There is no denying that the Washington Nationals are off to their best start since 2005 when they were 18-17 through their first 35 games. Coming into Tuesday’s action the 2012 Washington Nationals have a record of 22-14 through 35 games. The big question is, where do the Nationals go from here?
First before figuring out where they go it is important to understand how the Nationals got to 22-14. That answer is simple. Pitching. The Nationals’ pitching has been downright stingy. The combined effort of Nationals pitching and defense has them leading the NL in the fewest runs allowed per game with an average of 3.17.
Isolate out the starting pitchers and these numbers become even more dominating. The club’s starting staff as a whole has an ERA of 2.43 and a FIP of 2.68. The next closest team in baseball in starters ERA are the Los Angeles Dodgers who have a starters ERA of 2.81, and the closest in FIP are the Philadelphia Phillies with a FIP of 2.91. The Nationals starters are also doing an amazing job of creating their own outs with a K/9 of 8.33. The second best team in the majors at that are the Detroit Tigers with a K/9 of 8.10.
As unbelievable as the pitching has been the offense has almost been just as unbelievably bad. There are only seven teams in baseball who have scored less than the Nationals’ 3.69 runs a game; the Seattle Mariners, the Oakland A’s, the Chicago Cubs, the Los Angeles Angels, the Minnesota Twins, the San Diego Padres Padres, and the Pittsburgh Pirates, and those teams only the A’s are over .500 with a record of 19-17.
There is a simple the Nationals haven’t scored many runs this year. Not once this season have they had their full, complete, and healthy line-up out on the field. Now with Wilson Ramos having torn his ACL that day might not come at all this season. Michael Morse is now scheduled for a possible June 8 return but the Nationals clean-up hitter hasn’t been a part of the line-up once this season. Ryan Zimmerman, the Nationals best and most consistent hitter for the past few seasons, missed a number of days due to a right shoulder injury. And now both Jayson Werth and Wilson Ramos are on the DL, and none of this even mentions the struggles of Danny Espinosa and of Nats left fielders (.164/.260/.281).
The Nats have all of these issues with their offense and yet because of the starting pitching they just keep trucking along. That of course begs the question of can it last? While it won’t last at the Nats current pace of a .629 winning percentage or more than 100 wins over the course of a 162 game schedule. The Nationals should be able to maintain a good enough pace to finish over .500 for the first time since baseball returned to the District.
There are a few ways to break this down, but the easiest might be to look at how the Nats have matched up against certain types of teams this season. The Nationals pitching staff hasn’t had much trouble shutting down most offenses, but the Nationals have played worse against teams that average over 4.00 runs a game. The Nats are currently 7-6 against teams that score more than 4.00 runs a game and 15-7 against teams that do not. This also demonstrates how the Nationals schedule early in the season has been putting them in match-ups where they don‘t have to score as many runs.
Both of those winning percentages are over .500 so using that and breaking down the remaining match-ups would give the Nationals a winning record at the end of the season. As would looking at their .500 record on the road and .765 record at home. That home record isn’t likely to maintain, but if the Nationals can continue to go .500 on the road and win series at home then that makes them a winning team.
At this point it has to be figured that the Nationals stand a good chance of going over .500 for the season, but how much over has yet to be determined. Of the Nationals first 35 games they have played eight against the NL East and none against the Braves. Those are going to be the games more than any other that determine where they land in the final standings, and there might be no tougher match-up for the Nats than the Atlanta Braves.
So far in 2012 the Braves have averaged 5.28 runs a game on the season and have allowed 4.15. It is a little surprising to see the Braves pitching and defense in the bottom half of the NL, but their offensive abilities will make them a tough match-up for the Nationals.
To break the Nationals record down a different way they have played 15 of their 35 games against teams who currently have a better than .500 record and have gone 9-6 in those games. It makes sense that an over .500 team would have an over .500 record in many different categories and it is difficult to tell if any of this can be predictive as to how they will play for the rest of the season.
The injuries have mounted up but soon enough players will start coming off the DL. Soon Michael Morse will be back batting clean-up, Drew Storen will be closing games, and Chien-Ming Wang will be placed in the rotation while Detwiler could move to the bullpen pushing either Ryan Perry back to the minors or Tom Gorzelanny to another team.
The Nationals bullpen in 2012 has not been as good as it was in 2011. The Nats relievers currently rank 12th in baseball with a 3.57 ERA whereas in 2011 they ended the season ranked 5th with a bullpen ERA of 3.20, but like the line-up the bullpen has not been at 100% health once this season. Storen is the Nationals closer, but because of his injury Davey Johnson had to move Brad Lidge and Henry Rodriguez into that role. After Lidge suffered a hernia and had to go on the DL Henry Rodriguez became the primary closer.
At first he took to the job, but recently he has hit a rough patch where he has struggled with control. Rodriguez has blown three of his last six save opportunities and in two of those he gave up a walk-off homerun. It doesn’t look good but they are common struggles for a middle reliever forced into the closers role due to injuries. It also should be noted that all of Rodriguez’s blown saves came on back-to-back days of work.
Even with the recent blown saves the Nationals are still winning games. The Nationals are built around run prevention and it is just as important if not more so to prevent runs in the previous eight innings as much as it is just in the ninth. As long as the Nats have Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, and Jordan Zimmermann at the top of their rotation they will be just fine. When those three pitch the Nats have a record of 16-5 when one of those three pitchers pitches and a record of 6-8 with Jackson and Detwiler on the mound. The Nationals are winning because they are preventing runs early in ballgames with their starters on the mound.
Even if the starting pitching can’t keep up their other worldly pace it isn’t likely that the offense can be as dreadful as it has looked at times. Espinosa was a player the Nationals needed to get going and while it is a small sample size it is still encouraging to see that he has hit .256/.333/.442 over the last couple weeks. Those numbers are much more in line with Espinosa’s career numbers and if he can turn back into the power threat he was in his rookie season then the losses of Ramos and Werth won’t be as costly.
It is improbable that the Nationals would keep up their current pace and win over 100 games. A lot of people predicted a mid-80’s win total for this team and a possible finish for the second Wild Card. Those predictions still look good, but the Nationals could be aiming a little higher. The Nationals might very well end up contending for the division all season long and if they fall short of that then at this point they have to be one of the early favorites for the top Wild Card spot.
Where the Nationals go from here is up to them and will be determined on the field. The best thing to do at this point is get use to close games. The Nats have played 16 one run games and have a record of 10-6 in such affairs. The Nats are going to be a thrilling team to watch, and a 162 game season is a long ride full of ups and downs. The one thing the Nationals have shown so far this season is wherever they end up it is going to be an interesting and exciting ride getting there.