3 Questions for the Nats’ 60-Game Title Defense

After a pandemic-induced delay and a fierce labor battle between players and team owners, baseball finally returns Thursday night. The team I have rooted for since adopting D.C. as my hometown in 2011 (the Nationals) are taking on the team I rooted for growing up (the evil-empire Yankees).

As the Nats gear up for their first-ever title defense — in a shortened, 60-game season, no less — here are some of the questions I can’t wait to see answered.

Trea Turner missed time in 2019 with a broken finger, and didn’t even have surgery on the broken finger until after he won a ring with the Nats. But Turner’s effectiveness as a five-tool player started (or continued) to show in the last two months of the season. Here were his splits for August-September:

  • 228 AB, 72 H (.316 AVG), 49 R, 10 HR, 29 RBI, 14 SB, 2 CS, 19 BB, 39 SO

On a 716-AB basis that season would look like this:

  • 716 AB, 226 H (.316 AVG), 154 R, 31 HR, 91 RBI, 44 SB, 6 CS, 60 BB, 123 SO

Why 716 at bats? That’s how many at bats another speedy shortstop, the Phillies’ Jimmy Rollins, had in his 2007 MVP season. His stats in that season are below:

  • 716 AB, 212 H (.296 AVG), 139 R, 30 HR, 94 RBI, 41 SB, 6 CS, 49 BB, 85 SO

There’s a lot of extrapolation involved in taking two months of Trea Turner’s season and comparing him to Jimmy Rollins at his peak. But Turner is also a career .291 hitter, and is averaging 21 HR, 73 RBI, and 53 SB per 162 games in his career through his first 482 career games.

If Turner takes his August and September of last year and applies it to this 60-game season, there’s no question he’ll stack up as a #3 hitter who can protect Juan Soto. If Turner hits more like he did in May and June, when hobbled with a healing finger (.267 AVG, 4 HR, 15 RBI, 13 SB), the Nats lineup may be in trouble this year. (Indeed, Soto’s already down with COVID-19 — prayers up for a full recovery.)

It’s no secret that Juan Soto is in the linchpin of the Nats lineup. The Nats desperately need to give opposing pitchers reasons to actually throw balls over the plate to Soto. New second baseman Starlin Castro and new first baseman Eric Thames will play key roles in determining how strong the Nats #5 spot is.

As I wrote in March, Castro’s success with the Nats largely depends on whether he looks like he did in 2019’s first half or 2019’s second half. Here were Castro’s splits in his last 56 games of 2019:

  • 216 AB, 67 H (.310 AVG), 38 R, 14 HR, 43 RBI, 11 BB, 34 SO

On a 650-AB basis that season would look like this:

  • 650 AB, 202 H (.310 AVG), 114 R, 42 HR, 130 RBI, 33 BB, 102 SO

I don’t think anyone thinks Starlin Castro will ever hit 42 home runs in a season, but it illustrates just how good Castro was over a near-60 game stretch last year. If that Castro shows up, the Nats have an All Star-caliber bat in their lineup protecting Soto.

As for Thames? Here’s his splits for the last 50 games of 2019:

  • 148 AB, 37 H (.250 AVG), 24 R, 10 HR, 21 RBI, 13 BB, 49 SO

On a 650-AB basis that season would look like this:

  • 650 AB, 162 H (.250 AVG), 105 R, 44 HR, 92 RBI, 57 BB, 215 SO

Despite the gaudy strikeout numbers, a 60-game split like Thames had last August and September would also serve the Nats well — not quite All-Star level stats, but enough pop to make hitters fear walking Soto to get to Thames. The lefty first baseman will be even more important to the Nats lineup this year after right-handed first baseman Ryan Zimmerman opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19. While the decision is certainly understandable, it means Thames will be getting more ABs than he otherwise would if platooning with Zimmerman.

In March, I asked which Anibal Sanchez will show up for the Nats in 2020 — the April 2019 Sanchez who had a 5.91 ERA, or the rest-of-2019 Sanchez who looked like a fourth ace? I still don’t know the answer, but with a shortened season I’m now more concerned with the three-headed monster atop the Nats rotation: Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin. Strasburg and Corbin are arguably still in their prime years, but Scherzer turns 36 next week and dealt with significant injuries for the first time in his career last year.

Scherzer was still brilliant — 11–7, 2.92 ERA, 2.45 FIP, 157 ERA+, 243 SO (12.7 per nine innings) — and finished third in Cy Young voting. He’s a future Hall of Famer, and one of the toughest competitors I’ve ever watched play.

But Scherzer was a mere mortal in September starts:

  • 5 GS, 29.2 IP, 17 ER (5.16 ERA), 43 SO, 6 BB

He gave up four earned runs in six innings to the Mets, five in 6.2 innings to the Cardinals, and four in six innings to the Phillies.

Scherzer also had some brilliant starts in the postseason (7 IP, 1 ER in NLDS Game 4; 7 IP, 0 ER in NLCS Game 2). But in a 60-game season (with 12 to 13 starts), a five-game stretch with an ERA over 5.00 can ruin the season — even for an elite starter like Scherzer. Does age start to work its toll on Scherzer, or does he compete for yet another Cy Young? That could be the difference between a Wild Card berth for the Nats in a 16-team playoff or a division win against the competitive Braves, Mets, and Phillies.

Regardless of how things turn out for the Nats this season, for at least three more months they get to enjoy their reign as World Series champions. As a Nats fan, I’ll be soaking it in.

Writing about policy, politics, baseball, and more. Born/raised in CT. Proud D.C. resident. Raisin Bran Crunch enthusiast. Always tired.

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