After concluding in late July that the Nationals were not going to compete for a post-season berth, team president and general manager Mike Rizzo jettisoned eight key players on the 2021 team: future Hall-of-Famer Max Scherzer, all-star shortstop Trea Turner, record-setting slugger Kyle Schwarber, veteran utility man Josh Harrison. starting catcher Yan Gomes, closer Brad Hand, set-up man Daniel Hudson and veteran starter Jon Lester. That’s a third of the active roster and four essential members — Scherzer, Turner, Gomes and Hudson — of the 2019 world championship team.
Certainly, most knowledgeable fans knew Scherzer was likely to be traded, given his free agency at season’s end. Washington’s farm system clearly had been depleted during Rizzo’s successful attempt to build and sustain a contender. Yet Nationals’ fans had to be shocked at the wholesale tanking that took place.
So the Nationals’ performance through August and September came as no surprise. The nightmare began in the second game of the July 29 doubleheader in Philadelphia. In his farewell, Scherzer had beaten the Phillies, 3-1, in the first game. In the second game, the Nats jumped out to a 7-1 lead and still lead 7-4 after six innings. Against the depleted bullpen, the Phils scored three in the seventh to send the shortened game into an extra inning. The Nats scored one in the eighth, only to see the Phils win it with a walk-off grand slam in their half.
Beginning with that loss, the Nats went 18-43 — a .295 percentage — for the rest of the season. Washington managed to edge the Marlins for the dubious honor of finishing last in the N.L. East, the second time in the two seasons since winning the World Series that the Nationals had finished last (albeit tied with the Mets in the Covid 19-shortened 2020 season.) It’s sad enough they had to play 2020 as the defending champs in empty stadiums, but to fall so far, so fast in 2021 was just devastating.
Aside from wins and losses, how bad was it?
The Nationals bullpen set a major-league record by blowing 37 saves (10 before Hand left). No team converts every save, but what if the Nats had held on for even 10 or 12 of these leads? Only the Nats and the woeful 110-loss Diamondbacks converted fewer than half their save opportunities. Cutting the blown saves in half would have produced a .500 season. Heck, 75 wins or more would have been so much less painful. Longtime fans care about their team at least being competitive.
After the sell-off, Washington had at best a weak AAA-level ’pen. Tanner Rainey lost the strike zone and Wander (make me) Suero was getting bombed. Both were banished to the minors and replaced by guys who didn’t do any better.
Nationals relievers lost a league-leading 42 games and won the second fewest (22, one more than the Diamondbacks). The Nats’ bullpen ERA was 5.08, just a tad better than the D-backs — hardly an achievement — for worst in the N.L.
Nationals pitchers (not just the bullpen, mind you) yielded an N.L. high 247 home runs. The D-backs were next at 232. More than 18 percent of the hits given up by Nats pitchers left the yard, also, no surprise, highest in the league.
Washington’s starters weren’t much better than the bullpen, and the starters stats benefited from four months of Scherzer. The Nationals’ 4.80 team earned run average was topped only by the D-Backs (5.11) and the thin-air Rockies (4.82). The Nats gave up 5.05 runs per game, joining the Rockies, Cubs and Pirates as the only N.L. teams yielding an average of more than five runs every game. Had lefty Josh Rogers not come out of nowhere for six credible starts, the numbers would have been worse.
Nationals’ hitters finished the season well above the league as a whole in batting average (.258) and on-base percentage (.337). N.L. averages were .242 and .318. But the Nats’ totals were boosted, of course, by the two-thirds-of- the-season contributions of Trea Turner (.322), Josh Harrison (.294), Starlin Castro (.283) and Yan Gomes (.271). On the downside, the Nats batters hit too many rally-killing ground balls: Their percentage of fly balls was the worst in the majors.
Based on the runs scored and yielded differential, Washington should have won 72 games. The Nationals, thanks mostly to the horrendous bullpen, won 65.
So 2022, like the last two months of 2021, will be for rebuilding, but from a much deeper trench than fans expected. Rizzo is betting heavily on catcher Keibert Ruiz, right-hander Josiah Gray, and most likely center fielder Lane Thomas, players picked up in the tear down. Will all three emerge as stars? Will Stephen Strasburg return? Will Joe Ross recover? Can Will Harris come back? Does Patrick Corbin have anything left? Will Juan Soto have much protection in the Nats’ lineup? Will his frustration at getting so few pitches to hit begin to show?
Perhaps Washington fans should consider the rebuild of the Houston Astros, losers of more than 100 games three years in a row, from 2011 to 2013. The Astros lost 92 games in 2014 before becoming consistent winners (by whatever means, but that’s another story.) The Nationals, when Rizzo took over, were going through similar hard times — 100+ losses in 2008 and 2009, following by 93 losses in 2010. They nearly reached .500 in 2011 before winning their first division title in 2012. Washington fans have to hope that this rebuild will not take nearly as long.
A version of this appeared in Here’s the Pitch, the online newsletter of the Internet Baseball Writers Association.