For the Washington Nationals, the 2018 season mercifully came to a close with Sunday’s shutout loss to the Colorado Rockies. Unfortunately, the 12-0 blowout was a fitting end to a season full of unfulfilled expectations. Washington did have a shot in the game but finished 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position. Meanwhile, the bullpen allowed eight runs over four innings to ensure a comeback was not in the cards.
The team finished the season 82-80 and at home for the playoffs after finishing eight games behind the NL East champion Atlanta Braves. How did we get here for a team that had World Series expectations coming into the year? And what does the future hold for the franchise as superstar Bryce Harper hits free agency?
Washington Nationals 2018 Season Recap
Max Scherzer‘s continued dominance carries the team
Scherzer has been arguably the best pitcher in Major League Baseball since he signed with Washington before the 2015 season. He won back-to-back Cy Young Awards in 2016-17 with the Nationals. However, his performance in 2018 is arguably the best of his career. The hard-throwing righty led all of baseball with 300 strikeouts in 220.2 innings pitched. He made 33 starts with an 18-7 record and 2.53 ERA. His remarkable season puts Scherzer alongside Chris Sale in 2017 and Clayton Kershaw in 2015 as the only pitchers to reach the 300 strikeout mark since Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling accomplished the feat as teammates in 2002.
His worth to the Nats this season cannot be overstated. Scherzer hurled 28 quality starts in 2018 and allowed more than three earned runs in just three of his appearances. Washington went 22-11 during his starts, and Scherzer accumulated a team-high 9.5 bWAR for his outstanding year. That mark finished third in all of MLB for a pitcher behind Jacob deGrom and Aaron Nola who both finished at 10.0.
Washington hindered by poor defense
In what turned out to be a three-horse race in the NL East, the best defensive team of those competitors – the Braves – pulled away to win the division by a comfortable margin. While Washington was not close to being as terrible as the Philadelphia Phillies, the Nationals did leave a lot to be desired in the field. In fact, it all started with Bryce Harper. According to Fangraphs, Harper posted a Range Runs (RngR) of -9.4, an Outfield Arms Runs (ARM) of -5.5, a UZR of -14.4, and accumulated -26 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS). Respectively, those numbers ranked fourth-worst, worst, worst, and second-worst in all of baseball for qualified outfielders. The only outfielder with a worse mark in DRS was Charlie Blackmon at -28.
Harper did have a rough season in the field, but he was just the tip of the iceberg for the Nationals. As a team, Washington finished fifth-worst in MLB with a DRS mark of -29 and fourth-worst in UZR at -19. Having Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg on the mound, two high-strikeout pitchers, certainly masked some of the issues. However, the numbers show Washington’s defense was unable to provide a significant boost across the board. By comparison, the horrifically bad Phillies defense finished dead last in MLB with -52 DRS and a -32.9 UZR. (For explanations on some of these statistics, check out this article on Fangraphs.)
What does the future hold for Bryce Harper?
There’s really no way around it: Harper underperformed in his final year before free agency. While he did have positive numbers, including 34 home runs, 100 RBI, 103 runs scored, 34 doubles, and 130 walks, he absolutely had some troubling issues at the plate. Harper set a new career-high in strikeouts at 169, blowing past his previous high of 131. As a result, his batting average plummeted 70 points this season to .249 after hitting .319 in 2017. That mark is the second-lowest of his career. The struggles at the plate, combined with his issues in the field this season, led Harper to a disappointing mark in terms of WAR. bWAR had Harper at 1.3 for the year, his lowest mark in a season with more than 100 games played. While fWAR did have him a bit higher at 3.5, there’s no questioning Harper had a down season.
Along with his struggles, fans in D.C. must now watch and wait to see if their star will re-sign with the team that drafted him first overall in 2010. Harper’s contract demands in the past have been especially high, and it will be interesting to see what he commands on the open market following his 2018 performance. Publicly, both sides are saying the right things with GM Mike Rizzo saying they want to keep Harper and Harper saying his heart is in D.C. In the end, saying the right things does not pay the bills. With the emergence of Juan Soto, Victor Robles waiting in the wings, and a hopefully healthy Adam Eaton in 2019, it may be tempting for fans to simply move on from Harper. However, it must be stated that failing to re-sign Harper would be a failure for the franchise. He remains a cornerstone-caliber player in this league, and losing him could set the franchise back a step.
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