Perspective: Threads and Storylines from April and May
Here were some storylines about the Washington Nationals during the month of April and May
The true beauty of baseball is how inconsequential one game feels. A loss may feel demoralizing, but you cannot linger on those feelings because you have to get out there the next day and do it all again. It is when the days start to blend together, that overarching themes and stories begin to weave themselves together. At the same time, the opposite is also true. A slight change to a swing path or the way a pitcher holds the ball in their hand can make a player millions of dollars. It is truly the beauty of the sport, where any game could be the moment a player’s breakout begins, but all stills feels inconsequential.
Let’s dive into some of these themes and stories from the first two months. Just to knock this out of the way, all stats listed are through May 31st.
What In The World is Going on with Juan Soto
For the unaware, trade rumors flew around the superstar right fielder Juan Soto all offseason and now have ramped up as the season has progressed. This comes in part because of the potential sale of the team, but also a gloomy outlook on the next four seasons of Nationals’ baseball. The rumors progressed to the point where General Manager Mike Rizzo had to go out and dispel the rumors publicly on local radio. It is a whole mess that is further amplified by some early struggles for Juan.
Now when the word struggles and Juan Soto are in the same sentence, it is not the same level of struggles as they are for most players. He has 20 extra-base hits in 224 plate appearances, has stolen four bases in five attempts, and he is still walking at an unbelievable rate. So, where is the issue?
Most fans will point to his .238 batting average, which is far from his career norms. His lowest batting average over a season previously was .282. Sure, the rest of his slash line carries him to an above-average OPS, but it is hard to get on board with a franchise superstar hitting .238 for a lot of baseball fans, no matter how old school of a metric saber-metricians thinks it is. And honestly, they are right. Sure, it is dumb, but there’s a special feeling when the game is on the line and your superstar hitter comes up and he is hitting .313/.465/.534. There is not a doubt in the world they get the hit to give your team the lead, or at least keep the team in the fight.
So, let’s see if we can identify the issue. Soto’s 51% ground ball rate immediately sticks out as a potential issue, but when you go to his career numbers, it is right in line with what he has done throughout his career. His .243 BABIP does not help, but it is not enough to turn the current .238 into last years .313. Then we turn to the 35.6% flyball rate. While in years past this may be a positive, with the changes made to the baseball and the implementation of humidors, the balls are traveling less. With fly balls flying less and less, unless there are `changes implemented by the league or a change in approach by Soto, the below-expectations production from Juan may continue.
Victor Robles's Potential Breakout
In his first nine games of the year, Victor Robles struggled. He got one hit in 25 plate appearances. He posted a .045/.125/.045 triple slash. Since then, he has hit .286/.349/.378, which is good enough to be slightly above average. He has even stolen five bases.
Now is it sustainable? No. At least not in the way he has done it. He has a .397 BABIP, is not hitting the ball hard at all, and is striking out in 26.3% of his plate appearances. While Robles's tool set is built to be a BABIP machine, .397 is unsustainable, and to put up a high batting average while relying more on singles than extra-base hits, you must not strike out at an above-average rate, which Robles does.
There are some massive holes in his game that are obvious. The most obvious one is his proneness to hit infield fly balls. He continues to be the league leader in what Statcast classifies as weak contact. His 26.3 weak contact percentage leads the league by a decent margin and is 15 percentage points higher than the fifth-place man, Brian Anderson. You can get a lot of weak contact and still be successful. Jose Altuve ranks tenth and is one of the best second basemen in the league. You just cannot do it in 26.3% of your batted balls.
Oh boy. It has been bad. Victor Robles is good, but not the Gold Glove dominator many expected after the 2019 season. Josh Bell has made some great plays at first, which is a massive step forward for him as a player considering he was called a DH when the Nationals acquired him.
Outside of them, the Nationals’ defense has been awful. They rank last in the league in Outs Above Average, the industry standard metric for evaluating defense. While not as bad, the Nationals still are below average defensively in Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating.
The biggest culprits? Juan Soto, Alcides Escobar, Dee Strange-Gordon, and Lucius Fox. Soto’s is surprising considering he was one of the better defenders in right field last season. Alcides Escobar just seems to be a below-average shortstop defensively. Dee Strange-Gordon makes a perfectly fine fill-in shortstop but has proven he cannot fill in there regularly with how poorly he has performed. Lucius Fox’s is different though. He has a relatively low sample size, made his debut earlier this season, and defensive stats are cumulative. Lucius Fox will be a better defender than this, and scouting reports on him tend to agree.
Walking with the Pitching Staff
The Washington Nationals pitching staff has walked 3.86 batters every nine innings. Meanwhile, the league average is 3.22. The rotation is an even worse 4.18. Again, the league average for starting pitchers is a much better 2.98. Every starter on the active roster has struggled with walks, even players who scouts praised for their command, like Josiah Gray. While the Nationals catching staff are not framing wizards, they are close to average.
This issue is clearly systemic, something Jim Hickey must quickly address. If not, what is the point of having him there? Young arms like Joan Adon and Josiah Gray immediately look average or above average if their propensity to walk batters disappears.
The Bullpen Will Be Ok
This Nationals’ bullpen might actually be ok. This is kind of ironic when you think about how much the team has struggled to build a bullpen for years now. Finally, now that they are no longer competing, they have built a strong back end of the bullpen. In even better news, Rizzo did not build the bullpen on free agent signings of old veterans. Instead, it is built on the signing of a minor league free agent, the signing of a once highly touted reliever coming back from injury, and a trade. Those players, of course, are the trio of Kyle Finnegan, Victor Arano, and Tanner Rainey.
Kyle Finnegan, the minor league free agent, got drafted by the A’s in the sixth round of the 2013 draft. He never made the majors with the A’s and when granted free agency after the 2019 season, he was quickly grabbed up by the then-World Series reigning champions. After two dominant seasons in 2017 and 2018 with the Phillies, arm injuries quickly derailed Arano’s path to stardom. This pedigree is why I considered him the best signing by the Nationals this offseason. The Nationals acquired Tanner Rainey after seven innings with the Cincinnati Reds in the Tanner Roark trade.
Despite a 4.34 ERA that ranks slightly below average, Finnegan’s 3.30 FIP is well above average. This difference is in large part because of a .354 BABIP. His 19% K-BB% ranks 65th among qualified relievers over the first two months, something you love to see out of your setup man. Both Arano and Rainey are even better, ranking 40th and 50th respectively. Finnegan’s even more impressive 2.72 SIERA ranks 46th in that same group. Again, Arano and Rainey are not far behind him, Arano has a 2.38 SIERA and Rainey has a 2.91.
With young arms like Mason Thompson and Matt Cronin continuing their development, the Nationals bullpen in two to three years looks quite formidable. Reinforce these arms with a failed starter or two, or free agent signings and you quickly create a scary bullpen that can always keep your team in a game.
There is not much beating around the bush here. Nelson Cruz has been bad. How bad? His .659 OPS and .296 wOBA rank 37th and tied for 40th worst, respectively. He frankly has not been hitting well, and unfortunately for him, his value exclusively comes from being able to hit. Many other teams around the league simply just use the designated hitter spot to rest players while still getting their bat in the lineup.
Furthermore, Cruz is posting the worst barrel and hard-hit numbers of his career. His .107 ISO (Isolated Slugging, which is just SLG-AVG) is the worst of his career. He is not hitting for a high average and not hitting for much power. So, what has he been doing well?
For starters, he is walking more. Sure, a 9.9% walk rate is not much better than his career 8.9%, but when you are hitting .237 it helps. In a similar vein, he is striking out less. This helps give him fewer guaranteed outs, which is always good. Maybe Cruz is just having an unlucky BABIP start, and it will turn around? Sure, it’ll go up a bit more, but a .279 BABIP is not out of this world unlucky.
Let’s not be completely down in the dumps here. On April 27th, in game two of a three-game series against the Marlins, manager Dave Martinez moved Nelson Cruz to the cleanup spot. Since then? Cruz has slashed a much-improved .280/.354/.400. The power numbers are still down. But when you turn 42 this July, being a slightly above-average major leaguer is a feat of its own. Let’s hope Cruz stays in that cleanup spot.
Some Loose Ends
Ok so there were some offseason moves that were kind of head-scratchers and have been further amplified by well… Let’s just get right into it. The Nationals signed Aníbal Sánchez to a one-year, $2M deal this offseason. He had glimpses of providing some veteran depth to the rotation until quickly going down with cervical nerve impingement. The Nationals likely expected Sánchez to be the fifth man in the rotation giving time for young starters like Joan Adon to get more seasoning in the minors. He almost started ramping up throwing in early May, but then was quickly shut down again. It sucks, but stuff like this happens, but this move was a head scratcher from day one and still confuses me to this day.
In case you missed it, Joe Ross joins fellow National Carter Kieboom in getting Tommy John during this season. Carter will return to action much sooner, as soon as Opening Day next year, while Ross will take much longer. Ross is due to be a free agent this offseason, but it would be nice to see the Nationals give him a two-year extension so he can stay within the organization and rehab, while also being the first to see how the long-time Nat looks post-TJ.
Reliever Will Harris, who signed a 3-year, $24M deal after the 2019 season, is yet to throw an inning this season. Many point to Corbin and Strasburg getting terrible contracts, but this Harris one is not great either. He has only thrown 23.2 innings over the life of it, with FanGraphs projecting him to only throw eight this season.