Taking the Temperature of the Nats
At the break the Washington Nationals are 51-42, nine games over .500, and the biggest and most important news is that no one got hurt in their final game of the first half against the Phillies. The Nationals did suffer an injury in the first game of that series but as of right now that looks to be minor as the MRI on Jordan Zimmermann's bicep didn't reveal any structural damage. That doesn't mean that he is 100% healthy or that bigger issues won't pop-up when he throws or pitches again, but for now the Nationals DL is empty and they have the roster Mike Rizzo assembled in the off-season. As far as the Nationals record goes this is the second best record the Nationals have had at the break ahead of the 52-46 record of the 2005 Nationals and behind the 49-34 record of the 2012 Nationals. The statistics of the Nationals tell the story of a very balanced team as they have prevented the second most runs in the NL allowing 3.51 runs a game. The offense is better than most people realize but that is only because they are judging them on a universal scale and not against the current run environment. The Nationals offense has scored 4.16 runs a game tying them with the Dodgers for the fourth most productive offense in the NL.
This combination of run scoring and run prevention has given the Washington Nationals the best run differential in the NL and the third best in MLB. The expected record of the Washington Nationals is three games better than their actual record so if the Nationals luck evens out as the season heads into its second half then the Nationals could have an even better second half than first half. Which is supported by the Washington Nationals projected 75.8% chance of making the playoffs.
The biggest story for the Washington Nationals in the first half was Bryce Harper. Harper got off to a slow start with the power and was hitting .289/.352/.422 before heading to the DL and has really struggled since coming off the DL batting just .150/.244/.250. With a record nine games better than .500 in the first half with Bryce Harper hurt and struggling for most of it, it is hard to say that the Nationals need him to win, but having him at full strength and production will give the Nationals an edge they haven't had for most of the season.
That was just the on-field issues with Bryce Harper and the far bigger issue as far as the media was concerned was Bryce Harper off the field. Matt Williams made an example of Bryce Harper by benching him for not running out a ground out back to the pitcher and then it leaked to the media that veterans on the team had issues with Bryce Harper and that they felt he was too cocky and hadn't proven himself yet. When Bryce Harper returned from the DL the drama was even greater as Harper echoed the thoughts of teammate Ryan Zimmerman that Zimmerman belongs in left and Rendon at third. This caused an even bigger storm in the media and every major baseball writer in the country got at least one story out of it.
With Bryce Harper struggling with the bat and being demonized in the media a strong second half from him is important. Getting Bryce Harper's bat going is going to be the most important development of the second half. The other way the Nationals can continue to build upon their first half success is for the pitching to do nothing different.
The Washington Nationals team ERA of 3.08 ranks first in all of baseball with their starting pitchers' ERA of 3.28 ranking third and bullpen ERA of 2.67 ranking third as well. The Nationals have a balanced pitching staff where the game is in just as good hands when the starting pitchers turn it over to the bullpen and there is no worry about the starting pitchers surviving five innings to get it to the bullpen. The Washington Nationals were built around pitching and in the first half of the season that has shown. The pitching is what helped the Nationals tread water when as many as three regular position players were out of the line-up at a time.
If Bryce Harper's bat can get going and the starting pitching can keep doing what they've done in the first half of the season then the Nationals could be the best team in baseball over the second half. If those things don't happen then they can still be pretty good. That is what makes this such an exciting team to watch and why they project to be a contender up until the end. The Washington Nationals have had a successful first half, but finally healthy the second half could be even better.