Not All Heroes Wear Capes: The Unsung Heroes of the Nationals’ Recent Revival

Just two weeks ago in our M-SABR Power Rankings, I stated that it might just be time for Washington Nationals fans to start worrying. Sitting in fourth place in the NL East at a disappointing 12-16, the Mets’ hot start, the Braves’ explosive, Ozzie Albies-led offense, and the surging Phillies meant that things were not looking promising for the NL East favorites from DC.

Well, what a difference a single fortnight can make. While still in third place in the NL East, the Nats winning 13 of their last 15 games has Washington looking like the commanding Nationals of old that people have come to expect in recent years. Or does it?

Since their first playoff appearance in 2012, the Nationals have been a team defined by star power, from Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg initially, to Max Scherzer, Anthony Rendon, Daniel Murphy, and Trea Turner today. At first glance, 2018 may seem no different; Bryce Harper sits atop the MLB home run leaderboard at 13 and Max Scherzer leads all NL pitchers with 2.6 fWAR, a 1.75 FIP, 13.96 K/9, 91 strikeouts, a 0.82 WHIP, and a 34.7 K-BB%, with most of those categories not being all that close. Yet going beyond the stats leaderboard tells a different story of the 2018 Nationals.

While dominant, Scherzer has only started 3 of the past 15 games, and heading into this past weekend’s four-game sweep of the NL West-leading Diamondbacks, Harper had been mired in a 20-game slump in which he hit .181 with only 6 extra-base hits. Anthony Rendon, Daniel Murphy, and Adam Eaton have already missed a combined 96 games due to injuries and DL stints, with Murphy having yet to play a game, and Eaton recently being placed on the 60-day DL after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his left ankle. And though Trea Turner has been hot of late and leads the offense with 1.6 fWAR, one star can hardly carry an offense.

Instead, it has been other players across the Nationals roster that have stepped up and helped propel team throughout this hot streak. The names highlighted below might not sound too familiar, but it might be time to get to know them, as these unheralded stars will play a critical role in the team’s success going forward—just like they have so far.

Howie Kendrick

In what has become an annual tradition in Washington, Nationals fans were desperately clamoring for bullpen support at the 2017 deadline, so when the team initially acquired the 33-year old Howie Kendrick, some eyebrows were skeptically raised. Yet Howie quickly established himself as a valuable starter in the outfield with Bryce Harper out, slashing .293/.343/.493 over 52 games with the club, to the tune of a 115 OPS+. After re-signing with Washington this offseason, Kendrick has picked up right where he left off, this time filling in for Daniel Murphy at second base.

In 2018, Kendrick has been the Nats’ most consistent hitter, hitting safely in 30 of his 38 games played this season, and slashing .299/.325/.469, good for a 114 wRC+. A member of last year’s M-SABR BABIP All-Stars, Howie has continued to put up excellent underlying numbers, setting a new personal best with a 40.3 Hard Hit% and vastly exceeding his career averages in Line Drive% and Fly Ball%.

His 16 runs are good for fifth on the team, and the value he has brought both on offense and with his defensive flexibility since joining the team last season cannot be overstated.

Matt Adams

Even the most blindly optimistic of Nationals fans figured that Ryan Zimmerman would not repeat his incredible 2017 in which he produced 138 wRC+, .303 AVG, 36 HR,and  108 RBI—and he certainly hasn’t; his average just recently climbed above .200 for the year.

What nobody anticipated was that 2017 Ryan Zimmerman disappearing would not matter due to Matt Adams becoming 2017 Ryan Zimmerman and more. Acquired in free agency by the Nationals on a 1-year, $4 million deal, the 29-year old first baseman recently-turned part-time left fielder has flat out raked in Washington. His 176 wRC+ and .642 SLG rank first in the NL among batters with at least 100 PA, and his 10 home runs tie him for fourth. The past 15 games have been no exception to his hot start, as he has hit .286 with a .397 OBP, and 7 of his 10 home runs. Yet his .258 BABIP suggests that he might still be getting unlucky. Add in new career-highs in Hard Hit% and Line Drive%, and there are a lot of promising signs for continued success.

If the incredible offensive statistics are not enough, let’s go back to that aforementioned move to the outfield. His -35.0 outfield UZR/150 is not quite what sabermetricians would call “good,” but everybody knows that defensive advanced statistics are not as developed as their offensive counterparts, and the video below speaks louder than any stats ever could anyways:

All jokes aside, Adams’ defense at first base has been great, and the fact that he can even play the outfield at all will allow Davey Martinez to keep his bat in the lineup all year long, and probably hitting clean-up—something few Nationals fans expected at the start of the year. Bye bye 2017 Ryan Zimmerman, and hello 2018 Matt Adams!

Wilmer Difo

When Davey Martinez reshuffled the lineup heading into the Pittsburgh series (the starting point of this recent hot streak), moving Bryce Harper to the leadoff spot received all the attention, and promptly paid off as he hit two leadoff home runs in his first four games. Much less discussed was the decision to bat his pitcher eighth, and slot Wilmer Difo into the nine hole, a move that has paid just as many, if not more, dividends to date. Over the past 15 games, Difo has excelled, hitting .333 with a .426 OBP, 9 runs, and an 8-game hitting streak to boot. The 26-year old has been a catalyst for the Nationals all season, with the team being 14-6 in games in which he gets a hit. Throw in his defensive versatility–having started at second base, third base and shortstop already this year as well as all three outfield positions in the past–and it becomes apparent just how valuable Difo has been to Washington.

Jeremy Hellickson

Not all of Washington’s under-the-radar stars have been batters, and while it is hard to stand out in a rotation that features Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Gio Gonzalez, Jeremy Hellickson has done just that, establishing himself as the reliable number five starter this team desperately needed. His 1-0 record over six starts might not indicate that, but wins are an outdated metric and the rest of his numbers don’t lie. The proud owner of a 2.20 ERA with a 2.81 FIP and a respectable 7.16 K/9, Hellickson has already amassed 0.9 fWAR—only barely trailing Gonzalez and Strasburg who are at 1.1 and 1.0 in 12.0 and 27.2 more innings pitched respectively.

His last start was another prime example of his recent success. As Hellickson was busy putting up another 5.0 solid innings of one-run ball on Sunday Night Baseball against the Diamondbacks, the ESPN broadcast displayed an impressive stat: Of all MLB pitchers to have started at least 5 games this year, Hellickson was the only one to have not allowed the first run of a game. Even more impressive, since his first start of the season against the Mets, the Nationals have not trailed once while Hellickson has been on the mound.

And if the most recent Sunday Night Baseball game is any indication, the list of unheralded Nationals heroes is not done growing. Making his season debut at first base, Mark Reynolds went 2-4, with two critical home runs and 3 RBI that helped the Nationals secure the impressive four-game sweep. His season wRC+ is now a stellar 728, almost 3.5 times better than league leader Mookie Betts, small sample size be damned! That will obviously come down, but with Ryan Zimmerman on the DL, Reynolds on a $200,000 deal, coming off a 30 HR, 97 RBI season, is yet another prime example of a phenomenal signing by GM Mike Rizzo.

Now as Washington heads into an exciting two-game series with the Yankees, who are in the midst of a similarly impressive hot streak, the team is looking to carry on its momentum of late. And while this 13-2 run might have been marked more by the unsung heroes and depth of this roster than its star power, it will be the combination of the two that carries the Nationals to their fifth NL East title of the past seven years.

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