Nationals 2020 season review

The 2020 MLB postseason begins today, and the reigning World Series champion Washington Nationals will not take part. After a 26-34 season, the reigning World Series champions finished fourth in the NL East (with the exact same record as the last place New York Mets) and will hold the 11th overall pick in the next amateur draft.

The World Series champion Washington Nationals will only lay claim to the title for about one more month, which is why I will milk it as long as I still can, so let’s break down what went wrong, and what there is to look forward to in 2021 and beyond for the World Series champion Washington Nationals.

Injuries, injuries, injuries

With Juan Soto missing the first eight games of the season due to a positive COVID-19 test (he reportedly tested negative the following 10 times he was tested) and Stephen Strasburg making just two starts before being shut down for the season, the team was hit hard from the beginning.

Adding in a broken wrist from Starlin Castro and trips to the IL for Adam Eaton, Howie Kendrick and Sam Freeman among others, the list of aches and pains goes on. It was less a championship hangover and more The Hangover (2009). The Nats were Zach Galifianakis, and 2020 was Mike Tyson and Ken Jeong.

With Ryan Zimmerman and Joe Ross opting out before the season was even played, that adds two more regular contributors whom the team missed in 2020. The team wasn’t ravaged up and down the lineup, but it certainly made an impact. If the team can make a few improvements and experience better health next season, they should find themselves back in the playoff hunt.

Inconsistent offense

No team’s offense will look the same when its best player leaves, but the Nats still had the talent on paper to be a good offensive team. It showed on some nights, but it was more often the Soto-Turner show at the plate.

Soto’s .351 batting average made him the youngest player to ever win the NL batting title (21), and his astounding .490 on-base percentage and .695 slugging percentage led the majors. Trea Turner had a career-year (or career half-year) with 12 home runs, 41 RBI (most on team), and a .335/.394/.588 slash line.

The next-best hitter (min. 40 games played) may surprise you, but it was actually rookie infielder Luis García with .276. The 20-year-old Garcia became the first player born in the 2000s to reach the major leagues, and his debut came after Castro, coincidentally the first 1990s-born player to reach the majors, went down with his wrist injury.

Garcia wasn’t expected to reach the majors until 2021 at the earliest, but his promotion allowed the Nats to find another young player to build around. With Soto, Garcia, Victor Robles and Carter Kieboom (who had an up-and-down year but should improve with time) all 23 or younger, the Nats have themselves a solid young core to build around.

Outside of the good was plenty of bad. Eaton, Robles and Asdrúbal Cabrera all hit south of .250, although each displayed great flashes at certain points in the season. Midseason acquisitions Josh Harrison and Brock Holt were decent in their limited time, but both were meant to serve as bench players to begin with.

Kendrick could only play a limited as a 36-year-old designated hitter, and he’s even mulling retirement next year, but he managed to hit fairly well in the 25 games he played. With no one to pick up for his reduced production, the offense struggled.

There wasn’t much to praise at the plate outside Soto and Turner, but in a breakneck 60-game season, maybe there just wasn’t enough time for everyone else to hit their stride. In any case, the offense has to be better, and hopefully the supporting cast will step up in 2021.

Pitching woes

Strasburg going down so early was a back-breaker, and the starting pitching, which was the team’s biggest strength in 2019, was arguably the biggest weakness in 2020.

Max Scherzer was great as always, striking out 12.3 batters per nine innings and posting a 3.74 ERA. Patrick Corbin was solid, but outside of a few relievers, pretty much everyone else struggled.

Aníbal Sánchez and Austin Voth allowed a ton of runs, and Erick Fedde, who replaced Strasburg in the starting rotation, was certainly better than Sanchez and Voth, but not amazing.

Out of the bullpen, Daniel Hudson and Sean Doolittle each struggled at various points, but other arms were able to emerge, such as Tanner Rainey, Kyle Finnegan and Wander Suero. If this cluster of relief pitchers can somehow find a way to be consistently good all at the same time, the Nationals could have a strong bullpen for the first time ever in 2021. It’s wishful thinking, but it will be harder to get worse in that facet.

My end of season awards

Both Turner and Soto would be in the running for NL MVP if the Nats hadn’t finished so low in the standings, and while there likely won’t be any Nats picking up individual hardware this year, these are my picks for team-wide awards. Most I’m stealing from MLB or other sports, but a few I’ll be making up myself.

MVP: Juan Soto

Cy Young: Max Scherzer

Rookie of the Year: Luis García

Most Improved: Tanner Rainey

Best newcomer: Starlin Castro

Defensive Player of the Year: Victor Robles

Mr. Reliable: Trea Turner

The Gerardo Parra Clubhouse Engine Award: Yadiel Hernández

The Where’s Waldo Award: Adam Eaton

The Drew Storen “Oh not him again” Award: Ryne Harper

The Michael A. Taylor Boom-or-Bust Award: Michael A. Taylor

You could pick either Soto or Turner for MVP and be correct. I went with Soto simply due to his league-best hitting and strong defense in left field. Scherzer gets team Cy Young for obvious reasons, although it pales in comparison to his real Cy Youngs. Kieboom was slated to walk away with Rookie of the Year, and while he put together some good at bats, García stole the show and will hopefully take a leap in 2021.

Rainey went from shaky relief option with tons of velocity in 2019 to a flamethrower with tons of velocity in 2020. His performance dipped a bit by the end of the season (his ERA was 1.10 on Sept. 3, and it ended at 2.66), but he looked like he had the stuff of a future shutdown closer. Rainey’s the real deal.

Castro’s season was cut short after 16 games, but he brought solid offense and good defense as the everyday second baseman. The only silver lining of his injury is that it cleared the way for Garcia’s emergence. Hopefully both trailblazers will be top contributors next season.

It would have been nice if Robles established himself as a reliable offensive player, but it was a quiet year for him at the plate. Despite those struggles, Robles showed time and time again that he is the best defensive center fielder in baseball. When he can get his bat going consistently, he will be an even bigger force on the diamond.

Turner didn’t get my MVP vote, but as the second-best hitter this year, the team’s best infielder and one of just three players on the team to appear in over 50 games (he was just one shy of playing in all 60), Turner was easily the most consistent, reliable player on the team this year. Add in his 16-game hit streak in August through early September, and he’s the no-brainer pick.

Yadiel Hernández made his major league debut on Sept. 10 at 32 years old, but he had his moment on Sept. 22 when he hit a walk-off home run — the first home run of his MLB career — against the Phillies to secure an 8-7 win for the Nats. Hernández joined the team midseason, he hit a walk-off for his first home run as a Nat, and he served as a great energizer in the dugout through the rest of September. He channeled Gerardo Parra in every way.

Robles and Eric Thames were among the players who disappointed at the plate, but after hitting the first home run of the season back in July, Eaton just seemed to disappear for much of the season. His -0.9 WAR was tied for worst on the team, and with a slash line of .226/.285/.384, his normally strong offensive output was diminished.

The “oh not him again” award is named after former Nats reliever Drew Storen because of the intense feelings of dread I felt whenever he came in to close a game. Despite putting up solid regular season numbers, Storen blew leads in two crucial playoff games (Game 5 of the 2012 NLDS and Game 2 of the 2014 NLDS) which eventually led to the Nats ouster in the playoffs.

This year the reliever that gave me that similar feeling was Ryne Harper. Harper had plenty of seamless outings, in fact he had more 0 ER games than 1+ ER games, so credit where credit is due, but he still had a handful of blow-ups. Harper’s 29 hits allowed and 20 earned runs were the most among Nats relievers. Remarkably, despite the handful of bad outings, he finished with a 1-0 record.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Michael A. Taylor only either hits home runs or strikes out. I’ve seen him hit a home run more often than I’ve seen him get a base hit, and I’ve seen him strikeout more than any of those outcomes combined. Surely I’m exaggerating, but when looking at the stats, it’s not too far off.

Despite batting a measly .196, Taylor’s five home runs were the fourth-most on the team. His 27 strikeouts were the ninth-most, but every player with more had at least 123 at bats (except Kieboom, who had 99), while Taylor himself had just 92.

Looking closer at the home runs, Taylor had just 18 hits this season. Five were home runs, meaning 27.8 percent of his hits were home runs. That is absurd. The three players ahead of him in the home run count had 46 hits or more. The two players right behind him with four home runs had 31 hits or more. The next-highest “home run percentage,” as in the amount of hits that were home runs was 24.1 percent from Soto. No one else is even close to that.

Soto, as we’ve seen, is obviously a much more complete hitter. Taylor having a percentage that high makes little sense. Taylor had six doubles, zero triples and five home runs. He had nearly as many home runs as he did other extra base hits. I always had this sense, but the numbers back it up: Michael A. Taylor is the biggest boom-or-bust hitter I’ve ever seen, so he not only deserves the namesake of this award, but he earned it this year as well.

After such an incredible 2019 season, 2020 fell flat. It will be an interesting offseason, as this team still has the pieces to get back to the playoffs, but the World Series champion Washington Nationals will be able to fly that 2019 flag forever.

Cover Photo Credit: John Minchillo/Associated Press

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