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Ross has been boss for Nationals


Ross has been boss for Nationals

One morning in March, Matt Williams and Steve McCatty ventured over to the minor-league complex in Viera, Fla., to watch left-hander Felipe Rivero pitch out of the bullpen. Before Rivero took the mound, though, a young right-hander named Joe Ross pitched.

Ross didn’t make an overwhelming impression on the Nationals manager and pitching coach, but it’s not like either was there looking to be wowed.

“That’s the only time I’d seen him pitch,” Williams said Friday night. “You don’t get a chance to see him from the back side [of the spring training complex]. It’s a long way from our viewing perspective.”

Consider Williams, McCatty and everybody else who has watched Ross through the first three starts of his big-league career very much wowed now. Three starts in, the 22-year-old owns a 2.66 ERA, 23 strikeouts to only two walks in 20 1/3 innings and a couple of wins, including Friday’s 4-1 dismantling of the previously unbeatable Pirates.

Surely, the Nationals have to be surprised by this development.

“I don’t know if we can be surprised,” Williams said. “Because we just didn’t know.”

Fair enough. The Nats’ big-league staff didn’t have enough first-hand knowledge of Ross to formulate an opinion. What they’ve seen now over the last two weeks, though, is enough to convince them they’ve really got something here.

“It’s the impression that we all hoped he would make, and I’m sure he’s proud to have made,” Williams said. “So we’ll see where we go from here.”

Ross’ long-term future looks promising, but his short-term future is very much uncertain. Though he’s pitched more than well enough to merit more big-league starts, the Nationals’ rotation is about to be 100 percent healthy again. Doug Fister returned from a forearm strain Thursday, and Stephen Strasburg is on target to make his return from a strained trapezius muscle early next week, most likely Tuesday against the Braves.

So where does that leave Ross? Probably headed back to the minors, either back from whence he came at Class AA Harrisburg or perhaps at Class AAA Syracuse for the first time in his career.

Whatever ends up happening, wherever he ends up pitching, Ross will take plenty from this first major-league experience and know it’ll come in handy down the road.

“All the things that have helped me successful so far: staying aggressive and really knowing that I can pitch here or have been able to pitch here,” he said. “I guess just keeping that confidence no matter where I’m at. Just keep going with it.”

Ross’ previous outing — eight innings of 2-run ball in Milwaukee when the Nats desperately needed a quality start — felt like a high point for the rookie. But Friday night’s win might well have trumped that. Ross allowed just one run over 7 1/3 innings, striking out 11 while walking only one.

[MORE NATIONALS Nats 4, Pirates 1: Depleted lineup delivers, Ross dominates

He thus became only the third rookie in club history to strike out 10 or more batters in a game, joining John Lannan in 2008 and Strasburg in 2010.

“I always thought of myself as being good enough to be up here,” he said. “I guess that’s kind of a big part of being confident out there on the mound, just thinking I belong. I don’t think I could’ve imagined it going so well so early, but you gotta run with it.”

What has made Ross so successful so far? There’s his consistently well-placed sinkers down in the zone. There’s a devastating slider that was responsible for 10 of his 11 strikeouts on Friday. And there’s also an intangible quality, a desire to learn as much as he can from veteran pitchers on staff, that has particularly impressed teammates.

“He’s always aggressive,” catcher Wilson Ramos said. “To me, like Max Scherzer. When he gets a man on base, he’s like twice more aggressive than when he doesn’t have runners on base. I think he’s watching Max Scherzer videos. He looked pretty aggressive with runners on base. That’s what he needs to do.”

Along the way, the Nationals have begun to get to know Ross a little bit. They know his background growing up in Northern California. They know his pedigree, with older brother Tyson a reigning All-Star for the Padres. And they know he isn’t fazed by anything thrown his way.

“He’s got that leadership quality,” said Tyler Moore, who wound up rooming with Ross this spring in Viera. “I feel like he wants the ball, even though he’s young like that. He just goes right after that. He kind of did the same thing to me on the golf course, which wasn’t good. But he’s a good dude, and he’s very mature.”

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

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.