Nationals Baseball: Lucky or Unlucky : 2019

Friday, January 10, 2020

Lucky or Unlucky : 2019

Last couple of years I did this but it felt a little out of place at the end during a WS celebration, when saying something like "I don't think Strasburg had the best postseason ever" got me crushed by Nats fans.  With some time between then and now and the bad taste of losing Rendon setting the palates a little back to normal, let's go over what went right (and wrong) for the Nats in 2019 that had nothing to do with skill. (regular season only - playoffs is too short really to fit in here)


Zimm gets hurt real bad, can't hit and Adams hits a wall.  The idea that Zimm would miss time to injury is a given. You peg him for 100 games and hope he gets there.  But this year Zimm barely hit half of that (52) and didn't hit even average which he managed to do in most years despite injury. Matt Adams was replacement number one, kept on the team after a good 2018, but he too dropped below average leaving the Nats with a hole at first. Add to the fact neither could field and the Nats had a terrible 1B situation until they defaulted to Howie+

Rosenthal is a disaster  The Nats bet a lot on Rosenthal expecting him to either be good and get them a top notch reliever or be bad and just taken as a sunk cost eating up the last spot in the pen.  They weren't prepared though for Rosenthal to be completely unusable and one of the worst relief pitchers in baseball in 2019.  Sportin a deserved 22.74 ERA Rosenthal was given a couple chances to come back and never did leaving a hole in the Nats bullpen. This was made worse by...

Bullpen pieces take a step back  Bullpens are variable things. With a usual mix of inexperienced arms and arms with maybe too much experience pitching minimal innings, you get results bouncing all around the place. Spread this out among 32 teams and you'll get a couple teams get more than their fair share of luck and a couple teams that do not. Guess where the Nats were.  Matt Grace, a found piece in 2018 expected to step up, was terrible. Kyle Barraclough, signed aiming for an innings eatings decent arm, was terrible. Doolittle, hurt for much of the year, wasn't sharp.  The resulting issues caused a baby with the bathwater situation where the Nats released some guys that might have helped like Sipp and Miller for the sake of starting over. Meanwhile no one stepped up.

Hellickson 5th starter is a no-go  You can't expect 30 starts from Hellickson, but you do expect more than 8 and a 6.23 ERA.  This arm was going to go sometime, just like it did in 2017 but the Nats didn't have to catch this. They did

7-13 early in close games.  Some teams have things not go their way early, which has more impact than late just because it sets up your moves and mindset for the rest of the year. In 1 and 2 run games the Nats were getting crushed and they found themselves in a spot heading into late May where if things didn't turn around soon and consistently they'd have to come up with a new plan.


Howie's best year ever.  We kind of think "Howie can hit. Last year was just him being him." No way.  Last year was a career high in batting average 30 points over anything recent and 50 over his career average. It was his career high in homers and he posted a isoSLG of .228  easily besting his previous career high of .179 back when he was 27.  The guy had been consistently an above average hitter. Last year he put up no-brainer All-Star numbers.

Rendon becomes RENDON.  Ok this isn't a big time luck swing but you can't say this is expected because in 6 previous years including the last two pretty healthy ones, Anthony never put up anything like this year. Career highs in BA, homers (by 9), tied for career high in doubles, nearly a career high in walks (4 off). This was the year he put it all together. Is it a sign of a step up or just that one special season? Not the Nats problem anymore and honestly the Angels will probably be happy if he puts up a bunch of years like 2017-18 if it's the latter.

Nearly perfect OF health.  Every team gets injuries but the Nats, with a little older team and some injury risks are probably a little more prone to them than other teams. The Nats did have a decent Plan B for the OF in Howie, but once 1B became a debacle they needed him there leaving it important that no OF miss major time, espeically Robles whose defense allows Soto and Eaton to stay in the corners.   Soto 150 games, Eaton 151 games, Robles 155 games.

Nearly perfect SP health.  Max had his issues at the year end but the big 4 started something like 93% of the games they would given perfect health. Most importantly given Max's short miss time, Strasburg, who seems to miss a month every season, didn't in 2019.  As the rotation gets older this is harder to keep up but as long as it does the Nats have a chance.

Super subs You bring in guys and hope they can fill spots.  If they are better than expected that's a nice bonus.  Hudson put up a 1.44 ERA with some LOB luck and nailed down the bullpen.  Asdrubal Cabrera put up a .323 / .404 /.565 line that he'd never be able to do over a season  Both these guys were integral to getting the Nats keeping their WC lead and getting into the playoffs.

Things turned around soon and consistently.  After the bad start the Nats would go like 36-15 to immediately put themselves back in it by the trade deadline.  If they had stumbled at all during this time - like the 3-7 stretch right at this point or the 6-10 run near the end of the year - the Nats are around .500 and might be looking to pack it in.


Gomes/Suzuki platoon, Dozier, Turner, Soto, Robles Eaton all hit reasonable expectations. There were flirtations with major issues at C, 2B, and CF but all held that off.  Soto being Soto again rather than taking a clear step back was key to keeping the line-up dangerous enough.

Strasburg, Corbin, Max all pitched like aces.   That's why they make the big bucks and until they give you reason to doubt them you expect this.

Sanchez didn't waver. And this is why he got paid what he did.

Nats luck in games evened out in general. The Nats had lousy luck in 1-run games, but in 3 run games were almost unbeatable. Yeah I know 1 run games are closer to .500 splits and good teams make their living in the 3-8 range. Still 22-6 in three run games is out of whack. Basically over the course of the year things evened out and the talent than was mostly healthy was able to shine enough to get them into the playoffs. 

As in any good year for any team, the Nats were luckier than unlucky.* Howie's career year countered the 1B failings.  The nearly perfect SP health (and talent that the Nats put there) and Hudson's miracle stint countered the 5th starter issues and failures of the pen when it mattered.  Rendon's MVP worthy season, the OF health, As Cab's stint along with some timely Parra hits when he first arrived, gave the Nats an extra offensive boost needed after luck swung against them early.  It wasn't a big swing in their favor but it was enough.

*basic truth is that with 5 teams in direction competiton, and 10 more sort of, a couple teams are going to get really lucky, a couple more sort of lucky, etc. etc. Because some other good team will get lucky it's hard for a good team, unless set up to be REALLY good, to get a little unlucky and still make it through. You need luck. 


Jimmy said...

Can we mention Treas injury for the first month and a half and not even having a replacement level defender to play one of the most premium defensive positions on the field. Also Rendon being hurt for the two weeks hurt as well.

Anonymous said...

To echo Jimmy, I think an important factor you need to add to your lucky/unlucky analysis (which is a worthwhile framework, I think) is the timing of injuries. A team can have neutral luck on the total number of injuries over the course of the year, but timing really matters. For example, in 2018, Robles and Eaton got injured at roughly the same time, creating a big OF problem that would not have existed (or would have been much less bad) had those two injuries been spread out. And, I'd hypothesize that having Rendon, Soto, and Trea on the DL at the same time cost the team more wins than if those same injuries had been spread out.

Thinking about 2020, you rightly point out a concern about SP health and the team can certainly be lucky or unlucky in terms of how many innings the top four (and really, the top three) make over the course of the season. But another dimension of luck is when those missed IP occur and whether there are any overlaps.

And, if you're thinking about the playoffs, injury timing matters enormously. The Nats were pretty lucky in 2019 on this score, though their luck wasn't uniformly good because of Max's injuries (imagine if October Scherzer had been May Scherzer).

Jimmy said...

ANON I love your last point but it wouldn't have mattered because We never lost a game he started in.

Anonymous said...

I'm with other Anon... those early in the year the 3 DL stints, plus Dozier and Gomes (who were definitely not as expected, c'mon now) were huge factors early along with the awful pen.

The 2nd half and WS, save Max and Doo needing some R&R, were pretty lucky, the WS run was a hope and a prayer. It almost feels like net neutral on the season itself.

DezoPenguin said...

*reads article*


Oh, if I wanted to pick nits I might point out that Rendon's 2019 wasn't all that much better than his 2017 (his offense was career-best, yes, even compared to league average instead of just counting stats, but his baserunning and defense declined), but he definitely had his career-best season and avoided any serious injury, so he definitely belongs in the "lucky" category.

Maybe one extra point of luck is that during the time when Max was injured both Joe Ross and Austin Voth were lights-out and Erick Fedde managed to get results that outpitched his peripherals, so that apart from Hellickson's stint the starting pitching was generally godlike.

It also helps that we hit the postseason without any serious injuries, so we went into the playoffs with a team geared for playoff success and, well, succeeded. (I like the title of Dan Szymborski's elegy column for the 2019 Nats: "Not Magical, Merely Awesome.")

PotomacFan said...

Perhaps the Nats made their own luck. Is it possible that the camel needed two seasons to get the Nats over the hump? Or maybe it was the shark that did the trick. In any event, the Nats are going to need a new mascot/lucky charm for 2020.

Ollie said...

^^That. But also a couple months removed from the season remember Dozier, Gomes/Suzuki underperforming somewhat (minus 'Calma' dances posted to social media above replacement, which was a major overachievement)

Anonymous said...

Agree with the two above.

Parra getting released by the Giants and then revitalizing the clubhouse chemistry (and getting a sometimes passive home crowd engaged) was definitely unforeseeable, but also a vital, non-quantifiable contributing factor to the turnaround and eventual championship.

billyhacker said...

Don't say cabbage...

Nattydread said...

Positive team chemistry is self-made and intangible luck. It's something GMs talk about and try to "create". At the end of the day, its a dice roll. Rizzo actively tries to build chemistry with individual selection and team management, but things don't always work out. In 2019, the outcome was best ever, with team enthusiasm spilling over to the fan base.

DezoPenguin said...

So, Rizzo managed to reach agreement on 1-year deals with Taylor, Ross, Elias, and Turner, meaning that no Nationals go to arbitration. (Yay for cost certainty.)

So at the end of 2019, the 25-man (of course it was a 40-man in September) was:

SP - Scherzer, Strasburg, Corbin, Sanchez, Voth
RP - Hudson, Doolittle, Rodney, Suero, Rainey, Strickland, Guerra
C - Suzuki, Gomes
IF - Kendrick, Cabrera, Turner, Rendon, Dozier, Zimmerman, Adams
OF - Soto, Robles, Eaton, Taylor

And we have now:

SP - Scherzer, Strasburg, Corbin, Sanchez, Voth/Ross
RP - Doolittle, Harris, Hudson, Suero, Rainey, Elias, Strickland, Ross/Voth
C - Suzuki, Gomes
IF - Thames, Castro, Turner, Cabrera, Kendrick, [Kieboom/Difo]
OF - Soto, Robles, Eaton, Taylor, Stevenson

So, the rotation is the same. Rizzo has replaced Rodney with Harris (a straight upgrade), Guerra with a hypothetically healthy Elias (probably an upgrade, plus is a second lefty), and the new 26th man is saved for whichever starter loses the 5th slot as neither has an option (Fedde ends up in the minors in the numbers game; Abad, Finnegan, and Hernandez are all in the minors waiting to sub in for bullpen injuries or failure). Rizzo has replaced Adams with Thames (an upgrade), Dozier with Castro (pretty much a wash), Zimmerman (right now) with Stevenson as a fifth OF, and Rendon with...Kieboom if he's ready, and Wilmer Difo if he's not.

So, IF Rizzo can sign Donaldson, trade for Bryant/Arenado/Lindor, or if Kieboom breaks out as a four-win player at 2B or 3B, then the Nats look equal or stronger to the end-of-last-year team, with a better 'pen and Castro/Thames offsetting the decline from Rendon to his replacement and expected regression from Kendrick and Cabrera. Without a replacement for Rendon, the team looks significantly worse.

(Part of the problem is that last year the IF mix was pretty well distributed in hitting. Rendon and Kendrick were mashing everyone. Zim and Dozier could hit lefties but not righties. Adams could hit righties but not lefties, and Cabrera was better against righties. Now, there are three positions instead of two to fill, and Thames can only hit righties, Castro is significantly better against righties, and Cabrera is better against righties, while only Kendrick can be relied upon against both sides--Kieboom is a wildcard and Difo can't hit anyone. Zim could be resigned to platoon with Thames, but that puts Kendrick in the field at 2B or 3B against all lefties, a steep defensive decline, plus Zim's injury history means he can't really be relied on to hold down even the short side of a platoon, plus there's the "veteran presence" temptation to play him against righties when he really, really shouldn't, so I do not think he's a good solution. Perhaps ironically, bringing back Dozier to platoon at 2B with Cabrera or Castro might actually be the better move.)

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