What Is Wrong With the Washington Nationals?

The Nationals had a great comeback last night, but their season has been a mess. Do they have a chance of saving it?
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On Thursday night, the Washington Nationals produced the most dazzling moment of the their season so far—the largest comeback win in franchise history. Down 9–0 in the fourth inning against the Miami Marlins, the Nats compiled a furious rally that ended in a 14–12 victory. Coming just one day after a players-only meeting about the team’s shaky position, the game was exhilarating: a perfect feat of statistical improbability to dismiss the idea that this club should ever be considered a lost cause. After a miraculous output like that, it should feel almost impossible for anyone to be in a state of panic about them. And yet … sketch in some of the context around this game and there might be more reason for panic than ever. The Nationals needed that win to bring them back up just to the .500 mark. Had they lost, they’d have found themselves closer in the standings to last-place Miami than to first-place Atlanta. Forget about the NL East, they’re still five games out of a wild card spot. They were losing 9-0 in the fourth inning to the Marlins. The situation remains bleak.

But this team has been surrounded by panic, at one level or another, all year. While that hasn’t always been warranted, it’s been understandable—after all, there isn’t much breathing room under the weight of reminders that Bryce Harper is about to enter free agency while the club has still never won a playoff series. That panic seems not only warranted right now, but necessary. So when, exactly, did it reach this point? Where did Washington transition from a team that might reasonably be a tad anxious to one that seems to be facing disaster? You can point to the entirety of June, sure; it’s perfectly fair to throw your hands up at any one month where a club goes 9-16 and falls out of first place. But let’s get more precise than that—let’s find the specific inflection points on the team’s panic index.

April 3–8: The first losing streak

Okay, yes, this sounds ridiculous. No team should have any reasonable cause to panic in the first week of April. But consider it for a moment! The Nationals slipped out of first place on April 4, and they didn’t return for nearly two months. The loss to Atlanta that kicked them down now seems like a harbinger of specific misery to come—a solid performance by Max Scherzer, marred by sloppy defense that led to three unearned runs. They were then swept by the Mets, setting up a five-game losing streak that left them three-and-a-half games back in the division. They wouldn’t draw within three games of first place again for four weeks. Panic? That’s strong, sure. But this was the first point where things went wrong for Washington, and righting them took quite a while.

June 9: Stephen Strasburg heads to the disabled list

The Nationals’ pitching made an admirable attempt at carrying a lagging offense through April, and both progressed by leaps and bounds in May. As the team drew itself back up to league-average at the plate, the pitching staff stepped forward with a best-in-baseball 2.48 ERA for the month. The result? Washington went 20–7 in May, and they pulled back into first place for the start of June.

Scherzer led the rotation, as ever, in just about everything. But a healthy Stephen Strasburg was a key component, too—a 3.46 ERA and 3.54 FIP, with five times as many strikeouts as walks. The news that he’d go to the disabled list with shoulder inflammation and no timetable for his return was a blow, then, and it’s coincided with a collapse for just about everyone in the rotation except for Scherzer. Since Strasburg’s been sidelined, the team’s pitching staff has been the worst in baseball, with a 5.37 ERA. There’s far more to that number than Strasburg’s absence, of course—namely, some terrible performances by Gio Gonzalez and Jeremy Hellickson—but it sure hasn’t helped.

June 12: They fall out of first place

In the days following the Strasburg news, the Nationals entered a downward slide that offered plenty of cause for panic. The team’s lead on the division had never been greater than two games, but for a while there, it was still a lead. Here, that fell apart.  

On June 12, Washington slid from first place with a 3–0 loss to the Yankees, unable to capitalize on a solid outing from starter Tanner Roark. It was the second game in a row in which they’d been shut out, and the first one had been even more frustrating. Against San Francisco, Scherzer struck out nine in seven strong innings—but the offense picked up just three hits against the Giants’ staff, and the Nationals lost, 2-0. They went on to lose four of their next five, and they haven’t been within two games of first place since.


June 18: Bryce Harper hits rock bottom

Plenty of players have been underperforming here. (See: The fact that the team currently has a .720 OPS, putting them in baseball’s bottom half of offenses and representing a steep drop-off from their .782 OPS last season.) But no one’s underperformance has resulted in so much hand-wringing as that of Bryce Harper. After a strong start to the year, he’s all but collapsed. Harper posted a .986 April OPS, followed by an .856 May and a .675 June, one of the worst monthly performances of his career. By Baseball-Reference’s numbers, he’s only barely classified as a productive player for the season, with 0.1 WAR. That puts him below the batting value of two of the team’s pitchers. (Scherzer, with 0.3 offensive wins above replacement, and A.J. Cole, with 0.2.) Look at even the team’s most notable bright spot—last night’s incredible win—and see that Harper didn’t account for any of the team’s 12 hits.

Everything, basically, has been bad for him. But when was it the worst? June 18. The Nationals lost to the Yankees, 4–2, putting them three-and-a-half games back of first place and slipping ever closer to third. Harper went 0-4 for the fourth time in a week—five times, if you want to count an 0-for-5 outing, too. It capped the worst 15-game stretch of his entire career. He’d gone 7-for-55 with just one extra-base hit, putting together a miserable line of .127/.286/.182. In that time, Washington went 5–10.

Harper hit an RBI double the following day, and the Nationals won. The day after that? Harper went 0-for-4 again. They lost.

July 4: They fall below .500

And now up to this week’s panic. For all their June struggles, Washington kept their heads above .500 for the entire month. Already, they’re unable to say the same for July. The Nationals kicked off the month with a five-game losing streak that included a sweep by the Red Sox, and the final loss there—a demoralizing shutout at the hands of Eduardo Rodríguez—kicked them down to a losing record for the first time since early May. The Nationals hadn’t been winning much in the weeks leading up to this point, but they’d at least been able to say that they were a winning team. No longer. Just how badly did it position them within the division? The loss put their record just as close to the Mets as it did to the Braves.

At this point, FanGraphs put their playoff odds below 60% for the first time. With chances still better than even, that might not seem like too dire a situation—but for a team that was initially considered such an easy lock in the NL East? Yikes. The Boston series was also the first time that FanGraphs pinned Washington’s odds of winning the division at less than 50 percent, bottoming out at 44%. (Thursday’s comeback win sent their overall playoff odds ticking up to 61 percent, and their odds of winning the division up to 47 percent.) And these FanGraphs projections are just the optimistic ones! The Nationals’ Baseball Prospectus playoff odds fell to 28% when the team dipped below .500. Before the five-game losing streak, the site labeled their chances as roughly even, but in a less than a week’s time, their odds plummeted by 20 percentage points.

Whether the most accurate reflection of their playoff chances is 30% or 60% or (most likely) somewhere in between, the outlook is dreary—as it should be for any third-place team that carries a losing record, even if only for one day, so late in the season as July.

This might seem like the peak panic point, maybe even dangerously close to a point of no return. But, then again, a 9–0 deficit in the fourth inning looked that way, too.