Perhaps the biggest single reason the Washington Nationals are lagging 5.5 games behind the Atlanta Braves and 6 games behind the Philadelphia Phillies is how the three teams have performed in one-run games. The Nats have been an abysmal 11-18 in such contests, good for just a .379 winning percentage. The Braves (15-8, .652) and Phillies (20-11, .645) have thrived.
What can we point to when a team is performing exceptionally well (or poorly) in tight games? There are a variety of things that could be contributing factors.
- A lot of people will point at the manager impacting a game either positively or negatively with his decisions
- A team’s bullpen could be exceptionally strong (or awful) at holding late leads, or at least keeping a game close enough to give the offense a chance to come back
- Clutch hitting/pitching... if you believe in such a thing
- Luck and sample size, which I’ll combine into one factor. If a team isn’t necessarily making all the right moves and doesn’t have an exceptional shutdown bullpen, it’s reasonable to think that as the sample size gets larger, their luck will even out a touch.
Regardless of which factors have been contributing to the Braves, Nationals, and Phillies’ performances in one run games, the current numbers are in the bank already. Factoring in the Braves and Phillies’ win percentages into the 29 one-run games the Nats have played, they would each be 19-10... or 8 games better than the Nats have been in such games. Hey! That’s wider than the gap they currently have on the Nats in the NL East race!
Let’s look at some of the above factors, though, and see what might be contributing....
When I last wrote regularly here at Federal Baseball, I pretty much hammered Matt Williams three times a week. I’m not necessarily going to do that. Davey Martinez certainly has his detractors, but I certainly expected a bit of a learning curve in his first season as a manager. I went easy on Williams until year two, with the exception of some of his decision-making in the 2014 NLDS.
Martinez currently finds himself being second guessed for just about every move he makes. Just in the past couple of days, I’ve noticed a lot of people lashing out at his decisions to go to his ace reliever (Kelvin Herrera, who clearly wasn’t right and ended up on the DL) in a tie game in the ninth inning and his decision to let Matt Wieters bat for himself with one out in the bottom half of that inning. Both seemed like perfectly reasonable decisions.
- In a tie game at home, you go to your best reliever. Herrera certainly hasn’t been lights out since his acquisition in June, but Sean Doolittle is on the shelf and Herrera’s got the best track record of anyone else in that bullpen.
- A.J. Minter is death to lefties (.227 wOBA), which means that Martinez could have either gone to Mark Reynolds, gone to Wilmer Difo, or stuck with Wieters. Considering the pitcher’s spot was on deck and a pinch hitter would be needed there, sticking with Wieters seems like a fair choice. He ripped a 106 MPH line drive that Johan Camargo had to leap for. If not for Camargo being perfectly placed, Wieters may well have tied the game... instead, Ryan Zimmerman got caught wandering too far off of second and the game ended with a tough luck double play.
I can’t defend the decision to let Tommy Milone bat for himself in the fifth inning down 7-1 on Wednesday. It seemed particularly questionable given that three of the next four hitters for the Braves (Tyler Flowers, Charlie Culberson, and Ronald Acuña) had already homered off of him in the game.
Martinez has been sub-optimal, but I feel he’s probably taken a bit more blame than he should for this team’s performance. Given that the team is a full six wins behind their Pythagorean W-L Expectation, it’s hard to say that he’s helped them. Still, this is a veteran bunch that has been together and performed for years now.... He can’t go out there and play for them.
To be fair, Gabe Kapler is a rookie manager himself. It hasn’t had a negative effect on Philadelphia’s performance in one-run games. Let’s not forget how much of a national whipping boy Kapler was in the first few weeks this season.
The best run suppression from relievers among the three teams vying for the NL East crown has belonged to the Nationals so far. Their 3.67 ERA ranks ninth in the majors. Philadelphia’s 3.85 ranks thirteenth. The Braves’ 4.15 ranks eighteenth. The bullpen performance hasn’t been the issue.
I don’t believe that this is a real skill, but let’s take a look. The Braves have been ridiculous with runners in scoring position this season, batting .277/.362/.470, good for 116 wRC+. The Nats have been pretty average, batting .261/.360/.429, good for a 104 wRC+. The Phillies have been... well... weird in those spots. They’re batting .248/.349/.439, good for a 107 wRC+. Philadelphia’s not hitting particularly well for average, but they’re taking their walks and hitting for quite a bit more power with runners in scoring position than the Nats are (.193 ISO vs. .168 ISO). It’s fair to say that the Nats have been the worst of this bunch with runners in scoring position, but the difference between the Nats and Phillies is marginal.
Let’s examine these offenses on the whole
The Braves have certainly had the best offense of the three this season. They’ve scored more runs (530) than either the Nats (521) or Phillies (498) despite having played three fewer games. They’re the strongest average-hitting team of the bunch by a fairly wide margin (.258 vs. the Nats .249 and Phillies .236). OBP and Isolated Power tell a slightly different story, but at the end of the day, an offense is there to score runs. Atlanta has scored 0.20 more runs per game than the Nats and 0.41 more runs per game than the Phillies.
What’s been perhaps a bigger issue than the total amount of runs for the Nats, though, has been their inconsistency from game to game.
- The Nats have scored three or fewer runs in 56 of their 114 games this season, or 49.1%. This is tied for ninth worst in the majors. The Phillies (49) and Braves (43) haven’t had nearly as many instances where they were limited to three or fewer runs. The 2017 Nationals had that happen to them 67 times over the entire season, or 41.3%.
- The Nats have scored two or fewer runs in 40 of their 114 games so far this season, or 35%. This is tied for eighth worst in the majors. Once again, the Phillies (33) and Braves (29) have been quite a bit better (more consistent) in making sure that they at least give their starting pitcher a chance to win. The 2017 Nationals had that happen to them 39 times... or less than the 2018 Nats have with 30% of the schedule remaining.
- The Nats have scored one run or less 22 times this season, or 19% of the time. This is tied for ninth worst in the majors. The Phillies (17) and Braves (16) have been better. The 2017 Nats scored multiple runs in all but 20 of their games.
- Rather than assuming that being just inside of the bottom ten isn’t that bad, let’s remember that teams like the Marlins, Mets, Tigers, Royals, and Padres comprise the bottom of those lists. They set a pretty low bar.
This has bled through to the pitching and defense. The Phillies have the best overall Team ERA of the three, at 3.74 entering play Wednesday. The Nats were at 3.80. The Braves were at 3.86.
The Nats have had the best all-around run prevention of the three, though. The Nats have allowed 457 runs on the year. The Braves are at 458 (but have played three fewer games than the Nats and Phillies), while the Phillies are at 465.
That lack of consistent production has really hindered the team’s record:
- In games in which the Nats pitchers have allowed 2 runs, they’re 14-6. Their .700 winning percentage is 42 points behind the NL average. The Phillies have had similar problems in this spot, going 11-6. The Braves are a touch above average at 9-3.
- In games in which the Nats pitchers have allowed 3 runs, they’re 8-8. Their .500 winning percentage is 106 points behind the NL average... The Phillies are 15-4 in this situation. The Braves are 11-6.
- In games in which the Nats pitchers have allowed 4 runs, they’re 8-14. Their .364 winning percentage is 157 points behind the NL average. The Phillies are 7-8. The Braves are 7-5.
Four seems to be a magic number for the Nationals so far this season. In games in which they’ve scored at least four runs, the Nats are 45-13 (.776), a full 48 points better than the NL average of .728. Unfortunately, this is a run total that the Nats have been able to achieve just over half the time.
This is a team that is averaging 4.57 runs per game, but they’ve been feast or famine all year. If they’re going to reward the front office for having faith in them at the trade deadline, the Nationals offense is going to have to find the one thing that’s eluded them all season: Consistency.