Last February, Bryce Harper signed with the Philadelphia Phillies after seven seasons, six All-Star appearances, and a 2015 MVP award with the Washington Nationals. As a former No. 1 overall pick and face of the franchise, his departure left the Nationals without a direction, stuck in a sunken place between being buyers or sellers. The start of this season was a struggle, but their record stands currently at 43-41 and 1 GB of the wild card, thanks to the improved production of a few key players. Let’s breakdown how the Nationals have replaced Harper’s production and bounced back into playoff contention.
Juan Soto hasn’t just replaced Bryce Harper statistically, he’s exceeded the lofty standards set by the ‘Chosen One‘. Through 70 games, Soto is batting at a .301/.398/.533 clip with 51 RBI’s, all higher figures than Bryce Harper through the same period. Harper’s power is irreplaceable, but Soto has done an admiral job: 14 homers on the year. He’s been on a tear recently, averaging .363/.448/.628 over the past 30 games. He’s making a case to be an All-Star for the first time in his career.
When Bryce Harper left the Washington Nationals, they didn’t just lose his stats; they lost a young, developing player to fill the stadium. Although to a lesser degree, Juan Soto has stepped in as the exciting prospect of the future. Just 20 years old, Soto finished second in last year’s NL ROY race and is a big part of the Nationals’ long term plans.
Coming off arguably the best season of his career, Anthony Rendon picked up right where he left off. He’s batting .302/.393/.605, and has supplanted Harper’s power hitting with 18 home runs so far this season. Three of those bombs have landed opposite field, already tying his total from last year. His weighted on-base average has spiked and while he’s more disciplined on taking first pitches, he’s still crushing the 0-0 count at a .379 average. He’s absolutely smashing balls this year, ranking in the 89th percentile for exit velocity.
Rendon will make the first All-Star game of his career this season, an important milestone for the franchise in lieu of Bryce Harper’s departure, especially after Harper shined at last year’s event in DC. From the eye-test to advanced analytics, Rendon has taken significant steps forward this season and without him, the Nationals wouldn’t be in playoff contention.
While Rendon and Soto were penciled in as the best two hitters in Washington entering the season, Howie Kendrick’s contributions this season are a little more of a surprise. Before going down with a ruptured Achilles around May of 2018, Kendrick was batting .303/.331/.474 over a span of 160 plate appearances. But then he went down with a ruptured Achilles, one of the most severe injuries an athlete has to overcome. Despite the long rehab, he’s come back with a vengeance this season, raising his average to .332/.383/.584 across an even larger sample size. Kendrick has added a dimension of power to his hitting. In his previous 13 seasons, he never hit more than 18 home runs; this season he’s already at 12.
The new era of modern analytics favors Kendrick as well. Among advanced statistics like “expected batting average (xBA),” “hard-hit rate” and “exit velocity,” designed to express how effective a player makes contact with the ball, he ranks in the top 1%, 3% and 7% respectively. The reason for the sudden jump in numbers is his newfound ability to hit breaking balls. On those types of pitches, Kendrick has raised his BA from .292 to .357 and his SLG from .479 to .661. It’s not often you see a player have a career year at age 35, but the timing couldn’t have worked better for the Nationals.
Stepping up in a big way, Victor Robles has filled in the Harper-sized hole in the outfield this season. Defensively, he showcases the raw speed and fantastic glove to man center field. Even a better version than what Harper highlighted at the beginning of his career, but then later became inconsistent at to say the least. Offensively, Robles is still coming into his own. He’s only 22-years-old and this is his first taste of consistent major league at-bats. His baseline numbers are around what Harper did last year, although Mr. 34’s numbers last season portrayed a tale of two halves.
It’s in the field where Robles has made his mark. Among NL outfielders he’s 2nd in putouts and 1st in double plays turned. His greatest asset is his blazing speed; he ranked second last season in sprint speed (29.3 feet per second), second to only DC’s Trea Turner. With tremendous instincts and range, Robles has shown flashes of an elite defensive player, who can develop into an all-around stud that will have Washington fans saying “Bryce who?”