Looking at the Washington Nationals lackluster season
Coming into the season, if you picked the Washington Nationals to represent the National League in the World Series, you would have been one of many baseball fans and analysts who pegged the Nats to finally make the jump out of the NLDS and into the Fall Classic, myself included. And how could you not; the team was coming off of a 97-win season and bringing back four players with a 2017 OPS over .928 in Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy, Ryan Zimmerman, and Anthony Rendon, the speed (46 steals) of Trea Turner atop the order, with trade acquisition Adam Eaton healthy and ready to set the table with him, and a deep, experienced bench that included Howie Kendrick and Matt Adams. On the pitching side of things, the Nationals came into the season with Max Scherzer gunning for this third-straight NL Cy Young Award and fourth overall, with Stephen Strasburg, coming off of a dominant postseason run of 14.0 innings, 22 strikeouts, and no earned runs ready to serve as his running mate. Behind the 1-2 punch atop the rotation was a bullpen as deep as any in baseball, with Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson, Brian Kintzler, and Shawn Kelly all having closing experience. Even with some regression factored in, the Nationals were still viewed as heavy favorites in the NL East, with the Marlins rebuilding, the Braves and Phillies still seen as a year away, and the Mets, well, being the Mets.
Yet here we are, on September 6th, and the Nationals are two games under .500 at 69-71, 7.5 games in the NL East despite Juan Soto’s meteoric rise from A ball, hitting .298/.419/.509 with a 142 OPS+, and the mid-season acquisition of All-Star closer Kelvin Herrera from the Royals. Injuries to Rendon, Zimmerman, Strasburg, Eaton, and Doolittle plagued the team throughout the season, preventing them from reaching their full potential. Gone are Murphy (Cubs) Gio Gonazlez (Brewers) Madson (Dodgers) Kintzler (Cubs) Adams (Cardinals) and Kelly (Athletics) as the team realized they were better off shedding salary then trying to chase a wild card spot at the August 31st waiver trade-deadline. By making these trades, the Nationals accepted missing out on the postseason, ensuring that their streak of winless postseasons will continue into 2019.
For those keeping track at home, that postseason winless streak also means that the from the time he debuted with the Nationals in 2012, taking home the NL Rookie of the Year Award, Bryce Harper has yet to make it out of the first round of the MLB playoffs. With Harper set to hit free agency this offseason at 26 and seeking what should be a record contract for upwards of $400 million, it is possible that Harper is entering his final month as a National, especially with big-market clubs such as the Cubs and Dodgers likely to pursue the outfielder. Should Harper leave in free agency, all the Nats will have to show for his seven-year, six-time All-Star and NL MVP winning reign with the team is four NL East crowns.
There are and always have been critics of Harper from the second he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a high schooler. This season, those very critics have tried to pinpoint the Nationals failure to breakthrough on Harper, pointing to his temper tantrums, streakiness (.188 AVG and .675 OPS in June) and paltry 1.3 WAR (according to Baseball-Reference; Fangraphs has him at a much more respectable 3.3 WAR) as the reasons for the Nationals underachieving this season. Those same critics will also use the same ammunition to argue that Harper is in no way deserving of the record contract he is sure to seek out. Let’s dissect why both of these arguments are wrong.
Yes, Harper has struggled at times this season, as his June stats illustrate. But at the same time, every other month this season he has had an OPS no lower than .851, and when you look at his current NL rankings, you can see that he is still having a strong season and that it is only a “down” year by our lofty expectations.
137 G (10th in NL)
31 HR (T-3 in NL)
88 R (5 in NL)
104 BB (1st in NL)
.386 OBP (8th in NL)
.891 OPS (11th in NL)
59 XBH (10th in NL)
13 IBB (4th in NL)
WRC+ (10th in NL)
Harper is either just outside or within in the top ten of almost every major statistical offensive category in the NL; while his .251 AVG is hard to stomach, it certainly is bearable when Harper’s ability to get on base and hit for power is factored in. Additionally, Harper’s .288 BABIP is well below his career mark of .318, showing that some of Harper’s struggles have been a product of bad luck.
As for the argument that Harper is undeserving of a massive contract, this season Harper is on pace to play 159 games, which would be a career-high and is also on pace for
Again, even in a “down” season, Harper is still on pace to hit over 35 HR, drive in over 100 runs for the first time in his career, score over 100 runs, lead the league in walks with an OPS nearing .900, and adding in a double-digit steal total. As for the idea that Harper isn’t an elite talent because he is on pace for 169 strikeouts, All-Stars’ Paul Goldschmidt and Giancarlo Stanton, and Trevor Story are all on pace for higher totals, with MLB home run leader Khris Davis in the group as well. Plus, as we’ve learned from Aaron Judge, strikeouts are generally accepted as long as they come with a high OBP and power, both of which Harper provides in spades.
When push comes to shove, when it comes to Harper, the biggest argument to be made in support of him is this; even when he struggled, he showed up and played hard every day for the Nationals this season, making sure that when his teammates were injured, he was in the lineup for Davey Martinez when he likely could have used a mental day off or two. It feels like Harper is older than he really is because he’s already been in the MLB for seven seasons, but in reality, he is only going to be 26 by the end of the postseason, meaning that there is a chance he has untapped potential as he enters the ages that many deem the “prime” of a hitter’s career. There has never been a talent this young, and with this much success hitting free agency in the history of baseball, and when teams come calling for Harper in free agency, they need to take a step back to realize that his “down” season this year would be a career year for most and that he cannot be blamed for the lack of postseason success in the Nation’s Capital.