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Washington Nationals’ disappointing season hard to ignore

May 9, 2019

Everyone knew the Baltimore Orioles weren’t going to be good this season. With the hiring of an analytics-friendly general manager and a first-year manager, Baltimore (12-24) was open about its intention to commit a multi-year rebuild.

Likewise, the Miami Marlins and Kansas City Royals, both of whom have worse records than the Orioles and were just as awful last year, also projected to be among the league’s bottom feeders.

But the Washington Nationals even with their loss of Bryce Harper to the Philadelphia Phillies were not supposed to be in that company.

After 36 games, though, that’s where the Nationals are: among the cellar-dwellers. Without a doubt, the most disappointing team in baseball.

Entering the team’s four-day series Thursday against the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Nationals have the fourth-worst record in the major leagues at 14-22. They’re off to their worst start since 2009, unthinkable for a club seen before the season as a realistic contender for at least a pennant, if not the World Series itself.

Sure, the Nationals can blame injuries and there have been a lot of them, to be clear but the team’s dysfunction extends beyond that.

They have the majors’ worst bullpen with a 6.41 ERA. Washington’s offense has gone cold, mustering an average 3.47 runs over their last 19 games. Manager Dave Martinez has come under fire, and former pitching coach Derek Lilliquist was already relieved of his duties last week.

It wasn’t supposed to happen this way.

Baseball Prospectus’ sabermetric system PECOTA projected to the Nationals to go 89-73 and win the National League East. For context, to reach 89 victories now, Washington would have to win to nearly 59.5% of their remaining games and go 75-51. Only five teams at the moment the Twins, Dodgers, Rays, Cubs and Astros have a winning percentage at least that good.

Oddsmakers, too, thought highly of the Nationals. While they weren’t clear World Series favorites, Westgate’s SuperBook in Las Vegas listed them at 12-1, the sixth-best odds to win.

The Nationals, meanwhile, took measures to avoid a repeat of their disappointing, playoff-less 2018. Though they lost Harper, they were still highly aggressive in free agency, spending $184.6 million on seven players. Each addition topped by pitcher Patrick Corbin’s six-year, $140 million deal was supposed to fill a need on the roster.

At spring training, Martinez also changed his approach. This season, he put an emphasis on fundamentals in an attempt to clean up costly fielding mistakes and other errors. Closer Sean Doolittle said the Nationals carried a “sense of purpose” after being too loose in 2018.

Months later, the Nationals are still committing simple mistakes. They rank 26th in fielding percentage and have committed the sixth-most errors (26) in the majors.

“We keep beating ourselves right now,” Martinez told reporters after his team was swept Wednesday against the Milwaukee Brewers. “We’ve got to come out and just play baseball. We battled back again. But we’ve got to start playing clean baseball, stop giving the other teams 30 outs.”

Martinez’s critics have been vocal this season.

MLB analyst Jim Bowden called the second-year skipper “one of the worst managers I’ve seen ... in a long time, to be honest with you,” though he couched his statement by saying the Nationals’ start isn’t on the manager. Local sports radio continues to debate whether Martinez is the right man for the job arguing whether management made a mistake in letting go of Dusty Baker in 2017.

General manager Mike Rizzo has repeatedly defended Martinez during this stretch. Even when Rizzo admitted Martinez deserved some of the blame for the team’s poor start earlier this week in a radio interview, he still maintained Martinez had “great control” of the clubhouse.

“The players play hard for him,” Rizzo said.

Injuries have been a source of frustration, as the Nationals have lost starters like Juan Soto, Trea Turner, Ryan Zimmerman and Anthony Rendon to the injured list. Yet, as of May 7, according to Man Games Lost a website which tracks injury data the Nationals rank just 17th in man-games lost with 176 far below the Yankees’ league-leading 417.

Using a different metric (lost-WAR) on Man Games Lost, Washington actually ranks sixth in terms of measuring the impact of those players lost. But by comparison, the San Diego Padres, who rank first in lost-WAR, still are at 21-17 this season.

Injuries aside, the Nationals have collapsed over the past month. They’re 5-14 over their last 19 games. They last held a winning record on April 18.

Baseball has such a long season that, mathematically, there’s still plenty of time for the Nationals to turn things around. No one knows where the Nationals will be at the end of September.

But in the middle of May, they’re near the bottom and still sinking.