The Washington Nationals are World Series champions for the 2019 season, and the Padres should be busy taking notes.
October baseball is magical. A team can squeak into the playoffs as a Wild Card team and win it all. The Nationals became the seventh Wild Card team to win the championship on Wednesday night.
The world watched the Washington Nationals win their first-ever World Series for a franchise that has existed since 1969, first as the Montreal Expos. The franchise had not even appeared in a Fall Classic prior to this year and are now hoisting the Commissioner’s Trophy and will parade down our nation’s capital.
The Padres are now one of just six teams in Major League Baseball without a championship banner (joining the Mariners, Rangers, Rays, Rockies, and Brewers). The way the Nationals broke through and finally won it all should have the Friars’ attention.
For the Padres to win their first championship, a lot needs to change, and a lot needs to go right. Let’s start with what San Diego can learn from the Nationals’ championship run.
Work counts and get on base
The Washington Nationals led the National League in on-base percentage during the regular season, and the same held true in the postseason. Their .317 on-base percentage in the postseason was eclipsed only by the New York Yankees. The only better team than them in the regular season was, ironically, the Houston Astros.
The top two teams in on-base percentage made the World Series, things that make you go “hmmm.”
The Padres have been abysmal at getting on base and have been for years. They were 26th this season in on-base percentage, were astoundingly dead last in the five seasons before that, and have not been better than 20th since 2012. They need to be on-base focused in 2020 and will cause a few changes. The Nationals had five players finish the regular season with an OBP higher than .350 while the Padres had two.
The Padres also had five players with at least 300 plate appearances with an OBP lower than .320 while the Nationals only had two. The Nats got on base, and the entire lineup contributed. The Padres were very top-heavy with guys like Fernando Tatis Jr. and Manny Machado pulling the most weight with not much help around them.
It also helps to work deep into counts, thus making ace starting pitchers wear down and weaken. If a lineup consistently gets out in just a few pitches, the starting pitcher does not have to leave the game early and expose the weaker side of the bullpen; he can hand it off to the setup and closer, the two best bullpen arms on each team. Getting to the underbelly of a bullpen is vital.
Interestingly, the Nationals struck out the fourth-most in all of baseball in the regular season; The team made up for it by being sixth in slugging, meaning when they got on base, they made it count, took extra bases, and found gaps.
The moral of the story is, in this modern era of baseball, strikeouts are acceptable if you make up for it elsewhere, which the Nationals did, and the Padres did not, as they were 26th in slugging.
A dominant 1-2 punch in the rotation is vital
With how the postseason structure is set up, teams do not have to depend on their fourth and fifth starters in the rotation to start playoff games, given how much rest each team receives. Four starters made multiple starts in this postseason for Washington and only three-time Cy Young winner Max Scherzer, and now World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg took the ball five times, every other pitcher started three games or less.
Having a two-headed monster is nothing new in the World Series. The 2019 version reminded fans of the 2001 duo of Hall of Famer Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, who led the Arizona Diamondbacks on a similar path as the Nationals, slaying a giant in seven games while being big underdogs, which earned them World Series co-MVP honors. It’s almost a necessity these days. The Houston Astros also have a very deep rotation and were just a few innings away from winning their second title in three years.
The Padres are a far cry from having a legitimate, playoff-worthy one-two punch at the top of their rotation. Chris Paddack might be the start, but he is head and shoulders above anything else the Friars have in rotation options. For this reason, finding an ace should be a top priority this offseason.
MacKenzie Gore may very well become better than Paddack or even Strasburg, but he is likely still at least a year away from making a significant impact on the Padres big league club. The time is now to find an ace to buoy this rotation and build a strong foundation for a deep playoff run.
Speaking of Strasburg, the Padres should take a long, hard look at him if he does indeed opt for free agency like most assume he will. San Diego would be an obvious candidate given he is a native of Santee and former SDSU Aztec. Plucking the most recent World Series MVP is a good start.
However, it happens, by trade, free agency, or a player like Gore emerging exceptionally quickly, it’s evident that having a dominant duo in the rotation is necessary if a team wants a parade in late October.
A dynamic bullpen is nice, but not necessary
The Nationals had the second-worst bullpen in all of baseball during the regular season with a 5.68 ERA. Closer Sean Doolittle certainly had his struggles, with a 4.05 ERA along with 29 saves. The best overall pitcher in their bullpen during the season was Wander Suero, who posted a 101 ERA+ and 4.54 ERA, certainly not inspiring numbers.
However, in the postseason, the bullpen was good when it needed to be. In nine playoff appearances, Doolittle had a 1.74 ERA, and alternate closer Daniel Hudson saved four games with a 3.72 ERA. Dominant is not a word anyone would use to describe the Nats’ bullpen during the regular season nor the postseason.
The key was that the Nationals had such a deep rotation that they were able to use their third, fourth, and fifth starters in a relief role to extend their mediocre bullpen. Starters like Patrick Corbin and Joe Ross were used in a relief role at least once. Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg both were used once in a relief role throughout the postseason. Their rotation was deep enough to where their third-best starter became one of their best relievers.
A mix of youth and aging veterans is important
On average, the Nationals hitters were 28.8 years old, the seventh-oldest lineup in baseball, and their pitching staff averaged to be 30.8 years old, the third oldest in the game. The Padres had the youngest pitching staff in baseball and the second-youngest lineup. The trend in championship teams of late has been building your core with young draft picks and complement them with accomplished veterans.
Max Scherzer (34 years old), Ryan Zimmerman (34), Anibal Sanchez (35), Howie Kendrick (35) and Fernando Rodney (42) helped balance out the youth the Nationals had in Juan Soto (20) and Victor Robles (22), who combined for 8.8 WAR. The youth on this team is wildly talented, but they needed veterans to guide them through uncharted waters.
The Padres need to add veterans to this young ball club. Even a player like Kurt Suzuki, a part-time catcher, can become invaluable to a clubhouse.
Just get into the playoffs, no matter how
Lastly, the Padres need to just worry about getting into the playoffs. The Washington Nationals showed the world that it doesn’t matter if you win 107 games or 93, get in the “dance.” All it takes is for the team to get hot at the right time and stay healthy, and the next thing they know, they are hoisting the Commissioner’s Trophy. The Dodgers have a stranglehold on the National League West division, perhaps for a long time to come. That does not mean the Padres cannot win their first World Series title.
The Atlanta Braves stood squarely in the way of the Nationals as they won the N.L. East with 97 wins to Washington’s 93. That didn’t stop the Nationals one bit. Seven Wild Card teams have now won the whole thing, why can’t the Padres do it? Of course, winning the division should be the top priority, but getting in via the Wild Card does little to diminish your shot at a World Series title.
Heck, the Padres do not need to look beyond their division to find proof in the 2014 San Francisco Giants, a Wild Card team that now has a championship banner for that season despite winning just 88 games.
There is no one perfect formula for winning a World Series. The Nationals have shown the Padres that they too can find a way to win it all despite long odds and seemingly lesser talented rosters. With the right pieces in place and the right minds at work, the Padres can achieve what the Nationals did, and San Diego can enjoy the same jubilation that is happening in D.C. at this very moment.