (14 strikeouts and one walk in 8.2 innings).

Who's Not? As mentioned, Rendon has been bad (.222/.328/.296 over the past 30 days), as has Ramos when he's not hitting home runs. Desmond's slash line over the last 30 days is worse, .194/.224/.311, and Zimmerman was worse still before he went on the DL. Rookie Michael Taylor, rated the No. 32 prospect by Baseball America before the season (and more than a year and a half older than Harper), has hit .216/.280/.311 filling in for Werth. 

What's the Outlook? The Nationals are going through a rough patch, but there are a lot of talented if underperforming players on the team. The lineup without Harper lacks a big bat, but the pitching is solid. Not to nitpick about an eight-game winning streak, but the Pirates scored more then three runs only twice during the streak, against some of the worst teams in the majors. They'll face Joe Ross (1-1, 3.46 ERA over the past 30 days), Scherzer, and Gio Gonazlez (1-2, 4.61) over the weekend. Look for more low scores.

No comments:

Post a Comment