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Brutal stretch for Nats has end in sight; Taylor's heating up


Brutal stretch for Nats has end in sight; Taylor's heating up

With their 3-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates on Sunday afternoon, the Nationals have now lost six of their 10 games since the All-Star break ended. Max Scherzer has been beaten twice during that stretch. Their offense has averaged 3.8 runs per contest. The Mets have cut the division lead back down to two games.

Although those seem like warning signs, the stretch the Nationals are playing through makes it hard to analyze any sort of collective slump.

Since the All-Star break, the Nats have faced a gauntlet of elite starting pitchers with many of their own regulars missing due to injury. It started with the Dodgers who had Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke. It continued with the Mets who pitched Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard. And it didn't stop against Pittsburgh, as the Pirates rolled out Francisco Liriano, A.J. Burnett and Gerrit Cole.

The Nationals are off Monday night before picking back up Tuesday in Miami. They will face Marlins ace Jose Fernandez (3-0, 2.77) in the series opener. He returned from Tommy John surgery on July 2 and has dominated in his four starts since.

Tuesday will be the 11th game for the Nationals in the second half. Through 11 games the collective ERA of the starters they have faced and will face (Fernandez) is 2.22. Nine of them have either been All-Stars or earned Cy Young votes within the last three years. The other two are Mike Bolsinger of the Dodgers and Syndergaard of the Mets, both of whom boast sub-3.00 ERAs at this point in the season.

The Nationals just got Anthony Rendon back, but they remain without Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman and Denard Span. With all those names missing, it's a wonder how they beat Bolsinger, Harvey, Syndergaard and Burnett in their four second-half wins.

The good news is that after Fernandez, their schedule will ease up considerably. Of their next 32 games, 25 are against teams not currently holding playoff spots. Three of those 25 non-playoff opponents will come at the New York Mets, but they will also see the Marlins twice, the Rockies twice, the Diamondbacks for four games, the Brewers at home and the Padres at home. The Marlins and Rockies hold the second- and third-worst records in the majors.

Somewhere along that run the Nationals should get back Werth and Zimmerman, and perhaps very soon. Span is behind them, but will likely come back some time during that stretch. They could also add pieces before the non-waiver trade deadline and in August through the waiver wire.

The stage is set over the next month for the Nationals to take off and create some room between themselves and the Mets in the NL East. Anything can happen, but the next few weeks certainly appear favorable for the Nats.

Michael Taylor homers again

Rookie Michael Taylor homered for the second straight game on Sunday to push his season total to eight. He now has six hits in his last 10 at-bats with two homers and three RBI. Through 82 games played he has eight homers, 39 RBI and 11 steals.

Those numbers aren't bad at all, especially if you consider his relative inexperience at the age of 24. Sure, you'd like his average to be above .240 and his on-base percentage above .283. But there's no question Taylor's play has been a nice development for the Nationals this season.

On Sunday, Taylor also made a highlight reel catch in the bottom of the fifth inning to rob Gregory Polanco of a would-be double. He seems to be improving game-by-game at the plate, in the field and on the basepaths.

What Taylor's role is long-term is hard to tell, whether he can be a true leadoff hitter and whether he's ready to step in next season if Span walks in free agency. But for now, he could be exactly what they need once Span and Werth return from the disabled list. Taylor can make starts for either player here and there, and come October his speed (3 SB in last 5 games) could be a huge asset for the Nats.



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

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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.