At a certain point in a baseball game a lead becomes only a lead. Leading a team 1-0 heading into the eighth inning is the same as leading that team 10-9. When the Nationals have handed leads over to the bullpen they have held. The problem is the Nationals aren’t handing many leads over to the bullpen. Starting pitchers are giving up two or three runs in the early innings forcing the offense to come back every game, or the starting pitcher enters the sixth or seventh inning with a lead and blows it themselves. For whatever reason the Washington Nationals are preposterously bad in low scoring games.
When the average NL team scores one run they win .136 percent of the time, and when they score two runs that number rises to .275. The Washington Nationals, a team that allegedly has a great pitching staff, hasn’t won a single game where they’ve scored one run in five attempts, and are 1-10 when they’ve scored two runs. Most of this is that the Nationals score their runs late while they give them up early and when they are scoring only one or two runs they’ve never had the lead and therefore no lead to hold.
Low-scoring close games aren’t just pitchers’ games they’re manager’s games as well, and Matt Williams has struggled with certain points of managing. The other day the Nationals entered the seventh inning with a 2-1 lead over Pirates Ace Garrett Cole. Strasburg was still on the mound and as he got off to a rocky start in the inning Matt Williams made no move to take him out and then he intentionally walked Travis Snider and his .627 OPS to pitch to Josh Harrison and his .785 OPS all because of handedness. By the end of the inning the Nationals trailed 3-2 and, unlike the Nationals, the Pirates were able to hold onto their one-run lead.
A big deal is made of the Nationals having a great record when they’ve scored four or more runs, but this is true of every team. The average NL team (which would be a .500 team) wins .629 percent of the time when scoring four runs, and it only goes up from there. In other words every team is great when scoring at least four runs. The separator between bad teams and good teams is how they perform in games where lots of runs aren’t going to be scored, or pitching duels. The Nationals so far this season haven’t fared well in pitching duels. The Nationals are a team that requires at least four runs to be scored in order for them to win and that is the mark of a team with a mediocre pitching staff.
At this point, I’m sure you’ve jumped over to Fangraphs and are preparing your comment on how dumb I am because the Nationals have the sixth-best ERA in the majors, but that is largely based on a bullpen that has the best ERA in the majors and has pitched the 15th most innings. As I said earlier the Nationals aren’t losing these close games because the bullpen is blowing it. They’re losing them because they are constantly falling behind early, and while three runs allowed over seven innings sounds good it equates to a 3.85 ERA which isn’t good for starting pitchers as good as Strasburg, Zimmermann, or Gonzalez, and at a 3.86 ERA for the starting staff ranking them 16th in baseball that is right around what the Nationals starters are giving up a night.
Forcing the offense to have to come back from being down three or four runs every night is not a way to win ballgames. The Washington Nationals starters have to do a better job of allowing fewer runs, but when they do get leads late into the ballgame they have to do a better job of holding onto them. The unmentioned problem at this point is the Nationals defense which hasn’t helped out the pitchers in any fashion and can be used to explain that while the Nationals 3.86 ERA isn’t good the starting pitchers’ 3.50 FIP is. The Nationals are a team built around starting pitching and defense, and that is the type of team that should be able to win low scoring close games, but they Nationals are unable to and it is because the starting pitching and defense has let them down.