Series Preview #25: Arizona Diamondbacks vs. Washington Nationals

USA TODAY Sports

I don't remember whether I made an official World Series pick on here before the season started. Just in case I did, I'll preempt Jim from doing that thing he does to dredge up things we said months ago to make us look bad and just say: I picked the Nationals to win the World Series.

Which isn't a terrible thing to admit. It's not like the Nationals were expected to be the 2013 Astros here. I was in fairly good company with my pick. They won 98 games last year, which was the most of any team in baseball. And most importantly, they were young. The entire front line of the rotation would be under 28 in 2013, and their offensive core of Harper-Desmond-Zimmerman-Espinosa would all be comfortably under 30. It was a team whose best days looked to be ahead.

And they probably still are. But as I write this, the Nationals are 37-38 this year. They've been outscored by 30 runs, and they trail the Braves by six games. It goes without saying that there's still plenty of time to round into form, and picking them doesn't engender the same sort of sympathy as picking, oh, say, the Dodgers for the World Series might at this point. But it's been a frustrating season.

So what's gone wrong? They've certainly had injuries, but no more than most teams, and fewer than some. Is it simple regression? Is it lack of (hashtag)want? Is the team taking cues from Bryce Harper's hair and impersonating a dying rodent?

What the Stats Say (Courtesy of Fangraphs):


Arizona
(41-34)
Washington
(37-38)
Edge
Hitting (wRC+): 91 82 Arizona
Pitching (ERA-/FIP-):
95/95 94/97
Too Close to Call!
Fielding (UZR):
24.2 -6.6

Arizona


...Nope, nothing so arcane as that. It's just that their offense has been awful. You know how every time the Diamondbacks lose a game 2-1, we're like "ZOMG this team will never score enough to be a contender?" It's like that, but with more authenticity, because the Nats' offense is essentially ten percent worse than the Diamondbacks'.

The Nats' rotation is probably the strong point of the team, even if it's less superlative than it looked at this time last year. The starters' ERA of 3.67 is good enough for seventh in the majors, which is down from its second-place finish last year but still very good overall.

Starting Lineups:

Arizona Diamondbacks

1. Gerardo Parra, RF
2. Didi Gregorius, SS
3. Paul Goldschmidt, 1B
4. Miguel Montero, C
5. Aaron Hill, 2B
6. Jason Kubel, LF
7. Martin Prado, 3B
8. A.J. Pollock, CF

Washington Nationals

1. Denard Span, CF
2. Anthony Rendon, 2B
3. Ryan Zimmerman, 3B
4. Adam LaRoche, 1B
5. Jayson Werth, RF
6. Ian Desmond, SS
7. Steve Lombardozzi, LF
8. Kurt Suzuki, C

You'll notice a dearth of Bryce Harper on here, and that's because he's been out since late May with an injury to his left knee. Speaking as a neutral fan of the game, this saddens me, because Harper is probably the Nationals' best player. But speaking as a Diamondbacks' fan, I'm thrilled, because Harper is probably the Nationals' best player.

It feels like about a lifetime and a half ago since Adam LaRoche was the Diamondbacks' starting First Baseman, given what we've seen since then, but in reality the D-Backs were the last team he played for before going to Washington. But since then, a) he slunk through a frustrating 2011 season, b) he had a career year in 2012 where he may have been the best hitter on a playoff team, and c) he's bounced back to being generally average in 2013. Basically what I'm saying is that Adam LaRoche has been the Nats in a microcosm over the past three years.

Danny Espinosa went from "pretty solid young Second Baseman" to "tire fire cleverly impersonating a baseball player" amazingly quickly. He's injured now, but he was batting .158/.193/.272 before that, so...yeah. Hot-shot rookie Anthony Rendon has replaced him and played well so far, with an OPS of .854.

Ian Desmond had to suffer through some very frustrating seasons to get there, but he's now one of the best Shortstops in the game. He has 7.3 fWAR since the start of the 2012 season, which is by far the best mark in the league in that time.

Fun fact: Jayson Werth has been paid $29 million over the past two years, and has put up almost exactly the same amount of fWAR as Wil Nieves has this year alone.

Starting Pitchers

Tuesday: Trevor Cahill (3-8, 3.92) vs. Gio Gonzalez (3-3, 3.34)

Insightful Commentary: After four straight years of increasing K-rates, Cahill's strikeouts have fallen off a bit this year. Some, if not all, of that has to do with his cutter, the strikeout pitch that he was going to throw more as the season started, and then has all but scrapped since then. This suggests a conscious decision to get more balls in play, and the results it has produced have been fairly mixed so far.

While Strasburg got the headlines, Gonzalez was the more valuable pitcher for Washington last year after coming over in a trade. His walks, which have historically been his bugaboo, have flared up again this year. But despite his inconsistancies, Gonzalez, when he's on, is one of the most electric lefties in the game.

Wednesday: Wade Miley (4-6, 4.70) vs. Jordan Zimmermann (10-3, 2.26)

Insightful Commentary: Starting in the fourth inning, Miley's OPS against shoots up over 300 points from where it is during innings 1-3. I'd say that generally jives with the feeling about Miley, that he can't go deep into games any more. It's too early to give up on Miley as a starter, but this is a similar issue to the one that's levied against Josh Collmenter, and we know where he's ended up.

Like Gonzalez, Zimmermann has blossomed into an ace while the national media drools over Strasburg. He pitched almost 200 innings with an ERA below 3 last year, and so far he's been just as good this year. He's sort of the anti-Gonzalez, in that he doesn't strike out that many guys, but his walk rate has been low for his whole career, and he's been very effective at limiting home runs.

Thursday: Patrick Corbin (9-0, 2.19) vs. Stephen Strasburg (4-6, 2.40)

Insightful Commentary: And this is where the fun begins. Strasburg is almost exactly a year older than Corbin, but the two don't have much in common other than their astrological sign. Strasburg, even after surgery in 2011, is still a power right-hander, with some of the best natural stuff in the game, with his hard fastball and smooth curveball.

Corbin, on the other hand, gets by on finesse, pounding the zone, and a killer slider that removes all doubt. Strasburg had been hyped at every level from San Diego State on, while Corbin wasn't even the highest-regarded minor-league pitcher in the Haren trade. But what they have in common is that both are (and should be) near the top of the list of coveted young pitchers.

Three Pressing Questions:

Will hotclaws finally warm up to Adam LaRoche? No. That will happen only when the sun rises in the west and sets in the east. When the seas go dry and mountains blow in the wind like leaves. But I'd imagine that him going 0 for 12 with a few errors wouldn't hurt?

How's old buddy Dan Haren doing? Ah, I was avoiding this. He's, uh, had better seasons. He has an ERA over 6, and he's allowing over two home runs per nine innings, so his FIP is a mess too. Replacing Edwin Jackson (speaking of former D-Backs) with Haren is probably the biggest single reason why the rotation hasn't been as good in 2013.

Phillie fans boo, Brave fans chop, Met fans swear, Marlin fans watch the Heat. What do National fans do? Read, apparently. And if you're going to have a bad reputation as a fanbase, it's nice to at least be considered literate.

Nationals Blog: Federal Baseball

All numbers from Fangraphs or Baseball-Reference unless otherwise indicated.

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