The Washington Nationals Were Not Magical, Merely Awesome

The Nationals relied heavily on their stars to win the franchise’s first World Series title. (Photo: David)

“We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” – Joseph Campbell

If someone tells you the Washington Nationals had a storybook season, they’re wrong. The tale of the 2019 Nats is one of science, not magic, one in which they had a team led by superstars and were designed to roll over the opposition in the playoffs. Robbed by fate of the Bryce Harper Hollywood ending in 2018, the Nats moved on from their franchise player, and even at the lowest point of the season, they always projected to have an excellent chance of making the playoffs. Facing teams with better regular season records, Washington leveraged the club’s strengths to even the odds and grabbed the franchise’s first championship.

The Setup

It would feel odd to call 2010s Nationals a dynasty, but from 2012 to 2018, Washington had the second-best record in baseball behind only the Dodgers. For those Nationals, Harper was the cornerstone, the defining player of the team, the 19-year-old former No. 1 pick whose successes and failures always seemed magnified compared to what was going on with the rest of the club. Ryan Zimmerman had more tenure with the team, but Harper was the one who made the magazine covers and the postseason commercials.

Both Harper and his team struggled to meet the lofty expectations laid out for them. Harper was hardly a Brien Taylor-type bust given that he won an MVP award and made six All-Star games in seven years in DC, but he never consistently broke through to become the elite of the elite, the megastar who could match Mike Trout. Similarly, the Nats went to the playoffs four times and won four NL East crowns but didn’t win a single playoff series.

And then he was gone, on to the Philadelphia Phillies. In an early episode of The Simpsons, back in the early 90s (yikes), Lisa was grieving the death of Bleeding Gums Murphy, her jazz idol. Homer’s solution was to reassure her that all they would have to do is go down to the pound and get a new jazzman. That bit of advice didn’t prove much help to Lisa, but that’s precisely what the Nationals did during the 2018 season.

The new jazzman was Juan Soto, the teenage sensation who terrorized minor league pitching to such a degree that it only took him two months of playing time to go from A-ball to the majors. Soto hit .292/.406/.517 with 22 homers in 116 games for the Nats, and his presence made the team’s transition from the loss of their franchise player as gentle as it has been for any club in history. The Nats were more than comfortable entering the 2019 season with an outfield of Soto, Victor Robles, and Adam Eaton.

For less than half the price the Phillies were paying for Harper, Washington added a third ace to the rotation with the addition of Patrick Corbin. Thanks to his slider, he emerged as a legitimate Cy Young Award contender in 2018, and among ERA title-qualifying pitchers, only Blake Snell was better at making hitters miss. One could make the argument that given the team’s strength in the outfield, combined with the departures of Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark, that Corbin was a better fit for the team’s needs than Harper even if the latter could have been retained at Corbin’s six-year, $140 million asking price.

(Yes, of course, if Harper could have been signed for that deal, the Nats would have theoretically signed both Corbin and Harper.)

Corbin was the big signing, but the Nationals did make a number of smaller additions to address the depth issues that plagued the team. Daniel Murphy was injured and then gone, but Wilmer Difo was stretched as a full-time starter, so Brian Dozier was signed in the hopes he had a bounce-back season in him. Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki were brought in as a catching tandem upgrade to Matt Wieters and Pedro Severino. Matt Adams was re-signed to give the team another left-handed power bat, one who could spell the oft-injured Zimmerman. Aníbal Sánchez, a surprising contributor to the Braves in 2018 after bombing for three years with the Tigers, was signed to be the fourth starter. Trevor Rosenthal, coming off Tommy John surgery, was signed to a one-year deal in the hopes he could beef up a bullpen with a historical tendency of implosion.

The Projection

The ZiPS projections weren’t too concerned with the fate of the post-Harper Nationals, projecting the team to go 93-69, tied with the Dodgers for the best preseason projected record in the National League. The Big Three in the rotation projected for a combined 11.7 WAR, second only to Cleveland’s trio of Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Trevor Bauer. The ordinarily conservative ZiPS had no worries at all about Soto disappointing, projecting him to be worth 5.1 wins, the most for any left fielder in baseball. Trea Turner and Anthony Rendon were projected for All-Star seasons, and Eaton, Dozier, the catchers, and Robles were all projected to be better than average.

There was risk, however. Despite the 93-win projection, three other NL East teams being pegged at 87 wins — I’ll let you guess who the other club was — meant that Washington’s position was strong but not impregnable. Because of this competition, ZiPS only projected Washington to have a 53% chance of winning the division, an uncertain outcome compared to the 87% chance estimated for the Dodgers.

The Results

While ample reasons existed to be optimistic about Washington’s 2019 season, it got off to a dreadful start. A contender treading water around .500 in April isn’t typically fatal, but it’s dangerous in a division you expect to be extremely competitive. The team’s fortunes hit their lowest point in May. A 7-14 start to the month, culminating in being the sweepee in a four-game set against the Mets, left the Nationals at 19-31. In fourth place and 10 games out, it was starting to look like the team might be sellers at the trade deadline. At this point, the Nats only had three hitters on-pace for a two-win season in Rendon, Soto, and Robles. The top of the rotation was pitching as expected, but you could look at that as a bad thing in a way; if your team has a .380 winning percentage while your three best pitchers are combining for a 3.30 ERA, what hope do you have?

In this case, patience was warranted. Even at this point, ZiPS still saw the Nats as having the strongest roster in the NL East, with a .558 roster compared to the Braves at .541. ZiPS gave the Nats a robust (considering their position) 30% chance at the playoffs, and the ZiPS/Steamer implementation on FanGraphs was only slightly less sanguine at 22%.

The Nationals showed a great deal of patience with the parts of their team they expected to contribute. They were generally rewarded for this stance as they tied the Dodgers for the best record in baseball after this point, largely on the backs of their stars. The bullpen, on the other hand, was at dumpster-fire levels, and the team spent the next several months picking up every spare reliever they could find after throwing in the towels on Rosenthal and Tony Sipp. Only everyone’s favorite longbowman, Fernando Rodney, stuck. I was particularly fuming — and still am — at the team’s lack of interest in Austin Adams, who went on to put up a 3.77 ERA/2.96 FIP with the Mariners with nearly 15 strikeouts per game after being traded.

Washington’s trade deadline consisted entirely of more attempts to try and fix the struggling bullpen. Neither Roenis Elias or Hunter Strickland changed this state of affairs, but Daniel Hudson did. Hudson’s 3.53 FIP for the Nats didn’t match his 1.44 ERA, but it didn’t need to; he just needed to be stable enough that the team could count on him, a role at which he performed ably.

The bullpen never actually became a plus for the team, but their ERA improved to 4.62 in September, and the hope was that after shearing off the back half of the bullpen for the playoffs, the group would be just enough to squeak by. They ran out of time to catch the Braves for the divisional title but still made the playoffs by a comfortable margin.

The curious thing about Washington’s run through the playoffs was the general idea that they entered as significant underdogs. Once they got past the wild card game against the Brewers, their World Series odds weren’t really that much worse than anyone else’s; the fact that the team’s value was wrapped up in their stars, who would be heavily utilized in the playoffs, meant that they could hit above their weight. ZiPS projected Washington as only a 49/51 underdog in the National League Division Series and a 56/44 favorite against the Cardinals. Only in the World Series were the Nats a clear underdog, but it was less David vs. Goliath and more Goliath vs. Slightly Smaller Goliath.

The playoffs weren’t a Cinderella story, they were a History Channel special on asymmetric warfare. Facing deeper teams with better bullpens, Washington correctly identified their strengths and played to them. Their opponents couldn’t wait out Scherzer-Strasburg-Corbin; the Nats used all three aggressively so that any team that wanted to defeat them would have to go through them. And it was just enough to end the season drenched in clubhouse alcohol.

What Comes Next?

Washington has kept their window open longer than I ever envisioned, credit for which has to be given to the front office. While they theoretically could have signed both Rendon and Strasburg, I think Strasburg was the harder player to replace. As I talked about elsewhere, they’ve done a solid job patching up an infield torn apart by the loss of Rendon, but there’s no Juan Soto to bail them out this time. Carter Kieboom is a very good prospect, but he’s not where Soto was entering the 2019 season.

Additionally, Washington’s free agency problems aren’t quite over. Scherzer isn’t signed past 2021, and keeping Sanchez for 2021 will involve picking up an $18 million option. Eaton will also be in his option year in 2021, and Sean Doolittle is a free agent after 2020. And if Turner’s going to be signed to an extension, time is ticking rapidly on the team’s leverage.

Washington’s farm system, at the end of 2019, ranked only 27th on THE BOARD, and the quality drops off quickly after Kieboom. It’s going to take some imagination to finesse this team around a rebuilding period at some point.

ZiPS Projection – Carter Kieboom

Kieboom is the team’s most interesting prospect, and as the only in-house option to replace at least some of Rendon’s production in the coming years, he seemed a good candidate to score the ZiPS long-term projection. He appeared in 11 games in the majors in 2019 but less because the team thought he was ready and more due to injuries to Rendon and Turner proving a challenge to the club’s depth. Kieboom’s likely role in 2020 is a bit like Keston Hiura’s with the Brewers entering 2019; playing full-time in Triple-A with the team hoping that he’ll push one of the veterans out of a job at some point. He’ll see playing time in the majors in 2020, but I think it’ll be in situations in which he can play full-time for a few weeks rather than hanging on as a reserve.

ZiPS Projection – Carter Kieboom
2020 .253 .333 .412 498 71 126 25 3 16 64 56 128 5 91 -1 1.9
2021 .263 .345 .443 483 72 127 27 3 18 68 57 118 5 102 0 2.5
2022 .262 .349 .449 485 74 127 28 3 19 71 61 123 5 104 0 2.7
2023 .260 .349 .453 488 76 127 28 3 20 72 63 128 5 105 0 2.8
2024 .259 .352 .451 483 76 125 27 3 20 71 66 129 5 106 0 2.9
2025 .260 .357 .461 477 77 124 27 3 21 72 68 129 5 109 0 3.1
2026 .256 .354 .447 465 74 119 26 3 19 68 67 125 4 105 -1 2.7

ZiPS doesn’t see Kieboom developing into a star and certainly not as the next Rendon, but these are solid projections, predicting a player at the back of the top-third of the league at shortstop (where I’m projecting him for now). These projections are of a player kind of in the mold of Ian Desmond. Don’t worry, I mean the Nationals version. Kieboom’s comp list is full of players who were not stars, but competent and valuable players for a long time: Jay Bell, Kelly Johnson, Jhonny Peralta, Rich Aurilia, Marcus Giles, Glenn Hubbard, and so on. Not everyone can be a jazzman.

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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4 years ago

even at the lowest point of the season, they always projected to have an excellent chance of making the playoffs

May 24, weren’t the Nats projected at 0.1%?

4 years ago
Reply to  stever20

I think that was the system? Not sure how they come up with their percentages.

4 years ago

must of been to win the WS instead of just make the playoffs.

Although I wouldn’t call 22.2% an excellent chance of making the playoffs.

4 years ago
Reply to  Dan Szymborski

it’s good for a .380 team, yes. But I’d hardly call it an excellent chance of making the playoffs. Even up to 50% I wouldn’t really call that an excellent chance of making the playoffs

4 years ago
Reply to  stever20

Those odds aren’t Nats vs any specific team but against the field.
And the NL Field was very crowded in may.

4 years ago
Reply to  fjtorres

that said that the Nats had a 22% chance of making the playoffs.

Those aren’t excellent odds.