A World Series hangover was to be expected. Outright apathy was not. The Washington Nationals looked like they’d rather be anywhere else than playing baseball during the 2020 season. Sure, Stephen Strasburg was limited to two starts, but Max Scherzer made 12 and Patrick Corbin made 11 and none of it really mattered that much.
Scherzer and Corbin were worth 3.0 fWAR combined. As a team, the Nationals amassed 3.0 fWAR as a pitching staff. In other words, everybody in the aggregate besides Scherzer and Corbin was awful. The Nationals finished with a 5.09 ERA and a 5.02 FIP. They gave up a ton of home runs and looked like a shell of the 2020 team that finally broke through to end a long string of playoff heartbreaks.
Offensively, Washington was fine, although that side of the ball dropped off from the World Series season as well. The Nationals still sported a top-10 offense that had the potential for more with the second-lowest strikeout rate in baseball. After shaking off COVID, Juan Soto became the closest thing we have to Mike Trout, posting a superb 201 wRC+ with a .351/.490/.695 slash in his 196 plate appearances. For those unfamiliar with wRC+, it means Soto was more than two times better than league average. HE DOUBLED LEAGUE AVERAGE. That’s unheard of.
The Nationals certainly felt the loss of Anthony Rendon, but Trea Turner had a monster short season to virtually make up for the lost production. It was everybody else that played poorly. Turner and Soto were worth 5.1 fWAR. Everybody else on the batting and defensive sides of the ledger finished with -1.8 fWAR.
The four stars for the Nationals accumulated all of the team’s value and everybody else was basically useless. Part of a World Series hangover is on the mental side. When you’ve reached the pinnacle, nothing else compares. The rigors and the grind of the regular season seem meaningless. Generally teams that just lifted the trophy are still good enough to play through it or at least wake up before it’s too late. The Nationals never did.
Another element to the World Series hangover is the workload. Your season begins in February in Spring Training and ends in November with a parade. You’re right back in camp again in February. When the season was delayed because of COVID-19, I expected that to be a positive for the Nationals. A weary team got some extra R&R to get back on track and recover. The complete no-show during the season honestly caught me by surprise.
So, now what? If Kyle Schwarber can turn back the clock and return to being a productive hitter, a top of the order with Turner, Soto, and trade acquisition Josh Bell is plenty good enough to keep the Nationals offense humming. A pitching staff far removed from the playoff run could find its stride again, though the top four starting pitchers are on the wrong side of 30 and guys like Corbin and Strasburg have battled a ton of maladies, including Tommy John surgeries for each, and Scherzer and 37-year-old Jon Lester have a lot of mileage on their moneymakers.
Was the one-year blip exactly that or was it a sign of much larger problems for the Nationals?
2021 Over/Under Season Win Total Odds
Odds To Win NL East
|Team||Odds To Win|
|New York Mets||+140|
|BaseRuns Run Differential||-43 (4.91/5.62)||+139 (5.30/4.44)|
|3rd Order Win%||26.7-33.3||94.6-67.4|
|Record in One-Run Games||7-9||17-21|
Additions: Jeremy Jeffress, TJ McFarland, Jordy Mercer, Gerardo Parra, Alex Avila, Blake Swihart, Brad Hand, Hernan Perez, Jon Lester, Kyle Schwarber, Jefry Rodriguez, Luis Avilan, Sam Clay, Yasmany Tomas, Josh Bell, Rogelio Armenteros
Losses: Michael A. Taylor, James Bourque, Austen Williams, Kurt Suzuki, Asdrubal Cabrera, Brock Holt, Sean Doolittle, Eric Thames, Howie Kendrick, Adam Eaton, Anibal Sanchez, Wil Crowe, Eddy Yean
It will be interesting to see how everything from the offseason works out for the Nationals. Howie Kendrick decided to retire just one season removed from a career year in 2019 and a playoff performance to remember. Adam Eaton went back to Chicago. Asdrubal Cabrera, who has put together a really impressive MLB career, also moved on, along with Sean Doolittle and Kurt Suzuki.
The big splash on offense for the Nationals was Josh Bell, who is coming off of a terrible year for the Pirates, but I have confidence that he will bounce back. Kyle Schwarber and Hernan Perez are really intriguing pieces, especially if they return to form. I’m not sure Gerardo Parra has much of anything left, but he and Blake Swihart, Yasmany Tomas, and Perez come with no guarantees.
Jon Lester could very well be an upgrade over Anibal Sanchez as he goes back to the East Coast after a few seasons with the Cubs. Brad Hand is back in the National League to slot in as Washington’s closer.
All in all, I think it’s probably a wash, but the Nationals could certainly come out ahead if they get 2019 Josh Bell.
|Batting Average (BA)||.264 (4th)||.265 (6th)|
|On-Base Percentage (OBP)||.336 (6th)||.342 (2nd)|
|Slugging Percentage (SLG)||.433 (11th)||.454 (7th)|
|Weighted On-Base Avg (wOBA)||.330 (10th)||.336 (6th)|
|Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+)||104 (14th)||103 (8th)|
|Batting Avg on Balls In Play (BABIP)||.308 (9th)||.306 (8th)|
|Strikeout Percentage (K%)||20.3% (2nd)||20.9% (5th)|
|Walk Percentage (BB%)||8.7% (17th)||9.3% (8th)|
This seems like a statistical impossibility, but it happened. The Nationals got 2.7 fWAR from Trea Turner last season and 2.4 fWAR from Juan Soto. They finished with 3.3 fWAR on the hitting and fielding side. Basically, what that means is that almost every other regular was bad. That was in fact the case. The Yan Gomes/Kurt Suzuki tandem managed 0.2 fWAR at catcher. Pretty much everybody else was bad.
The Nationals were third in shortstop fWAR and third in left field fWAR. Those were the positions primarily manned by Turner and Soto. They were 30th in center field fWAR, 30th in first base fWAR, 29th in second base fWAR, 26th in third base fWAR, and 20th in catcher fWAR.
Soto put up a ridiculous 201 wRC+ in 196 plate appearances. Turner had a 158 wRC+ in 259 plate appearances. The other hitters to grade above average in wRC+ were Andrew Stevenson in 47 PA, Josh Harrison in 91 PA, Jake Noll in 17 PA, Gomes in 119 PA, and Suzuki in 129 PA. That’s it. That’s the list. Victor Robles was terrible. Adam Eaton was terrible. Eric Thames was terrible. Luis Garcia was terrible.
Think about how good Turner and Soto were. The Nationals got basically no production from the vast majority of their position players and finished 10th in wOBA, sixth in OBP, and a respectable 13th in wRC+.
I’m not expecting Soto to have the year he had in the short sample, but he’s also 22 and crossed 1,300 career plate appearances last season. It’s fair to say that he has emerged as a top-five player in baseball and if last season was somehow the new normal for him, a season in which he started late because of COVID-19, he could very well be in the running for the best player in baseball award. He needs to improve a little bit defensively, but if he’s going to rake like this and have over 50% of his batted balls at 95+ mph, he’s going to be right there.
What concerns me the most here is that Turner really overperformed offensively. He ran a high BABIP for the second straight season, so maybe that is legit, especially with a big spike in exit velocity compared to 2017 and 2018, but he only struck out 13.9% of the time, which allowed his batting average and on-base percentage to spike. He did swing and miss less and also chased less, so it is possible that the 27-year-old just made some adjustments, but I’d bet against that. Projection systems are doing the same. Turner is back around a 120 wRC+, which is still awesome and he’s a valuable enough defensive player to be worth 4.5 or so fWAR, but that is a big drop from last season’s 158 wRC+.
If nothing else, Turner’s power spike won’t stick around. He hit 12 HR in 259 PA. He previously topped out at 19 in 569 PA. His HR/FB% spiked to 17.4%. Maybe adjustments were made given the low pop up rate at 7.2%, which was more than cut in half relative to 2019. I see a great player, but not the elite one he was trending towards being.
With Turner coming back to earth and Soto probably not replicating what would’ve been on pace to be one of the best offensive seasons ever, the Nationals are going to need to find a lot more offense than they had last season. That means that the newcomers are going to have to step up. That means a bounce back from Bell. A bounce back from Schwarber. Ideally a big spike from Carter Kieboom and a return to normalcy for Starlin Castro.
Bell, who is a poor defensive player that would have benefited greatly from the universal DH, peaked at a 135 wRC+ and a .378 wOBA in 2019. He hit 37 homers, including 17 in 291 PA at notoriously stingy PNC Park. It was a massive spike after hitting 12 in 583 PA the season prior and 26 in 620 PA in 2017. It was also an outlier for Bell in that he had a 37.3% FB%. His career mark is 32.5% and he couldn’t elevate the baseball at all last season with his lowest career FB%.
Schwarber is another guy that lives off of his power production. Like Bell, Schwarber can generate offensive production via a double-digit BB%, but he has been inconsistent with his batted ball distribution. He has a career 24.3% HR/FB% and it has been pretty consistent whether he’s hitting ground balls or fly balls. The problem is that he hasn’t consistently hit enough fly balls.
The Nationals are betting on the things that have worked for a lot of offenses. They are betting on BB% and SLG. Bell also fits nicely in that the Nationals don’t strike out a whole lot. We’ll see if Schwarber can cut that down. Starlin Castro doesn’t walk, but puts a lot of balls in play and has decent pop for a middle infielder. He was limited to 63 PA last season, so the Nationals couldn’t even really use him and, as evidenced by the fWAR numbers at 2B, his absence was very much felt.
Carter Kieboom hit at every level in the minors, but MLB pitching has eaten him alive in a small sample size of 165 PA. The bench options are fine. The Nationals have the potential for a good lineup, but they’re in a tough spot needing a lot of guys to bounce back when their two stars are going to regress, at least based on the small 2020 sample.
There is a path to being a top-10 offense to be sure. I also think guys like Bell and Schwarber are going to be in better situations now, as the Pirates are in a race to the bottom and the Cubs have a lot of uncomfortable contract scenarios looming like black clouds.
|Earned Run Average (ERA)||5.09 (26th)||4.28 (13th)|
|Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP)||5.02 (27th)||4.14 (7th)|
|Adj. Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP)||4.80 (23rd)||4.32 (11th)|
|Strikeout Percentage (K%)||22.3% (22nd)||24.6% (8th)|
|Walk Percentage (BB%)||9.5% (17th)||8.4% (13th)|
|Left On Base Percentage (LOB%)||74.1% (8th)||73.0% (15th)|
The stars and scrubs formula was pretty evident on the pitching side, too. You rarely see a team finish in the top 10 in LOB% and still run an ERA over 5.00, but the Nationals managed to do it. Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin amassed 3.0 combined fWAR in what was a down season for both guys. Given that the Nationals only had 3.0 fWAR as a pitching staff, you can obviously see exactly what happened here.
Scherzer had a 3.74 ERA with a 3.46 FIP in his 67.1 innings. The 36-year-old developed a home run problem that we hadn’t seen previously. He also had the highest average exit velocity against of his career, leading to a .355 BABIP against. That is a second straight jump in Hard Hit% for Scherzer to 35% or higher. He still gets a ton of swings and misses, but I do see signs that the skill set is declining.
By that I mean that it makes sense that Scherzer’s run of five straight seasons with an ERA under 3.00 and run of six of seven seasons with a FIP under 3.00 came to an end. Scherzer will still be a well above average pitcher, but I think those exceptional days are behind him. He had the back issues in 2019 and then had the extended playoff run. Maybe there was just something of a World Series hangover in 2020, but I think we’re just looking at the natural wear and tear of throwing 2,357 innings. Prior to 2019, Scherzer had a run of six straight seasons with at least 200 innings. If we include his 30 playoff innings in 2019, he had over 200 that season, too.
What makes Scherzer’s apparent decline worse is that Stephen Strasburg, who turns 33 in July, was hurt again last season. His playoff performance to win the World Series was the stuff of legend, but it sure seemed to come at a cost. Strasburg was terrific in 2019 and made 33 starts and pitched 200 innings for the first time since 2014, but you really do wonder what he’ll be able to contribute this season after a lost year.
Corbin’s 2020 season was also full of bright red flags. Corbin saw a HR/FB% spike similar to what he had at Chase Field in 2016-17 when it was still a good hitter’s park. His GB% fell to a career low and his HR/FB% went up. Typically we see HR/FB% go down with a higher sample size of fly balls, but that speaks to Corbin’s complete lack of command. His K% fell dramatically from 28.5% to 20.3%. His velocity was down significantly from 2019. The entire profile was ugly for Corbin. He was in the 12th percentile in exit velo, 15th in Hard Hit%, 26th in xwOBA (expected wOBA), 16th in fastball velo, and saw a huge spin rate decrease with his slider.
Generally speaking, I look for velocity drops and decreases in spin rate because they are injury indicators. Maybe Corbin was just showing the wear and tear of the World Series run, but I’m concerned that Corbin was hurt and that it may not be something that just goes away.
Beyond Corbin, I’ve already sold whatever Jon Lester stock I had. I started selling that in 2018 or so when he had a 3.32 ERA with a 4.39 FIP. His ERA jumped to 4.46 the next season and then all of his numbers were north of 5.00 in 2020. He worked 61 innings and stayed healthy, but continued to fall off in the command department. He also posted a 15.8% K%. The Nationals are only paying $5M, so the cost isn’t high, but I’d be shocked if Lester is above average.
Joe Ross hasn’t really been healthy much or effective since 2016. The Nationals don’t have much upside with their prospect group. They brought back Jefry Rodriguez as depth. There isn’t any true depth here and the Nationals are very dependent on their Big Three. If healthy, this group will be fine, but with Scherzer and Corbin regressing and Strasburg’s huge injury history, the lineup better score a ton of runs.
The bullpen is pretty mediocre as well. Brad Hand had a velocity decline last season and a lot of pundits and analysts aren’t as high on him as the numbers would suggest. I had no problem with what Hand did and watched a lot of it with the Indians. Hand joins a bullpen that was in the bottom third of the league in FIP. Tanner Rainey was pretty good and he’ll be the primary setup man, but there are a lot of red flags beyond him. Will Harris and Daniel Hudson are on the wrong side of things from an age standpoint with recent injuries. Hudson was terrible last year and Harris had command and control issues.
I don’t really see the bullpen as a strength. It may not be a complete weakness, but I’d expect it to be in the bottom half of the league.
Positives & Negatives
There are a lot of things I don’t like about this team. The projected bench is old and depth will be a big concern if injuries do pop up. There are a lot of questions about the offense, specifically about the additions and what their true performance levels are actually going to be. Even with monster performances from Turner and Soto in the short season, the Nationals couldn’t ride that to a winning record. This is a team that started 19-31 in the World Series season before going on a torrid run for five months.
The NL East looks like a gauntlet. The Marlins are a pesky team. They probably won’t win a lot of games, but they aren’t going to be a doormat like some of the other last-place teams. The Braves, Mets, and Phillies are all formidable foes and I could make a strong case that all three teams have a higher upside than the Nationals.
Washington Nationals Pick & Prediction: Under 84.5
Admittedly, this is not a strong pick, but I think it is the right side. The great equalizer in all of this is Juan Soto. He could simply be the best player in baseball this season, put this team on his back, and drag it up the hill. I’m not buying Josh Bell or Kyle Schwarber to look like the players that the Nationals are hoping they acquired. I’m not buying Trea Turner as a top-10 player in baseball.
I’m not buying Max Scherzer being the Mad Max we’ve seen deal for about a decade. He’s probably a Hall of Famer, but he’s not the guy he was even a couple seasons ago. I certainly don’t want anything to do with Stephen Strasburg or Patrick Corbin. The cost of winning a championship is often high and there are some guys for the Nationals that I believe paid the ultimate price to do it. Not that they would trade it for anything.
The Phillies strike me as a team with more upside than the Nationals. We know the Braves and Mets have more upside. I’m just not sure there are enough wins to go around for the Nationals to win 85+. I appreciate what they’ve done this offseason and if everything goes according to plan, they could be a surprise team that flirts with the Mets and Braves for the division title.
I see that as a best-case scenario, though. The more likely scenario is that they fall somewhere around this number and my best guess is that they fall below it.
This is not a bet. This is a pick for the Guide. But I would want nothing to do with an over.