Nationals’ midterm grades: It’s tough to sugarcoat last place

Nationals manager Davey Martinez has had 12 different starting pitchers so far this season. The result: a combined ERA of 5.74, the highest in Major League Baseball. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)

Baseball’s All-Star break provides teams a chance to rest and reflect after playing basically every day for the last three months.

And while there have been twists and turns in 2022 (from Joe Girardi’s early exit in Philly to a Mets rotation mired with injuries), the National League East is playing out exactly how those in Vegas saw things in March: The preseason odds to win the World Series saw New York-Atlanta-Philadelphia-Miami-Washington in descending order.

The top four teams odds-wise occupy the top two spots in each of their league’s standings (Dodgers and Mets in the NL, Yankees and Astros in the AL). And while many had the Nationals under .500 in 2022 (I believe I had them going 69-93), there’s still quite a bit to leaf through.

The good thing about midterm grades is that there are chances to bounce back and improve one’s showing (like in my advanced mathematics class during junior year of high school). The bad thing is that in many cases, it’s tough to climb out of a crater (college prep biology one year, modern European history the next).

And in many ways, that is where the Nationals are at this time, because barring a miracle that would make 2019 look pedestrian, it’s not a playoff berth or winning record that is slipping out of reach as much as a 100-loss season they’re trying to avoid. (They need to finish 32-36 after posting just 31 wins over 94 games).



But even in a year where the class is failing, there are star students. We address both below.

Starting pitching

During their run from 2012 to 2019, the Nationals boasted some big bats, but those teams were built on a rotation that was often anchored by a Cy Young candidate or 20-game winner. This year, manager Davey Martinez has had to start 12 different guys. This “dirty dozen” owns a combined ERA of 5.74, the highest in Major League Baseball.

It all starts by putting guys on base. (The rotation’s 196 walks allowed is tied for the most.) And then when they find the strike zone, their offerings are pounded out of the park: The 86 home runs allowed is the most by any group of starters. Their 21 wild pitches are the second most in the majors. As a unit, they average just 4.91 innings per outing.

And the big names either have struggled mightily (Patrick Corbin is 4-12 with a 5.87 ERA) or have been mostly unavailable (Stephen Strasburg tossing 4.2 innings in his lone 2022 start; Joe Ross having Tommy John surgery for the second time). And while this team cannot afford to look back, the view ahead is encouraging.

“We’ve still got some really young pitchers that are doing well in the minor leagues that should be knocking on the door fairly soon,” Martinez told me after Saturday’s loss to the Braves. “We’ve gotta develop them a little bit more, but I’m excited about that.”

Group Grade: D

Star Student: Josiah Gray. Not only does he lead the club with seven wins, but the second-year right-hander also posted an ERA of 1.13 in June. Now that is quite a ceiling.

Relief pitching

One of my favorite phrases over the year is, “We don’t exist in a vacuum.” It’s never more appropriate than when referring to bullpen performance, because the starters’ short outings put additional pressure on a staff. The lack of leads delivered also results in the fewest saves (15) and save opportunities (24) in the big leagues.

It also hasn’t helped that those who are effective (Sean Doolittle in April) have found their way to the injured list, meaning Martinez has had to go to 21 different pitchers plus three position players this year.

The Nats relievers are 8-12 with a 4.36 ERA (fifth-highest in MLB), but they have yet to give us one of those legendary blown late-inning leads that has fans talking for days.

Group Grade: C-

Star Students: Carl Edwards Jr. owns the best ERA (3.15) among those with more than 20 relief appearances, while Kyle Finnegan has 12 holds in the first half of the season.

Team defense

The Nats are all out of glove this year and so lost without it. The team’s 60 errors are the third most in the majors, and the team’s fielding percentage is fourth worst in the bigs. Luis Garcia and Maikel Franco (nine errors apiece) along with Lucius Fox have been the shakiest fielders thus far. But how costly have those errors been? The 42 unearned runs are tied for 10th most in the league.

Group Grade: D

Star Students: You want to build your team up the middle, so it’s encouraging to see catcher Keibert Ruiz gun down runners trying to steal second, and center fielder Victor Robles has returned to his defensive dynamo days of pre-2021.

Lineup

The Nats rank 26th in runs scored despite boasting the 11th best batting average in the bigs and the 10th best average with runners in scoring position. Blame the team’s knack for grounding into double plays (their 94 lead the majors at the All-Star break) as well as minimal production from the leadoff spot: Five hitters (primarily Cesar Hernandez over 73 games) have combined to post a .283 on-base percentage (27th in MLB) with 46 runs scored.

The middle of the lineup fares much better: In the cleanup spot (primarily Nelson Cruz and Josh Bell), the total of 57 RBI is sixth best in the majors. In the No. 5 spot (primarily Bell with Keibert Ruiz and Yadiel Hernandez), a total of 50 RBI ranks 10th. But there’s a power outage as well: The team ranks 27th in home runs with spots four through seven each outside of the top 20.

Proof that numbers are crazy? The Nats’ No. 8 batters have driven in 47 runs, more than the six and seven spots and fourth best in the majors.

Group Grade: C-

Star Students: Juan Soto has 20 homers at the break and is hitting .409 in July, while Josh Bell (.311 with 13 homers and 50 RBI) is hitting into his next big contract. Whether it’s here or elsewhere is for another day. And hopefully we can include Soto at least in our year-end grades.

Dave Preston

Dave has been in the D.C. area for 10 years and in addition to working at WTOP since 2002 has also been on the air at Westwood One/CBS Radio as well as Red Zebra Broadcasting (Redskins Network).

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