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 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 – a third of the active roster and four essential members 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. Many held out hope he would re-sign with Washington in the off-season, unlikely now.
But Turner? Say it ain’t so! And Schwarber? The guy just broke records set by Frank Howard and everybody else in his incredible July. As much as Hand had made fans squirm, he had saved 21 games. Hudson, a World Series hero, was still solid. Harrison and Gomes were performing above expectations. Lester had been a disappointment, but might still turn it around (and what were the alternatives?)
So the Nationals’ performance through August and September should have come 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 36 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? Heck, 75 wins or more would have been so much less painful.
The fact is that after the sell-off, Washington had at best a poor 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 pitchers (not just the bullpen, mind you) yielded an N.L. high 247 home runs. The woeful 110-loss Diamondbacks 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.
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.
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).
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. Will Stephen Strasburg return? Will Joe Ross recover? Will Juan Soto have much protection in the Nats’ lineup? Will his frustration at getting so few pitches to hit begin to show? Washington baseball fans await the answers.