What the Nats Need to do to Make the Playoffs

 

With their 5-1 win last night the Nats got back to .500 and are now six games behind the Braves. If the Braves play .500 baseball from now until the end of the season they will finish with 87 wins, and if they play at their current pace of .591 ball they will finish with 96 wins. The Nats have some control over that as they have nine games head to head against the Braves left on the schedule, but even that amount of control is minimal. The Nats need to not focus on making the playoffs and more on winning series. The odds are that one of the teams in front of them, be it the Braves, Rockies, Giants, Diamondbacks, Reds, or Pirates, will fall off. The Nats need to focus instead and controlling what they can control. They need to win the series they play and claw their way to 90 wins by the end of the season.  

Doing that is easier said than done. At 32-32 with 98 games left to play the Nats need to go 60-38 or play .612 ball. Over the course of a 162 game season that is a 99 win pace. And while that isn't easy to do in three and a half months’ time it is a lot easier to do that in 98 games than it is over the course of 162. The Nationals need a few things to start going right. Most importantly they need to offense to pick up. Remember the Nats need to play .612 baseball over the next 98 games. What they have done in the first 64 doesn't matter that much. They can't go back and win those games, they can't change the run differential that was, nor go back and take out Danny Espinosa for Rendon sooner or keep Harper from running into the wall in LA. The Nats are helpless to change the past, but the future is in their hands.   

The first order of business has been taken care of. The Nationals bullpen has allowed 83 runs on the season. Henry Rodriguez and Zach Duke are responsible for 30 of those or 36%. They are both gone. Along with them being gone Jayson Werth is back in the line-up along with Anthony Rendon. It isn't hard to look at their OPS and the OPS the Nats were getting from those positions, but since they have been inserted into the line-up the Nats have scored one, three, seven, six, three, and five runs an average of 4.17 runs a game.

Beyond just having Werth and Rendon in the line since last Wednesday with two of their starting outfielders healthy Davey Johnson has been able to utilize Bernadina and Kobernus as a true platoon. Also gone is Tyler Moore who wasn't having the offensive season he needed, but on top of that was one of the worst defensive players in the history of defense with a UZR of -3.3 on the season which would be worth -22.2 over the course of 150 games. While Moore wasn't playing much, when he was out there he was doing damage. Sending him down to get consistent at bats will be useful as will getting to play the outfield every day. 

Over the last seven days both Bernadina and Kobernus have hit well; with Bernadina having faced mostly right handed pitchers and Kobernus mostly left handers. With both Werth and Harper on the DL the Nats had to use two replacement outfielders and couldn't fully take advantage of their platoon splits. With Werth back Davey Johnson is better equipped to take advantage of the platoon advantage and can meld Kobernus and Bernadina into one useful outfielder much as he did with Bernadina and Moore in 2012 when Werth was out for an extended period of time.  

Now that we've explored why the Nats offense has jumped from 3.50 runs a game on the season to 4.17 in the last six games I will add that it isn't enough. The Nats need to be even better, and most of that is on offense and most of that is on the DL with Bryce Harper. At the earliest Harper will rejoin the Nats next week when they return home from their road trip. He is scheduled to be re-evaluated next Tuesday and if all is clear could begin a rehab assignment Wednesday and be ready to go as soon as Friday. That is somewhat of a best case scenario, but even if it is a little longer Harper is close to returning and the impact he is going to have on the Nationals line-up will be monumental. Don't just take my word for it. Before Harper went down he was averaging getting on base 1.5 times a game and with a .411 wOBA Harper by himself was worth .616 runs a game. Assuming that what Werth and Rendon have brought is sustainable at even four runs a game and adding Harper brings it up to 4.6 runs a game. That is a tremendous impact from one player, but that is why he was considered an MVP candidate before he got hurt.   

Now at 4.6 runs a game and with the Nats current run prevention totals of 3.94 runs allowed a game that give the Nationals 414 runs scored over the 90 games after Harpers return and 354 runs allowed. Plugging that into pythag and the Nats would go 52-38 over those 90 games. Which if they go .500 over their next eight puts them at 88 wins on the season or two shy of the goal of 90. In other words just getting Harper back isn't going to be enough. The Nats have to make up those other two wins somewhere else which brings us to the fifth starter’s spot that is currently occupied by Dan Haren.    

Ross Ohlendorf in his Nats debut did well. He allowed one run on two hits with two walks and two strikeouts. Overall a decent line. Didn't strike enough guys out and a K/BB ratio of one isn't exactly good, but the Nats don't need good they need serviceable. In the games Dan Haren has started the Nats have gone 4-9. With 19 starts left from that spot in the rotation the Nats need it to be better. Think around .500 or 9-10 if you prefer. In order to do that with the predicted 4.6 runs scored average a game the Nats need to allow an average of 4.6 runs in those games to achieve .500. At his current ERA and average of five innings a game Dan Haren has allowed an average of 3.2 runs a game. That doesn't look that bad as the Nats are suddenly averaging 4.6 runs a game, but that is only in five innings of work. There are four innings left to finish the game and with that many innings the Nats are going to have to bring in four or five relievers to finish the game and with the Nats current bullpen ERA of 3.89 that is 1.7 runs over those final two innings which bring the Nats runs allowed average up to 4.9 in games Haren pitches. 

The difference between 4.9 and 4.6 isn't that great, and the Nats overall bullpen ERA should be on the decline now that Rodriguez and Duke are gone, but the easiest way to pick up those extra wins in those games is to find a better fifth starter. If the Nats could get slightly worse than a league average starting pitcher with a 4.15 ERA that can average the league average of six innings a start that alone bring the runs allowed total in those game down to 2.8 from the starter and add in the bullpen at 1.3 and that is a runs allowed total of 4.1 which would even make the Nationals slightly over .500 in those games if they are averaging 4.6 runs a game.   

Now, who may this magical 4.15 ERA starter be? There are many options and it doesn't have to be one person. Ross Ohlendorf could be given a couple additional starts while Haren goes to the DL to receive treatment on his hip and back. If Haren looks good in his rehab starts he can then come back and keep in mind his 2.1 HR/9 should be completely unsustainable. If he pitches to a normal homerun rate then he'll pitch to his xFIP which is currently 4.09; which is exactly what the Nats need from that spot. If Haren doesn't look good in his starts then the Nats should ride Ohlendorf as long as possible, but he has never been a major league quality starter and will fall apart at some point. If that happens before the deadline the Nats can either bring back Karns for a second go in the majors and see if he can be better or try someone else like Chris Young or Danny Rosenbaum, and once the deadline gets closer make a deal for someone that can be the 4.15 ERA pitcher they need. The Nats need a 4.15 ERA and .500 record from the fifth spot. They do not need it to be one person. Bringing them up, burning them up, and throwing them away can go a long way towards achieving this goal.    

If the Nats can get healthy, stay healthy, and get slightly more production from the fifth spot in the rotation then 90 wins isn't that difficult to reach. Werth and Rendon have already had a positive impact on the offense and Bryce Harper is going to have a major one. But it should be noted that even at 90 wins the Nats may not make the playoffs. They currently have four teams ahead of them for one of the Wild Card spots and are six back of Atlanta, but the Nats can't make those teams fall they can only move themselves into a position to catch them if they do, and the first order of business has already been achieved. The offense has improved to a point where a .500 record would occur from here on out without Bryce Harper. Add back in Bryce Harper and the Nats are at 88 wins. Improve the fifth starters spot in the rotation and suddenly the Nats are at 90, and in a position to drag down any contender that dare fall within their reach.  

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