The Nationals are having their best month of the year right now, and it's been thrilling to watch. The team has come up clutch in tight games several times, and they've picked up series wins against strong teams. They've gone 16-7 so far in August with five more games to play. All of this has been fueled by young hitters like Jake Alu and Alex Call coming up big in key moments, and a ruthless bullpen locking down 10 saves.
So, what has been the big change for the Nationals team that was 45-62 heading into August? Has their pitching become elite, or has their offense reached a new level? Well, the interesting thing is that neither has really happened. Looking under the hood of the team's performance in August, there aren't many signs of a slumbering powerhouse being awoken.
Here's the data to back that up. Nats pitchers have a 4.63 ERA in August, 18th-best in MLB. The team has scored 110 runs in August, or 4.78 runs per game, which is 15th-best in MLB. Just based on the runs, the team is playing at a decent, middle of the pack level rather than at a truly dominant pace deserving of their 16-7 record. There is no major offensive or pitching category in which the Nationals rank in the top 5 teams in August, but they've won the 5th-most games of any team. Every win counts, but this information is important if only to set expectations for the future.
The Stats That Come Back To Bite You
It's clear to me what has gone on in recent Nationals series - close-game variance. the Nationals have won 8 one-run games this month, while losing just one, and they've won another four games by three runs. Kyle Finnegan's strong pitching and Hunter Harvey's return have allowed the Nationals to close out all of these close games with ease, even without a dominant offense.
Whether you consider success in close games as sequencing luck or a product of meaningful qualities in a team is down to your own baseball philosophy. The Nationals have certainly looked fun, hard to beat, and extremely scrappy, and the winning they've done has shot them up in the standings, right next to the loaded rosters of the Mets and Padres. You can look at that as a sign of immediate success in the future, if you are so inclined. You can watch clutch hits and close wins pile up over a few weeks and determine that this underdog Nationals team is destined for greatness soon.
Scrappy. Clutch. Grit, love of the game, fundamentals, taking it day by day, playing the game the right way, and every other cliché. Play hard, play easy, play smart, and don't think, as it can only hurt the ball club. It all sounds great in theory, until you realize every single team and player is deeply indoctrinated into those same principles. Mathematically speaking, these factors cancel each other out on both sides of the equation, and the results of the games come about as if they never existed at all.
Unfortunately for people who just found out about the Nationals this week, baseball is played over a really, really long season. There's generally not much you can determine about a player or about a team in three or four weeks of games. For every razor-thin win a team picks up, there will be a heartbreaking loss coming in the future. It's not impossible to be a great team in one-run games for a while, or for one season, but it's not a repeatable skill, no matter how much fans want it to be.
The reason I think these precautions are necessary is not because I want the team to fail, or that I think they'll tank in September. Hopefully, they continue winning in their scrappy ways and spoiling other team's weeks where they thought they could beat the Nats. Ideally, this winning indicates some budding development from key players, and will inspire the whole organization to finally hit the gas pedal. However, with the new 61-69 record comes some undeserved expectations. This team is not built to compete now or next year, and the current active roster is much weaker than they have looked this month.
Are These Nationals Ready To Compete?
Alex Call starts in center field, Ildemaro Vargas plays everyday between multiple positions. Jake Alu, Blake Rutherford, and Michael Chavis shuffle in and out of the lineup while Riley Adams and Dom Smith mix and match starts between the regulars at DH. Together, that group has proved approximately nothing: no power hitters, no on-base machines, no defensive studs. It's a collection of misfit toys more than it is an underrated and exciting young core. I'm not just saying this, it's borne out in the stats, like the team's low collective on base and slugging numbers. There are holes in the lineup, and that's why the team hasn't had a good offense at any point this year.
On the pitching side, Jake Irvin and Joan Adon have showed up and put in some great performances, matched with some iffy ones. The team lacks pitching depth at the high levels, but it's encouraging to see the current rotation perform at a mediocre level when the past few seasons have seen some much worse showings. Even still, the staff as a whole has the 3rd-worst FIP of any team in August. That's by far the biggest red flag for the squad that has done all this winning in front of a homer-prone pitching staff. Josiah Gray and MacKenzie Gore are great as mid-rotation pieces with team control, but the team is clearly missing the Strasburgs and Scherzers they used to have, and the Gio Gonzalezes, Jordan Zimmermanns, and 2019 Patrick Corbins too.
Ultimately the team's record is what it is. Nobody would have expected the Nats to be out of the bottom 10 spots in the standings in August, and it's incredible to see. If the team finishes strong in August and has another great month in September, they could climb even higher and take a swing at a .500 record! That's pretty great for what was considered a tanking season for the club, and fans can only hope it inspires ownership to invest into the 2024 payroll. Even with Dylan Crews on the way, they'll need to make several serious additions to turn a scrappy team punching above its weight into a team worthy of a championship fight.