Five Takeaways from the Washington Nationals-New York Mets Series

Jayson Werth looks good hitting second, and the Nationals offense remains an enigma

Werth has a lot to offer as a hitter, even if his low batting average doesn’t yet show it. He admitted he preferred hitting higher in the order. He sees a lot of pitches. He fouls off a lot of pitches. He draws walks and is an excellent baserunner (and he’s a career 80 percent base-stealer, too.)

My hypothesis: Werth simply doesn’t have the power he once did, and hitting sixth, perhaps he was trying to force the issue to the detriment of his contact and BABIP. Whereas, hitting second, he can be more of a walks-singles-doubles machine.

Ryan Zimmerman continues to search for his power stroke. Nearly 52 percent of his hits are coming on the ground. His inability to elevate his medium- and hard-power contact is mystifying and is, sadly, responsible for leaving many baserunners stranded. Is it a weather issue? Is it a technical, batting-stance issue? He’s making contact, but the results are mysteriously ineffective.

Ben Revere looks like he’s finally finding his timing, as does Anthony Rendon. Bryce Harper is mired in a strange slump; not hitting much but drawing boatloads of walks, so even this cold stretch is a value-adding proposition for the offense. Daniel Murphy seems to have merged his high-contact scattershot approach to a pull-for-power approach, and the result is that the Nationals basically have the best of both worlds. He can pump singles to all fields, and can also drive pitches to right and right-center. He is an incredibly dangerous hitter.

In the end, the Nationals are 10 games over .500 with an offense that seems mostly sluggish, cold, or even just unlucky. If everyone gets hot at the same time, combined with the top-notch starting pitching and very good bullpen — well, that would be fun to observe.

Defense: it matters!

Asdrubal Cabrera and Yoenis Cespedes proved in Thursday night’s walloping that giving away free outs is a great way to take yourself out of a game. Cabrera’s booted grounder opened up the floodgates for the Nationals offense, and Cespedes’ awful effort in center field cemented the rout. Terrible defensive plays cannot be overlooked as to how Matt Harvey’s extremely stressful and ineffective evening spooled from bad, but survivable, to totally out of control.

One of the biggest differences for the Nationals between this year and last is the infield defense is much improved.

Wilson Ramos continues to be a terrific defensive catcher, calling great games and largely shutting down baserunners. Anthony Rendon has been a terrific defensive third baseman. Ryan Zimmerman has made some nice catches and picks at first, even if his throwing arm is weak. Daniel Murphy has been a mixed bag with the glove.

Probably the biggest difference is that Danny Espinosa has played a steady shortstop. The less we re-live  Ian Desmond’s disastrous spring in 2015, the better, for all parties involved. Espinosa is, frankly, an overrated defensive shortstop. He has a cannon for an arm, but his glove is average, and he’s booted relatively routine plays, or at least plays that a superior defensive player should make. Still, average or above-average defensive play is stable and stability counts, especially at a premium defensive position.

Whether he will continue to play shortstop past June is an open question, as Trea Turner is banging on the big-league door as a major offensive threat with a decent glove. Where and how he figures into the infield defense mix is an intriguing question.

In any case, the Nationals have not given away outs in 2016 like they did in 2015, and that has made a huge difference to all phases of the game.

Are we sure Thor is human?

If Elon Musk set out to design a right-handed baseball-throwing machine, it would probably end up being pretty much Noah Syndergaard. He routinely touches 100 mph with his heater and sinker. His sliders and changeups both lives in the low 90s. Plus, 82 percent of the runners who get on base are stranded there. The list of metrics and data goes on: “Thor” is all but unhittable.

Obviously he has given up earned runs. Hunter Pence touched him for a home run a few days ago; the Brewers plated a run against him on Sunday. But watching Syndergaard go to work is a treat for fans of pitching, and probably a waking nightmare for batters.

What’s wrong with Matt Harvey?

I have no idea, and neither does anyone else. I’m not going to speculate on his health — he swears he’s fine — and I’m not going to armchair psychoanalyze him, either. Pitching is hard in the best of times. He threw 200-plus innings last season, merely a year removed from Tommy John surgery. Is there a carryover? Is he damaged goods going forward? So many questions! So many takes!

To borrow a phrase from Rangers manager Jeff Bannister, Harvey may need to reset or “unplug.” The Mets currently plan to have him start on short rest — he didn’t throw many pitches in his last outing — and maybe getting right back on the horse is the medicine he needs.

Even if Harvey is off, even if he’s totally useless, even if he’s at best a fifth starter, the Mets are still in a good position. Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom (who himself has velocity concerns) and Steven Matz are a top-notch starting three. That group alone is good enough to carry a team to and through the playoffs.

Final point: beating the Mets is always important for Washington. Beating Harvey is always nice, too. But, at least for this fan, there’s not much joy in seeing an elite, face-of-the-game type of talent look so utterly shell-shocked.

What’s wrong with the Mets offense?

The Mets put up precious few runs in the series. Therefore, something must be wrong. But what if nothing is actually wrong? For example, the Nationals themselves have had cartoonishly little success getting runners across the plate in recent weeks. Offense is hard to come by against anyone; against excellent pitching, it’s even more futile.

The Mets have a lot of power, and they strike out a lot. Consequently, when facing heavy strikeout pitchers in Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg — wait for it! — they struck out a lot. Scherzer and Gio Gonzalez both made a few mistakes and New York’s power bats made them pay. Strasburg got into a lot of deep counts, but has nasty stuff in his own right and is missing bats at career-best rates, and capitalized on that, and wiped out 10 in six innings.

The relationship between power and strike outs is a high wire balancing act that the Mets will have to contend with all year.

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