Everyone knows the story of the 2019 Nationals. The Nationals who started 19-31 (.380) in their first 50 games. The same Nationals who were celebrating a World Series Championship at the end of October. As manager Davey Martinez said upon winning the National League last season, “Often bumpy roads lead to beautiful places.” But can they repeat that turnaround this year?
The 2020 Nationals have gotten off to an eerily similar bad start. Through August 15, the Nats sit at 7-11 (.388), last in the NL East and third from the bottom in the entire National League. In a 60 game season, with each game being the equivalent of 2.7 games in a 162 game season, that would be the same as 19-30.
Part of the problem has been the starting pitching. During last year’s postseason, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, and Anibal Sanchez made all but one start. The four aces combined for a 2.96 ERA in 96.1 IP in those starts. Strasburg and Scherzer also threw a combined 4 scoreless innings in relief. With the simultaneous offseason moves of re-signing Strasburg and allowing MVP candidate Anthony Rendon to go to the Angels in free agency, the Nats needed the starting pitching to continue to lead the way.
This season, the staff has been injury-plagued and struggled when they have made it out to the mound. Strasburg, Corbin, and Sanchez have allowed 4+ ER or not made it out of the first inning in six of their combined nine starts, and Scherzer has continued his slight decline from the past couple years. Each year since 2017, Scherzer has seen an increase in opponent average exit velocity and expected stats (xBA, xSLG, xWOBA, xWOBAcon, and xERA).
The hitting hasn’t been much better. While a -5 run differential might not look horrible to the naked eye, the Nationals have scored 40 of 79 runs (51%) in just 3 games. Take those games out and you’re looking at a -36 run differential, which would be worst in the National League. Part of that is due to their inability to consistently barrel up the baseball. The Nats have 3.4 Barrels per 100 plate appearances, worst in the NL.
Another factor has been the injuries. There have been plenty of injuries across MLB this year and the Nationals have not been spared. Strasburg did not make his season debut until over two weeks into the season, and was pulled from his second start after just 2/3 of an inning before being placed on the 10-day IL yesterday. Scherzer was also removed early from one of his starts with an ongoing hamstring issue that has been bothering him all season. Big free agent signing Starlin Castro (broken wrist) and closer Sean Doolittle (right knee fatigue) were also put on the 10-day IL, forcing the Nats to call up 20 year old prospect INF Luis Garcia and LHP Seth Romero.
But as they showed last year, the Nationals are no strangers to having their backs against the wall early in the season, and with the expanded postseason, there’s no reason to believe that they will try to give up now.
Juan Soto returned last week, and through his first 10 games, he is hitting the ball better than he ever has. He is slashing .405/.463/.973 with 6 HR and 14 RBI and his 1.436 OPS leads all batters (min. 35 AB). He has also set his personal record for longest home run twice since returning, with long blasts against the Mets in New York. If he can keep this production up, there’s no telling where he can take both himself and the team.
There is also hope for the rest of the team to turn it around as well. They are hitting .256 as a team, fifth best in the majors, and only striking out 20.6% of the time, good for sixth best. If they can raise their BB% up from last place at 6.4%, the offense might be able to start producing runs more consistently. Eric Thames is one guy who should start seeing better results soon. With Castro sidelined for the near future, he should receive more regular at bats, and he is in the 94th percentile of Hard Hit %, despite his .179 avg.
The Nationals’ remaining schedule also benefits them, as they have only played six games within their own division so far, splitting those with the Mets. With 2/3 of the overall schedule against teams from their division, the Nats will have plenty of opportunities to gain ground on their competition.
With eight NL teams making the postseason this year, I still think that the Nats have time to turn it around, but it better happen soon. The upcoming part of the schedule is crucial, with the next three series and five of the next six against other NL East teams. If they can get up above .500 and have some players return from injury by the end of that stretch, they should be in a great position to make a run at the playoffs down the home stretch.
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