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Five Fearless Predictions For The Nationals’ 2018 Regular Season

Galdi looks into his crystal ball regarding the 2018 Nats

 

 

1. Bryce Harper will have a 40-40 season AND a .300/.400/.500 season 

Harper is set to be the biggest free agent in MLB and maybe sports history after this season.  I expect him to go into free agency with a bang by reaching at least the following thresholds in the following categories: 40 home runs, 40 doubles, a .300 batting average, a .400 on-base percentage and a .500 slugging percentage.  Harper is a beast, and I believe that he’s poised for a beastly 2018.

Harper hit 42 homers in 2015.  He had .300/.400/.500 seasons in 2015 and 2017.  He has never had more than 38 doubles (2015).

The biggest obstacle to Harper having another monstrous season, of course, is health.  He has played in more than 147 games just once in his five full major-league seasons.  If you go by Baseball Reference’s Wins Above Replacement, which is a cumulative stat, he has had just two 5.0 bWAR years over his six seasons.  Harper’s rate stats are exceptional.  His cumulative stats are not, and that has had everything to do with injury.  If the 2018 season ends up being another season in which Harper plays in no more than 118 games (as has been the case in three of the last five seasons), then, you tell me, are you going to endorse the Nats re-signing him to the tune of a $500 million, $400 million or $300 million contract?

   

2. Stephen Strasburg will be the Nationals’ best starting pitcher  

You’re not wrong to believe that Max Scherzer will again be the Nats’ best starter and even win a third straight National League Cy Young.  But those are easy predictions to make.

Strasburg had the best season of his career in 2017.  His 176 ERA+ was miles better than his previous career-best (139 in 2010).  He had a career-best 1.015 WHIP.  He led the majors in lowest HR/9 at 0.667 and led the majors in Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) at 2.72.

No one is ever going to confuse Strasburg with John McClane in Die Hard in terms of toughness.  The mess that led up to the Nats’ 5-0 win at the Cubs in NLDS Game 4 last October was absurd.

But remember the ultimate result of that soap opera: Strasburg had the game of his life.  Pitching off being ill and off a drama-filled previous 24 hours, he tossed seven scoreless innings with 12 strikeouts versus three hits and two walks on 106 pitches.  Strasburg was dominant, striking out the Cubs’ best batter, Kris Bryant, three times.  And that was Strasburg’s second gem of the series, as he also was terrific in the Nats’ 3-0 loss to the Cubs in NLDS Game 1: two runs (both unearned) in seven innings on 10 strikeouts versus three singles and a walk.

The things standing in the way of Strasburg becoming the best pitcher in the NL have been injury and a lack of, shall we say, grapefruits.  He demonstrated major grapefruits last postseason.  Here’s to hoping that he learned some lessons that he carries over into this season.

 

Washington Nationals starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg throws during the seventh inning of Game 4 of baseball’s National League Division Series against the Chicago Cubs, Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

 

3. Gio Gonzalez will have a regression season 

I advocated in January that the Nats should trade Gio.  One of the biggest reasons was that he is entering a contract season off a terrific season that’s going to be awfully hard to duplicate.

Gio had a career-best ERA+ of 150 last season.  He ranked third among pitchers in the majors with a 6.61 bWAR last season – heck, he had a better bWAR than the likes of Arizona’s Zack Greinke, Boston’s Chris Sale, the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw and Houston’s Justin Verlander.

But as good as Gio was last season, his peripherals told the story of a pitcher who either benefited from good luck and/or was far from great.

Gio’s BABIP allowed per MLB.com in 2017 was a mere .261. The major-league average is around .300.  A low BABIP allowed usually is a sign of good luck – i.e., batted balls in play just went to where fielders were stationed.  Now, sometimes improvement in BABIP allowed comes from a pitcher giving up softer contact.  But that really wasn’t the case with Gio last season; his soft-contact-allowed percentage went up from 18.1 to just 21.7.  Sometimes improvement in BABIP allowed comes from improved defense behind a pitcher.  But it’s not like the Nats had a great defense last season; they ranked tied for no. 25 out of 30 major-league teams with -44 Defensive Runs Saved.

Additionally, Gio’s 3.54 BB/9 last season was tied for his worst over the last six seasons.  And his 8.42 K/9 was his lowest over the last seven seasons.

A deeper dive into Gio’s 2017 reveals that it may have been more about great results than great process.

 

4. The Nationals will rank in the top-10 in majors in Defensive Runs Saved

The Nats’ defense has been an underrated problem over the last three seasons.  Here are the Nats’ recent rankings in Defensive Runs Saved during that time:

2015 – no. 20 (-8)

2016 – tied for no. 17 (-14)

2017 – tied for no. 25 (-44),

I expect this to change this season and for two major reasons.

The first is that the Nats are poised to have their best defensive outfield since the franchise moved to D.C. prior to the 2005 season.  Bryce Harper, as long as he stays healthy, is not just an offensive force but also a plus-defender in right field (nine career Defensive Runs Saved).  Michael A. Taylor took giants steps forward both offensively and defensively last season, during which he had eight Defensive Runs Saved in center field off having had -7 over his first three seasons.  And then there’s Adam Eaton, who is moving to left field, which was manned not-so-capably by Jayson Werth for the Nats in recent seasons.  Eaton has -14 Defensive Runs Saved in 3,283 career innings in center field.  He has 25 Defensive Runs Saved in 1,316 career innings in corner-outfield spots.

A second reason to anticipate major defensive improvement by the Nats this coming season is their new manager, Dave Martinez.  Martinez is analytically-inclined.  He doesn’t mock sabermetrics; he embraces it.  One of the undeniable developments at Nats spring training in West Palm Beach, Fla. was infielders taking ground balls from shifted positions.  Does this guarantee anything?  Of course not.  But this would seem to be an indication that shifting – finally – is coming to D.C. in significant fashion.

The Nats’ resistance to defensive shifts has been bizarre and counterproductive.  Arguably the biggest trend in Major League Baseball this decade has been the increase in shifts.  Shifts save runs.  And yet one of the few teams that have not been in on this trend has been the Nats.  Here are their rankings in shifts over the last four seasons:

2014 – no. 29 (243)

2015 – no. 30 (416)

2016 – no. 22 (932)

2017 – no. 21 (908)

And it would be one thing if the Nats weren’t shifting but still were having good defenses.  That has not been the case.  As mentioned earlier, the Nats’ defense has been an underrated problem for the last three seasons.

Martinez and Joe Maddon had Tampa Bay at the forefront of the shift movement a decade ago.  We can only hope that – finally – the Nats are about to get in on this trend.

 

5. Take the “over” on the Nationals’ 92.5 win total, but Philadelphia – not the Mets – will be the Nats’ biggest threat in the National League East

The Nats are loaded yet again.  They have arguably the best top-two in a rotation in the majors.  The Nats are loaded with excellent hitters.  The Nats have a legitimate back end of a bullpen going into a season for the first time in years.  The Nats will win the NL East for a fifth time in seven seasons.

Now, I have called the NL East the worst division in major North American pro sports for a while.  I still don’t think that it’s a good division.  But it should be better.  And while the Mets have a shot to make the playoffs for a third time in four seasons, that team is just way too dependent on the health of way too many guys (starters Noah Syndergaard, Matt Harvey and Steven Matz, outfielder Michael Conforto, closer Jeurys Familia).  The team to truly consider in the NL East as a threat to the Nats is the Phillies.

The Phillies are coming off six consecutive non-winning seasons.  The Phillies have lost at least 89 games each of the last five seasons.  But the Phillies have emerging sluggers in Rhys Hoskins, Aaron Altherr, Nick Williams and Cesar Hernandez.  The Phillies have spent big money over the last few months on free-agent first baseman Carlos Santana and free-agent starter Jake Arrieta.  The Phillies just signed their top prospect, second baseman Scott Kingery, to a contract that will allow him to begin the season at the major-league level so as to avoid the service-time issue.  The Phillies have a first-year manager in Gabe Kapler who is very accepting of analytics.

Yes, I am biased on this, as my brother, Andy Galdi, runs the Phillies’ analytics department.  But the Phillies are now years into a sabermetrics-influenced rebuild the likes of which we saw the last two World Series champions engage in – the Cubs and Houston.  Both of those teams’ rebuilds “arrived” a year earlier than expected – 2015.  The thought had been that the Phillies would blossom in 2019.  I say that happens a season sooner, though not, ultimately, at the expense of the Nats winning the division.

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