The Nationals are playing very well right now. They’re winning against quality teams and in every type of game. As someone who often roots for the underdog, I wouldn’t mind seeing the Nationals stay in the NL East race for a while, but I think their ride near the top of the division won’t last too much longer. They clearly have a great chance to end up with a much better record than they did in 2009, when they went 59-103, but getting close to 90 wins still seems beyond their capabilities.
Their record is an astonishing 20-15 and they are only 1 game behind the Phillies. Even after their big win against the Rockies last night, they still have a negative run differential (was -16, now -8 after their big win). While there are a number of reasons why their smashing success is unlikely to continue, I’ll just touch on a few here.
One big X factor for the Nationals is super-phenom Stephen Strasburg, who is sprinting through the minors (6 no-hit innings earlier this week in AAA) and could have a big impact on Nationals once he is brought up. If he is able to dominate on the major league level, all bets might be off, but rookies often struggle once they make to the majors and we won’t know anything for sure until he is actually brought up.
One of the main reasons the Nationals are vulnerable is that they are relying too heavily on several pitchers who are unlikely to continue dominating like they have been the entire season. For instance, the major leader in wins is Tyler Clippard (7-1), a late inning reliever for the Nationals. I don’t know how many games they think Clippard is going to win, but relievers rarely wins more than 12 (no pitcher without a start has won more than 12 games in a season since 1986). He might have a great season, but his record so far seems more of a fluke than anything else.
Beyond Clippard, there is the matter of Livan Hernandez, who is currently 4-1 with a 1.04 ERA (and allowing a batting average of .187). That kind of start would be tough to continue for Bob Gibson in his prime, let alone Livan Hernandez. In recent years (since 2006) Hernandez has usually had an ERA around 5.00 and has allowed a batting average over .300 (sometimes well over .300). The Nationals probably don’t want to look what happened to Carlos Silva (who allowed a lot of hits from 2006-09) this year because he also had a great start (0.95 ERA through 3 starts), but has allowed 14 ER and 32 H over his last 4 starts.
Hernandez’s strikeouts are down, his walks are the same, so the continuation of this remarkable turnaround is pretty much all riding on his ability to not give up hits. He might end up having the best season of his career, but considering that he’s been the most hittable pitcher in baseball over the last five years, this also seems too much to expect. The rotation behind Hernandez (currently Stammen, Lannan, Atilano, Olsen) is decent, but none of them have great track records either.
The Nationals have also gotten exceptional work out of closer Matt Capps, who has 14 SV (with 0 blown saves) and a 0.93 ERA. This level of success at the major league level is new to Capps, who had an ERA of 5.80 with the Pirates last year. The Nationals have been winning a lot of close games, so a Capps slump could be devastating.
A lot of teams rely heavily on a couple of players to carry them, but the Nationals are especially vulnerable. The players they are relying on right now have numbers that seem unlikely to continue based on their histories and there aren’t a lot of great candidates on the roster to pick up the slack when they slump. The Nationals are making a major step forward this year, but everything indicates that it’s not going to be enough to keep with the top teams in the NL East.
Both their offense and pitching have improved, but they’ll need to get even better to continue this type of play:
2009 710 R (21st)
2010 158 R (15th)
2009 5.00 (28th)
2010 4.51 (21th)
If they keep winning, I’ll have to buy in at some point, but not yet. It’s possible that they’ll keeping finding ways to win even after these three pitchers slump. The offense looked great last night, and they do have some weapons (Zimmerman, Dunn, Willingham, Pudge). It would be great for baseball to have them in the race for much of the season, but I don’t see it this year.
They have some big tests coming up (Colorado, St. Louis, Mets, Orioles, Giants, Padres) and it starts tonight with Livan squaring off against the unbelievable Ubaldo Jimenez. If Livan struggles, it will be interesting to see how the team responds. If Livan outduels Ubaldo 1-0, maybe I’ll start believing.