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82 wins for Nats ... and still counting

82 wins for Nats ... and still counting

When victory No. 82 in the most successful baseball season in the District of Columbia in 43 years was official, the reaction on the field and in the clubhouse at Nationals Park was no different than after any of the previous 81 wins.

Tyler Clippard and Kurt Suzuki met at the pitchers' mound to shake hands. Players lined up for their customary high-fives. The same mix tape of songs heard after every win was pumped through the clubhouse stereo system.

Most Nationals didn't even realize their 2-1 Labor Day triumph over the Cubs had secured the first winning season by a D.C. ballclub since Ted Williams' 1969 Senators did it at the recently renamed RFK Stadium.

"I wasn't really concerned about that," manager Davey Johnson insisted.

"That's been the farthest thing from our goal," first baseman Adam LaRoche added.

"We want to take it to the next level," Tyler Clippard chimed in. "We don't want to stop there. That's what's exciting about the season."

All fair points, and all evidence of just how far the Nationals have come in such a short amount of time. When this team opened its season five months ago against these same Cubs, a winning record would have constituted a significant accomplishment.

But as the wins began piling up and the magic number suddenly became part of the local lexicon, the bar for success kept getting raised. Now, anything short of the first postseason berth by a D.C. ballclub since 1933 would be a huge disappointment.

So the most important development out of Monday's game from the Nationals' perspective wasn't how many wins they had at the end of the day but who earned that win with another impressive pitching performance: Ross Detwiler.

In churning out seven scoreless innings, Detwiler improved to 9-6 on the season, lowered his ERA to 3.15 and left his teammates feeling as confident as ever about his ability to keep winning games down the stretch and perhaps into October.

"He's been great for us this year, and it's really only the tip of the iceberg for him," Ryan Zimmerman said of the 26-year-old left-hander. "He's still learning how to pitch, so he's come a long way. I think we're all proud of how he's learned from his mistakes and grown and become the pitcher he is."

Where Detwiler used to be good for four or five innings before fading, he now appears to get stronger as the game progresses. It's no longer a big deal for him to complete seven innings, nor to pitch his way out of jams as he did a couple of times on Monday.

He's learned both to be aggressive with his fastball early in the count but also to know when to turn to his offspeed stuff in a pinch. Put it all together, and the Nationals' current No. 5 starter (and soon-to-be No. 4 starter once Stephen Strasburg is shut down) is at last living up to the promise the club saw when it drafted him sixth overall in the country in 2007.

"I'm learning myself and what I need to do in different situations," he said. "Say I'm behind in the count. I'm learning how to throw a changeup, or how to throw a sinker down in the zone, instead of just sinking in there and letting it get hit. I think that's the biggest thing."

Detwiler was aided on Monday by a couple of timely hits from some of the big bats in the Nationals' lineup. LaRoche got things started with a solo homer in the second, his team-leading 25th of the year. Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman combined to produce what proved to be a key insurance run in the eighth, with Harper singling to right and then coming all the way around to score on Zimmerman's double into the left-field corner.

That run turned out to be the difference after Clippard suffered a hiccup in the ninth, surrendering a couple of singles that allowed Chicago to plate its only run and threaten to plate the tying tally.

Clippard, though, calmly struck out Josh Vitters to end the game, secure his 30th save and secure a winning season for a once-downtrodden franchise that is at long last getting to enjoy the fruits of success.

There aren't many remaining in the organization from those early days in 2005 and 2006, when nobody quite knew what the future held for the Nationals.

As it turned out, there were plenty of dark days ahead: 100-loss seasons, front office and coaching staff overhauls, small crowds, poor TV ratings and only a glimmer of hope.

Which only makes this season sweeter for the few who have seen this thing all the way through and who understand 82 wins is only the next step toward a much loftier accomplishment.

"We've come a long way," said Zimmerman, the club's first-ever draft pick. "I guess you can't try to start an organization like we did here from the ground up and expect that to happen really quickly. We've gone through the process, and they've done things the right way. It's been a struggle sometimes and it's been frustrating, but I think now we're going to be set for not just this year, but a lot of years to come."

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Bryce Harper will compete in Home Run Derby, but only on one condition

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USA Today Sports

Bryce Harper will compete in Home Run Derby, but only on one condition

It’s happening.

When the 2018 All-Star Weekend comes to Washington, D.C. in the middle of July, Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper will compete in the 2018 Home Run Derby, but only on one condition: He has to be a member of the 2018 National League All-Star Team.

Though Harper is having a down year, only hitting .213 thus far, he leads the NL in home runs with 19.

In the June 18 update of All-Star game voting, Harper sat second among all outfielders with just north of 1,000,000 votes.

That means he’s not only going to make the All-Star team, but he’ll likely start in the outfield.

Harper, a five-time All-Star, competed in the Home Run Derby once before. He was the runner-up to Yoenis Cespedes in 2013, losing by just one long ball, 9-8.

The 2018 Home Run Derby will take place on July 16 at Nationals Park.

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It's time to start paying attention to Trea Turner's sneaky-great season

It's time to start paying attention to Trea Turner's sneaky-great season

Remember when the Nationals put Trea Turner in centerfield so they could keep Danny Espinosa at shortstop?

Two years later it's Turner who leads all N.L. shortstops in fWAR, as you surely know if you follow the Nationals on literally any social media platform. 

So while Juan Soto and Bryce Harper continue to dominate all of The Takes, it's Turner who's been the Nats' best position player this season. 

We'll start with some basics: 

Did you know that Trea Turner leads all N.L. shortstops in fWAR? He's currently sitting at 2.4 WAR, above the likes of Brandon Crawford, Addison Russell, and Trevor Story, to name a few. (We'll ignore the fact that the top six shortstops in the A.L. all have a better fWAR.) He's a top-10 shortstop in baseball during one of the strongest eras in the position's history.

Even after a dreadfully slow start, Turner's still on pace to have the best season of his career. He posted a WAR of 2.9 last year and -- barring injury -- will realistically eclipse that by the All-Star game. 

At the plate, two stats jump off the page in regards to explaining Turner's stellar season. 

First, Turner is drawing a *bunch* of walks. His current BB% clip (10.6 percent) would be far and away the best of his career and up four percentage points from last year. It's a factor that helps explain - partially, at least - why his on-base percentage has risen and his BABIP has dropped. More walks mean fewer swings, fewer swings mean less contact, less contact means lower BABIP, etc. It's not the whole picture, but it's a big part of it. 

Secondly, Turner is making impressive contact on pitches out of the strike zone. FanGraphs calculates out-of-zone contact using a statistic titled O-Contact, which is a blessing considering some of the titles they choose to give their other stats. 

The average O-Contact across MLB in 2018 is 64.7 percent. Trea Turner's career O-Contact is 62.4 percent (although realistically it's closer to the high-50's - a small-sample-size from his abbreviated first season mucks up the number a bit). 

This season, Turner's posted an O-Contact of 69.3 percent. Not only is that 10 percentage points higher than his O-Contact from last season, but a top-50 clip in all of baseball. He's one spot ahead of Mike Trout!  Put both of these together with some encouraging Statcast numbers (rise in HardHit%, already matched his total 'barrels' from last season) and you can see why Turner's been thriving at the plate. 

Defensively, he's improved across the board as well. His UZR and DRS - considered the two most reliable fielding statistics, if such a thing exists - are both up from last year. He has the 10th-best UZR of all major league shortstops and ranks 1st in DRS. 

Last season, he finished 17th in both UZR and DRS (of all shortstops with at least 800 innings; Turner didn't log enough innings to be considered a qualified fielder). He ended the season with both numbers in the negative. 

You may be skeptical of defensive stats, which is fine. But if nothing else, the fact that Turner is turning literal negative stats into positive ones is encouraging. 

Lastly, Turner continues to be an elite baserunner. At this point in his career, his speed is arguably his best tool:

You'll note that purple dot allllllllllll the way on the right. That's Turner! Now, let's take a look at how his speed compares across all positions:

Essentially, Turner is faster than like, 98 percent of baseball. In fact, by Sprint Speed, he's the 6th-fastest player in the game. He also ranks 2nd across all of baseball in FanGraphs "Baserunning" measurements, only behind fellow teammate and mindbogglingly good baserunner Michael A. Taylor. 

So, Trea Turner an elite baserunner (maybe the best if you combine his raw speed with his baserunning stats), a top-5 shortstop in the field, and an All-Star at the plate. 

Juan Soto's been great and Bryce Harper is still extremely talented, but this year, Trea Turner has been the Nationals' best player. 

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