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Washington Nationals series preview: Make baseball fun again

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Bryce Harper and the Nats come to the K.

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The World Champion Kansas City Royals will play host to the Washington Nationals, owners of the second-best record in baseball and the best player in baseball. Fun comes to town in the form of Bryce Harper. Fortunately for the Royals, the Nationals' rotation is aligned in such a way as to allow for them to miss Max Scherzer. Of course, the three hurlers the Royals drew are not to be taken lightly, and given the recipe to Washington's success lying in their not allowing runs (combined with the Royals' recent aversion to pushing runs across the plate), the Royals may be in for another long three-game series.

*All stats courtesy of FanGraphs

Pitching match-ups

Game One - Monday, 7:15 PM CDT

Gio Gonzalez (L) 4 25.1 25 7 1.42 2.42 3.49 3.47
Edinson Volquez 5 29.2 25 10 3.34 3.26 3.78 3.86

While Gio Gonzalez is no slouch, his ERA probably gives him more credit than is due the southpaw. His velocity is down roughly 2 MPH on his four-seam fastball, two-seam fastball, and curveball, and he is pounding the zone more than he has in any point since his small cup of coffee in 2008 (47.8 Zone% compared to his career average of 42.2%). His first-strike percentage is also at a career-best mark of 64.1% versus a career average of 57.0%.

While pounding the zone and getting ahead in the count more any other point in his career may be contributing to his early outperformance of his peripherals, a look at his batted-ball data suggests it might not be sustainable. Not only is his .243 BABIP more than .050 below his career mark of .294, but his hard-contact percentage of 28.2% is roughly in line with both what he did last year (28.7%) and his career average (27.0%). Despite his normal quality of contact, his line-drive rates are puzzlingly nearly six full percentage points lower than his career mark (13.4% versus 19.1%). With the trade-off in distribution of hit balls transferring to his fly-ball rate while maintaining a microscopic 3.8 HR/FB%, it seems like his early success in 2016 probably owes more to the vagaries of batted-ball chance than a change in approach.

Edinson Volquez followed up four solid starts in which he allowed a total of three earned runs with a positively miserable eight-run disaster in Anaheim. Not much went right for the Royals in Anaheim, but it probably went most wrong for Volquez, who saw his ERA skyrocket from 1.09 through his first 24.2 IP to 3.34 through his first 29.2 IP. It happened in one start, but Volquez's ERA regressed to somewhere more in the neighborhood of his likely true-talent level. Some outperformance of his peripherals can be expected with the Royals' defense behind him of course, but hoping for an ERA around the 1.00 mark is probably a misspending of energy.

Game Two - Tuesday, 7:15 PM CDT

Tanner Roark 5 31.0 30 13 2.03 2.89 3.51 3.81
Chris Young 5 25.0 26 10 6.12 5.31 4.39 4.04

After a year spent wandering the long-man/spot-starter desert, Tanner Roark is back where he belongs in the Nationals' rotation. Thanks to a 15-strikeout start against the Twins - the swing-happy team against whom Volquez also has his season-best mark by a wide margin - Roark sports the best K-rates of his career. Sure, he is throwing his breaking balls (slider and curve) a bit harder and with less difference in speed in relation to his fastball than before, but his SIERA and xFIP certainly point to a performance level a bit lower than what might be indicated in just his ERA or even FIP. His HR-rates will return to normal. His K-rates will probably drop as well. Still, he has sustained a career .274 BABIP, and his change-up has been spectacular so far this season, so it is possible that some of this uptick in performance is real.

In a position to which he is not accustomed, Chris Young's peripherals thus far indicate a better performance on the field than his ERA would seem to bear out. Of course, it is hard to suss out what is going on with the lanky Princetonian. He is actually throwing his slider more often than his fastball, and his K-rates are uncharacteristically high (23.2%, 9.36 K/9) while maintaining his regular walk rates. His .300 BABIP sticks out as being wildly higher than his career norms in the .240 range. With HR-rates roughly double his career levels and a drop in both FB% and IFFB%, it is clear that Young's 2016 has veered away from the recipe for success that he laid out over the past couple years. Whether that's intentional or random is yet to be seen.

Game Three - Wednesday, 1:15 PM CDT

Stephen Strasburg 5 36.0 40 8 2.25 1.86 2.61 2.73
Kris Medlen 4 20.1 16 16 4.87 5.13 5.28 5.76

While it is unlikely that the addition of a solid slider to his repertoire has made him home-run proof, the fact remains that looking at Stephen Strasburg's ERA and FIP in this young 2016 campaign recalls the spectacle of his emphatic explosion onto the scene back in 2010 before his ulnar collateral ligament tore. Post-TJS, the magic has never quite been recaptured. His FIP and ERA support the contention that he might be taking the steps to recapture that magic. His ground-ball rates are at all time highs, and his fly-ball rates are at all-time lows. His strikeout- and walk-rates are slightly below career norms, but it's not like he's not pitching well. He probably won't be able to maintain the one-dong-per-five-starts pace he has set thus far, and the runs will probably start to come across the plate a bit more frequently, but it's not impossible that he might be that Stephen Strasburg again.

Though some solace could be taken in Medlen's having only allowed one hit in his 5.1 innings of work in Seattle on Friday, his walk rates are still alarmingly high. With the exception of his dismal 3.2-inning, 7-earned-run start against Baltimore, Medlen has limited the damage done by the free passes he has issued, allowing no more than two runs in any of his other starts. The walk woes are still worrisome enough to cause concern as to whether things will get better for the two-time Tommy John surgery survivor.

The Batsmen

With Dusty Baker managing, an old school batting order can probably be expected. Taylor has hit lead-off for virtually all of his action this season despite results contradicting any place in a lineup above the back end. Washington being a National League team coming to an American League park, the infusion of an extra bat - likely Heisey or den Dekker could affect some change toward the bottom of the order.

Michael Taylor CF 89 3 8 4 3 .190 .225 .321 .238 41
Anthony Rendon 3B 105 0 16 1 1 .240 .305 .292 .271 62
Bryce Harper (L) RF 100 9 16 24 5 .272 .390 .679 .431 166
Ryan Zimmerman 1B 83 1 13 7 0 .219 .301 .301 .274 64
Daniel Murphy (L) 2B 94 2 12 12 1 .365 .426 .576 .428 164
Jayson Werth LF 86 4 10 13 0 .213 .291 .427 .310 87
Chris Heisey DH 25 3 4 3 0 .273 .360 .682 .439 171
Danny Espinosa (S) SS 84 2 6 9 1 .188 .313 .290 .266 58
Wilson Ramos C 58 2 4 8 0 .316 .328 .491 .353 115
Jose Lobaton (S) C 34 0 2 3 0 .167 .265 .233 .233 37
Matt den Dekker (L)
33 1 1 4 1 .200 .273 .333 .271 62
Stephen Drew (L)
25 1 3 1 0 .125 .160 .250 .181 4
Clint Robinson (L)
26 1 1 4 0 .083 .154 .208 .167 -6

*Stats through Sunday, May 1

Clearly Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy are fueling this offense. Only three bats in the regular lineup have wRC+ over 100 (weighted runs created plus sets league average at 100). Baker's Taylor at lead-off gambit has meant that Rendon has exactly 1 RBI in 105 PA thanks to there never being anyone on base ahead of him. Ben Revere is rehabbing at Triple-A, and Trea Turner is biding his time until an extra year of club control is secured after the Nationals called him up for a meaningless September promotion consisting primarily of pinch-hitting or pinch-running opportunities that ensured his service time would have to be gamed while they didn't have the luxury of having Ian Desmond on the roster.

The Nationals have endured an offense 16% below average with Bryce Harper driving in roughly a quarter of the team's runs. It's the best player in baseball, Daniel Murphy, and the rest of the guys coming to town to try to take the World Champs down a peg.

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