2012 MLB Playoffs: The Washington Nationals' Keys to Victory
The Washington Nationals proved themselves this season. They established themselves as the team to beat in the NL, outplaying their opponents from opening day to October. After years of futility in D.C., they finally broke-out, and rewarded their fans with an outstanding performance.
Now that it's October, they'll have to prove themselves all over again.
During the regular season, the Nats led the MLB with 98 wins and they outscored their opponents by the largest margin (0.8 runs per game). And how were they rewarded? With a difficult postseason schedule and one additional home game in both the division and championship series.
So, if they're going to take home the gold, a World Series Championship, they'll need to continue to play their best baseball. Combining a level playing field, a small sample size of games and playoff-worthy opponents, means the Nats can't afford to slip-up. They'll need to fight tooth and nail to win, and they'll need a lot to go their way.
Many factors play in to postseason success, but for the Nationals, seven stand out the most. To win the World Series, they'll need luck on their side—a fluke error, a bloop or a Jeffrey Maier can have season-defining consequences when the stakes are this high.
To outfox their opponents late in ballgames, they'll need their top-notch bench to perform in the clutch. No team can win without some form of contribution from every player on the roster, and in the postseason, even the little guys have to play a lead role.
On the individual scale, team-leaders Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth and Gio Gonzalez will need to step-up, take the reigns and play vital leadership roles on the field and in the clubhouse. Adam LaRoche, the lineup's left-handed slugging first baseman, needs to continue to hit like he did in the regular season—especially now that the club is facing so many talented right-handed starters. Finally, reliever Drew Storen will not only have to re-establish himself as the team's closer, but he'll need to pitch near-flawlessly under the intense pressure of the late-inning playoff spotlight.
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If the Nationals plan on winning it all, they'll need Lady Luck on their side.
Lady Luck, she's the 26th man on the roster (first woman), and the 10th player on the field at all times. In the small sample-size playoffs, she turns in to an ace.
By the time 162 games of regular season baseball has ended, we all have a pretty good idea of the who the best team actually is. If the world was a fair place, the MLB playoffs would be structured to favor the teams that performed better throughout the regular season.
The Nationals had a 59.5 Pythagorean win percentage this season (based on their run differential), and that means, if luck is removed from the equation, they have the highest win expectancy of any playoff team.
To adjust the postseason fairly, the MLB would need to tip the scales in the Nationals favor before game time—through some mechanism like home field advantage or an extra roster spot.
In reality, outside of a tiny home field advantage—one extra home game in the NLDS—the Nationals won't benefit from any such structure.
Even though Davey Johnson's squad proved themselves with a dominant regular season, not only with the best record, but as the only team that posted an above-.500 record in every month, his club will need a little bit of luck to help them win the glory.
In a game like baseball, one based heavily on luck, a short postseason is like flipping a coin to decide the victor.
Over the course of a long season, the law of averages causes bloop hits, Jeffrey Maier-type fan interference, Jeffrey Meals brain farts and Josh Hamilton/Coco Crisp center fielder catching gaffes to even out pretty fairly. In the small postseason sample size though, flukes and freak occurrences often crown heroes, and shame losers.
When the Nationals are up against it in the playoffs, and at some point they will be, hopefully Lady Luck will lend a helping hand.
#6. Adam LaRoche
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To win big, the Nationals need Adam LaRoche to hit. They really need Adam LaRoche to hit.
The Nationals may be a well-rounded club, but their best attribute is starting pitching, followed by their bullpen, their bench and then their lineup. Their offense is one of the most powerful, so even though it lags behind their pitching in overall effectiveness, that's more a testament to their arms than a knock on their bats.
However, one thing the Nats' lineup lacks is platoon balance. From numbers-one through nine in their order, they have players that can mash—even their pitchers know how to swing the stick. But outside of Adam LaRoche and Bryce Harper, they don't have any potent left-handed bats.
This is Bryce Harper's first season and his first postseason. No matter how great this kid is, he's still shy of his twentieth birthday (October 16th) and he's a wild card under the pressure of the playoffs.
That leaves Adam LaRoche as the Nationals lone, trustworthy, everyday left-handed bat. And as long as LaRoche hits like he did this year, that's okay.
The Nationals have a heavily right-handed lineup, and as luck would have it (see the previous slide), their NLDS competition has a murders row of right-handed pitchers. The Cards bullpen has shutdown potential, with flame-throwing right-handers Jason Motte, Lance Lynn and Mitchell Boggs leading the way.
Beyond that, their postseason roster includes plenty of other talented right-handers, with Kyle Lohse, Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright in the rotation, and fireballers Joe Kelly and Fernando Salas rounding out the bullpen.
If anything, their club's major exploitable weakness is their lack of an effective lefty reliever.
LaRoche's left-handed swing is vital to the middle of the Nationals' lineup. Firstly, his .843 career OPS vs. righties (.864 OPS vs RHP in '12) adds platoon balance, protecting Ryan Zimmerman and Mike Morse with power and on-base skills.
He's been an MVP-level slugger for the Nationals this season, posting a .271/.343/.501 triple-slash line and racking up 33 home runs and sixty-nine extra base hits. He carries impact level power to the diamond, the kind that will intimidate aces like Lohse and Wainwright.
LaRoche isn't a righty-only hitter either. He hits lefties and can take same-side breaking stuff over the left field fence. This season, he slugged .506 and hit eleven of his 33 homeruns off of southpaws.
In the postseason, left-handed sluggers like Ryan Howard, who have trouble handling same-side breaking stuff, tend to struggle in the late innings. Opposing managers will mix and match their bullpen, forcing middle-of-the-order lefty sluggers to face a specialist.
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny though, will have to think twice before sending his lone bullpen lefty, Mark Rzepczynski, out there to take on LaRoche.
#5: The Goon Squad
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The Nationals' bench separates them from their competition.
Sure, their starting pitching is superb and their lineup is packed with talent from top to bottom, but frankly, the other playoff teams they'll face—the Cardinals in the NLDS and either the Giants or Reds if they make it to the NLCS—are pretty gifted in those areas too.
If their bench players can continue to contribute in the postseason, they'll be the last club standing.
Maybe the most overlooked facet of the game, pinch-hitting and running and defensive replacements are important in the regular season and crucial in the playoffs. Bench players combine for more at bats than any single starting player, and on some teams, maybe as many as two.
To be a truly well-rounded team, the little guys need to contribute. But, the value of a bench spans even beyond that.
Baseball is largely a game of match-ups. A player with the platoon advantage has a greater chance of winning a match-up. In the late innings, even the most minute increase in run scoring (or preventing) probability can change the outcome of a game or series.
The Nationals' bench, coined the "Goon Squad" by MASN color guy F.P. Santangelo last Spring, offers everything a manager could ask for. They can run, they can field, and they can hit in the clutch. But of all of the areas they can contribute, their affinity for clutch-hitting in the late innings will be a key factor in October.
Nats pinch hitters led the MLB with a .288 batting average this season. They ranked third in the league with 61 pinch hits, more than any other playoff team, and they also totaled a whopping 61 RBI. For reference, the average big league pinch hitter posted a .224 batting average.
Davey Johnson's starting lineup is heavy on right-handed hitters, and is therefore better at hitting left-handed pitchers. This postseason though, they'll face teams with the best right-handed pitchers in the game—starting with the Cardinals who plan to send Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter, Kyle Lohse, Lance Lynn and Jason Motte to the mound.
In the late innings, that will put left-handed hitters Roger Bernadina and Chad Tracy in the batters box. Both hitters are adept at hitting in the clutch, and no doubt, they'll step in to the batters box in high-leverage situations.
Bernadina played great baseball while filling multiple roles for the Nationals this season. Overall he hit .291/.372/.405, and his on-base percentage ranked second on the team, behind Jason Werth's .387 mark. He went eight for thirty-three as a pinch hitter (.242 average), but that doesn't tell the whole story.
Roger was clutch, hitting a monster .356/.466/.508 with runners in scoring position and .316/.414/.459 with men on base. He performed even better in tighter situations, collecting 13 hits and 11 RBI in 30 at bats with two out and men in scoring position. And, when he made outs, they were still productive, advancing runners 40 percent of the time (about 10 percent above the NL's average).
Bernadina is also a tremendous baserunner and a top-shelf defensive outfielder. Throughout the past three seasons he's stolen forty-eight bases in 56 attempts (85 percent success rate), and swiped 15 in 18 chances this season. In the outfield, his glove plays above-average in all three positions. Even better, like his hitting, he thrives when it counts most, and he's already single-handedly saved a game with a spectacular catch this year.
In his first season with the Nationals, Chad Tracy carved out a niche for himself as an effective pinch hitter. After injuries ended his career as an everyday third baseman a few years back, he proved he could still help his team win with timely hitting and intelligent at bats.
He hit .269/.343/.441 overall this season, but did his best work in the late innings, hitting .281/.364/.474 after the sixth frame. But how will he perform in the postseason? Tracy appears to be well suited for the pressure of post-season pinch hitting, as he posted a .333 batting average (10 for 30) and drove in eight runs in the late innings of close games (score difference is fewer than three runs).
Finally, the rest of the bench, consisting of Jesus Flores, Tyler Moore and Steve Lombardozzi will likely play leading roles in the Nationals postseason run as well. Moore, a right-handed slugging rookie offers Davey an extra masher off the bench when the team needs to score runs fast. Moore slugged .513 through 171 plate appearances this season, and while he doesn't have a platoon advantage, he still managed to post a herculean .929 OPS against right-handed pitchers.
The back-up catcher, Jesus Flores, will get at least a handful of at bats when the club needs to spare Kurt Suzuki's knees, while Steve Lombardozzi will chip-in as a defensive replacement and as a pinch hitter when Danny Espinosa faces a tough right-hander. Lombardozzi hit .287/.332/.382 against righties this year. Both Lombardozzi and Flores have above-average gloves as well.
#4: Jason Werth
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On a team of rookies and blue-chip young guns, Jayson Werth's postseason experience could prove invaluable.
Outside of Adam LaRoche, Werth is the only Nationals player with extensive postseason experience on his resume. He's also the only batter on the roster that's been to a World Series.
For the Nationals to be successful, their veteran, big-money free agent and lead-off man will need to perform in the spotlight.
Before coming to the Nationals, Werth put together a star-level career with the Philadelphia Phillies and helped lead the team to a World Series Championship and two big show appearances. He's hit .266/.374/.595 in his postseason career and holds a Philadelphia franchise record for playoff homeruns with thirteen. A broken wrist and advancing age have left Werth much less powerful than he used to be, but if he can still do what he does best—get on base—the Nationals will compete.
Beyond his postseason experience and veteran leadership, Werth makes other valuable contributions to the Nats. His patience and ability to grind-out quality at bats, are definitely the most important weapons he brings to the table.
The Nats lineup is full of free-swingers—guys like Mike Morse (career 0.27 BB/K), Ian Desmond (5.3 percent walk rate), Danny Espinosa (league-leading 189 strikeouts) and Tyler Moore (8.2 percent walk rate, 27 percent strikeout rate) tend to make quick outs and struggle to advance base runners with low-contact approaches.
As a team, the Nationals have a 7.7 BB percentage in 2012, just under the NL average of 7.9 percent, and they saw just 3.77 pitches per plate appearances (3.81 is average). Werth on the other hand, is the best player in baseball at working the count.
Since 2007, Werth has posted a .370 on-base percentage, about 45 points higher than the league average mark during that span. This year, he's been even more patient, totaling a .387 on-base percentage and walking nearly as often as he struck out (1.37 BB/K).
His high on-base percentage and solid base running ability makes him a great table setter for the heavy hitters behind him, but the value of his plate discipline doesn't end there. He grinds out at bats, and tires out pitchers. Over a smaller sample-size like the postseason, that's valuable in itself. He's averaged 4.44 pitches per plate appearances since he became an everyday player almost a decade ago, and hasn't ever seen less than 4.34 P/PA in any season.
#3: Gio Gonzalez
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In the postseason, stars always shine brighter, and the Nationals will need to rely on their best players as they fight for their first World Series Championship.
It might sound cliche, but it's true: the postseason is won and lost with starting pitching.
The Nationals pitching staff was the best in baseball this season, but when they sat Strasburg, they made the decision to go to the playoffs without a superstar. Strasburg's absence puts more pressure on Gio Gonzalez, their number-one starter. If Gio can pick-up the slack, the team will have a much easier time reaching the promise land.
Facing a Cardinals lineup that's adept at crushing lefties, Gio Gonzalez battled for five innings in Game 1 of the NLDS and ended up leading the club to victory. He ended up walking seven batters through five innings, but he only allowed one hit. And, considering he was pitching against Carlos Beltran, Matt Holliday and Allen Craig, that's a very solid performance. Anyway, the Nationals won in the end and that's all that matters.
The road won't get much easier for Gio looking forward, and if he wants to lead his staff by example, he'll need to pitch better than he did Sunday afternoon.
Now that the series has evened to one game a piece, there's a good chance that Gio will pitch again verse the Cardinals. Ross Detwiler is set for game four, but if the Nats are in jeopardy of elimination, Davey Johnson will turn to his ace. If that's the case, he'll once again face a righty dominated lineup of all-stars.
Normally, the Cardinals lineup card would scare-off a southpaw—especially in the playoffs. St. Louis' team on-base percentage is .338, the best in the league, and their lineup is led by right-handed sluggers Matt Holliday (.877 OPS), Yadier Molina (.874 OPS), Allen Craig (.876 OPS), David Freese (.839 OPS) and switch-hitter Carlos Beltran (.842 OPS).
But Gio is an ace and one of the best pitchers in the league. His dominant regular season performance earned him the Warren Spahn Award, and he led the league with 21 wins (vs. eight losses), 9.2 strikeouts per nine innings and his 2.89 ERA ranked sixth. He also didn't have any trouble dispatching right-handed hitters, holding them to a meager .199/.276/.285 triple-slash line. So, if he can straighten out his command, the Nationals stand a good chance of winning his starts.
If the Nats survive the Division Series, they'll have to face off against either the Reds or the Giants for the Pennant. Both of their possible opponents have a formidable starting rotation, and Gio will match-up against Cy Young contenders like Johnny Cueto and Madison Bumgarner.
The Nationals lineup doesn't have a lot of postseason experience (understatement) either, putting more weight on Gio's shoulders to bring home a win.
#2: Ryan Zimmerman
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Ryan Zimmerman is the Nationals field general. He's been with the team longer than any player on the roster, and he's stuck it out through plenty of ugly seasons. He's never played in the postseason, but he's already battle hardened, and no doubt, there's nobody on this club that wants a ring more than Zim.
Zimmerman is a key player to the Nationals postseason success for multiple reasons. First of all, he's the franchise player and the face of the team. He's their Derek Jeter, or maybe this year's Ryan Howard. He's a dangerous hitter, and even though he's battled injuries throughout his career, he's proven remarkably consistent when healthy. With a Gold Glove under his belt, he's also a leader in the field, and he plays impact-level defense at third base.
Ryan hits in the middle of the Nats batting order. He's responsible for driving in runs and getting on base for the hitters behind him. His 2012 regular season line was solid—he hit .282 with 25 round trippers—but he caught fire after the All-Star break and he heads in to the playoffs as one of the lineup's hottest hitters. He hit .319/.381/.564 in the second half and finished the year with 95 RBI.
The Nationals head back to Washington after splitting the first two games of the NLDS. Just as a good franchise player should be, Zimmerman is an extraordinary hitter at home. At Nationals park this year, his OPS increases by 162 points (from a .746 OPS in away games to a .908 OPS) and he hit .304/.375/.533.
For the final three games of the series, he'll be facing right-handed starters exclusively— starting with Chris Carpenter in game three. He's traditionally more comfortable facing southpaws—posting a .907 OPS against left-handed pitchers and an .808 OPS against righties in his career—but his home batters box might be able to boost his production.
Zimmerman has a flare for the dramatic and late inning clutch hits. While always valuable, clutch-hitting is obviously more important in the postseason.
In his career, Ryan's hit a phenomenal eight walk-off homeruns. But he's not only a winner in final stanza, he's also totaled an incredible twenty-two game-tying bombs and a whopping 51 go-ahead homers. With men on base, he steps up to the plate prepared to drive 'em in, posting an .869 OPS with two-out and runners in scoring position, and an .823 mark in high-leverage situations.
#1: Drew Storen
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1988 ALCS MVP Dennis Eckersley, '90 NLCS MVP Rob Dibble and of course postseason legend Mariano Rivera, have all proven that closers play a vital role in the playoffs. The MLB postseason is a pressure cooker, especially for those working under the solo spotlight of the pitcher's mound. A shutdown, ice-water-veined closer makes all of the difference.
The Nationals have Drew Storen, one of the most talented young relief pitchers in the game. He's not Mariano Rivera, nor is he Dennis Eckersley, but he has shutdown potential.
Since breaking spring training as the Nats closer in 2011, he's pitched to the tune of a 2.64 ERA, a 2.21 ground-out/fly out ratio, 8.3 K/9 and a 1.013 WHIP, and he's saved forty-seven games in fifty-three opportunities.
But here's the catch, Storen missed half of the regular season recovering from elbow surgery and didn't resume closing games until September.
Like most of the Nationals roster, Storen doesn't have any experience pitching in the playoffs. Making matters worse, his resume doesn't even have much Major League experience to begin with—just 105 2/3 innings pitched. On the bright side, he's pitched very well during his short career.
But, after missing so much of this past regular season, there's no telling how effective he'll be in the playoffs. Storen didn't pitch until mid-July, and didn't return to his closers job until September, when Tyler Clippard was struggling to get outs.
When Storen returned to the mound this summer, his command just wasn't there. He spent the first month struggling through each of his appearances, yielding seven walks in 9 1/3 innings pitched en route to a 5.79 ERA. He got it together in September though, pitching with the same dominance that earned him the closers role in the first place.
Through seventeen appearances in the season's final month, Drew tossed 15 1/3 innings of 1.17 ERA baseball, didn't allow a single walk and held opposing hitters to a .411 OPS.
Washington's bullpen is well-rounded, armed with effective relievers from top to bottom. However, Storen is really their only playoff-grade closer, so he really needs to get it done. If Storen can't hack it, the next guy in line is set-up man Tyler Clippard. Clip has proven himself as a premier middle reliever, but struggled down the stretch as the Nats closer. Filling in for Storen, he was reliable for much of the season, accumulating forty-two saves, but his September struggles—twenty-five baserunners and twelve earned runs allowed in twelve innings pitched—are concerning.
Craig Stammen, arguably the best reliever in the bullpen this season, is another guy that's best suited for middle relief. Stammen has above-average command of three pitches and nice groundball rates (1.94 GO/FO), but his fastball velocity is pedestrian and he has just one save in his career.
Storen finished the season with just four saves in five opportunities, but his September dominance suggests he's back to his old nasty self.
He's an intelligent pitcher, armed with a 95 MPH two-seamer and precise command over his wipe-out breaking stuff, so if he can keep his poise under the bright lights of October baseball, the Nationals will be in position to win big. If he falters, Washington doesn't have another pitcher that can replicate Storen's value in the late innings.
He's young, but he has the kind of bat-silencing stuff to succeed in white knuckle situations, even against the best players in the MLB.