Most, if not every team in Major League Baseball has an analytics department that helps them make pivotal decisions. But viewing matters from a roster and managerial standpoint, the National League-champion Washington Nationals are the anti-modern baseball team.
Speedsters at the Top of the Order, Heavy Swingers in the Heart of the Order
Modern-day wisdom says to put your two best hitters at the top of the order. The Nationals refuse.
Shortstop Trea Turner and right fielder Adam Eaton are the first two hitters on the Nationals lineup card. Now, both players are proven hitters who have come up clutch in the postseason for the Nationals. Heck, Turner hit .298 and recorded an .850 OPS in the regular season. But they’re not the Nationals’ two best hitters or sources of power, so to speak.
The speedsters are contact hitters with pop in their bats. Turner is one of the fastest players in the sport — exemplified by him making groundballs close plays at first base and swiping bags — and Eaton is adept at getting on-base in crafty ways such as ambush bunting and hitting ’em where they ain’t.
Turner and Eaton set the table for a prolific duo.
Just like the good old days (five years ago), the Nationals hit their two best hitters in the three and cleanup hole: Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto. Rendon is one of the best hitters and players in baseball. He’s a line drive machine, but Rendon also blasts home runs at a high rate, is difficult to strikeout, and is a surefire finalist for the 2019 NL Most Valuable Player Award. Soto is 20. Soto is also one of the best offensive outfielders in baseball. He hits the ball to all fields, has a great eye in the batter’s box, a level swing, and hits for both contact and power.
Having the likes of Turner and Eaton on-base for Rendon and Soto gives the Nationals the chance to do damage in more ways than just the long ball, especially in the first inning. Then Howie Kendrick, Ryan Zimmerman, Victor Robles, and friends do the rest.
Premier Strikeout Starting Pitching
Modern-day wisdom says to get a starting pitcher out of the game after he goes through an order twice or get the ball to the bullpen midway through the game. The Nationals refuse.
In fact, they epitomize going the polar opposite way of modern-day expectations. The Nationals sport a postseason starting rotation that signed on the dot for a combined $544 million (Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, and Anibal Sanchez).
Scherzer is a perennial Cy Young Award winner, and his offerings are as lethal as ever. He’s blowing his fastball past hitters, making them look silly with his breaking balls, and has surrendered zero earned runs over his last 18 innings this postseason. Strasburg has become a pitcher of deception. He keeps hitters guessing with the consistent use of his four seamer, curveball, and changeup. The veteran right-hander has surrendered just four earned runs in the 22 innings he has pitched this postseason.
Corbin has evolved into an elite left-hander. His slider is difficult for hitters to make contact off, he mixes his pitches well, and recorded an impressive 3.25 ERA in his debut year with the Nationals. He has also made three appearances out of the bullpen this postseason. Sanchez has been pitching well in the shadows of the aforementioned hurlers. He keeps hitters guessing with his array of offerings and kicked it into another gear in the second half of the regular season. Sanchez carried a no-hitter through 7.2 innings in Game 1 of the team’s NL Championship Series with the St. Louis Cardinals.
The bulk of these arms are strikeout pitchers who go deep into games. Those two factors have become archaic. But the Nationals’ motto is going into the archives to win games.
One-Inning, Backend Relievers Constituting Their Bullpen
Modern-day wisdom says to have versatile relievers who consistently pitch multiple innings an appearance or come in to jam one hitter. The Nationals refuse.
Yes, the Nationals’ Achilles heel this season has been their bullpen, but the backend of that unit has flipped the script in the postseason, most notably the likes of Sean Doolittle, Daniel Hudson, Fernando Rodney, and Tanner Rainey.
After a midsummer nightmare of home runs, predictability, and injures, Doolittle bounced back down the stretch, especially in the postseason. He’s placing his fastball on the corners of the strike zone and inducing popups. Hudson is placing his fastball wherever he wants, and he hasn’t surrendered a run in the postseason. The right-hander has done so as the Nationals primary closer.
Rodney, 42, is the oldest player in MLB, but he’s still getting the job done. He has totaled five strikeouts, is keeping hitters guessing, and hasn’t surrendered a run in 2.2 innings this postseason. In his first season in the big leagues, Rainey has wowed the D.C. crowd, hitting as high as 101 mph on the radar with his fastball. He also threw consecutive scoreless innings in Games 3 and 4 of the NLCS and hasn’t surrendered a run in his last four appearances.
These four pitchers are mostly one-inning relievers who empty the tank and get the ball to the next arm. While a reliever going one inning isn’t a lost art, a lot of bullpens are constructed with flex pitchers, multi-inning relievers, and one-batter relievers. While there have been some exceptions, the Nationals are mostly relying on their backend relievers to get through one inning apiece, rather than multiple innings or for a particular batter. Or, like he’s done in the postseason, manager Dave Martinez occasionally opts to go with one of his starting pitchers in a crucial spot.
This is a team whose bullpen is tasked with shutting the door on their top-tier starters’ outings, which keeps an elite, yet traditional lineup in games.
The Nationals overcame being 19-31 in the regular season, trailing 3-1 in the eighth inning of the NL Wild Card Game to the Milwaukee Brewers, and being down 2-1 in the NL Division Series to the Los Angeles Dodgers and swept the Cardinals in the NLCS by being themselves: an old-school team that’s unwavering in its approach.