NL Notes: Nats' bullpen woes, Freeman on fire

May 25th, 2019

Welcome to the NL notebook, a weekly look at players, topics, and trends around the Senior Circuit. This week, we check in on the struggling Nationals, the surging Freddie Freeman and the dominant Kirby Yates.

Take a quick look at the Nationals’ roster, and you will see a group that looks like, if not a world champion, a strong contender. They have stars in the rotation, tons of offensive talent and one of the game’s best closers.

If you look at the standings, though, you will see the grim reality. Washington's record stands at 20-31 heading into Saturday, which places the club in fourth in the National League East. The Nats are closer to the last-place Marlins than third-place New York. Only one team in the Wild Card era has won fewer than 20 of its first 50 games and made the postseason.

This was a team projected in many places -- including on this very website -- to win the NL East. So … what in the world is going on here?

It starts with the extremely obvious: Washington’s bullpen has been simply brutal so far. When even has a game like he did on Wednesday against the Mets, you know things are going badly. The Nats’ bullpen ERA is a staggering 7.09, and its 12 losses in relief are tied for the most in the NL (and Majors). Despite throwing the fewest relief innings of any team in the league, they’ve allowed 28 homers -- tied for the third-highest total.

Framed another way: Washington's relievers have a collective win probability added of -6.03. WPA is a measure of a player’s contribution to the likelihood of winning or losing a game. It’s a net stat, so that still includes the times when they’ve pitched well. By WPA, Nats relievers have cost the team six losses in 51 games. That’s almost unfathomable.

But there’s also one slightly less obvious culprit. The Nats’ defense hasn’t been much better than their bullpen. They’re last in the Majors in defensive efficiency rating, which measures the percentage of balls in play that have been turned into outs.

The impact of that quickly becomes evident when you look at Washington's top two starters. By peripheral numbers, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg have pitched as well as anyone in the NL. They’re first and second in strikeouts, and both in the top four in innings. They’re second and third in xFIP, a defense-independent pitching stat. But neither is even in the Top 10 in the league in ERA.

Washington’s starters are doing their job, especially the big three of Scherzer, Strasburg and Patrick Corbin. Doolittle, until the other night, has been his usual outstanding self. And the lineup has disappointed relative to expectations, but it’s produced at essentially a league average level (NL league-wide OPS: 732; Nats: 733). It would help if they hit more, but they certainly haven’t hit like a non-contending team.

But the Nationals are not getting any help at all from the relievers not named Doolittle, and they’re not turning batted balls into outs. Those two flaws are enough to turn a preseason favorite into a team in dire jeopardy of missing the postseason.

Player of the week

Last week in this space, we examined the Baby Braves -- and with good reason. Those guys are fun, and they’re awfully good. But Atlanta’s best player this year has been old reliable, . Freeman is probably best known for being a steady, productive, Joey Votto-lite type of player -- someone who hits .300 and gets on base at a very nice clip. What gets lost in that description is that when he’s fully healthy, Freeman is a serious power source, as well.

This season, he’s once again free of the hand and wrist issues that have struck him multiple times over the years, and he is hitting the ball with authority as well as frequency. He’s been setting a torrid pace lately.

Freeman has six homers in his past nine games -- and 11 in his past 28. He sported a solid .307/.430/.455 line on April 24. Since then, he’s obliterated baseballs to the tune of .330/.390/.688, raising his season slugging mark by 110 points.

Stat of the week

Padres closer Kirby Yates is on pace for a historic double. He’s struck out 46.8 percent of the batters he’s faced while racking up 20 saves. No pitcher in history has amassed at least 45 saves while also maintaining a 45% K rate. Only one has even had 40 saves with a 45% K rate -- Craig Kimbrel in 2012.

Looking ahead: Series of the week

There’s a ton of intriguing Interleague action coming up in the next seven days, but let’s stick to an NL battle, because it’s a good one. The Phillies continue a tough stretch of their schedule when they visit the Dodgers next weekend.

Bryce Harper will face one of the teams most heavily rumored to have pursued him, while young sluggers Cody Bellinger and Rhys Hoskins will square off. It will evoke memories of quite a few notable postseason games and series over the past several decades -- and could very well be a preview of another one.