Nats Key to 2016 is Balance

With 50 games left in the season, and the playoffs approaching, if you want to worry about the Nats, you can certainly find something. They scored a total of three runs in their last three games, and they are getting no production out of first base, or, since May, Bryce Harper. Their bullpen looked shaky when their closer was injured, and when he came back and couldn’t produce, although it seems like they’ve remedied this.

However, the Nats remain atop division, with the second best record in league. One or two missing pieces hasn’t hurt them, and it’s because they aren’t reliant on one thing. In fact, the Nats are pretty much good at everything this season, and are one of the most well-rounded teams in the league.

The pitching staff leads the way, with the 2nd best ERA, 2nd best FIP and 3rd best fWAR in the NL. And three of their starters are in the top 15 in fWAR. Tanner Roark (13th) has the most starts in MLB this year with 7 or more innings pitched and no runs given up, Max Scherzer (8th) has the most strikeouts, and Strasburg (5th) has the most wins.

It’s not just the starting staff, though, it’s the bullpen, too. While they haven’t always been perfect, they haven’t simply exceeded expectations, they’ve had the best ERA and FIP in the NL. While ERA can be misleading for relievers, it is noteworthy that the only members of their bullpen with an ERA above 2.90 this season have been Jonathan Papelbon, Oliver Perez, and the now-traded Felipe Rivero.

That trade, which brought in Mark Melancon, seems to have made the bullpen significantly more stable. When Papelbon went to the DL due to injury, and then returned but was ineffective, a very strong bullpen seemed to stumble. But having a closer in Melancon and a setup man with Shawn Kelley, before having to go to Blake Treinen, Sammy Solis and Matt Belisle (and perhaps Koda Glover soon) for earlier innings, sets them up nicely to hold late leads.

One of the reasons their pitching staff looks so good, besides all the strikeouts from Scherzer and Strasburg, has been their defense. They rank 4th in defensive value and UZR, according to fangraphs, and third in defensive efficiency (and have the fewest errors if you’re into that sort of thing).

Their offense may be the biggest source of worry, but they’re doing pretty well by most measures there, too. They rank 4th in the NL in runs scored, 3rd in fWAR, 4th in wOBA, and 5th in wRC+. It’s not just Daniel Murphy and Wilson Ramos, either. There’s the addition of Trea Turner, and since the beginning of June, Anthony Rendon has an OPS of .852, while Jayson Werth’s is .814.

With runners in scoring position, their AVG goes up from .252 AVG normally, ranking them 8th, to .257, ranking them 7th. Their OBP goes from .326 normally to .350 with RISP. Their advanced stats are worse with RISP, but that is only due to a drop in power – their slugging drops from .428 to .404. A drop in power and a slight increase in batting average is nothing to get excited about, but it dispels the notion that they can’t hit when it matters.

This team is not without its problems. Until Turner came along, they had some of the lowest CF production in the league. Same with first base, although there isn’t such an easy solution there, they do have some options.

The bigger issue is Bryce Harper, who is now in a protracted slump that goes back to May. There are some very recent signs of hope, in the upturn in his batted ball exit velocity, but the fact that they continue to win with his poor offensive production highlights how good this team really is.

The case could be made that they are actually the most well-rounded team in the league. The Nats and the Cubs are the only teams in the NL that rank top 5 in offense, pitching, and defense. But if you factor in the bullpens, the Nationals have had better results this year than Chicago. The Cubs have the better offense, and judging by record and run differential, they’re the better team. But the Nats might be just as balanced as them, if not more so.

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