Today in The Washington Post, the legendary Thomas Boswell makes the persuasive argument that the Nationals biggest problem this year has not been injuries, Matt Williams or a crumbling bullpen. The biggest problem, he says, is that the starting rotation -- which many people (yours truly included) predicted to be historically great -- has been utterly ordinary.
I think Tom is mostly right, which leads to another point, but first let's go over what the heck happened to the Nationals this year as they descended from a 96-win team that ran away with the National League East to a barely .500 team that looks up at the New York Mets.
Q: Is the offense worse? A: No, not really.
Last year, the Nationals averaged 4.26 runs per game. They are averaging almost exactly the same number this year (4.23). They are creating runs at an almost identical pace. They have a slightly better team OPS this year.
How about if you break it up by runs scored per game.
Last year, they scored four or more runs in 52% of their games. This year, they scored four or more runs in 52% of their games.
Last year, they scored five or more runs in 39% of their games. This year, they score five or more runs in 40% of their games.
The offense ain't the problem. All those injuries happened, sure, but they are scoring runs at almost exactly the same rate, in large part because Bryce Harper emerged and Yunel Escobar is helping.
Q: Is the bullpen much worse than last year? A: In the sixth and seventh innings, they are somewhat worse, yes.
Last year, the Nationals blew four games they were leading in the ninth inning. This year, they have blown zero. Last year, they blew five games they led going into the eighth. This year, so far, they have blown four. The back end of their bullpen (shouldn't it be called the "front end?") has been as good or better than last year.
Here's the problem: The Nationals are bringing many fewer leads into the eighth and ninth innings. In fact, projected over the season, they will bring 10 fewer leads into the eighth inning and 11 fewer leads into the ninth. And it just so happens they are on pace to finish with 10 or 11 fewer wins this year than they did last year. So we potentially have isolated a problem.
But why are they carrying fewer leads into the eighth and ninth? It's easy to say that it comes down to bullpen depth, and no doubt some of it does.
But when you are talking about the middle innings, you are obviously talking about starting pitching too. We'll get back to this in a minute.
Q: Is the defense worse? A: Yes.
But how much worse? I like using John Dewan's runs saved as a guide. Last year, by runs saved, the Nationals were above average defensively. Anthony Rendon was superb third baseman, Ian Desmond more than held his own at shortstop, Wilson Ramos was an excellent catcher and so on.
This year has been different. With Rendon hurt, third base has been a defensive cavern of horrors -- the Nationals have gone from plus-10 runs to minus-10 runs at third base alone. Throw in some decline in other positions, and the Nationals are already 24 runs worse than they were lost year.
That's probably cost them a win or three.
Q: How about manager Matt Williams? A: What about him?
It's always so hard to measure the impact of managers. One of the more popular ways of doing so is to look at one-run records. But that offers no real insight here. The Nationals' one-run record last year was 26-22. The Nationals' projected one run record this year: 23-20.
The Nationals were 8-9 in extra-inning games last year. They're 5-2 this year.
There's a powerful sense among a lot of people I know in and around the game that Matt Williams isn't doing an especially good job. But It seems just that: A sense. You can point to any number of questionable individual moves, of course, but is Matt Williams this year that much more ineffective than Matt Williams last year? I'm not sure you can quantify that.
So where does that leave us? If asked to give you percentages why the Nationals are 10 or 11 wins worse than last year, I'd probably break it down like so -- and I can tell you this is VERY scientific:
8% Injuries and general bad luck 20% Middle bullpen trouble 17% Poor defense on left side of the infield 5% The winding road that is Matt Williams 1% The Papelbon trade. Just because. 2% Building a stadium that doesn't give a good view of the Capitol; WHO DOES THAT? 3% Allowing Teddy Roosevelt to win the Presidents race 44% The huge disappointment of the Nationals rotation
And finally we are here. How disappointing has this rotation been? Well, first we have to point out that the Nationals really did come into this year with a rotation that was drawing comparisons to the 2011 Phillies, the 1954 Indians, the late 1960s early 1970s Orioles and so on. They had the best rotation in baseball last year and they added Max Scherzer. GM Mike Rizzo was going for posterity. I thought with that rotation, the Nationals were potentially a 105-110 win team.
So, how mediocre has that rotation been?
Well, put it this way: The Nationals have outscored their opponents by 27 runs in the first inning. It's their best inning. That means they will often take the early lead. But take a look at the earned run average difference for the second, third and fourth innings from last year:
2nd inning 2014 ERA: 3.00 2015 ERA: 3.49
3rd inning 2014 ERA: 2.06 (best in baseball) 2015 ERA: 3.56 (14th in baseball)
4th inning 2014 ERA: 3.33 ERA 2015 ERA: 5.09 ERA
Whew. That's pretty blah. Last year, the Nationals' starters 3.04 ERA and 1.137 WHIP was best in baseball. This year, their 3.84 ERA is ninth and and their 1.228 WHIP is eighth.
True, the Nationals have had some injuries -- Doug Fister and Stephen Strasburg have missed some starts -- but in truth Joe Ross has filled in pretty well -- without him, those numbers would look even worse. The problem is that the stars are not pitching well. Jordan Zimmermann has taken a step backward, Fister is having a nightmare season and hitters are slugging .490 against Scherzer since July 7, Strasburg can't get any rhythm going, Gio Gonzalez keeps declining.
The Nationals' starters as a whole are not going as deep into games. They are giving up more home runs. I do think the defensive issues are a part of the problem -- this year hitters have a .314 batting average on balls in play against those starters compared with .295 last year -- but it's also clear they are just not pitching as well.
And it gets to the final thought: I have asked if this Nationals team is the most disappointing in memory. Now, I should add here that there's still a whole month of September to go, and the Nationals could go 25-7 or something the rest of the way, win 90-plus games, take the division, and everything changes. But so far they have felt not just disappointing but legendarily so. Why? Teams disappoint all the time.
I think Tom hit upon the reason. It isn't that we expected the Nationals to win and they're not winning. That happens every year. No, I think the Nationals feel like something more for this reason: They are not winning BECAUSE of what we thought would be their greatest strength. It would be like the Seahawks losing this year because their defense can't stop anybody or the Warriors losing because Steph Curry can't make a shot.
So little about sports is truly predictable -- that's what makes it such great theater. Still, it seemed a sure thing that the Nationals would, at the very least, have a superb starting rotation. I guess that's what anyone gets for believing in sure things.