With a day off today after a sweep of the Braves, the Yankees will be getting some well-deserved rest. Tomorrow, they will continue their journey through the NL East by beginning a 3-game series against the Washington Nationals. While the Braves and the Mets are both having pretty good seasons, the Nats have been the class of the division so far. They hold a 4.5-game lead over the 2nd-place Mets with a 38-23 record, which gives them the 2nd-best record in baseball. Let’s take a look and see what is making the Nats tick this year.
Offensively, the Nats have been a middle-of the pack team. Their team OPS of .712 ranks them 19th in baseball. They are tied for 13th in baseball in homers with 62, or 34 less than the league-leading total posted by the Yankees.
Rookie phenom Bryce Harper has been the Nationals’ offensive star so far, and represents by far the biggest threat in the lineup. There were question about whether Harper was ready for the bigs, as his minor league stats were somewhat pedestrian given his prodigious talent. However, Harper has proved that those were “clown questions, bro”, putting up a .303/.384/.548 line. His .933 OPS would rank 10th in the majors if he had enough AB’s to qualify, and he has had little difficulty adjusting to major league competition. With the Nationals losing their best hitter Ryan Zimerman to injury early in the season, Harper has stepped up to replace the lost production.
Other than Harper, Washington’s offense comes from a variety of sources. Adam LaRoche leads the team in homers with 11, and is posting an .848 OPS. Ian Desmond is 2nd on the team with 9 homers and leads the team with 9 steals, but is somewhat allergic to walks this year (.266/.295/.444). There are several other contributors in the .700-.800 OPS range, but this team is not a very strong offensive club (weakened by the injuries to Zimmerman and Jayson Werth). The Yankees would be wise to be extra-careful with Harper, as he is clearly the biggest threat in the lineup.
While Washington’s lineup is average at best, there rotation is anything but. Their starters lead the majors in ERA (2.94), FIP (3.15), and xFIP (3.40) by considerable margins. They also have the league’s highest strikeout rate, and give up the 2nd-fewest home runs in the league (behind only the Cardinals). The home run prevention stat will be important in facing the Yankees, whose offense revolves around the longball. Stephen Strasburg, despite his innings limits, has been every bit the ace he was expected to be, though the Yankees have the good fortune of missing him in this series.
Despite missing Strasburg, the Yankees will face 3 solid pitchers. Gio Gonzalez, starting in Friday’s game, has elevated his level of play since being traded to the National League, and statistically could be considered Strasberg’s co-ace. He is striking out a career-high 11.02 batters per 9, walking a career-low 3.72 per 9, leading to a 2.35 ERA, 2.07 FIP, and 2.92 xFIP. Gonzalez works in the low-mid 90′s with his fastball, which he complements with a nasty curveball and an improving changeup (which is being featured increasingly this year).
Jordan Zimmerman, Saturday’s starter, has also been effective this season, but gets it done in a different fashion. He’s not a strikeout artist like Strasburg or Gonzalez (only 6.52/9), but Zimmerman has posted an excellent 2.91 ERA (3.87 FIP, 3.44 xFIP) on the season, primarily by keeping his walks down (1.51/9) and keeping the ball on the ground (51.7% groundballs). Zimmerman features a 93-94 mph fastball as his bread and butter, and mixes in a curve, slider, and changeup to keep hitters off balance. He has been somewhat homer-prone on the season (1.16 per 9), which is a tendency that the Yankee lineup can look to take advantage of.
Journeyman Edwin Jackson will be the 3rd Washington starter that the Yankees face, and he too is having a strong season. He has been a workhorse, averaging 6 2/3 innings per start, and posting a 3.02 ERA (3.51 FIP, 3.95 xFIP). He has struck out 6.95 batters/9, with a solid walk rate of 2.46. Jackson is primarily a fastball-slider guy, with the occasional changeup and curve thrown in there as well. The fastball averages about 93-94, and the hard mid-80′s slider is his go-to strikeout pitch.
Former Yankee Tyler Clippard is the Nationals’ closer, and he is putting together another effective season. Clippard is striking out nearly 11 batters per 9 and walking just under 4 per 9, good for a FIP of 1.93 and an xFIP of 3.70 (big disparity b/c he hasn’t given up a home run yet this season). Clippard is primarily a fastball-changeup guy, averaging 93 with the heater and using a deceptive motion to make things tougher on hitters. Craig Stammen uses his fastball-slider combo to strike out about 10 batters per 9 (while walking about 3). Henry Rodriguez lost his closer job due to his terrible control (6 bb/9), but he can bring the heat, averaging about 98 mph on his fastball. Sean Burnett has also been an effective setup man, using his sinker-slider combo to strike out about 10 batters per 9, walk about 2.5, and keep the ball on the ground over 50% of the time. Overall, it is a pretty deep, effective bullpen that should help protect the leads that their starters can give them.
Overall, this should be a very exciting series: a matchup of two of the best teams in baseball who are both coming in to the series on a hot streak. The Yankees will get to see one of baseball’s brightest young stars in Harper, while the Nationals will try to prove that they belong among the league’s elite by going toe-to-toe with the big bad Yankees.
As mentioned previously, there will be some TYA representation at the games on Friday (I think) and Saturday (definitely), as well as other possible gatherings around town. We’ll update with more info, but if you’re at the game or other events, feel free to stop by and say hi.
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