In case you haven’t heard, the Washington Nationals are a thing now. No, really. At 36-23, they’ve got the second best record in baseball, the best team ERA, and as much as it pains me to say it, this little thing called Bryce Harper, luckily sans “skullet,” which makes it hurt a little less.
Here’s the thing about the Nats though, after Harper they don’t hit very well, or at all really. They’re at the back end of the majors with 230 runs (25th), a .243 batting average (24th), and a paltry .311 on base percentage (24th). How then are they at the top of the NL East, one of the league’s most contentious divisions, by a comfortable three games over the Braves and five over the Mets and Marlins? Well if it’s not the hitting…
Let’s talk about this Nats pitching staff. As mentioned, their 2.98 ERA is the best in the majors, they’ve also got a league best 1.14WHIP and .220 batting average against. Here’s the thing about their rotation, Edwin Jackson (he of the 3.02 ERA) is their number four starter. Four. Ahead of him they’ve got Jordan Zimmermann (2.91), Gio Gonzalez (2.35), and phenom Stephen Strasburg (2.41). So if your team’s playing the Nationals on any given night, there’s an 80 percent chance they’ll be trying to hit a guy with an ERA of 3.02 or less. Think about that for a second. And as much as I love Johan Santana and R.A. Dickey, no team in the league has a 1-2 punch better than Strasburg and Gonzalez, who Grantland’s Shane Ryan called “the most dynamic Washington duo since Mondale-Ferraro fever swept the District in ’84.”
With a rotation like that, they’ve probably got an awful bullpen, right? I mean everyone’s got an awful bullpen. Nope. National relievers have the NL’s fourth best combined ERA, 3.12. But that’s OK, their closer’s injured and having a good closer means everything, right? Wrong. Even if closer was a worthwhile baseball position and not just a money-making tool, the absence of Drew Storen (the team’s first-round pick in 2009), who had 43 saves and a 2.75 ERA last year, hasn’t hurt the Nationals any. Since stepping into the role Tyler Clippard is eight for eight in save opportunities. As if that wasn’t enough, he’s got guys like Sean Burnett (1.35 ERA, 23 K’s in 20 innings pitched) and Craig Stammen (1.80 ERA, 32 K’s in 30 innings pitched) behind him.
But up there, when I said “the Washing Nationals are doing it right,” I wasn’t really talking about any of this stuff. Well, except the wins. What I really meant was the way the Nats are handling things behind the scenes. There’s only one way for a team that won 69 games in 2010 and 59 in 2009 and 2008 to be this good this year: making the right draft choices, spending money on free agents when it’s called for (without wasting it when it isn’t, well besides Jayson Werth), and pulling the trigger, without spending too much, on high-risk high-reward pick ups. Edwin Jackson is a perfect example of the final strategy, the journeyman has bounced around the league and had a few successful seasons here and there, but he’s never been able to really pull it together. But Jackson is only 28, and now he’s having his best year ever, so an appropriate suffix for the previous sentence just might be “until now.”
Despite the record and accolades, the Nationals are in the bottom third of MLB payrolls (20th, $81,336,143). Furthermore, three of the team’s four best hitters: Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, and Ian Desmond, as well as Strasburg and Zimmermann (note the second “n”) are homegrown. It took a while for the Nats to get their shit together following the move from Montreal, but it’s happened, and now the team is here to stay. Don’t be surprised if you see them in the playoffs (or at least the NL East hunt) for the next few years.