Looking back at yesterday's post (and comments - I'll get to that in a minute) got me thinking. What would my cursory description of the Nats be? If I were trying to sum them up in three short paragraphs and some notes to see if I wanted to face them, what would I say? Sure I know a lot more and can talk in depth, but sometimes you miss the forest for the trees so I decided to try it.
Offense - Well rounded line-up with very good power and patience, good batting and acceptable speed. Surprise MVP candidate Murphy backed by a great young power hitter in Bryce and a super speedy ROY-type in Turner. However the lineup does have two real holes at first and SS which could lead to some easy innings for pitchers. Bench is thin with Heisey and Drew providing pop and that's about it.
Starting Pitching - If Strasburg returns to his season form, Scherzer, Strasburg and the underrated Roark form as good a three as any team. Scherzer is in argument for best non-Kershaw starter. Roark's numbers may not seem sustainable but given this is his 2nd excellent season as a starter he should get the benefit of the doubt now. Nats also have more potential to find a decent fourth than most other teams, although the good Joe Ross is injured and Gio Gonzalez is merely ok. Like Dodgers alot hinges on returns from injury but they have more healthy quality to work with.
Relief Pitching - Melancon provides the closer they were looking for. Rest of the pen is getting best in NL results from fancy stats that suggest more Top 5. Most likely some combination of luck and usage, and that can be worrying in a playoff setting where you have more difficult decisions and more talented opponents. Still a lot of decent arms to work with here, with very few duds, that's why it would still be Top 5. Rookie Koda Glover might be the key.
Etc - Both manager and team have had recent failures in playoffs. Competition in NL East weaker than other divisions yet Nats are putting up more Dodger like win totals than Cubs.
Would I want to face the Nats over the Dodgers or Giants? I'd probably say this - if Kershaw and Hill pitch great in September I may actually want to face the Nats. Kershaw - Maeda - Hill can match up with Sherzer - Strasbrug - Roark. But otherwise assuming health but not great Sept performances from Strasburg, Kershaw, or Hill I'd go with facing the Dodgers. Offenses aren't terribly dissimilar. No discernible "won before" or "championship manager" advantage for either. (Giants have that but I'd still face them over either of these two - because that's the bulk of what they have)
Ok so take that for what you will. Obviously I follow the team so could get way more indepth. In fact let's do that now!
So the pessimists among us still look at the Nats and feel that there are problems. They haven't beat good teams recently and they don't seem to do much against good pitching. But of course good teams are hard to beat and good pitching is hard to score against - so is it just a case of seeing a problem that doesn't exist or are the Nats really deificient?
We can look at "good team" records first. Here are the .500+ teams the Nats have played since the break and how the series went : Mets (1-2), Baltimore (1-3), Cleveland (1-1, 1-1), San Francisco (2-2, 2-1) LA (1-2), Pit (at time 2-1). You can easily argue that the Nats have not done well. Counting the four games v Baltimore and Cleveland together, they've gone 2-4-2 in series against good teams and the one of those series wins is against the worst performing NL team in the second half. (Hi Giants!)
But what does that mean? Sure the Cubs are doing well versus good team and the Dodgers are doing the same recently. But STL, another good performing 2nd half playoff contender, is 2-2-1 versus good teams since the break and one of those series wins was against the Mets at their lowest. All the other playoff teams? Mets, Marlins, Pirates, Giants? Not even .500 since the break. Maybe if I looked at them they'd be ok vs good teams during that stretch but if so what does it say when you can't beat the bad ones too? These teams all need all the wins they can get. Also, why does it not matter, if the teams aren't all that different, that the Nats were 3-1-1 vs good teams leading up to the break while say the Dodgers were 1-4?
Seasons have ups and downs and sometimes your downs are going to be pronounced. But good teams, over the course of the season, get the job done versus good teams. Not always, more like about half the time. This is what the Nats have done. This is what the Dodgers have done. If you did it closer to all the time well then you are a 100+ win team. That is maybe where the Cubs end up. For the course of the year the Nats have beaten good teams more often than not when playing hot and lost to good teams more often than not when playing mediocre. This isn't telling to me. It's baseball. The Nats aren't going to get away winning a playoff series playing mediocre baseball*. They have to play well. That shouldn't be a surprise. You can worry that they haven't been hot recently but baseball turns on a dime. They weren't 0-6-1 and getting swept a bunch. They just lost competitve series while not playing their best. As long as they aren't crashing into the playoffs going like 5-19 and squeaking by the Mets I have faith that they can win in the DS. What more can I ask for?
So what about the good pitching thing. Do I also think this is nothing? Well...
Ok here's the thing. The Nats are one of the better hitting teams in the league and when we peruse the situational stats that's generally what we see. If we look at how they rank in a certain situations we generally find them safely in the Top 5 or spitting distance from it, as long as there is enough sample size to keep the funniness at bay. But this fails to be the case in two important splits. The first is "High Leverage" splits which attempts to best isolate the potential game changing at bats. You get a sense of this with RISP (Nats 5th in OPS), 2-out RISP (Nats 3rd), Late & Close (Nats 4th), etc. but leverage really gets down into what at bats are important and not. How do the Nats do? 8th. And not a rank driven 8th where they could be 5th with a couple good games but a true little below average 8th. The 8th itself isn't troubling. I mean it's average. That's ok. But it also means since they are an above average offensive team that they are underperforming in these circumstances. It's not as much as they are really hurting themselves as it is something is going on that you might pick up on in the back of your head.
The other place the Nats fail to be around their normal Top 5 ish location is against power pitchers. Power pitchers (guys who strike out a lot but may walk alot) tend to do a better job against teams than average or finesse pitchers. Keeping the ball out of play is important - especially when you get an out while doing it. How do the Nats rank here? 13th in OPS. Yeah. Now to be fair this one is rank driven they aren't anywhere near 14th*** and could easily move up a couple spots with a good couple of games. But a couple of spots is still only 11th. It could be just luck. The BABIP is low and it's not like these guys are mowing the Nats down. But still how much can luck account for really? Especially since the Nats have had similar issues with power pitchers since 2013? What's the reason? I don't know. This is a multiple year regression problem that may or may not have an answer. Is it an organizational thing? An organizational thing specific to facing strike-out pitchers? Is it because of the type of players they draft and sign? Is it just a multi-year fluke? Is it just facing the wrong set of power pitchers - maybe the teams in the NL East develop them differently?
All I can say is that for 2016 it's been real this year. If I were to guess I'd say there isn't a guy that challenges a great pitcher. Murphy and Ramos may not strike out much but won't walk and don't have the speed to run out bad contact. Other players do strikeout a lot. There's always an out for a good pitcher. Of course last year Bryce was a monster and that didn't help. They were even worse against power pitching. So I'm telling you I don't know. Really.
Beating good teams for me isn't much of an issue. The Nats will if they play well, they won't if they don't. End of story. But beating good pitchers? In tough spots? For whatever reasons that is a problem for the Nats and those are the types they'll be seeing a lot of in the playoffs.
FWIW : Kershaw Maeda and Hill all probably fit the bill for power pitchers. Kasmir too. For the Giants Bumgarner yes, but Cueto has dropped off and Samardzjia is not. Another reason to root for the Giants over the Dodgers. Of course all that matters is the result of the NLDS. If Nats lose, well then, we should have hoped to face the other one, right?
*though the Pirates didn't really tank until recently.
**Well I suppose the other team could play horribly.
***The Phillies are 14th and the Nats are as close to them currently as they are to 6th place San Francisco.