Last season, the Washington Nationals led the majors with 98 wins. They had the following stretches:
April 26-May 19: 9-13
June 15-July 16 13-13
Aug. 12-Sept. 1: 9-9
Sept. 14-Oct. 1: 7-10
Those four periods covered more half the games the Nationals played and they went 38-45. Did I mention they still won 98 games?
So, no, there's no reason to be that alarmed over their slow start, a 10-11 mark through their first 21 games -- a record boosted by a 5-1 mark against the dreadful Marlins. If not for the heroics of Bryce Harper, the start would be even more concerning.
It's just that we don't notice a mediocre stretch in the middle of the season like we do in April. That's part of the charm of April baseball, the extreme highs and lows and overreaction to each win and each loss. Nationals fans can look to Thursday's 8-1 win over the Reds -- Gio Gonzalez allowed just one hit in eight innings and Harper homered again -- and suddenly feel much better about their team.
Now, on the other hand, the Nationals were expected to win a lot of games. Many had them winning more than 100 games -- I pegged them right at 100 -- and nearly everyone had them winning the National League East, or at least a wild card. I thought I'd check to see what kind of starts the best teams in recent years got off to, so I looked at all the 95-win teams over the previous five seasons, which gave us 19 teams.
Only three of the 19 had a losing record through 21 games -- the 2012 Reds (10-11, finished with 97 wins), 2009 Angels (9-12, finished with 97 wins) and 2008 Rays (10-11, finished with 97 wins). The average record of the 19 teams was 12.7 wins, 8.3 losses, so that puts the Nationals only three wins "behind" the starts of these, which is easy ground to make up. Of course, a lot of teams have started 10-11 and didn't win 95 games.
Which means the Nationals do have some issues. Let's run down a few of those.
Gonzalez, the 21-game winner last year, entered Thursday's game at 1-1 with a 5.85 ERA, mostly driven by a high walk rate (11 in 20 innings) and a higher hit rate than 2012. Against the Reds, he allowed only Joey Votto's fourth-inning homer; more importantly, he walked just two batters. He threw 78 of 112 pitches for strikes -- 70 percent, much better than his 58 percent rate entering the start.
Stephen Strasburg is 1-4 with a 3.16 ERA, but the ERA is a little misleading because it doesn't include four unearned runs. He's allowed 15 runs in 31.1 innings. His problems seem correctable -- opponents are hitting .360 against him in the first inning, .186 after that, and he's had issues locating his fastball in the first inning (strike percentage of 46 compared to 58 in the ensuing innings). The bigger issue is his inconsistency against left-handed batters, something trending downward:
April 2012: .504 OPS
May 2012: .708 OPS
June 2012: .563 OPS
July 2012: 1.172 OPS
August 2012: .552 OPS
September 2012: .800 OPS
April 2013: .776 OPS
Dan Haren has allowed a .376 batting average through four starts. He's probably not that bad. But here's an interesting note about the Nationals staff: It's allowed a line-drive rate of 20.4 percent, better only than the Marlins and Tigers. Last year, they were tied for third-best in the majors at 17.6 percent. Line-drive is just a small part of the entire pitching picture, but I'm guessing the Nationals will improve in this area.
Defense. The Nationals lead the majors with 19 errors (shortstop Ian Desmond already has seven and Ryan Zimmerman four before he recently landed on the disabled list) and their defensive efficiency rating (percentage of balls in play turned into outs) ranks 22nd. Defensive Runs Saved has them at minus-5 runs before Thursday's game, 20th in the majors.
In the midst of all this has been the 20-year-year wunderkind Harper, who continues to show those MVP predictions were anything but outrageous. He went 2-for-3 with a walk on Thursday, hitting a third-inning, 0-1 sinker (that didn't sink) from Bronson Arroyo over the fence in left-center field for his eighth home run. He's batting .364/.443/.740 and there's a case to be made that he's been the best player in the game in April. He's exciting, thrilling, already good and maybe getting better. Not since Barry Bonds< was doing illegal things to baseballs has there been a must-watch hitter like Harper.
So, yes, there are some minor concerns with the Nationals. But remember: It's April. They have five months to assert their dominance.