When the Chicago Cubs kick things off against the Washington Nationals in the NLDS this Friday night, they’ll do so as the decided underdogs.
Why? Well, even setting aside the teams’ records this year (the Nats’ 97 wins tops the Cubs’ 92), consider that although the Cubs position players (26.7 fWAR) have the slight advantage over the Nationals (26.1 fWAR) this season, the Nationals starting pitchers (17.3 fWAR) have been far more valuable than the Cubs (11.9 fWAR).
And in the postseason, as we know, pitching often reigns supreme.
Of course, although the starters may take a lion’s share of the October innings, the relievers play a significant role, as well. Unfortunately (for the Cubs), the Nationals are well-guarded there, too. But that wasn’t always the case. In fact, in the first half of the season, the Washington Nationals essentially had the single worst bullpen in all of baseball.
Remember that storyline? Remember when the Cubs came back in the 9th inning to beat the Nationals in late June?
It wasn’t just a talking point. Take a look at the Nationals’ pen:
Aside from boasting one of the better walk rates in the league, the Nationals’ bullpen in the first half of the season was an absolute disaster. In just about every single statistical area that matters, they ranked in the bottom third and often among the bottom five overall.
For any otherwise complete and excellent team, they were in serious trouble.
And then the Trade Deadline happened.
Recognizing that they were a team destined for the postseason, the Nationals did what all contending teams try to do: shore up their biggest weaknesses. And unfortunately (again, for the Cubs) the Nationals did so quite well. Before the deadline, the Nationals added Twins closer Brandon Kintzler, Athletics (sometimes) closer Sean Doolittle, and Athletics reliever Ryan Madson to their bullpen, and boy did it make a difference.
Here’s how each of them has performed since joining Washington (random, notable stats follow):
Kintzler (26.0 IP): 3.46 ERA, 56.5 GB% 4.7 BB%
Doolittle (30.0 IP): 2.40 ERA, 5.1% HR/FB, 3.88 K/BB
Madson (19.2 IP): 1.37 ERA, 1.07 FIP, 37.3 K%, 4.0 BB%
As I’m sure you can imagine, the addition of those three arms, plus the subtraction of their worst three arms, plus some general bounce-backs, led to a FAR more productive second half for the Nats’ pen:
In fact, since the All-Star break, you can say the Nationals bullpen has done a freakin’ 180. Now, by most measures, they’re one of the top ten groups in all of baseball. And that’s really more than a bit troubling for a group of Cubs hitters who’ve already been tasked with facing Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Gio Gonzalez first.
And here’s the final kicker: the Nationals are really earning this improved production.
The Nationals’ strand rate in the first half of the season was a bit lower than it is now, but remains almost exactly still relative to the rest of baseball.
Similarly, while they had the highest home run/fly ball ratio in all of baseball during the first half of the year, it’s now the lowest mark in all of baseball during the second half, and they mostly earned it.
Take another look at their stats above. The Nationals decreased their fly ball rate, decreased their hard hit rate, and increased their soft-hit rate by a lot since the All-Star break. That’s a sure-fire way to help limit fly balls from leaving the park.
And finally, Nationals relievers’ BABIP in the first half of the season was the 4th highest mark in baseball, but dropped down to 22nd in the second half of the year. Again, when you go from allowing some of the most hard contact to some of the least, you’re gonna see that more balls find gloves than they ever did before.
So, I mean, yeah, this kinda sucks. The Nationals pitching, from the rotation to the pen, is about as strong as it gets in baseball. Turns out, playoff teams are really good. Who knew?
The Cubs are really going to need their bats to be ready and their pitchers to step up if they want to get past the Nats in the NLDS, let alone go on to repeat as World Series champs.