The best part of being a sports fan is the conversation. Watching games by yourself can be fun, but debating the finer points of each player, team, and game is what brings fans together and creates a sense of team spirit and camaraderie.
With that in mind, NBC Sports Washington is starting a series in which two baseball fans in our office, Cam Ellis and Ryan Wormeli, get together to have a conversation about whatever Nationals topic is on their mind at the time.
Feel free to respond and join in on the conversation, whether on Twitter/Facebook or in the comments section. There wasn't much disagreement during the first topic of "debate", but definitely let us know who you agree with. And yes, sometimes the correct answer is "both of you are wrong."
For our first chat, we got into a question on the minds of everyone who expected the Nats to run away with the NL East this season.
Ryan Wormeli: Hello Cam! Looking forward to talking some baseball with you this season. Our first topic is a simple one: What's wrong with the Nationals?
They recently swept the surprisingly not-terrible Pirates, but even after winning six in a row and 11 of 13, they sit at just four games above .500. As Jon Morosi pointed out on Twitter, their slow start does not bode well for postseason success.
Bryce Harper is hitting dingers, but still struggling a bit at the plate. Lineup issues have plagued the team all season, with Ryan Zimmerman notably slumping as well. The team's litany of injuries certainly hasn't helped, but Matt Adams has stepped up in a big way to fill the power void. Max Scherzer has singlehandedly won half a dozen games for the Nats, and the rest of the rotation has been pretty good (with the exception of A.J. Cole who is already gone).
So, what gives? A top-heavy lineup with a strong top four in the rotation sounds like a recipe for success. What's gone wrong?
Cam Ellis: I think it's a handful of things, but it's hard to look past the injuries. Bryce Harper's joke about playing Syracuse felt weirdly mean-spirited but it also wasn't inaccurate. I can't imagine that anyone expects Howie Kendrick to have more plate appearances through the first month than Anthony Rendon, Daniel Murphy, and Adam Eaton combined (although Kendrick's offense has been one of the more fun surprises of this season so far).
The offense doesn't really worry me - at least not yet. Rendon and Murphy were the second and fourth most valuable offensive players for the Nats in 2017, per FanGraphs. Of course a team without two of their top four hitters is going to struggle. That's not even mentioning Eaton, who was hitting .345/.424/.655 before he went down with an ankle issue. If they all come back healthy, this team's going to hit.
The problem is that of the three of them, only Rendon has returned, and the other two don't appear close. Murphy had a few less-than-inspiring quotes about where he is in his rehab process the other day and Eaton recently underwent surgery.
I also think a lot of their defensive woes - their biggest on-field issue so far, in my opinion - has to do with the loss of at least two of those guys. If you had to boil down their underwhelming month to one thing, it'd be:
Ryan: I know we both touched on it, and it seems like a bit of a cop-out, but sometimes the most obvious answer is the right answer: injuries.
Outside of the Los Angeles Dodgers (who happen to be struggling worse than Washington has) the Nationals might have had the worst injury luck in baseball in the early going. You don't need to remind me of Adam Eaton and Anthony Rendon's absences, as my fantasy baseball squad has suffered mightily without them. And of course, Murphy is probably the biggest missing cog, given his remarkable consistency ever since coming to Washington. Those three guys would be the "Big 3" on half the teams in the league, and they are almost certainly three of the five best position players on the Nationals.
Another factor I think is leading to April feeling like such a disappointment is actually out of the Nats' control. Hovering around .500 is less-than-ideal for any roster of this caliber, but compared to the successes of the rest of the division, it looks even worse.
By the numbers, the Braves have been a top-3(!) team in baseball, and their young core looks poised to dominate baseball for the next decade. The Mets started off white hot, and even after coming back to earth sit they're just a game behind the Nats in the NL East. The Phillies also look ahead of schedule in their rebuild, leaving the Nats in third place.
Thankfully, there's no chance of falling behind the woeful Marlins, but still, a game up on fourth place isn't a great look this deep into the season. How concerned should Nats fans be about the early-season success of the Braves and company?
Cam: I will admit that the Braves frighten me a little. The scariest part is that they're not overachieving. They're an elite power-hitting team (1st in SLG, 6th in ISO) and don't strike out (27th in K%) - a combination that we've seen be a recipe for success among the best teams in baseball over the last half-dozen years.
Atlanta's gotten pretty average production from their pitchers so far, but that's all you need when you're knocking the ball around the park like they are. People have been labeling the Braves as the next Astros for a couple years now, so it wouldn't surprise me if Atlanta stuck around through the summer.
I'm curious whose absence you think is hurting the Nats the most. I think the Rendon is clearly the front-runner, but Adam Eaton looked *really* good, and as fun as the Bryce Harper Leadoff Extravaganza has been, my guess is that Rizzo/Martinez aren't thrilled with that as a long-term solution this season.
Ryan: Both Rendon and Eaton are clearly missed. Rendon famously led the team in WAR last season according to FanGraphs, and he was second among Nationals position players in 2016. Eaton, of course, has been dynamic both in the field and at the top of the lineup when healthy, and as you mentioned, was off to a terrific start. I'm going to go with the guy you didn't mention, though. He also happens to be the position player who actually led the team in WAR in 2016: Daniel Murphy.
Murphy was one of the first players to publicly embrace the "fly ball revolution" in Major League Baseball, and his career has been buoyed by his swing change more so than maybe any hitter in baseball. He put up a wRC+ of 155 in 2016 and 136 in 2017, proving himself an elite hitter, and his absence has been felt in the middle of the Nats lineup. He can reasonably be expected to lead the team in batting average upon his return, while providing good pop.
He's not going to win any gold gloves, and it wouldn't shock me to see Rendon finish with a higher WAR again thanks to his all-around game, but the one thing I think the Nats could use more than anything else is a consistently elite hitter in the heart of the order. And frankly, which team couldn't use that?
Cam: Very true. To play devil's advocate: Rendon actually had more plate appearances and played in more games than Murphy did last year, although only slightly. I think Rendon's value to the team also lies in the fact that the Nats are treading water with Howie Kendrick right now. The dropoff from Murphy to Kendrick is significant but it's nowhere close to the dropoff between Rendon and Wilmer Difo.
Ultimately, I'm not worried yet. The bullpen has been lackluster and some of their recent trends are a little spooky, but any sort of panic at this point is just D.C. being D.C. If we're still talking about this in a month, THEN maybe it's time to bring out the Panic Meter.
Ryan: That's fair. I've said before that while I take note of early season trends and stats, especially once we get to May, I won't make any sweeping judgments or hit the panic button until Memorial Day. We're still a couple weeks away from that arbitrary threshold, and we're a few months away from having a real idea of how this Nats season is going to eventually end up.
This seems like a good place to wrap up this discussion. We'll get back together again to hash out our thoughts on the Nats as the season goes on and more storylines and question marks evolve. Hopefully, the next discussion we have will be about if anyone has a chance at stopping the Nationals at full strength!
And hey, now that the Caps have made the Eastern Conference Final, maybe the D.C. sports curse has been lifted and the baseball team can find some October success.
Until next time, it's been a pleasure. Go Nats.