The Washington Nationals had an April for the ages with regard to offensive production. However, the explosion of runs scored has masked a bullpen that surrenders runs at an alarming rate.
In 25 games played in the month of April, the Washington Nationals scored 170 runs. That’s an average of 6.8 runs per game. In the past week they outscored the Kansas City Royals for the whole month of April. Washington is in first place in the National League East with a record of 17-8. With a starting rotation of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Tanner Roark, Gio Gonzalez, and Joe Ross, the Nationals should actually have a better record while scoring 6.8 runs per game. But the not-so-well-kept secret about Washington has cost them at least two games already and will really hurt when the offense comes back down to earth.
The Nationals are on pace to score 1,101 runs this season. The major league record for runs scored in a season is 1,220 in 1894, a season in which Boston (NL) beat Cincinnati 43-11 on August 21. In 1894, the average number of runs scored per game was 7.38. Since 1900 the highest average runs scored per game in a major league season is 5.55 in 1930, and is usually 4.5 or below.
Regression to the mean
Last year, the 2016 world champion Chicago Cubs averaged 4.99 runs per game. The league average was 4.48 and the Nationals averaged 4.71 runs scored per game. All this to say that the 2017 Washington Nationals are not going to continue averaging 6.8 runs per game. In fact, based on regression to the mean, the Nationals will score fewer runs per game for the rest of the year compared to average because for 25 games they have scored so many more runs than average.
If that holds true, Washington will score about 4.5 runs per game for the remaining schedule, giving them 787 runs for the year, or an average of 4.85 runs per game for 162 games. Even if they have an incredible year and score five runs per game they will only score 4.67 runs per game the rest of the way.
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Behind the curtain
And that’s when the poorly kept secret will rear its ugly head. The Washington Nationals bullpen is a real problem. Through April the bullpen had the second highest ERA in the National League (5.70) and only after pitching five scoreless innings on Sunday in the 23-5 bludgeoning of the Mets. It was just the sixth time in 25 games in which the bullpen has pitched that the opposition failed to score against the relievers.
Washington’s pen has given up 15 home runs in 72 2/3 innings, while opponents are batting .298 on balls put into play. The Nationals bullpen does not strike out many batters (7.8 K/9) compared to the elite pens. The Astros, Reds, White Sox, Indians, Dodgers and Yankees all have bullpens that strike out over 10 batters per nine innings pitched. They also all have ERAs of 3.16 or below.
They need to pitch better
As the games get closer and more important, the Washington bullpen will be a problem. Per The Washington Post, general manager Mike Rizzo insists that the Nationals have all the pieces necessary to succeed as a group:
"“The bullpen has been disappointing. They’ve got great stuff, and they need to pitch better,” Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said Sunday. “They have the ability to do so. They’ve got the track record that they have done it, and they need to do it. It’s a performance business, and it’s all about in between the lines, and they need to pitch better.”"
The most concerning thing about the Washington relievers is that they have very little command within the zone. That is to say that in order to throw strikes, they groove way too many pitches. Blake Treinen has such great stuff that he can’t control it enough to throw to corners. Catchers therefore have to put the target right down the middle and count on the movement to keep the ball off the sweet spot on the bat.
Only Shawn Kelley has strike zone command and his stuff is not elite. When his pitches do drift over the plate, they have been hit out of the park so far. Fortunately the Nats have had leads sufficiently large to absorb a single run or two.
The Washington Nationals’ offense has been amazing. Now that Adam Eaton is gone for the season, that may change. We know that it will, just because it will. When that occurs, the bullpen will be on stage and exposed. Either the current group of pitchers will, as Mike Rizzo says, “pitch better” or the team will struggle to maintain leads until and unless some moves are made. When Matt Albers is your most reliable reliever it may be time to rethink your roster. Time will tell.