What the Nats Need to do to Make the Playoffs

 

With their 5-1 win last night the Nats got back to .500 and are now six
games behind the Braves. If the Braves play .500 baseball from now until the
end of the season they will finish with 87 wins, and if they play at their
current pace of .591 ball they will finish with 96 wins. The Nats have some
control over that as they have nine games head to head against the Braves left
on the schedule, but even that amount of control is minimal. The Nats need to
not focus on making the playoffs and more on winning series. The odds are that
one of the teams in front of them, be it the Braves, Rockies, Giants,
Diamondbacks, Reds, or Pirates, will fall off. The Nats need to focus instead
and controlling what they can control. They need to win the series they play
and claw their way to 90 wins by the end of the season.  

Doing that is easier said than done. At
32-32 with 98 games left to play the Nats need to go 60-38 or play .612 ball.
Over the course of a 162 game season that is a 99 win pace. And while that
isn’t easy to do in three and a half months’ time it is a lot easier to do that
in 98 games than it is over the course of 162. The Nationals need a few things
to start going right. Most importantly they need to offense to pick up.
Remember the Nats need to play .612 baseball over the next 98 games. What they
have done in the first 64 doesn’t matter that much. They can’t go back and win
those games, they can’t change the run differential that was, nor go back and
take out Danny Espinosa for Rendon sooner or keep Harper from running into the
wall in LA. The Nats are helpless to change the past, but the future is in
their hands.   

The first order of business has been
taken care of. The Nationals bullpen has allowed 83 runs on the season. Henry
Rodriguez and Zach Duke are responsible for 30 of those or 36%. They are both
gone. Along with them being gone Jayson Werth is back in the line-up along with
Anthony Rendon. It isn’t hard to look at their OPS and the OPS the Nats were
getting from those positions, but since they have been inserted into the
line-up the Nats have scored one, three, seven, six, three, and five runs an
average of 4.17 runs a game.

Beyond just having Werth and Rendon in
the line since last Wednesday with two of their starting outfielders healthy
Davey Johnson has been able to utilize Bernadina and Kobernus as a true
platoon. Also gone is Tyler Moore who wasn’t having the offensive season he
needed, but on top of that was one of the worst defensive players in the
history of defense with a UZR of -3.3 on the season which would be worth -22.2
over the course of 150 games. While Moore wasn’t playing much, when he was out
there he was doing damage. Sending him down to get consistent at bats will be
useful as will getting to play the outfield every day. 

Over the last seven days both Bernadina
and Kobernus have hit well; with Bernadina having faced mostly right handed
pitchers and Kobernus mostly left handers. With both Werth and Harper on the DL
the Nats had to use two replacement outfielders and couldn’t fully take
advantage of their platoon splits. With Werth back Davey Johnson is better
equipped to take advantage of the platoon advantage and can meld Kobernus and
Bernadina into one useful outfielder much as he did with Bernadina and Moore in
2012 when Werth was out for an extended period of time.  

Now that we’ve explored why the Nats
offense has jumped from 3.50 runs a game on the season to 4.17 in the last six
games I will add that it isn’t enough. The Nats need to be even better, and
most of that is on offense and most of that is on the DL with Bryce Harper. At
the earliest Harper will rejoin the Nats next week when they return home from
their road trip. He is scheduled to be re-evaluated next Tuesday and if all is
clear could begin a rehab assignment Wednesday and be ready to go as soon as
Friday. That is somewhat of a best case scenario, but even if it is a little
longer Harper is close to returning and the impact he is going to have on the
Nationals line-up will be monumental. Don’t just take my word for it. Before
Harper went down he was averaging getting on base 1.5 times a game and with a
.411 wOBA Harper by himself was worth .616 runs a game. Assuming that what
Werth and Rendon have brought is sustainable at even four runs a game and
adding Harper brings it up to 4.6 runs a game. That is a tremendous impact from
one player, but that is why he was considered an MVP candidate before he got hurt.
  

Now at 4.6 runs a game and with the
Nats current run prevention totals of 3.94 runs allowed a game that give the
Nationals 414 runs scored over the 90 games after Harpers return and 354 runs
allowed. Plugging that into pythag and the Nats would go 52-38 over those 90
games. Which if they go .500 over their next eight puts them at 88 wins on the
season or two shy of the goal of 90. In other words just getting Harper back
isn’t going to be enough. The Nats have to make up those other two wins somewhere
else which brings us to the fifth starter’s spot that is currently occupied by
Dan Haren.    

Ross Ohlendorf in his Nats debut did
well. He allowed one run on two hits with two walks and two strikeouts. Overall
a decent line. Didn’t strike enough guys out and a K/BB ratio of one isn’t
exactly good, but the Nats don’t need good they need serviceable. In the games
Dan Haren has started the Nats have gone 4-9. With 19 starts left from that
spot in the rotation the Nats need it to be better. Think around .500 or 9-10
if you prefer. In order to do that with the predicted 4.6 runs scored average a
game the Nats need to allow an average of 4.6 runs in those games to achieve
.500. At his current ERA and average of five innings a game Dan Haren has
allowed an average of 3.2 runs a game. That doesn’t look that bad as the Nats
are suddenly averaging 4.6 runs a game, but that is only in five innings of
work. There are four innings left to finish the game and with that many innings
the Nats are going to have to bring in four or five relievers to finish the
game and with the Nats current bullpen ERA of 3.89 that is 1.7 runs over those
final two innings which bring the Nats runs allowed average up to 4.9 in games
Haren pitches. 

The difference between 4.9 and 4.6
isn’t that great, and the Nats overall bullpen ERA should be on the decline now
that Rodriguez and Duke are gone, but the easiest way to pick up those extra
wins in those games is to find a better fifth starter. If the Nats could get
slightly worse than a league average starting pitcher with a 4.15 ERA that can
average the league average of six innings a start that alone bring the runs
allowed total in those game down to 2.8 from the starter and add in the bullpen
at 1.3 and that is a runs allowed total of 4.1 which would even make the
Nationals slightly over .500 in those games if they are averaging 4.6 runs a
game.   

Now, who may this magical 4.15 ERA
starter be? There are many options and it doesn’t have to be one person. Ross
Ohlendorf could be given a couple additional starts while Haren goes to the DL
to receive treatment on his hip and back. If Haren looks good in his rehab
starts he can then come back and keep in mind his 2.1 HR/9 should be completely
unsustainable. If he pitches to a normal homerun rate then he’ll pitch to his
xFIP which is currently 4.09; which is exactly what the Nats need from that
spot. If Haren doesn’t look good in his starts then the Nats should ride
Ohlendorf as long as possible, but he has never been a major league quality
starter and will fall apart at some point. If that happens before the deadline
the Nats can either bring back Karns for a second go in the majors and see if
he can be better or try someone else like Chris Young or Danny Rosenbaum, and
once the deadline gets closer make a deal for someone that can be the 4.15 ERA
pitcher they need. The Nats need a 4.15 ERA and .500 record from the fifth
spot. They do not need it to be one person. Bringing them up, burning them up,
and throwing them away can go a long way towards achieving this goal.  
 

If the Nats can get healthy, stay
healthy, and get slightly more production from the fifth spot in the rotation
then 90 wins isn’t that difficult to reach. Werth and Rendon have already had a
positive impact on the offense and Bryce Harper is going to have a major one.
But it should be noted that even at 90 wins the Nats may not make the playoffs.
They currently have four teams ahead of them for one of the Wild Card spots and
are six back of Atlanta, but the Nats can’t make those teams fall they can only
move themselves into a position to catch them if they do, and the first order
of business has already been achieved. The offense has improved to a point
where a .500 record would occur from here on out without Bryce Harper. Add back
in Bryce Harper and the Nats are at 88 wins. Improve the fifth starters spot in
the rotation and suddenly the Nats are at 90, and in a position to drag down
any contender that dare fall within their reach.  

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One comment

  1. I went into fangraphs with the intention of showing that they’d actually need less from the 5th starter slot because they other 4 SP have underperformed so far, but then I saw that 3 of those 4 have ERAs substatially under their FIP/xFIP (Gio being almost dead on).

    Like

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