No Defense for Underperforming Nationals

Even after losing Bryce Harper to free agency, the Nationals were projected to win the NL East, but for the second year in a row, things are going awry. At 14-22, they’re actually five games worse than they were last year at this point; they currently own the worst record in the NL this side of the Marlins, who at least have the excuse of being bad by design (not that they haven’t been designed badly). With Wednesday’s sweep-culminating loss to Milwaukee, Washington has lost four games in a row, and 14 out of 19; they’ve dropped six straight series. They’re underperforming in virtually every phase of their game, and while injuries have been a part of the story, they’re hardly alone in that regard. Everybody hurts.

When the season began, the Nationals were projected for a .555 winning percentage, a 53.2% chance of winning the division, and a 25.9% chance at claiming a Wild Card spot, resulting in a 79.1% chance at a playoff spot overall. Through Wednesday, they’re down to 28.6% for the division, 16.8% for the Wild Card, and 45.4% for any playoff spot.

Those are still better odds than recent history suggests. While a sub-.500 start through 36 games isn’t fatal to a team’s playoff hopes, in the era of two Wild Card teams per league (since 2012), no team has dug itself out of a hole this deep at this particular point. Of the 70 playoff teams in that span, only seven were even below .500 at this point before recovering to claim a spot: the 2013 Dodgers (15-21); 2014 Pirates (16-20) and Royals (17-19); 2015 Rangers (15-21), Blue Jays (17-19), and Pirates (17-19); and 2018 Dodgers (16-20). It’s been 10 years since a playoff-bound team started 14-22, namely the 2009 Rockies.

Relative to our preseason projections as of March 21, the Nationals are the majors’ top underachievers by a wide margin:

Team Winning Percentage Relative to Preseason Forecast
Team Proj W% Proj RS/G Proj RA/G W% RS/G RA/G W%Dif RS Dif RA Dif
Nationals .555 4.68 4.16 .389 4.58 5.22 -.166 -0.10 1.06
Marlins .387 3.65 4.69 .278 2.81 4.92 -.109 -0.84 0.23
Reds .499 4.58 4.59 .405 4.08 3.54 -.094 -0.50 -1.05
Red Sox .581 5.06 4.25 .500 4.89 4.87 -.081 -0.17 0.62
Royals .423 4.11 4.85 .342 4.74 5.05 -.081 0.63 0.20
Athletics .515 4.64 4.49 .447 4.63 4.74 -.068 -0.01 0.25
Blue Jays .468 4.49 4.81 .405 3.62 4.32 -.063 -0.87 -0.49
Mets .522 4.20 4.00 .460 4.46 5.19 -.062 0.26 1.19
Angels .505 4.67 4.62 .444 4.61 5.17 -.061 -0.06 0.55
Rockies .500 4.85 4.86 .444 4.72 5.22 -.056 -0.13 0.36
Orioles .387 4.11 5.24 .351 4.03 5.89 -.036 -0.08 0.65
Braves .517 4.53 4.36 .487 4.89 4.97 -.030 0.36 0.61
Indians .571 4.66 3.99 .543 3.54 3.94 -.028 -1.12 -0.05
Giants .466 3.99 4.30 .444 3.78 4.56 -.022 -0.21 0.26
Yankees .599 5.05 4.08 .583 5.11 4.22 -.016 0.06 0.14
Astros .588 4.89 4.04 .595 5.08 3.81 .007 0.19 -0.23
White Sox .440 4.34 4.93 .457 4.77 5.57 .017 0.43 0.64
Pirates .487 4.25 4.37 .515 3.64 4.48 .028 -0.61 0.11
Cardinals .527 4.48 4.22 .568 4.89 4.54 .041 0.41 0.32
Phillies .530 4.62 4.34 .583 5.22 4.36 .053 0.60 0.02
Mariners .460 4.31 4.70 .513 5.67 5.31 .053 1.36 0.61
Rangers .439 4.50 5.11 .500 5.94 5.38 .061 1.44 0.27
Padres .491 4.25 4.33 .553 3.92 3.89 .062 -0.33 -0.44
Dodgers .573 4.64 3.96 .641 5.49 4.18 .068 0.85 0.22
Cubs .545 4.60 4.18 .618 5.76 4.18 .073 1.16 0.00
Tigers .410 4.18 5.07 .485 3.67 4.55 .075 -0.51 -0.52
Brewers .514 4.65 4.51 .590 4.87 4.82 .076 0.22 0.31
Diamondbacks .486 4.32 4.45 .568 5.24 4.78 .082 0.92 0.33
Rays .516 4.29 4.15 .639 4.69 3.06 .123 0.40 -1.09
Twins .507 4.71 4.64 .657 5.31 4.06 .150 0.60 -0.58

I’ll get back to the table in a moment, but first, appreciate the scale of their underachievement:

Ouch. As you can see from the table, their offense actually hasn’t been too far off the mark in terms of scoring level. Nonetheless, it’s been underwhelming. The team’s 93 wRC+ and .317 on-base percentage both rank ninth in the NL, their .412 slugging percentage 10th. At five separate positions — first base, second base, shortstop, left field, and center field — their players have combined for somewhere between -0.1 WAR and 0.4 WAR.

Injuries have contributed to those woes. At first base, Ryan Zimmerman struggling before going on the injured list due to plantar fasciitis on April 24, and Matt Adams landed on the IL due to a left shoulder strain last week. At shortstop, Trea Turner played just four games before breaking his right index finger attempting to bunt. Left fielder Juan Soto has been out since May 1 due to back spasms, though before that, he simply wasn’t hitting up to the level of his sensational rookie season (123 wRC+, as opposed to last year’s 146). On the other hand, second baseman Brian Dozier, who signed as a free agent after playing through a severe bone bruise in his left knee last year, has simply disappointed (.196/.308/.348, 79 wRC+), and the team’s most valuable player by WAR, Anthony Rendon, has played just 22 games due to a left elbow contusion.

It’s not just offense that’s keeping the Nationals in replacement-level territory at the aforementioned positions. As a team, they have had the worst defense in the NL by multiple advanced metrics, with a couple of them the worst in the majors:

Team Defense
Astros .737 5.55 3.5 32
Rays .724 3.53 4.0 15
Dodgers .722 3.53 5.2 36
Cardinals .718 4.06 6.9 18
Blue Jays .717 3.72 1.8 16
Padres .709 2.00 5.6 17
Yankees .706 1.73 -0.6 1
A’s .704 1.54 7.2 -2
Angels .702 1.54 6.1 9
Brewers .702 0.37 2.6 20
Giants .701 1.12 7.4 28
Diamondbacks .698 -0.18 2.3 17
Twins .697 -0.52 6.9 13
Pirates .696 0.90 -6.0 2
Indians .695 -0.85 2.0 13
Orioles .695 0.68 -3.9 -20
Rockies .695 -2.42 6.2 11
Braves .693 -0.62 -3.7 11
Reds .693 -0.70 1.1 19
Cubs .689 -0.15 1.4 14
Marlins .689 0.22 -3.8 -14
Royals .687 -2.30 3.9 12
Red Sox .683 -1.66 -1.0 -9
Tigers .683 -1.72 -1.7 -19
Rangers .682 -2.97 4.8 -4
Mariners .677 -0.71 -28.0 -30
Phillies .675 -3.06 -3.4 -23
Mets .669 -1.41 -5.3 -24
White Sox .655 -4.37 -13.0 -25
Nationals .652 -5.80 -7.4 -28
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference, Baseball Prospectus
Def Eff = Defensive Efficiency. PADE = Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency. All statistics through May 7.

Defensive Efficiency is the rate at which teams turn batted balls into outs. It’s not quite 1 – BABIP, but it’s close. The Baseball-Reference version shown here uses two estimates of plays made, one using innings pitched, strikeouts, double plays, and outfield assists, and the other using batters faced, strikeouts, hits, walks, hit-by-pitches, and .71 * errors committed (the approximate rate at which errors produce a runner on base); the denominator is plays made + hits allowed – home runs + errors. The MLB average is .695, so the Nationals are 43 points below average at this juncture. Given an average of 24 balls in play per team per game, that gap boils down to a swing of one full play not made per game — about 0.7 runs if all of those plays not made are merely singles, which they aren’t. As you’d expect, such gaps tend to narrow over the course of the season, in part because of good ol’ regression and in part because teams tend to get sick of watching balls in play go unconverted and make personnel changes. Over the past decade, the 30th-ranked team has finished between 15 and 26 points below average every year except 2012, when the Rockies were 34 points below average.

PADE is Baseball Prospectus’ Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, which is expressed as a percentage above or below league average. BP uses a slightly different formula for raw DE (one that I used to have memorized), which omits reached on errors: 1- (H – HR)/(AB – SO – HR + SH + SF). Again, the top-to-bottom spread tends to reduce by season’s end, with the 30th team — almost invariably the Rockies — in the -2 to -4 range, though the aforementioned 2012 Rockies, who lost 98 games, came in at -5.61. Defensively, these Nats have been worse than those Rox.

UZR and DRS you know; the Nationals are merely last in the NL in the former, but dead last in the majors in the latter. As an aside, check out how much worse the Mariners are in UZR, where the spread from best to worst is generally far less than for DRS, than the 29th-ranked White Sox and 28th-ranked Nationals. The left side of their current lineup, with Tim Beckham at shortstop, Ryon Healy filling in for the injured Kyle Seager at third base, Domingo Santana in left field, and even Mallex Smith in center, are all deeply in the red in both metrics.

On an individual level, 36 games isn’t enough to put much stock into UZR or DRS from an analytical perspective, but that doesn’t mean we can’t express concern about players at the extremes, particularly when armed with the aforementioned team-level rates. For the Nationals, both Victor Robles and Soto are about three-to-five runs in the red via both metrics, further underscoring the point that not all of the plays made have merely been singles. For as special as Soto’s bat was as a 19-year-old rookie, his career totals of -8.2 UZR and -10 DRS in 142 games in left field underscore the 40/50 grades our prospect team put on his defense last spring. Robles graded out far better (60/70) at the time and has a much smaller sample under his belt, but taken with Soto’s woes — and, working backwards, those of Harper — it’s fair to raise an eyebrow about the Nationals’ defensive positioning of their outfielders.

Meanwhile, most of the infielders besides the first basemen are in the red via DRS but more or less level via UZR, but the one who stands out is poor Carter Kieboom, who somehow managed to rack up -6 DRS in just 10 games at shortstop. Ranked No. 18 on our Top 100 prospects list — albeit with the consensus that he’s fringy at shortstop and probably bound for second base eventually — the 21-year-old 2016 first-round pick was pressed into service by the injuries to Turner and Rendon, and the ongoing struggles of utilityman Wilmer Difo on both sides of the ball. While he homered to much fanfare in his major league debut, he was overmatched thereafter, hitting .128/.209/.282 with a 37.4% strikeout rate in 43 PA and making four errors in 10 games, including a critical one on Monday behind Max Scherzer. Given the circumstances, and the fact that he had just 62 games at Double-A and 18 at Triple-A before being promoted, he doesn’t deserve to be scapegoated; mercifully, he was demoted upon Rendon’s return from the IL on Tuesday. Turner has begun hitting off a tee, but he still appears to be weeks away from returning.

So yes, injuries have been a factor in the team-level defensive performance, which has of course carried over to that of the pitching staff. Driven by the high strikeout rates and low walk rates of Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin, the team’s 3.81 FIP is second in the NL, but their 4.92 ERA is second-to-last. That 1.11 runs per nine gap is nearly double that of the second-ranked team, the White Sox (0.59), and more than double that of the second-ranked NL team, the Mets (0.43); recall from the table above that both are at or near the bottom of the barrel in the aforementioned defensive metrics. Among qualifying NL pitchers, Scherzer has the largest gap between FIP (1.95) and ERA (3.78) at 1.83 runs per nine, while Strasburg (0.83) and fourth starter Anibal Sanchez (0.7) are seventh and eighth among the 45 qualifiers.

Even the bad defense cannot entirely exonerate the bullpen, which is 12th in the league in FIP (4.65) and — please pause here to put on your radiation suits — dead last in the majors in ERA (6.41). I’ve harped before about what an ongoing travesty the bullpen has been outside of the occasional Sean Doolittle; since 2015, general manager Mike Rizzo has dealt away the likes of Nick Pivetta (to the Phillies in 2015 for Jonathan Papelbon), Felipe Vazquez (to the Pirates in 2016 for Mark Melancon), Jesus Luzardo and Blake Treinen (both to the A’s for Doolittle and Ryan Madson in 2017) for midseason fixes, not all of which have helped the team salvage its seasons. This past winter, instead of, say, adding Craig Kimbrel, Rizzo signed Trevor Rosenthal, who missed all of last season due to Tommy John surgery, and Kyle Barraclough, who pitched to a 4.20 ERA and 4.98 FIP with the Marlins. Rosenthal allowed runs while failing to retire a single hitter in his first four appearances, thereby setting a record. With nine walks, five wild pitches, and three hit batsmen in a grand total of three innings, he’s apparently gotten a case of the yips, and has been sent back to extended spring training; officially, he’s on the IL with a viral infection that caused him to lose 10 pounds.

Barraclough, at least, has pitched well (1.32 ERA, 2.99 FIP in 13.2 innings), which makes him one of four relievers (out of a total of 13 used) with an ERA below 6.00, and one of six with a FIP below 5.41. So yeah, that’s going great. Late spring additions Tony Sipp and Dan Jennings are among those struggling, as is former starter Joe Ross. Of course, we’re talking about minimal sample sizes here; six of the 13 have five innings or fewer. The point is that along with everything else that’s going wrong, very little is working when manager Davey Martinez picks up the phone.

Pitching coach Derek Lilliquist was thrown overboard last week for what Rizzo termed “preparation issues” and the need for a new voice, which comes in the form of Paul Menhart, the team’s minor league pitching coordinator for the past five years and part of Washington’s system for the past 14 years. The vultures are circling Martinez, who last year had clubhouse problems as well as bullpen-handling ones. As the Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal wrote on Thursday, the Nationals are caught in a bind given their ongoing managerial instability; Manny Acta, Jim Riggleman, Davey Johnson, Matt Williams, and Dusty Baker have all been ousted since he took over in 2009, and Bud Black decided not to take the job that for the moment still belongs to Martinez. The team’s $202 million payroll is within $4 million of the competitive balance tax threshold, which has prevented them from signing Kimbrel, and Kieboom aside, there’s no cavalry coming from the minor leagues; Soto and Robles are already here.

All of which is to say that the Nationals are in a real mess, and while Martinez figures to be made the scapegoat soon, their problems run deeper. The good news for them is that nobody’s running away in an NL East race that was anticipated to involve the four teams besides the Marlins; the Phillies (21-15) are above .500, but both the Braves (18-19) and the Mets (17-20) are floundering to some degree. It’s not too late for the Nationals to turn this season around, but right now, they’re in a very bad place.

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Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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Just a heads up that there’s a typo in the WC odds. They had a 25.9% chance at season’s start, not 5.9%.