The Nationals’ 2019 season is a plane nose-diving into a nuclear power plant. It’s a flaming cruise ship hitting an iceberg in the middle of a hurricane. It’s a man jumping out of a plane only to realize that he forgot a parachute who’s then hit by lightning. It’s a sixth Pirates of the Caribbean movie.
Six weeks ago, that was my take on the Nationals, and it wasn’t entirely hyperbolic. After losing to the Mets on May 23 to complete a humiliating four-game sweep, Washington dropped to 19–31 on the season—the fourth-worst record in baseball. With the team looking lifeless, there appeared to be two avenues available: Fix the problem by buying, or sell to start anew. But at 12 games under .500, 10 games out of first place in the NL East, and with a compromised roster featuring the worst bullpen in the majors, it was a better bet that Washington would spend late July taking calls on its best assets.
Yet with two weeks to the trade deadline, the Nationals are making everyone who wrote their death certificate bust out the erasers. Since that Mets-induced low point, Washington has gone 31–13—the best record in baseball in that span—to rocket back into playoff position as wild-card leaders.
It takes a lot to go from bottom feeder to postseason participant in the span of two months. But was it a blunder to declare Washington finished before Memorial Day? To find out, I’m revisiting my piece on the Nationals to see what I got wrong—and what the Nationals did right. The column excerpts below are in bold italics.
A lot has to go wrong for a team with Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Anthony Rendon, Trea Turner, [and] Juan Soto … to be on pace to lose 100 games. For the Nationals, it’s been the bullpen, injuries, the bullpen, a lack of rotation depth, the bullpen, the bullpen, the middle infield and the bullpen.
As noted repeatedly, the bullpen was the biggest culprit for Washington’s woes, though there were other issues too. Turner, Rendon and Soto missed time with injuries, as did Ryan Zimmerman, Jeremy Hellickson, Anibal Sanchez, Matt Adams, and Justin Miller. In their place was below-average roster filler that predictably didn’t help, further compounding the struggles of Brian Dozier, Yan Gomes, Victor Robles, Adam Eaton, and every non-Sean Doolittle reliever.
Most of the problems on that list, though, have been rectified. Washington is more or less running out its "A" lineup and ideal rotation every night.
More crucially, the bullpen has been much better. Things have steadily improved, from an 8.15 ERA in May to 4.54 in June to 3.82 in July. And when given leads, the Nationals are holding them, with only six blown saves in their last 44 games (including one Wednesday, for good measure) compared to 10 in their first 50. Here’s how they’ve performed since May 23 through Wednesday’s games, per FanGraphs.
Doolittle has been the rock, as expected, but he’s finally getting help, and from some unlikely sources. Suero had a 7.17 ERA before May 24 and has done a 180 since, emerging as the team’s late-inning weapon of choice. Guerra, plucked off waivers May 20, has ably eaten innings in middle and long relief. The venerable Rodney, who signed with the Nats in early June after being released by Oakland, has once again found the Fountain of Youth. Rainey, a 26-year-old rookie, has racked up a ton of strikeouts thanks to a booming 98-mph fastball (and also a lot of walks, but nobody’s perfect).
It also helps that the two heaviest stones dragging the bullpen down are gone. Rosenthal, who walked 15 batters in 6 1/3 innings (!), was released in late June. Barraclough, who posted a 6.39 ERA in 25 1/3 frames, got hurt and was then demoted to the minors. Without that pair taking a torch to the late innings, things have been far easier for manager Dave Martinez.
None of that was the case at the time, though. So what changed?
[T]he pieces of a winning team are still right there. Scherzer, Strasburg and Patrick Corbin make for a phenomenal top three in the rotation. Rendon is one of the best third basemen in baseball and has a 183 OPS+. Soto and Robles are young and talented. Turner is a game-changer when healthy. Eaton, Kurt Suzuki and Adams are functional veteran bats. Doolittle is a top-flight reliever. The Nationals are already building on a pretty solid base.
This was what the Nationals could bank on: a core of elite talent that few teams could match. (It helps that Scherzer put together one of the greatest months the world has ever seen in June.) That was reason to believe even when things were at their worst.
Plus, Washington is coming off a brutal month, schedule-wise. Aside from the Mets, May featured all winning teams, including the Cardinals, Cubs, Dodgers, Brewers and Phillies. Things immediately soften up this weekend with a four-game set against the Marlins at home. June will feature 15 games against the last-place Reds as well as the White Sox, Royals, Orioles and Tigers, plus six more games versus Miami. There’s a chance to make up ground.
This was the other reason not to punt, and Washington did in fact take advantage of that soft schedule, going 18–8 in June and 8–3 in July. The Nationals especially benefitted from facing plenty of the last-place Marlins, winning nine of their last 10 games against them.
Get everyone healthy, supplement the core, and there’s still a chance this team could surge to a winning record and possibly a wild-card spot. For all their awfulness so far, FanGraphs still has the Nats projected to finish at 81–81. Not all hope is lost.
It turns out it wasn’t. Those FanGraphs projections, by the way, now have the Nats finishing 88–74, which would be the third-best record in the NL (though not good enough to win the East).
That projection seems awfully rosy, though, doesn’t it? There’s not much to suggest that this Nationals team currently has what’s needed to finish with a winning record or anything close to it.
So that didn’t age well. But before you pelt me with trash and call me a numbskull, here’s my rationale.
As good as Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin have been, that’s how bad Anibal Sanchez and Jeremy Hellickson are, and there are no good internal rotation replacement options.
Sanchez had a 5.10 ERA in 42 1/3 innings before going on the injured list in mid-May with a hamstring strain. Since then: a 2.47 ERA in 47 1/3 innings. But Hellickson was bad before getting hurt, and Washington is still thin, starter-wise, though rookie Austin Voth has impressed in four outings.
The bullpen is way beyond helping with just Kimbrel or anyone else; it needs a full-blown makeover.
Rodney, Rainey and Suero have helped stabilize things, but anyone who saw that coming is either a liar or a lunatic. The bullpen remains Washington’s No. 1 issue to address at the trade deadline.
Turner hasn’t hit since coming back from injury (7-for-32) and hasn’t produced much since 2016.
Turner spat on my small sample size, slashing .285/.348/.473 over his last 44 games.
Soto is striking out way more and hitting for less power in his second season.
Soto has slashed his strikeout rate by nearly 10 points over the last six weeks and is hitting .331/.435/.592 with almost as many walks (30) as punchouts (31) since then. Turns out the dude who posted a 143 OPS+ at the age of 19 is still good.
For all his tools, Robles has been below average at the plate.
Robles remains more potential than consistent production right now: Since May 23, he’s hit .257/.335/.441 with just seven walks in 158 plate appearances. Still, if one of your biggest problems is that your 22-year-old rookie outfielder has a .777 OPS, things are going pretty well.
Rendon, Soto and (somehow) Howie Kendrick are the only regulars with OPS+ figures above league average.
That list now includes Turner and Kurt Suzuki (albeit barely), but Dozier (.256/.353/.512 in his last 40 games), Eaton (.295/.400/.397 in his last 41 games) and Adams (11 homers in his last 36 games) have come to life. Gomes and Zimmerman haven’t joined in on the fun, but the Nats can survive that if everyone else is hitting.
These dismal two months have left the Nationals’ postseason odds at 22.4%, and they’re already 10 games back of the first-place Phillies in the NL East. Even a .500 record would require a 62–50 record from here on out; 90 wins would take 71–41, or a .634 winning percentage—a 103-win pace over a full season.
This summer hot streak has now taken those postseason odds all the way up to 78.8%. And though the Nats are 6 1/2 games out in the division, they’re now chasing the Braves, as the Phillies apparently decided they wanted to live in the sewer. Philadelphia is 20–26 since May 23 and has gone from first in the East to third and 8 1/2 games back.
Still, it took a massive push to get the Nationals to this point, and they don’t have room to fall apart again. Every NL team but the Marlins is alive in the wild-card race, and while Washington is still a better bet than most of that field, any extended slip-up could prove costly. (Conversely, the rest of the Senior Circuit is so uninspiring that maybe the Nats could survive another stumble, but I wouldn’t recommend it.)
But regardless of where things go from here, Washington turning its season around so dramatically is remarkable. What’s left to figure out now is the next step. With their season on the brink, the Nationals stepped back from the ledge. But there’s still work to be done if they want this miracle push to continue—and to keep making me and everyone else who wrote them off look dumb.