Five Takeaways from the Nationals/Royals Series

Fresh off a sweep of St. Louis, Washington looked to keep rolling in Kansas City against the defending world champions. While the Nats couldn’t hang on to a lead in the second game of the three-game set – more on that below – they did secure the series win and are now 5-1 on a 10-game trip against some of the elite clubs in both the American and National Leagues.

Daniel Murphy really could win the NL batting title.

Nationals broadcaster F.P. Santangelo said it well: “He’s become a presence, not a pest.” This really bears repeating. Murphy has always fought out difficult at-bats and swatted singles, but he is now consistently showing extra-base power. It’s really an issue of approach: he’s pulling the ball to right and right-center at far greater rates than he ever has before, while not entirely abandoning the ability to take outside pitches the other way.

How long can he keep it up?

Well, Murphy’s BABIP is through the roof, coming in at a whopping .410. That will decrease. But still: his walk and strikeout percentages are well within his career rates, and he’s making elite contact on balls inside the strike zone (a roughly 94% contact rate) even though his contact on balls outside the zone is down.

Ryan Zimmerman is getting hot.

Washington’s clean-up hitter and first baseman had a largely dormant April, causing some consternation about when – or whether – he would begin producing runs. Was he hurt? Was he just in severe decline?

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Player A is Zimmerman in 2009, a career year. Player B is Zimmerman thus far in 2016. In some ways, he’s put together an awfully similar opening month-ish. A few things stand out, though. He’s hit more medium contact and less hard contact, and he’s hit more ground balls. Medium-power on the ground probably explains why his BABIP is down. But he actually hit grounders 62.5% of the time in 2011, and about 57% of the time in 2013.

He’s not suddenly “bad” – he’s just off to a pretty routine cool start for him, a start that has shown signs of opening up: over the last three days, he’s slashing .364/.462/.636, with a BABIP of .444.

The Nats need to plan for Bad Papelbon.

If there is such a thing as a “closer mentality,” surely Jonathan Papelbon has it in spades. What he probably doesn’t have much longer is overpowering stuff. He can still get outs, but he’s leaning far too heavily on BABIP to get his work done, and that in turn means when he doesn’t get the BABIP breaks, or when the defense falters, he’s in trouble, fast, and at the worst time. His command has been spotty; he’s more hittable and getting fewer bad swings than at any prior point in his career. Maybe it’s a sample-size issue, but what if, as seems likely, it isn’t – and Pap just isn’t that good anymore?

In house: Blake Treinen and Felipe Rivero have tag-teamed the heck of the late innings in set-up roles. Treinen looked fantastic in Wednesday’s win, yielding one walk but then getting two strikeouts – one to a great lefty hitter in Kendrys Morales – and another K against a righty, and then inducing a weak out for the last play of the game. Rivero also has swing-and-miss stuff – a high-90s fastball and two offspeed offerings – to do the job, but gave up a run in the 8th inning on Tuesday and probably needs more time and work in a leverage role.

Sammy Solis, who was called up when Matt Belisle went on the DL, has looked extremely strong in his few set-up outings. And deeper down in the farm system, the Nationals have a 23-year-old prospect, Koda Glover, who has high-90s heat and 20 Ks in roughly 11 IP between Single-A and Double-A ball. Maybe one or both of them end up filling the void.

Maybe the internal options just aren’t enough. Maybe General Manager Mike Rizzo looks to make move at the deadline. The Yankees are scuffling, and seriously scuffling teams rarely need an elite bullpen – so perhaps the Nats make a deal for Andrew Miller or Dellin Betances – they could go after Aroldis Chapman but Chapman is probably too toxic to touch. Such a deal would be a huge transaction in terms of salary and depleting the farm system, and Rizzo has shown little interest in selling away prospects. But it would have to be considered if the Nationals continue to play this well with one glaring, relative weakness.

Kansas City will be fine: the offense will find its form.

If you’ve never seen Kansas City hit, you’re missing out, and I’m sure some Kansas City fans will look askance at that sentence given the results of late, but it’s true.

Every batter in that lineup – including the light-hitting Alcides Escobar (who you may remember from his ridiculous hot streak last fall) – routinely puts up five, six, ten pitch at-bats. They work counts, they foul off junk, the foul off close pitches, they simply do not give up. All-around threat Lorenzo Cain is freezing cold and playing poor defense; Salvador Perez is cool, too. Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer are hitting well and both of them can break a game open with one swing. The bigger point is that even if the results aren’t there, the KC approach to hitting – seeing a ton of pitches, rarely striking out and making plain ol’ contact – will eventually lead to a consistent, dangerous offense.

I follow the Nationals most closely and I have noticed that the club’s approach this offseason – adding guys like Murphy and Ben Revere – was geared toward a Kansas City style of baseball: long, difficult at-bats from guys who don’t strike out easily or often and can simply put the ball in play. (Clint Robinson was a Royals prospect, and even though he has struggled in a bench role, when he’s going right, he hits that way.)

Kansas City will not be fine: no matter what the offense and defense do, the starting pitching is a disaster.

Edinson Volquez turned in one bad inning in an otherwise fantastic start on Monday night. Otherwise, Royals starters had a pretty bleak series. Chris Young looked functional-but-average until he totally imploded on Tuesday. Fortunately for him, the always-opportunistic Royals offense capitalized on a faltering Washington bullpen. Kris Medlen had nothing to offer Wednesday, and was removed just shy of three innings into a disastrous start that came undone just a few at-bats into the first inning, after a series of errors allowed Washington to leap out to a six-run lead.

The Royals don’t need a Mets or Nationals-grade starting rotation to win a lot of games, and they can’t and won’t play perfect defense. The club does, however, need its starters to do enough to make sure the bullpen can do what it does best: shorten the game by one, two or even three innings.

And that just didn’t happen this last series.

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