On May 24 when the Washington Nationals were 19-31, things began to look bleak. They reached a season high 10 games back of first place. The team was just coming off a four-game series in New York against the Mets in which they were swept. They had lost five straight, and were 3-7 in their last 10 games. The Nationals needed a change of pace and they needed it quick – and just like that, they got it.
They finished the next seven games 5-2, but they were still nine games back of first.
Then they produced four consecutive wins to kick off June and went 7-3 before beginning a series with the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Ultimately, June was the month that things turned around for Washington. They went 18-8 in the month and outscored opponents 145-102. On June 19, I attended a game at Nationals Park, when the Nats were set to take on the Philadelphia Phillies. Max Scherzer was on the hill.
I had never been to a Nationals game before, and even though the team was still trying to creep up to .500 on the year, the stadium was electric. To that point, I would’ve guessed the fanfare would’ve died down, given the problems the Nationals had encountered early on in the season.
They were still eight games back in the division, but it felt as though they were competing for the top spot late in the year. It was Scherzday, after all.
A classic pitching duel, both teams only recorded four hits. Two of Washington’s, however, cleared the wall; a second inning solo home run for Brian Dozier off Jake Arrieta, and then a Victor Robles solo shot off Pat Neshek in the eighth.
For Washington, Scherzer turned in seven strong innings, allowing only four hits and picking up 10 strikeouts and threw 117 pitches.
It was game two of a doubleheader that Wednesday night.
Although that game likely didn’t swing the Nationals into contention, it felt like it did for me.
During the first half of the season, the Nationals finished a respectable five games over .500, at 47-42. It wasn’t until the second half, however, that things really took off. The team went 46-27 in the second half, outscoring the opposition by 120 runs, 433-313.
Washington also did most of its damage at home, going 50-31. It also made use of two divisional rivals, the Miami Marlins and Phillies, going 15-4 against the former, and 14-5 against the latter.
If we dig into the numbers a little bit more, we can see what exactly changed for the Nationals’ season.
First, we’ll focus on hitting. If you go back to the month of May, the month in which Washington struggled, one thing jumps out – just how below average the team was performing as a whole.
Normally, teams aren’t made or broken in months as early as May, but when the Nationals fell 12 games below .500, I would suspect even optimists reviewed the numbers with concern.
If we look at sOPS+ (similar to OPS+ where above 100 is better than league average, while below 100 is worse than league average; the only difference is that instead of it simply being league average, it’s OPS split relative to the league’s split OPS) for the month of May, it’s the only month where that stat is “below average,” coming in at 92, making the Nationals’ overall offense eight percent worse than league split average. Of course, in June that number began to grow, and in August reached a season high of 127, which is the month in which the team had its best winning percentage.
What’s interesting is that in March/April, months in which the Nats went a combined 12-16, a lot of the offensive production mimicked later months. For example, the team hit 43 home runs, a staple in today’s “three true outcomes” game (walk, strikeout, home run). The sOPS+ for that month even topped 100, coming in at 107. One glaring difference between March/April, and successful months later in the season was the strikeouts. Washington struck out 283 times over that period, a number unmatched during the rest of the season, and it’s not particularly close.
A few more interesting stats of note about the offense:
- Everyone contributed by the sOPS+ metric (except for “right fielders”), with each tallying a mark over 100.
- According to some metrics, overall the team did better when they swung at the first pitch. For other metrics, not so much. For example, they batted .287 when they swung at the first pitch versus .256 when they took it. Or, on the flip side, an OPS of .798 when they took the first pitch to a .790 OPS when they swung at it.
- They were effective with two outs. With two outs in any given inning, the team had an OPS of .811, which was higher than when there were either no outs or one out.
- Finally, in high leverage situations, the team had an OPS of .822, which was higher than it was in both medium and low leverage situations.
Now for the pitchers.
The best month of the season for the pitching staff came in June, when the team’s sOPS+ was 78 (for pitchers, lower is better in this metric). For the opposition, their BABIP was just .277. As for the overall batting average? .228. The team’s OBP was only .292 for the month of June. It’s hard for teams to score runs when they can’t get on base, and Nationals’ pitchers were effective in this regard for the middle part of the season.
The starters were much more effective than the relievers. Starting pitchers finished the season with a 3.53 ERA to the relievers’ 5.68.
Furthermore, starters threw nearly two times the amount of innings as the relievers, yet only gave up 58 more runs.
Unlike the offense, the pitching staff struggled a little bit in high leverage situations. This is mostly due to the bullpen, but teams had an OPS of .786 against the Nationals, and a sOPS+ of 107, also registering their highest BABIP in a given leverage situation at .322.
So how were the Nationals able to turn their season around and become World Champions?
Mostly by good starting pitching and offensive firepower. In all of baseball, the Nationals ranked sixth in runs (873), eighth in total bases (2,505), seventh in RBIs (824), and sixth in OPS (.796).
For the pitchers, the starters ranked second in ERA (3.53), second in strikeouts (1,010), and fourth in batting average against (.232).
All this team needed was a chance, and they got it by being the first Wild Card team, which got them a matchup with the Milwaukee Brewers.
The rest, as they say, is history.