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Howie Kendrick needed the Nationals, and they needed him

Howie Kendrick needed the Nationals, and they needed him

Howie Kendrick knew he was in trouble May 19, 2018, when he was down on the warning track and could not control his ankle. His Achilles tendon tore after he moved back for a fly ball in left field. His season ended. His career could have well ended with his season.

Last offseason’s shift in free agency affected those still in their prime. The market tormented Bryce Harper and Manny Machado before forking over large sums. It treated veterans destined to be part-time players worse. Super-utility player Marwin Gonzalez didn’t sign with Minnesota until Feb. 25. He turned 30 in April and was coming off a 2.5-WAR season for a team that went to the American League Championship Series. Yet, he couldn’t find a job anywhere.

This would have been Kendrick’s plight. Perhaps it would have been more challenging. He may never have found a job via a new contract. Think of the advertisement: soon-to-be 36-year-old coming off Achilles tendon tear, with reduced positional flexibility and past hamstring problems, seeks part-time work. 

Kendrick vowed from the start he would be back, healthy, and just ride out the recovery timeline as it was dictated. The second year of his contract made the process easier. It also all but assured him of a job again with Washington. At just $4 million, even as a bench player, Kendrick’s salary was easy to accept. If he showed good health and a quick bat in spring, he would again team with Matt Adams as a potent left-right combination off the bench. The second-year saved him from graveling in the offseason.

“if that was the last year of my deal, I don’t know if I would have been in the Major Leagues this year,” Kendrick said. “Because a lot of times the way the league is now, bringing veteran guys back and being around the game, you don't see too many veteran guys around anymore. 

“Having the ability to come back to a place I really enjoy and get to be around these guys... It's been fun. We got a lot of great young guys here, guys like [Victor Robles], [Juan] Soto, [Anthony] Rendon, [Trea] Turner, those guys they keep you going every day and it's been fun. And it’s been cool to be able to see these guys grow and they've helped me out too with my game.”

Kendrick is having his best offensive season. Delivering it this year became an enormous factor in the Nationals’ survival and turnaround. Ryan Zimmerman has been to the plate 168 times in 2019. Kendrick has filled the gap with one of the most potent part-time -- rightfully not full-time -- bats in the majors.

His OPS-plus is a career-high 142. His second-best season in that category? Back in 2011, when he was 27 years old in Los Angeles. His OPS is 119 points higher than any other season, his slugging percentage 88 points higher. He’s two homers shy of tying his career-best mark despite 237 fewer plate appearances than he had in 2011.

“I'm not an everyday guy anymore and I know that and [Davey Martinez] knows and I'm not going to complain one bit about the way I’ve been used,” Kendrick said. “When I play, I play. When I don't, I’m ready to play and go in the game and I’ve kind of streamlined that process a little more, I’ve figured out, being in the National League how to prepare myself and be ready. 

“We've come up with little drills for when we pinch-hit and things like that to be as ready as we can. And then once you get in the game, whatever’s going to happen is gonna happen, and that’s what I try to look at. Keep the same mindset as hey I prepared and I’m going to go out here and try to do my job and that's' all you can ask for. I think your teammates know that, and I think your coaches know that. I think that’s the biggest part of it, and mentally you just have to know you're not always going to succeed.” 

Though this year, he has -- a lot. 

Kendrick’s career-best season exists because he didn’t have to wade through the market. The second year of his contract provided him a work haven despite his age and major injury. His work during it likely created a chance for him to sign yet another one, something which may have otherwise not happened in the first place.

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Jacob deGrom wins second-straight Cy Young, Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin receive votes

Jacob deGrom wins second-straight Cy Young, Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin receive votes

It’s Jacob deGrom again.

The New York Mets ace won the National League Cy Young Award on Wednesday night for the second-consecutive season. Los Angeles left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu finished second and the Nationals’ Max Scherzer placed third. Washington starter Stephen Strasburg also finished tied for fifth behind the St. Louis Cardinals' Jack Flaherty while fellow Nats starter Patrick Corbin received one fifth-place vote to put him in at 11th.

1. Jacob deGrom: 29 first-place votes, 1 second-place vote (207 points)

2. Hyun-Jin Ryu: 1 first-place vote, 10 second-place votes, 8 third-place votes, 7 fourth-place votes, 3 fifth-place votes  (88 points)

3. Max Scherzer: 8 second-place votes, 8 third-place votes, 6 fourth-place votes, 4 fifth-place votes (72 points)

4. Jack Flaherty: 5 second-place votes, 11 third-place votes, 6 fourth-place votes, 4 fifth-place votes (69 points)

5. Stephen Strasburg: 6 second-place votes, 1 third-place vote, 9 fourth-place votes, 8 fifth-place votes (53 points)

Wednesday marked the fourth consecutive top-three finish for Scherzer. Scherzer has finished in the top five every year since he signed a seven-year, $210 million deal to come to Washington in 2015. He won the award in 2016 and 2017. He finished second last season.

Scherzer’s back injuries in 2019 limited his chances to win. He went on the injured list twice, limiting him to 27 starts, the lowest in a full season during his 12-year career. Otherwise, his numbers provided a strong argument he should be right alongside deGrom when being considered for the award. He led the league in strikeouts per nine with a dominant 12.7. Scherzer also led the league in FIP -- fielding-independent pitching -- as well as strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Ryu’s candidacy hinged on his control. He put together the league’s best walk rate, ERA and ERA-plus. However, he, like Scherzer, was limited in total production. Ryu made 29 starts and threw 182 ⅔ innings. He started the All-Star Game -- selected by Dodgers manager Dave Roberts -- and went through a second-half fade when deGrom surged.

DeGrom checked all the boxes. His workload was high (32 starts, 202 innings pitched). He led the league in strikeouts. He tied for the lead in WHIP, was fourth in batting average against and first in OPS against at a mere .580. His 1.44 ERA in 92 innings after the All-Star break put him in position to claim the award again.

DeGrom joins Scherzer, Clayton Kershaw, Tim Lincecum, Randy Johnson (four in a row), Greg Maddux (four in a row) and Sandy Koufax as back-to-back winners of the award since its inception in 1956.

Strasburg led the National League in innings pitched before become the Most Valuable Player in the Nationals’ World Series win. He is a free agent after opting out of the final four years and $100 million on his contract. He’s never finished higher than third in Cy Young Award voting, though 2019 was his second-best year by bWAR. 

Like deGrom, Flaherty used his work after the All-Star break to push into consideration. His 0.91 ERA in 99 innings and 15 starts made him the best National League pitcher from July on. His 4.64 ERA prior to the schedule break held back his overall numbers. Flaherty is just 24 years old and should be back for consideration in the future.

Corbin joined the Nationals last offseason on a six-year, $140 million deal after seven years with the Arizona Diamondbacks. He went 14-7 with a 3.25 ERA and 238 strikeouts in 202 innings for Washington this season.

The Nationals and Dodgers accounted for six of the 11 pitchers to receive Cy Young votes. Clayton Kershaw and Walker Buehler also garnered ballot selections, finishing eighth and ninth, respectively.

Matt Weyrich contributed to this report.

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Picking Jacob deGrom for NL Cy Young was the only easy decision on my ballot

Picking Jacob deGrom for NL Cy Young was the only easy decision on my ballot

The only easy part is at the top. Jacob deGrom was the clear winner of the 2019 National League Cy Young Award. The rest was a tussle.

Good news about voting for this award: It’s more statistics-oriented than MVP (an individual’s definition of “value” can have a big influence there), and is not a nonsense award based on almost nothing, the way Manager of the Year is. 

However, those circumstances don’t make it easy to vote for -- this year in particular. On my ballot, the gap between second and fifth is minute; to the point I would be comfortable with a shuffle in almost any order. But, you have to pick and slot guys in, so here is the ballot:

  1. Jacob deGrom
  2. Max Scherzer
  3. Hyun-Jin Ryu
  4. Jack Flaherty
  5. Stephen Strasburg

Locally, the first thing that will pop is Strasburg’s position relative to Scherzer. So, to reiterate: The gap between second and fifth on my ballot is very slim. I’d prefer extrapolating this with decimal points for a better illustration than two versus five.

In Strasburg’s favor this year: his workload. He led the league in innings pitched and pitches thrown. He also finished second in Baseball-Reference’s measurement of WAR. Where he falls behind is in peripheral categories. Scherzer was better in FIP, WHIP, OBP-against, strikeouts per nine, strikeout-to-walk ratio, adjusted ERA-plus and fWAR (by a wide margin). When Scherzer pitched, he was the more effective pitcher. His strikeouts per nine (12.69) was the highest rate among qualifiers since Randy Johnson (13.41) in 2001. It’s the gap in innings that brings Strasburg into the conversation.

Overall, Scherzer’s position across multiple categories -- leading a handful when deGrom is extracted -- put him second, narrowly, on my ballot.

Ryu’s command was striking. His league-leading 1.18 walks per nine was the best since Bartolo Colon’s 1.11 in 2015. He, like Scherzer, trailed the others on my ballot in innings pitched (183). And, his ERA argument took a hit when FIP (fielding-independent pitching) is introduced to the conversation. He’s fourth there. Though, Ryu comes back in ERA-plus, where he is first. He’s eighth overall in bWAR and fifth in fWAR, undermining his case to a degree and put him behind Scherzer on my ballot.

Flaherty’s post-All-Star break run launched him onto ballots: 0.91 ERA, 0.71 WHIP, .142 batting average against, 124 strikeouts, 23 walks. Dominant. Beforehand? A 4.64 ERA and 1.23 WHIP. In the end, half his starts were so good, he’s competitive for a top-five spot.

Each time I went through, I found arguments for moving all four players to different positions, which, in the end, is mostly moot. The winner is deGrom. Again.

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