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Previewing the Nats

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Get ready for an NLCS against a star-studded team, and prepare to hate the baby shark song.

Washington Nationals v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

It had to happen eventually. With as frequently as the Cardinals and Nationals make the playoffs, it was only a matter of time before the two of them faced off with a World Series berth on the line. Sure, there was the 2012 NLDS, riddled with Kozmagic, but that was merely the NLDS. This time, there are bigger stakes. The National League Championship Series begins today with a contrast in roster construction. The Cardinals are deep and have supplemented homegrown talent through trades while the Nats are star-studded and have supplemented their homegrown talent through free agency. Let’s take a look at the Nationals. Here’s everything you need to know.

2019 NLDS Game 5 - Washington Nationals v. Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Rob Leiter/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Lineup

The top half of the Nats’ lineup is a meatgrinder, featuring left fielder Juan Soto (142 wRC+), third baseman Anthony Rendon (154), and shortstop Trea Turner (117). Right fielder Adam Eaton (107) sets the table. For good measure, they’ve received enormous production from Howie Kendrick (146) as The Zobrist™. Kurt Suzuki (105) and Yan Gomes (79) split time at catcher evenly, though Suzuki’s availability early in the series is in question.

Typically, Victor Robles (91)- a lightning-fast outfielder who loves to bunt for hits from the 8th slot in the lineup- would occupy center field. He suffered a hamstring injury early in the NLDS and may not appear against the Cardinals until game 2 or later. Michael A. Taylor (73 wRC+ in 97 PAs) has played in his place. Taylor is reminiscent of the worst parts of Randal Grichuk’s game, with an enormous strikeout rate, plenty of speed, and the occasional ability to stun you with his power.

Rounding out the lineup is first baseman Ryan Zimmerman (89 wRC+) and Brian Dozier (99). Zimmerman’s numbers don’t look great, but he was fighting injuries (plantar fascitis) most of the year. In September, he rebounded for a 110 wRC+ and then hit a key homerun in NLDS game 4 against the Dodgers. Dozier isn’t the player he was during his Twin peaks (2014-2017) but he’s still a solid/average hitter who lengthens their lineup.

Much was made of the Nats’ early season struggles, but it was mostly a function of health. Turner, Rendon, and Zimmerman all missed time early in the season and it exposed their lack of depth coming out of the spring. Moreover, skipper Dave Martinez had experimented with Victor Robles hitting leadoff or second earlier in the season with no luck. Eventually, he abandoned the idea, injured players returned, and it activated the behemoth. Late in the season and into the playoffs, they’ve found an extra gear with Zimmerman and performances from the bench.

On the bench specifically, they received out-of-nowhere performances from two veterans- Gerardo Parra (an 88 wRC+ after the Giants released him at a wRC+ of 45) and Asdrubal Cabrera (145 wRC+ in DC after the Rangers released him on August 3rd). Rounding out the bench is our favorite large jug of mayonnaise, Matt Adams, who had a rough season in partial time (84 wRC+).

If we look at platoon splits, Howie Kendrick, Brian Dozier, and both halves of the catching platoon (Gomes and Suzuki) fare much better against lefties, while the lefty Soto predictably slips from transcendent to merely good (116 wRC+ vs. lefties). You are unlikely to see Cabrera or Adams against lefties. The catchers were much worse against righties this season, as was Zimmerman although the catcher data is more meaningful. Generally, the Cardinals are best not using Tyler Webb and Andrew Miller except in very specific scenarios.

There’s never a one-size-fits-all pitching strategy, but the Nats are most effective against secondary fastballs (two-seamers, cutters, and sinkers), with a league-leading .383 xwOBA. Of course, they aren’t bad anywhere else- they’re 7th against four-seamers (.371) and 11th against curveballs and change-ups. Their worst component is sliders, where they’re 14th in baseball with a .266 xwOBA.

Side note: You should be aware that when the Cardinals are in DC and Parra bats, you are going to hear the baby shark song again... and again... and again... and Nats fans will be wearing shark hats while they chomp along with their arms. It will be annoying, and belongs on any NLCS-related bingo card you may have.

Nationals vs Philadelphia Phillies Photo by John McDonnell/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Starting Pitching

This section is far less complicated than the lineup. The vast majority of the Nats’ innings will go to Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin. That trio ranks 4th, 15th, and 22nd respectively in K% amongst starting pitchers this year; 1st, 12th, and 23rd in FIP; and 3rd, 13th, and 25th in K-BB%. Their collective fWAR (17.0) is better than any trio of starting pitchers in baseball. In other words, they’re amazing.

There are two bits of good news for the Cardinals. First, the Cardinals are one of the best fastball-hitting teams in the game and they’re liable to see plenty of fastballs from at least Scherzer and Corbin, who throw a decent amount of them (upper 40th percentile of the league in fastball pitch percentage). Strasburg lags behind a bit, but is close to the middle of the league.

The second piece of good news is a little mixed. Dave Martinez was hell-bent on throwing this trio in as many innings as possible during the wild card game and the NLDS, a pattern likely to continue to some degree in the NLCS. That’s not great for the Cardinals- nobody needs to eat Scherzer or Strasburg’s queso coming out of the pen in the fifth inning- but it also raises the possibility of exhaustion throughout the series, diminishing the quality of this trio. It’s one thing to face a well-rested Strasburg. It’s quite another to face him two days after he’s thrown 100 pitches.

Once you get past the fastballs, there are matchup difficulties for the Cardinals. Scherzer and Corbin boast two of the game’s best sliders. Strasburg’s change-up is deadly. These aren’t one trick ponies riding face-melting fastballs to success. They do it all.

Eventually, they’ll face Anibal Sanchez, who seems to fit better in the middle of the Cardinals rotation than floating amongst the Nats constellation of stars. That’s no knock on Sanchez, who is mostly fine. He’s A Guy™ who can provide innings and bridge the gap between starts from the bigger names.

Divisional Series - Washington Nationals v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Five Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Bullpen

I mentioned that Dave Martinez is hell-bent on using his best pitchers from here on out. To illustrate that point, 11 of the Nats’ 19 bullpen innings this October have gone to Sean Doolittle, Strasburg, Scherzer, Corbin, and Daniel Hudson. Of their 54 total innings, 43 of them have been pitched by those six pitchers. There’s a reason for that. The Nats bullpen this season was a dumpster fire. It was much worse earlier in the season and eventually stabilized a bit. Much like the Braves, the Nats used a series of moves at the trade deadline to infuse their bullpen with cromulence. Hudson has been tremendous down the stretch and has moved into the closer’s role. The other two deadline moves- Roenis Elias and Hunter Strickland- didn’t help much, with Elias only throwing three innings before sustaining a season-ending injury. Strickland has just been bad.

Doolittle was one of the best relievers in the game in 2018 and early 2019, but struggled down the stretch. He found his footing a little in September, but he hasn’t been the beast you might expect, which explains why you’ll see Hudson more in high leverage than Doolittle. Adding to the Doolittle intrigue, his percentage of fastballs is almost as big as anyone in the game. Throw in the relative few lefty Cardinals and he may not have much of a role in this series.

If the Cardinals get past the six listed above (and Sanchez), they’ll face Fernando Rodney (4.28 FIP this season), Wander Suero, or Tanner Rainey. For a long stretch this season, Suero paired with Doolittle as the only reliable relievers in DC. Eventually, his results dipped a little, possibly a result of massive usage early in the year. Rainey possesses a high octane fastball (97.7 mph avg.), but can’t harness it. This season, he racked up a 34.6 K%, but also 17.8 BB%. He’s not likely to pitch in high leverage.

In short, don’t be surprised when you see Scherzer, Corbin, and Strasburg in high leverage instead of Rainey, Suero, Rodney, or even Doolittle.

2019 NLDS Game 4 - Los Angeles Dodgers v. Washington Nationals Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Defense/Baserunning

Defensively, the Nats run the gamut. Robles, if he plays, is a burner in center field who takes away hits. Rendon and Dozier are very steady, if unspectacular, infielders. Taylor is a very good center fielder when healthy. Soto struggles in left field, Turner hasn’t had the best year this year but is typically a very good shortstop, and Zimmerman isn’t great at first. The two catchers are a mixed bag. Gomes moves well behind the plate, but frames poorly, as does Suzuki. Eaton doesn’t seem the same since all of the leg injuries early in his Nats career. Kendrick has seen better days in the field, but he plays more for his bat and versatility than his glove. Collectively, the Nats are a slightly above average defensive team, though it’s not their strength.

On the bases, Turner is both one of the fastest and smartest base runners in the game. Eaton is also an above average base runner with great instincts. Rendon similarly runs well, albeit with less speed. Robles and Taylor both run well, and Zimmerman- while hardly a burner- makes up for it as much as he is able.

Miscellaneous

  • I’ve mentioned it a few times and it’s worth mentioning again. Dave Martinez is managing his team like his hair is on fire and it makes for the most interesting dynamic of the series. If he goes down, he’s going to go down with his best players on the field... even if they’re burnt out. Whether or not he keeps pushing the big three into relief, potentially cooking them like a Christmas ham, will have a lot to say about how this series goes. Either it’s a brilliant strategy that gives the Nats an actual decent bullpen, or it’s too risky and costs them one of their biggest strengths. I’ve seen speculation that he’ll tone it down for this series. Either way, I admire the audacity of it all.
  • Rendon and Soto are superstars waiting to happen. Rendon is one of the more well-rounded players in the game and it adds up to fringe MVP production. If you didn’t know that before, be aware of it now. As for Soto, the sky is the limit for a player of his talent.
  • There are few players as likable as Doolittle. Seriously, watch this:
  • If you’re making the trek to DC for games 3 through 5, particularly your first visit to Nats Park and need some tips, I’ve got you covered.
  • Last but not least, as some of you know, my wonderful wife is a diehard Nats fan. This is going to be a very fun (and potentially rocky) 5 to 10 days in my home. It’s one of the perks of marrying someone who loves baseball. I’ve opted to relish the silver lining- no matter what happens, one of us will be watching and celebrating during the World Series this month.