Will tonight be the night the Nats add another National League East title to their resume? Last night’s disappointing late inning loss to the Pirates may have put a temporary block in Washington’s inevitable celebration of its third division crown in five years, but perhaps Pittsburgh will soon join Atlanta (in 2014) as road cities where the Nats have clinched a title.
Here’s a look at some of the events of recent days, in our “Nats by the Numbers” format.
Four Nationals (Daniel Murphy with 88, Anthony Rendon with 86, Bryce Harper with 82 and Jayson Werth with 80) have scored 80 or more runs so far in the 2016 season, making this the first campaign in Nationals history where four or more players have achieved the feat. This quartet of 80 plus run scorers surpasses the 2006, 2012 and 2014 seasons in which three Nats players crossed the plate more than 80 times. In 2006, Alfonso Soriano had 119 runs scored to lead the team, with Nick Johnson (100) and Ryan Zimmerman (84) also having big scoring years. The 2012 Nats’ division winning team was paced in runs scored by Harper (98), with Zimmerman (93) and Danny Espinosa (82) also cracking the 80 run barrier. And in 2014, Rendon broke the century mark with 114 runs scored with Denard Span chipping in with 94 and Werth scoring 85 times.
Both Espinosa and Wilson Ramos homered off of left-handed pitchers this week, giving each nine homers against lefties on the year. In Nats’ history, only two players have had more than nine homers against southpaws in a season. In 2006 Soriano took lefties deep 12 times, and Adam Laroche hit 11 against left-handers in 2012.
The Nats have 19 home runs so far in September, and are on pace to have the fewest homers of any month in the 2016 campaign. Only four Major League teams have fewer round trippers than Washington so far this month. The Nationals high mark for homers in a month this year was in May when Washington blasted a National League leading 43 long balls. The Nats had 38 homers in June, 37 in August, 32 in July and 26 in April.
Nationals ace Max Scherzer leads the Major Leagues in strikeouts with 267, and has struck out at least 240 batters in each of the last four seasons. Since 1969, only five players have more 240 plus strikeout seasons than Scherzer’s four. Randy Johnson leads the way with 10 such seasons, with Nolan Ryan (9), Roger Clemens (6), Steve Carlton (5) and Tom Seaver (5) also in the exclusive group. Among active pitchers, only three hurlers have more than one 240 plus strikeout year on their resume. Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers, Corey Kluber of Cleveland and Justin Verlander of Detroit have two each.
Daniel Murphy’s 47 doubles on the year has equaled the Nats’ mark set by Zimmerman in his outstanding 2006 rookie campaign. The 47 two baggers by the Nats’ second baseman is the most by any National League East player since Dan Uggla had 49 for Florida in the 2007. In that year, Hanley Ramirez (48, also for Florida) and Chase Utley (48 for Philadelphia) also exceeded the 47 doubles mark. Murphy’s recent injury situation has likely robbed him of a shot at becoming the first NL East player with 50 plus doubles in a year since 2006 when Florida’s Miguel Cabrera reached the half-century mark. Since divisional play’s current format began in 1994, only four NL East players have had 50 or more doubles.
Nats’ setup man Shawn Kelley has 12.76 strikeouts per nine innings pitched in the year so far, the third best mark in the National League. Kelley’s 78 strikeouts in 55 innings pitched gives him a SO/9 mark that trails only Miami’s Kyle Barraclough (14.01) and the Dodgers’ Kenley Jansen (13.64).
Among National League starters, Stephen Strasburg (11.15) and Scherzer (11.06) trail only Miami’s Jose Fernandez (12.49) and Arizona’s Robbie Ray (11.39) in this category.
Zimmerman’s three run homer off of Miami’s Tom Koehler on Wednesday was the tenth the Nats’ veteran his hit since Marlins Park opened in 2012, the most by any Miami opponent during that time period. Zimmerman’s teammate Harper is next with seven homers at the cavernous park, with former Braves Evan Gattis (6) and Jason Heyward (5) next in line.
If the 2005 season was a magical mystery ride for the Nationals and their fans in baseball’s return to Washington, 2006 was a season where dreams of a playoff run were replaced by the cold, hard reality of a 90 plus loss season. Washington finished 71-91 on the year and Frank Robinson was removed from his role as Nats’ manager at the end of the campaign.
BEST OF TIMES- Terrific Trio
While the season may have been a major downer overall, there were some aspects of the 2006 campaign that were quite positive. Preeminent among them was the sterling production by three members of the Nats’ lineup who made the team dangerous at the plate.
Rookie Ryan Zimmerman made his mark in DC in the 2006 season, hitting .287 with 20 home runs and a team high 110 RBI. Zimmerman’s ability to hit from gap to gap was perfect for the spacious outfield at RFK Stadium, and his 47 doubles was the fifth highest total for two-baggers in the National League.
Outstanding patience at the plate and a smooth swing made Nick Johnson’s 2006 season an excellent one. Johnson’s 110 walks was third in the National League behind only San Francisco’s all-world talent Barry Bonds and Reds’ slugger Adam Dunn. Johnson’s 5.0 offensive WAR was the ninth highest total in the league, and he hit .290 with 23 homers and 77 runs driven in on the season.
In the off-season between the 2005 and 2006 seasons, Washington acquired Alfonso Soriano from the Texas Rangers. While the athletic and exciting Soriano would spend only one year in DC, he made it count by becoming one of the National League’s “must watch” performers at the plate. The lithe slugger had 46 homers and brought back memories of Frank Howard with some mammoth blasts into the deepest regions of RFK Stadium. He drove in 95 runs on the year and stole 41 bases to give Washington a true power-speed threat (his power speed number of 44.36 remains the second highest ever, trailing only Alex Rodriguez’s 43.91 from the 1998 campaign).
BEST OF TIMES- What a Weekend
RFK Stadium was alive from June 16th through June 18th as the New York Yankees came to town. Over 146,000 fans packed the old stadium on the weekend, and those who came to the park for the last two games of the series saw arguably Washington’s two best wins of the season.
On Friday June 16th, New York won 7-5 as they rallied from a 5-3 deficit to score two in the eight and two in the ninth for the win. Soriano hit a two run homer and Johnson scored three runs to pace Washington’s attack.
Saturday’s game looked like another win for the Yanks as they took a 9-2 lead after four and a half innings, but Washington rallied for a stirring 11-9. The Nats scored four in the bottom of the fifth to get back into the game as Brian Schneider’s two run single, Zimmerman’s RBI double and Daryle Ward’s RBI hit plated four runs for Washington. In the seventh, Washington plated two more runs on Ward’s solo home run and a RBI hit by Robert Fick. And in the ninth, three more Nationals crossed the plate as Soriano scored on a New York error following a stolen base, Jose Guillen drove in a run with a triple and Zimmerman brought Guillen home to put the Nats’ up by two runs. After Chad Cordero nailed down the save in the top of the ninth inning, RFK was abuzz with the sounds of fans celebrating a fantastic comeback effort by the home team.
A Fathers’ Day packed house greeted the teams on Sunday June 18th, and the Nationals gave their fans a great end to a special weekend. Trailing 2-1 going into the bottom of the ninth, Marlon Anderson’s one out pinch-hit single off of Yanks’ starter Chien-Ming Wang put the tying run on base with Zimmerman coming to the plate. Zimmerman drove Wang’s first pitch deep into the left field bullpen to give Washington a thrilling 3-2 win. Zimmerman’s walk-off homer was the first of ten he’s accumulated to date.
BEST OF TIMES- Diamonds in the Rubbish
Pitching, particularly starting pitching, was not a strong part of the Nationals’ team in 2006 but in the latter weeks of the season, the Nats received two performances that qualified as gems.
On August 15th, Pedro Astacio allowed only two hits in a complete game 5-0 shutout of Atlanta. Astacio retired the first 14 Braves he faced before Jeff Francouer singled with two out in the fifth. Two innings later, Adam LaRoche singled to give Atlanta its second (and last) baserunner on the evening. Astacio’s shutout was the only one the Nationals’ staff would register in 2006.
On Labor Day (September 4th), it was Ramon Ortiz’s turn to shine. Going into the top of the ninth, Ortiz had a 4-0 lead (built in part by his own home run) and had not given up a hit to the St. Louis Cardinals. Aaron Miles promptly broke up the no-hit bit with a single to lead off the frame, but Chris Duncan lined into a double play to bring Ortiz within one out of the Nats’ second complete game shutout of the season. Ortiz couldn’t seal the deal however, as Albert Pujols ended the shutout bid and Ortiz’s day with one mighty swing that gave Pujols a solo home run. Chad Cordero finished up for the save as Washington won 4-1.
WORST OF TIMES- Road Woes and Starting Slowly
Washington was a respectable 41-40 in games played at RFK Stadium, but struggled to a 30-51 mark on the road. Washington’s staff’s road ERA of 5.43 was almost a full run higher than the team’s home ERA of 4.66.
The team also got out of the gate slowly, losing 17 of its first 25 games to fall 8.5 games out of the division lead before May 1st.
WORST OF TIMES- Early Summer Meltdown
On June 9th, the Nats defeated Philadelphia 9-8 in 12 innings at RFK Stadium to move the team’s record to 29-33 and a .500 record seemed possible. Then the bottom fell out for Washington, as the Nats went 10-19 to leave the team’s record at 38-52 at the All-Star break.
WORST OF TIMES- Double Digit Runs Allowed
29 pitchers took the mound for Washington in 2006, and precious few of them had seasons that were even respectable.
The Nationals staff permitted opponents to score 10 or more runs 20 times in 2006, the highest mark a Nats’ staff has permitted since baseball’s return to DC in 2005. The only other seasons that have seen the Nats’ surrender 1o or more runs in a game at least 10 times are 2007 (10 times), 2008 (15) and 2009 (17).
In 2015, the Nationals stole only 57 bases to rank 14th in the National League (ahead of only the league champion Mets). While the success of the Mets may minimize the importance of stolen bases to some extend, one watching the Nationals play station to station baseball in 2015 could easily have come to the conclusion that a few key steals here and there might have helped the team create additional scoring opportunities.
This season the Nats could have four players (Ben Revere, Michael A. Taylor, Trea Turner, Danny Espinosa) with elite speed in their lineup, with several others (Anthony Rendon, Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy) also capable of swiping bases at times. Since the team’s inception in 2005, the Nationals have finished in the top half of National League teams in steals only four times in 11 seasons. Will this year’s squad make it five of 12?
New Nationals’ manager Dusty Baker is believed to be a proponent of increased usage of the stolen base, but his past teams’ records show that he has not always had the horses to put together a proficient running game. In his 20 years as a manager, Baker’s teams have stolen 100 or more bases only eight times (seven times with the Giants and once with the Cubs). Baker’s teams have also had lower than acceptable stolen base percentages (69% in 10 years with San Francisco, 69 % in four years with the Cubs and 68% in six seasons in Cincinnati).
The most effective Nationals’ squad in terms of stolen bases was the 2014 NL East champion team that stole 101 bases (Denard Span led the way with 31 steals, with Ian Desmond chipping in with 24) with a sterling 81% efficiency rating. In terms of outright steals, the 2006 team (led by Alfonso Soriano’s 41) had the most steals with 123 but had only a 66% success rate. The three other times Nats’ teams have had over 100 steals were in 2010 (110, 73% success rate), 2011 (106/74%) and 2012 (105/75%).
It will be interesting to see how the Nats use the steal in 2016. If Revere is able to stay healthy and get on base at his usual clip, it is easy to see him easily eclipsing Soriano’s team high total. And if Turner wins the shortstop job and is able to stay above water offensively, he could give the Nationals one of the top one-two punches in the league in terms of stolen base effectiveness.
There are differences of opinion as to the value of the steal. For a team like the Nats that has struggled to move runners at times, the tactic might give Washington’s offense a boost. While we shouldn’t expect the 2016 Nats to resemble the 1985 St. Louis Cardinals, one can assume that there will be more speed on display in Washington this season than there has been in the past.