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Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper Must Match the Hype in 2014 Pennant Race

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Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper Must Match the Hype in 2014 Pennant Race
Alex Brandon/Associated Press
It's time for Stephen Strasburg and, especially, Bryce Harper (pictured), to push the Nationals in their pennant race.

It seems silly to claim that the Washington Nationals, despite being 60-49 and in first place in the NL East, have been a bit disappointing for a second straight season. But considering the amount of talent on the roster and their inability to pull away from the Atlanta Braves, who sit just 3.5 games back, maybe it's not.

Such is the case with great expectations. When big things are anticipated, standards get raised. If performance doesn't meet that lofty bar, even a solid season—like the one the Nationals are having—can feel a little bit like a disappointing one.

And of course, it's impossible to discuss Washington and expectations without honing in on the much-hyped duo of Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, who will need to live up to all those expectations and all that hype down the stretch to ensure that Washington returns to October.

This is especially true with the Nationals hosting a one-game makeup on Monday evening against their Maryland neighbors, the Baltimore Orioles, who currently sit atop the AL East and have a better record (62-48) amid much lower expectations.

Now, to be fair, Strasburg is having himself a pretty great season and doesn't necessarily deserve to be lumped into the same bin of disappointment that Harper is in at the moment.

The 26-year-old right-hander has been completely healthy for the first time in his five-year career, putting him on pace for his first 200-inning campaign. He also leads the Senior Circuit with 177 strikeouts (in 151.1 innings) and just hurled seven scoreless with 10 strikeouts on Sunday (albeit against the woeful Philadelphia Phillies).

Harper, meanwhile, has been hurt and much less impactful, having played in just 50 of the club's 109 games so far—that's less than half, according to the back of this here napkin—due to April surgery to repair a torn ligament in his left thumb.

When he has been on the field, Harper has struggled (.259/.342/.374); off the field, well, he's managed to rub folks the wrong way, including his own manager and an outfield mate.

Over the final two months of 2014, one thing should be clear: Harper's performance is of greater importance to the Nationals than Strasburg's.

Nationals' 2014 MLB Ranks in Pitching
STATISTIC NATIONALS MLB RANK
ERA 3.10 3
WHIP 1.19 4
HR 69 1
BAA .246 11
OBP .299 4
SLG .359 6

MLB.com

That table shows that Washington's dynamite pitching staff—both the deep rotation and dynamic bullpen—is among the very best in baseball. In each of the statistical categories listed, the Nationals' arms rank in (or, in one case, just barely outside) the top 10 in the sport.

Strasburg hasn't always been lights out, but he also hasn't needed to be, thanks to fellow five-men mates like fellow right-handers Jordan Zimmermann (3.00 ERA, 1.17 WHIP), Doug Fister (2.68, 1.09) and Tanner Roark (2.74, 1.08), as well as a relief corps of setup men Drew Storen (1.53 ERA, 1.02 WHIP) and Tyler Clippard (1.72, 1.06) in front of closer Rafael Soriano (1.87, 0.95).

Still, as good as Strasburg has been, he's prone to the more-than-occasional blowup, particularly on the road, where he owns a 4.68 ERA and 1.41 WHIP versus a 2.41 ERA and 1.06 WHIP at home.

As nice as it is that he leads the rotation with a 2.74 FIP, the actual results do count:

The Nationals' Five-Man Rotation
PITCHER ERA WHIP
Doug Fister 2.68 1.09
Tanner Roark 2.74 1.08
Jordan Zimmermann 3.00 1.17
Stephen Strasburg 3.39 1.21
Gio Gonzalez 3.88 1.26

MLB.com

Before getting back to Harper, let's not forget that this actually is Strasburg's first real shot at a pennant race after the Braves ran away with the East last year following the Nationals infamously shutting down Strasburg in late 2012 as part of his recovery from Tommy John surgery as they were headed to the playoffs.

That puts a bit more pressure on Strasburg to deliver over his final 10 or so starts and in October, should the Nationals get there.

Washington's bats, by comparison, have more room for improvement. The offense isn't as futile as it was for much of 2013—the Nationals were smack dab in the middle of the pack with the 16th-most runs scored in a down year last season—but the sticks haven't been as consistent or potent as the arms overall.

Nationals' 2014 MLB Ranks on Offense
STATISTIC NATIONALS MLB RANK
Runs Per Game 4.20 10
BA .249 19
OBP .317 13
SLG .380 17
XBH 297 T-16
HR 87 T-20

MLB.com

Whereas the pitching staff was more or less in the top 10 in the categories mentioned above, the lineup can make that claim in only one stat (runs per game).

That's not to say that this club couldn't get by without Harper hitting his stride. After all, Washington gets above-average production from outfielder Jayson Werth (128 wRC+), third baseman Antony Rendon (125), and first baseman Adam LaRoche (123), while center fielder Denard Span (112) shortstop Ian Desmond (103), and catcher Wilson Ramos (103) chip in with their fair share.

As for Harper? Well, his weight runs created plus is exactly 100, which means he has been utterly and exactly league average to this point.

Here's where it's worth pointing out that the Nationals don't have a dominant presence in their lineup to match what they put on the mound most nights. That's where Harper has an opportunity.

It might be a lot to ask a 21-year-old to be the best batter in what is already a solid offense, but then again, Harper not only has been hyped up as being that kind of hitter all along, he's also shown he can be. At least, for stretches of time.

Here's what Harper did over the second half of 2012, his first season in the majors:

Bryce Harper's Second Half of 2012
GAMES BA/OBP/SLG R HR RBI
76 .260/.328/.481 55 14 34

Baseball Reference

And here are his numbers at the start of 2013, before he injured his left knee while violently crashing into the wall at Dodger Stadium on May 13, after which his health and production dropped off precipitously. 

Bryce Harper's First Six Weeks of 2013
GAMES BA/OBP/SLG R HR RBI
35 .303/.400/.622 24 10 21

Baseball Reference

So, yes, despite more than a little criticism that Harper hasn't been all he's cracked up to be, it's easy to see that he could be again. Remember, he missed more than two months for that torn thumb ligament, the sort of injury that takes time to fully recover from, especially with regard to the mechanics and leverage of a baseball swing. No wonder Harper has spent the past few weeks tinkering with his stance, as James Wagner of the Washington Post reported.

Heck, on Friday, Harper actually tried to shake things up by bunting, which led manager Matt Williams to say the following, via Adam Kilgore of the Post:

More often than not, I would like to see him swing the bat. He just has the opportunity to do something special. If he feels like the guy is playing him back far enough that he can do that, and get on base in the right situation, okay. Then again, there’s times where I want him to swing, too. The last couple of times he's tried to do it, we'd rather see him let it fly and see what he can do. Hit a leadoff double or hit one over the fence. He certainly has that capability.

Even if Harper is not going to emerge in 2014 as the middle-of-the-order monster that so many have been expecting, he still can add a lot to Washington's one-through-nine merely by being productive, especially at a time when Ryan Zimmerman's latest hamstring injury has his return up in the air.

To this point, the Nationals' .658 OPS from left field—Harper's primary position—ranks seventh-worst in MLB. That's down because of Harper's own shortcomings this season, as well as his injury, which forced the club to rely on the likes of Nate McLouth, Kevin Frandsen and Scott Hairston more than it otherwise would have.

While expectations can be an anchor, the good news for the Nationals is that Strasburg and Harper have been dealing with the sky-high kind for a long, long time by now. The other good news? Both have had flashes or even extended periods of brilliance in their still-young careers.

For the Nationals' sake, Strasburg and, especially, Harper could use another one of those down the stretch of the regular season to help the club get to the playoffs. And a big October wouldn't hurt, either.

After all, why bother with expectations if they're not great?

 

Statistics are accurate through August 3 and come from MLB.comBaseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.com, except where otherwise noted.

To talk baseball or fantasy baseball, check in with me on Twitter: @JayCat11

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