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Washington Nationals: Pessimism or Optimism?

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Nats fans, are you feeling upbeat or downtrodden regarding 2020?

MLB: AUG 08 Orioles at Nationals Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

After dropping two of three to the Yankees to begin the season, then splitting four games with the Blue Jays, the Washington Nationals’ season went silent for a few days. While play wasn’t halted for Washington in the same way it has been for teams like the St. Louis Cardinals, who haven’t played since July 29, the Nationals have struggled to build any momentum in this rocky season.

Post COVID break, the Nats split two games with the Mets before dropping two to the Baltimore Orioles and they were well on their way to being the victims of a sweep before the game was suspended, set to resume Friday in Baltimore.

These results put the Nationals squarely in last place in the National League East through a point where most teams are a quarter of the way through their slate of games. As we try to figure out what’s going on, I want to hear from all Nationals fans: The pessimists, the optimists, and anyone in between.

So, what is happening?

It could be true that the season itself is what’s undoing the Nationals early on. Perhaps the team is struggling to adjust to the strangeness and ever-changing parameters of a pandemic season. While this explanation isn’t a satisfying one since many teams aren’t struggling to win games, it still may well be true.

But if we want to attach numbers to it, we can try that, too. For starters, the Nats have the worst run differential in the East, at -14. Washington has played one more game than both the Marlins and Phillies, yet both those teams have better run differentials, thanks in part to having scored seven more runs than the Nationals.

It’s all well and good that Juan Soto is back and, in fact, he’s already on his way to capturing the team’s lead in fWAR, but other players who were expected to figure into the game plan have been conspicuously missing.

I had written about Adam Eaton’s quick start over the first week, but he’s fallen off. Eric Thames hasn’t hit a home run; Howie Kendrick’s bat has been missing, literally and figuratively. The veteran second baseman went day-to-day at the end of July, but has negatively contributed to the Nats’ WAR effort; Michael A. Taylor, Victor Robles, and Trea Turner, among others, haven’t contributed much to the offense, either. All of those mentioned hold a wRC+ below average.

As for the pitching staff, there have been bright spots: Tanner Rainey and his 1.35 ERA and 37.5 percent strikeout percentage; or Patrick Corbin, whose 0.4 fWAR leads the team. Meanwhile, Max Scherzer looked pretty good to start the season but recently experienced trouble with his hamstring. There’s no reason to think that’ll have long term implications, but it’s something to note in a season where pitchers seem to be dropping around every corner.

Finally, as I’ve mentioned before, Sean Doolittle, who’s only pitched two innings, has looked lost in that short amount of time. His massive decrease in velocity has been documented, coming in close to four mph below what he was throwing last year. Further, his -0.4 fWAR is the worst on the team, just worse than Turner’s -0.3.

Despite all this, I remain relatively optimistic. I’m of the belief that the bats will eventually come around. Under regular circumstances, it usually takes hitters a bit longer to get going than pitchers, so it’s not unreasonable to assume that’s what’s happening here. As long as the pitching staff can stay relatively healthy, then the results will likely be there as the season progresses. As for Doolittle, he’s the biggest question mark in terms of being able to get going again. There’s nothing to suggest he’s due for an uptick in production.

It’s easy for things to look bleak when the team is on the doorstep of an Orioles’ sweep, but brighter days are ahead. Now that’s what I call optimism, or maybe it’s called lying to myself.