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Washington Nationals 2023 Mid-Season Report

The Nationals are playing to expectations halfway through the season, as they sit in last place in the NL East.

The Washington Nationals look like the team most expected them to be before the 2023 season started. Unlike the Kansas City Royals and the Oakland A’s, the Nats are a regular amount of bad instead of being embarrassingly terrible. Their 34 wins through Sunday put them on pace for 66 at the end of the season. After finishing dead last in 2022 with 55 wins, a jump of 11 would be an encouraging improvement.

In the early-ish stages of a rebuild, GM Mike Rizzo is using this season to see which players can be part of the next competitive team, and who could be flipped in a few weeks.  The current lineup has one nice trade chip, and some arms in the bullpen are drawing interest. Most of the young players have taken steps forward, which is the most important part of escaping a rebuild.

Lackluster Offense

The Nationals lineup are the poster children for why batting average is falling out of fashion. Washington is fifth in team average but only 20th in OPS, 19th in wOBA, and 22nd in wRC+. The Nats are 10th in hits and have struck out less than anyone, which is a good thing. Contact is extremely important in baseball, but this teams puts no oomph in their swings. They have a team slugging percentage under .400 and draw the fewest walks in baseball, meaning most of those hits are just plain singles. DH Joey Meneses, with only two home runs, has not followed up his shocking breakout. It is no surprise that a team struggling to get on base or hit it over the fence on is only scoring 4.15 runs per game.

Low-cost signings for OF Corey Dickerson and 1B Dom Smith have not panned out, but one of the bounce-back fliers has worked out splendidly. After a down 2022, 3B Jeimer Candelario looks like his old self, with an OPS+ of 126. His slash line is slightly higher than 2021, when he led the majors in doubles. The low-risk gamble will pay off for the front office, as Candelario will bring back a nice return at the trade deadline. In a thin hitter’s market, Candelario is one of the most attractive rental options.

Meanwhile, the core players are generally doing what they need to do. C Keibert Ruiz is still growing at the plate and behind it, but he has what it takes to improve. His bat-to-ball skills are too polished to only hit .229. 2B Luis Garcia is hovering around league average, but his plate discipline has dramatically improved. Garcia has cut his strikeout rate by 10 points, increased his walk rate by three points, and he is hitting the ball harder to boot. SS CJ Abrams has taken an incremental step forward, mostly because he is hitting for more power than I expected. Abrams has seven home runs in 74 games after only hitting two in 90 games last year.

Passable Pitching

While the offense is a snooze fest, the pitching staff is kinda-sorta respectable. Their 4.76 ERA is not pretty, but it is better than last year’s 5.00 figure. To be fair, Washington’s defense is the worst in baseball based on accumulated metrics, so the pitching is not completely at fault for giving up five runs per game. If you like action, then turn on a Nats game, because they also strike out the fewest batters. The rare K, combined with lots of walks and home runs, explain why the Nationals are close to the bottom in FIP and xFIP.

The bottom-line stats paint a worse picture than the individual performances. SP Josiah Gray has turned a 3.30 ERA into his first All-Star selection, a clear sign of progress in the rebuild. That ERA is over a run lower than his FIP so regression may be coming, but both figures have improved by over a run compared to last season. Gray’s stuff has improved since Opening Day, showing much-needed development at the big league level.

SP MacKenzie Gore is treading water at the moment, largely because walks are still a problem. His talent is evident in every start, but all the free bases make for inefficient and short outings. Tightening up his loopy curveball might help. SP Patrick Corbin and SP Trevor Williams are chugging along. They eat innings and give the Nationals a chance to win more often than not. Corbin’s contract is not quite as underwater as last season, as his ERA has improved by a run and a half, and he is a year closer to free agency.

The Nationals bullpen is not playing well (ERA over 5.00), but there are some intriguing arms. RPs Kyle Finnegan, Mason Thompson, and Hunter Harvey all have live arms and plenty of team control to bring back a decent trade return. RP Carl Edwards Jr. is currently hurt but most likely to go since he is an impending free agent.

Ejections, Ejections, and a Printout

When a team is going through the depths of a rebuild, there isn’t much a manager can do to fire up his team. Well, other than yell at the umpires. In what may be his last ride as a skipper, Davey Martinez is drawing headlines for some effusive disagreements. Two ejections is par for the course, but after fateful baseline call, Martinez printed out a picture to prove his point.

In a 5-4 loss to the Houston Astros on June 14, Ruiz hit OF Jake Meyers in the head with a throw down the first base line, allowing the winning run to score. Martinez thought Meyers was out of the baseline. The Nats argued on the field but of course could not sway the umpires to call Meyers out.

During his postgame press conference, he brought a picture showing Meyers standing on the grass while running to first. It is possible the umps were right to let the play stand, but if that is the case, then Martinez thinks the league must “fix the rule. If this is what the umpire sees that he’s running down the line, I’m tired of it. I’m tired of it. Fix it. We lost the game, and he had nothing to say about it because he can’t make the right call. Brutal.”

Martinez can’t honestly get mad at his players for not being better Major Leaguers, but a manager can always get mad at men in black and blue on the field. Bringing in robots won’t change that.

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