On Sunday, the Nationals defeated the Mets, 23-5. On Saturday, they lost Adam Eaton for the season. It was a weekend of contrasts, and considering they actually lost the series against the Mets, the outrageous score probably isn’t enough to pick them up. It was, overall, a bad weekend for Nationals baseball.
I’m here to pick them up. While no team can brush off the loss of a player as talented as Eaton and pretend they didn’t need him in the first place, the Nationals are still better than we thought. This is terrifying, considering they won 95 games and the National League East last year, even though they underperformed their Pythagorean record.
They’re even better now. And to prove I’m not overreacting to a single month of baseball, I’ll go through what’s convinced me that the Nationals aren’t just the team with the best record in baseball, but the team with the best roster in baseball.
Ryan Zimmerman will contribute, is contributing
Ryan Zimmerman is 32 years old and coming off the worst season of his career. He’s been in a slow, steady decline for about four seasons now, with a mix of injuries and ineffectiveness making him one of baseball’s worst regulars. From 2014 through 2016, Baseball-Reference has him worth exactly 0.0 WAR. He was the replacement player.
Now he’s had one great month, and we’re all supposed to forget that?
Kind of! It takes talent to go from a 69 OPS+ to a .420 batting average — talent and a keen eye for irony — but that’s what Zimmerman has done from last season to this one. It’s not just coming out of nowhere, either. There’s science behind the renaissance. He did the hitter’s version of learning a new pitch.
“All these [Nats] think I’m crazy, but I want to hit the ball in the air [every time], optimally at about 25 degrees at 98 miles per hour. Those are home runs,” Murphy said Friday. “Ryan’s exit velocity last year was elite [14th in baseball, at 94.1 mph]. He’s just looking to take his already elite skill of putting bat to ball and [achieving high] exit velocity off the barrel and get it at the right angle. Now we’re really starting to do some serious damage.
Oh, no, Daniel Murphy is one of those guys. One of those dreaded exit-velocity wonks, and now he’s spreading his nerdy sickness to the rest of the team. But, well, he’s right. Zimmerman was hitting the ball hard last year, but he was pounding it into the ground. Now he’s following the hot new baseball trend by getting the ball in the air, and we’re reminded that before he was the replacement player, he was the Nationals’ franchise player before the other guys arrived.
Is he going to lead the NL in OPS this year, with a cool 1345 mark? Probably ... probably not. But he’ll contribute, though. He’ll apparently contribute a lot more than we thought he would, which makes a scary lineup extra scary.
Daniel Murphy really did morph into Rod Carew with more power after turning 30
See the above if you’re looking for an explanation.
“You focus on the bottom of the ball,” he said.
“Hit the bottom of the ball.”
Dude is literally using This One Weird Trick, and it makes me wonder who the next perfectly pleasant hitter will be to turn into a Hall of Fame-caliber hitter. I’ll just throw a dart and ... uh, let’s see, James Loney, you’re a .330 hitter with power now because of launch angles. Congratulations.
Until then, though, Murphy is still one of the faces of the launch-angle revolution, and when I mentally tallied up the Nationals’ roster before the season, I figured he was going to be good, but not as good as he was last year, when he finished second in the MVP voting. Instead, he’s exactly as good as he was last year, which helps make the Nationals lineup a burly nightmare for opposing pitchers.
Bryce Harper is the 2015 version again
Launch angles or exit velocity, probably. I don’t even know how to analyze this stupid sport anymore. It’s passed me by.
Except this explanation might be a little more simple: Sometimes young players learn the game better as they gain more experience. I jumped the gun last year with this headline ...
Bryce Harper is going to overshadow Mike Trout for the next decade
... and after the article was published, Harper hit .234/.369/.393 over his next 132 games. Sorry. Sorry about that. My optimism turned him into Jace Peterson.
He’s had another absurd April, though, and Harper is still just 24, which is absolutely hilarious, so it’s not unreasonable to think he might not have reached his ceiling yet. When picking the Nationals for first place before the season, I figured Harper would be excellent, not otherworldly. We have 25 games entered into evidence that suggest he’s otherworldly again.
So if Zimmerman is going to hit like a classic slugging first baseman, and Murphy is a perennial MVP candidate, and if Harper is the same hitter that won the MVP with one of the greatest offensive seasons since Barry Bonds, what in the heck else can go right for the Nationals?
Trea Turner is already a star
Calm down, Nationals.
But I feel comfortable suggesting that Turner is going to hit .300 and steal 50 bases with power for the next decade, all while playing a premium position well. I was a little skeptical about his average-dependant stylings last year, so I lumped him in with the tempered expectations for the rest of the team. He was going to be good, not great, just like Murphy and Harper.
Instead, they’re all great at the same time.
Apparently Jayson Werth is contributing, too
Calm down, Nationals.
Werth is 38, and I’m not entirely sure his bounceback season is for real, but it’s worth mentioning. Because pitchers figure that if they get through the silly middle of the Nationals order, they’re fine, except, ho, what’s this? Just Jayson Werth with a .380 OBP, making you work hard and looking for mistakes.
At least this is ...
Wait, Matt Wieters has a 934 OPS?
CALM DOWN, NATIONALS.
Launch angles. Daniel Murphy has a briefcase handcuffed to his wrist, and he keeps the launch angles in there. Someone needs to get that briefcase.
While I will put Wieters and Werth down in the “It’s still April, have some perspective” category, the idea that Wieters will contribute above-average offense from the catcher’s position is unfair. The Nationals didn’t need that if they were going to get contributions from Zimmerman, if Harper was playing like an MVP again, if Murphy was the same hitter he was last year, if Turner was a burgeoning star.
It’s possible to make the Nationals sound like the most frightening team in baseball without even mentioning the guy who had 10 RBI on Sunday. If you think it’s hyperbole to suggest the Nationals are the most frightening team in baseball, consider these fun facts:
- The Nationals scored 14 runs or more in five different games in April. The other 29 teams have combined to do it seven times.
- The Nationals scored 14 runs or more in five different games in April. The Mariners and Dodgers did that last year, too, except they were the only two teams to do it in baseball.
- The Nationals scored 14 runs or more in five different games in April. The Royals have scored 14 runs or more in five different games since the start of the 2010 season.
- The Nationals scored 14 runs or more in five different games in April.
- Oh, and they mixed in an 11-run game, too.
The team’s biggest weakness is also the easiest thing to fix in July
At least, you would think so. The Tigers and Giants might disagree when it comes to fixing a bullpen on the fly, but the Nationals should have a clear idea of what they want to do at the trade deadline, and there should be plenty of options. They can go shopping at the reliever store, and they won’t be afraid to play premium prices, just like they did with Mark Melancon last year.
Until then, they’ll continue beating teams in every other way.
So, yes, Adam Eaton is likely out for the season, which is a brutal blow for a team that was chugging along so well and just traded top prospects to get him. This is still the best team in baseball, though, if we’re assuming that even half of the above stories are more than April mirages. We knew the pitching was going to be elite. We knew the lineup would score enough runs to make them the favorites.
Pretty sure none of us saw this coming, though. There aren’t too many teams that could lose an all-star outfielder and still have the best team in baseball. You can argue the Cubs are better, and I’m not going to stop you. For me, though, it’s the Nationals. What a terrifying collection of baseball men.