The 2018 season has held its fair share of surprises. While the A’s surge that has vaulted them into postseason position is certainly the most recent, the Braves and Phillies have both been season-long success stories that most of us weren’t expecting. As those two teams reside in the same division, less pleasant surprises have also arrived on the doorsteps of other denizens of the NL East, much to Nationals and Mets’ fans chagrin. Washington’s waiver-dealing of Daniel Murphy, to the Cubs, and Matt Adams, to the Cardinals, yesterday seems to signal that the Nationals front office is throwing in the towel and cementing the biggest fall from preseason grace.
The Nationals came into 2018 with an 89.3% chance to make the postseason over at Fangraphs. I didn’t even see much need to write about how likely their postseason prospects before play began, as they were clearly the best team in the division on paper. As of today, though, they are 63-63, 7.5 games behind the Braves and 6 games out of a Wild Card spot. While excellent seasons from young players in both Philadelphia and Atlanta have certainly been a contributing factor in Washington’s demise, you certainly can’t pin it all on their division rivals.
One of the first places to look when trying to figure out what’s been going on for a team as a whole is at their expected record and, sure enough, Washington has underperformed both their BaseRuns (-6) and Pythagorean (-7) records. Their +65 run differential is a little better than one of the teams we’ve already mentioned (the Cardinals, +61) and a lot better than another (the Phillies, +2). So they should have won a bunch more games. One of the biggest reasons they haven’t has been their record in a couple of types of games: one-run games (12-21) and extra-innings games (2-7). And you know what helps you win close games? A decent bullpen.
The Nationals’ bullpen comes in 25th in MLB by fWAR (0.7), with an FIP (4.32) that’s good for 22nd. Complaining about the Nationals’ bullpen before the season begins has become sort ofa thing for me, but it’s not as if GM Mike Rizzo didn’t do anything to try and right the course when things weren’t working out earlier in the season. He made a rather smart-looking move when he traded for Kelvin Herrera back in June, but since moving to Washington, Herrera has seen his ERA balloon from 1.05 to 4.50 and his FIP jump from 2.69 to 5.77, and that was before a two-week DL stint for shoulder issues that he has just come back from.
A disappointing post-acquisition turn from Herrera is just one of many reliever issues that have plagued Washington this season (and one we wouldn’t even be discussing had the primary plan worked out). The story of the 2018 Nationals’ bullpen has been a particularly pungent onion, with many layers to peel back and plenty of potential for tears. Sean Doolittle hasn’t pitched since July 6. Ryan Madson had been rather ineffective all season and now he’s hurt. Brandon Kintzler was one of the Nationals’ better relievers, but Rizzo inexplicably traded him right before the deadline, even though he is under control next season. There were clubhouse issues. There were lots of issues.
In the second half, the bullpen has a 4.78 ERA, a 5.27 FIP and -0.8 fWAR. So that’s at least a sizable portion of how they ended up here, with a .500 record, 7.5 games back with 36 left to play, in spite of much higher expectations heading into the season.
Now, Rizzo has traded Murphy, who will be a free agent at the end of the season, to the Cubs in exchange for a low-level prospect in Andruw Monasterio. Murphy’s season on the whole doesn’t look particularly rosy (-0.8 bWAR/0.1 fWAR) but, he missed two-and-a-half months of games recovering from an offseason knee injury and has seemingly recovered from a slow start at the plate. In the second half, he’s hit 370/.534/.904, which is more than enough to make up for problems in other parts of his game.
Given how well Murphy has been hitting, it’s actually kind of impressive that he made it all the way to the Cubs, who have the best record in the NL, but so it is with waiver trades. I guess at this point, Nationals fans should be happy that the organization is getting something in exchange for Murphy, who can’t receive a qualifying offer as he already went through that ringer with the Mets. Moving Adams to St. Louis, on the other hand, was a pure salary dump and doesn’t offer much in the way of condolences to Washington fans.
Things have not gone well for Washington this season, that much is clear. Some of the blame can be lain at the feet of the baseball gods, but some should probably also be attributed to the humans in the front office. One other thing that we learned yesterday was that the Dodgers had claimed Bryce Harper on waivers (likely just to block other teams from claiming him), but Washington pulled him back. Whether Harper ends up back in Washington is certainly an interesting question, but there seem to be a whole bunch of questions in the immediate future for the Nationals.