Maybe This Time It’s the Nationals’ Year

The Nationals haven’t simply been building a franchise since 2005, they’ve been building traditions. Traditions like the running of the presidents, or whatever #Natitude was. These days, the fans cheer “N-A-T-S, NATS, NATS, NATS!” when something good happens, which is, yes, entirely co-opted from the NFL’s New York Jets.

But the most enduring tradition of the Nationals’ brief history is what has happened after each time they’ve reached the playoffs: They lose, sometimes horribly, and always crushingly.

This year, having clinched a spot in the NL Wild Card game, the Nationals are preparing to do it again.

But this time, oh ho boy, it’ll be different.

Maybe.

Before we get to why, here’s how it’s gone down the last four times:

2012
98-64 (Best in MLB), 23.7 WAR (6th in NL), 101 wRC+ (T-3rd in NL), 194 HR (2nd in NL), 105 SB (T-5th in NL)

Top pitcher: Jordan Zimmerman (5.5 WAR)
Top position player: Bryce Harper (5.2 WAR)

When the team with the best record in baseball is up 6-0 in a deciding NLDS game 5, you’re probably okay to keep the plastic up in the clubhouse. “Not so fast,” said noted slugger Pete Kozma.

2014
96-66 (Best in NL), 26.2 WAR (3rd in NL), 99 wRC+ (T-3rd in NL), 152 HR (4th in NL), 101 SB (T-6th in NL)

Top pitcher: Jordan Zimmerman (4.9 WAR)
Top position player: Anthony Rendon (6.6 WAR)

Pete Kozma is one thing, but running into an even-year Giants team between 2010-14 was asking to get gut-punched. The Nationals lost the deciding NLDS game on an Aaron Barrett wild pitch, which the Giants couldn’t possibly have planned for, and yet, is somehow the only way those teams won the World Series three times.

2016
95-67 (2nd best in NL), 22.2 WAR (5th in NL), 96 wRC+ (T-5th in NL), 203 HR (4th in NL), 121 SB (5th in NL)

Top pitcher: Max Scherzer (6.5 WAR)
Top position player: Daniel Murphy (4.5 WAR)

The deciding game of the NLDS against the Dodgers took four and a half hours — the longest nine-inning postseason game of all time — and a Clayton Kershaw save, but once again, in 2016, a Washington-based baseball team failed to win a playoff series—for the 92nd year in a row.

2017
97-65 (2nd best in NL), 24.5 WAR (5th in NL), 99 wRC+ (6th in NL), 215 HR (7th in N), 108 SB (3rd in NL)

Top pitcher: Max Scherzer (7.5 WAR)
Top position player: Anthony Rendon (5.9 WAR)

The Nationals struck late all NLDS long, scoring 10 runs in the eighth inning. Playoff series are typically where closers go to die, and yet, Wade Davis of the Cubs went 3-for-3 against the Nats, despite their success in his domain and him having to get six outs in the deciding Game 5. Davis got ‘um all, despite the Nats cutting the Cubs’ lead to one run.

Four straight L’s to four different teams: The annoying Cardinals, the Even Year B*llshit-fueled Giants, the dominant Dodgers, and the team-of-destiny Cubs. It became, officially, A Thing.

But that’s what happened all those other years. This year is this year, if not the year, and it still has the potential to be different. On Tuesday night, the Nationals punched a hole straight through the Phillies in both games of a double-header. The jumbotron at Nationals Park immediately flickered to life, broadcasting the last out of the Cubs’ 9-2 loss to the Pirates, which mathematically sealed the October fate for yet another Nationals squad.

How they differentiate themselves from their failed predecessors is all about what happens next.

Here’s what we’re looking at this time around:

2019
88-69 (five games to play), 24.0 WAR (4th in NL), 102 wRC+ (T-4th in NL), 223 HR (6th in NL), 109 SB (2nd in NL)

Top pitcher: Stephen Strasburg (6.4 WAR)
Top position player: Anthony Rendon (6.5 WAR)

Here’s one thing that’s different about the Nationals this time: They’re playing in the Wild Card game. That means all they have to do is win a single game to advance! There will certainly be people who point out that the dictionary definition of a “series” indicates that it is comprised of more than one event, so the Nats still won’t have won a playoff series. But still. Baby steps.

Fortunately, they’ve armed themselves with some new features to protect against the forthcoming postseason.

But first:

What’s the Same

Anthony Rendon gives the Nationals league-high WAR (6.4) from third base. But this team’s gone to the postseason with Rendon leading the charge before. He had 120 wRC+ in the 2014 NLDS with no hits for extra bases and only one RBI, which is a quiet indicator of the failures of the team surrounding him. He was far less impactful in 2016 and 2017, though the Cubs did walk him five times in 2016, having clearly learned they should avoid throwing him a litany of hittable pitches. But the past has no meaning here. Rendon, a veteran slugger who has 154 wRC+ since August 1, should be of great use to the Nationals in the postseason. It’s just that, you know, he also might not be; we’ve seen him go through this before.

And then there’s the pitching staff: It is good. Again. It has a dominant top three that includes Scherzer and Strasburg. Again. The most compelling repeated element of this process is that the Nationals have had a scalding hot rotation, which makes their early exits even more flummoxing. Teams with devastating starting pitching are built specifically for deep playoff runs, yet the Nationals keep running into dragon slayers like Pete Kozma or Gregor Blanco who manage to stick them in their one weak spot.

You can’t plan for that. The best thing you can do is what the Nationals have always done: charge into the playoffs with the best pitching in the Senior Circuit, led by Max Scherzer’s terrifying hetereochromic stare. You can also — and credit to the Nationals here, because they did — add Patrick Corbin to your rotation. He made 32 starts for Washington that were good for 6.0 WAR, and in the last two months he has a 3.43 FIP, 10.6 K/9, and 2.8 K/BB. And when hitters do make contact off him, it’s going on the ground just over 57% of the time.

This Nationals team has been hamstrung by bullpen problems since early on this season, when they housed Trevor Rosenthal’s infamous ERA of “[oblivion].” The Nats at least have Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson for the late stuff, but Dave Martinez has some precarious roster-building to do in the next couple days.

In the first half, Rosenthal wasn’t the only ineffective Nationals reliever, but he was the most ineffective one. That being said, the bullpen amassed a collective 1.3 WAR and 4.80 FIP in the first half, being credited with the loss on 25 occasions (The Nationals lost 42 times in the first half). At the trade deadline, Mike Rizzo brought in Hudson, Roenis Elías, and Hunter Strickland. Hudson has been prolific, with a 3.87 FIP, a 20.0% K% and 6.00 K/BB since July 31—exactly the kind of reliever you want riding with you into the postseason. Elias (6.00 HR/9) and Strickland (9.1 BB%) are not.

That’s probably why Martinez is “…still figuring out who he can trust in the sixth and seventh innings, even in late September,” according to Nationals beat writer Jesse Dougherty. In the second half, the Nationals have a sixth inning walk rate of 12%, the highest in baseball, and the lowest K/BB at 1.7. The seventh inning doesn’t get much better, with a 5.01 FIP.

Inevitably, the NL Wild Card game is going to have a sixth and seventh inning. So what’s new about this team that could break the binds of tradition? What do the Nationals have now that could help neutralize yet another faulty bullpen?

What’s New

Like most of the NL East this season, the Nationals had a rookie manager. Unlike most of the NL East this season, they will still be playing in October. That’s not to say that Dave Martinez has had a flawless, or at times even watchable, rookie season. It’s been something of a roller-coaster, and while he deserves the credit showered on him by his GM, you wouldn’t be blamed for taking in his postseason managerial debut out of more curiosity than anything else.

And of course, we know who won’t be there.

Bryce Harper’s not going to the postseason with the Nationals this time (or at all in 2019), and the team really did a magnificent job of replacing the wins Harper took with him to Philadelphia, investing in Corbin and developing Juan Soto and Victor Robles into defensive assets.

Robles actually got a postseason at-bat in 2017, so he won’t be entirely new to this (he struck out), and it’s fair to assume that reaching the postseason could become something of a habit for him. At just 22 years old, he has earned the trust of his coaches and taken command of the outfield defense.

The last time Washington went to the postseason, center field had been manned by Michael Taylor and six other transients throughout the season, and collectively cost them -5 runs. This year, Robles, getting the large majority of the playing time, has saved 24. Thanks largely the defense he’s provided in 138 games, the position has saved 6.3 runs for the Nationals, as opposed to what they’ve gotten from their center fielders in past playoff years:

Nationals Center Field UZR (Postseason Years)
Year UZR
2012 5.7
2014 -0.2
2016 3.7
2017 3.8

In fact, it was one of Robles’ tremendous catches that actually clinched the Nationals’ postseason spot.

Another reason this postseason could be different stands one spot in the Nationals’ outfield, where a 20-year-old named Juan Soto waves at us.

Left field cost Washington a lot of runs in 2012, over 20. In 2014, the only two of the seven players to man the position and not generate negative WAR were Harper (1.6 WAR in 100 games) and Ryan Zimmerman (1.1 WAR in 61 games), both of whom were giving weightier contributions at the plate. The acquisition of Jayson Werth stabilized the bleeding, and he made the position worth 0.3 wins in 2016, but by the next season, there had been an eight-man committee out there, with Adam Lind (1.0 WAR in 100 games) getting the lion’s share of the playing time.

You will not be surprised to learn that Soto, at the plate and somewhat even more crucially in the field, has been an improvement to all of this. His defense had to be calibrated to the setting — until this season, he was clinging to the outfield wall and never got too creative with the Nationals’ defensive game plan — and making those adjustments has made him an even more absurd asset to take into the playoffs. While his defense is not as reliable as Robles, left field belongs to him, as does the 143 wRC+ and 4.8 WAR he’s accrued while playing it.

If the Nationals bullpen keeps giving up the third highest fly ball rate in baseball (40.1%), at least there will be a couple of spry young outfielders out there to catch them.

The Nationals are mired in A Thing. It is a A Thing they have both earned and not deserved, but it is their Thing, and this postseason, they will re-embark on an attempt to escape it. Their hope to change the course of franchise history may lie on the youthful improvements in their outfield, in addition to what has always worked: A terrifying rotation, a powerful regular season offense, and the hope that they only need an inning or two from the bullpen.

We hoped you liked reading Maybe This Time It’s the Nationals’ Year by Justin Klugh!

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Justin is a contributor to FanGraphs and a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He is known in his family for jamming free hot dogs in his pockets during an off-season tour of Veterans Stadium and eating them on the car ride home.

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NDSox12
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NDSox12

Uhh… this is Dave Martinez’s second season.

stever20
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stever20

yeah and it’s also Calloway and Kapler’s 2nd seasons as well… (and probably last)

v2micca
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v2micca

And fourth season for Snitker if you count his year as an interim Manager. And Mattingly has been with Miami since 2016. So not sure how most of the NL East had a rookie manager this season.

stever20
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stever20

That’s really amazing for Snitker and Mattingly being in their 4th years already.

v2micca
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v2micca

Particularly in the case of Snitker, who still feels like an interim type while the front office looks for their guy, until you realize he has been the manager for 4 years now.