In their first 18 games of this season, the Nats went 14-4 and were cruising. Obviously this was unsustainable (they weren't going to win 125+ games), so a dip was expected. Maybe the Nats go 11-7 in their next 18, or 10-8. Well in the next 18 the Nats went 8-10. That's not terrible, but after that fast start we'd kind of expect to find the Nats over .500 in any long stretch of games. What happened?
The easy answer is injuries killed the offense. Werth has gone down. Zimmerman missed some time. Ramos is now out. But that doesn't explain everything or even most of it. LaRoche came up in game 12 and has crushed the ball. Desmond has bounced back recently. Werth and Ramos before they went down were doing pretty good. Bryce Harper is up (though not doing all that well... SHHHHHH!) The offense averaged 3.78 runs in the first 18 games. They averaged 3.44 runs in the next 18. A little dip but not enough to explain the swing we saw. In fact they've actually been league average in May.
The real story is the pitching has gotten much worse. Now, to be fair the pitching was PHENOMENAL. They gave up 2.67 runs a game during those first 18. But they've been very mortal in the last 18 with an ok 3.83 runs per game. They've gone from far and away the best pitching in the majors to an average squad in the National League. Ok you say. I get it. I've seen H-Rod blow those games in the ninth. It's gotta be a relief issue. Nope. It's the starters and it's worse if you look at just May.
Starter ERA April : 1.78 May : 3.81
Relief ERA April : 3.48 May : 3.71
Although Henry Rodriguez's failures have been so... hard to ignore, the relief pitching has been fairly steady. Stammen, Mattheus, Clippard, Burnett, even Gorzelanny have had good to great Mays and have offset some of the other failings. The starters though - they've gotten universally worse. On one hand, what could we expect? Four of them had ERAs under 2.00 to end April. That's crazy. On the other, you really hoped for a gradual return to form, with maybe a couple guys continuing to be phenomenal. Gio's hung on to being great, and ZNN has slipped back to normal (which is still pretty good), but Detwiler and Jackson are pitching kind of like you'd have expected them to on April 1st, and Strasburg has been, well, blah. I'm assuming Strasburg's situation is just a blip and he'll bounce back, but Gio isn't going to keep up these types of numbers either. They should get better but is a 4 & 5 of Detwiler and Jackson best in the league like was thought at the end of April, or are they merely typical 4 and 5 starters?
This highlights again the problem for the Nats we've been talking about all year. Unless their pitching is great, not good, but great, this offense cannot generate enough runs to win games. Their pitching was "best month ever" in April and that helped hide the offensive failings. Their pitching is average in May and that makes the Nats no better than a .500 team. For the pitching to be great, it really needs Detwiler and Jackson to be better than 4.00+ in ERA, and the other three to pitch up to their expectations.
I know what you are thinking - if the offense is league average in May, then it should be fine going foward once Morse is back. That's true, if you believe LaRoche will keep hitting like an all-star and Bernadina and Lombardozzi can keep up their hitting, and Desmond doesn't slump again. Sure we like Zimmerman to get hot at some point, but there's a lot more going unexpectedly right for the Nats than wrong on the offensive end since May 1st and they still can only manage league average. The answer isn't Morse alone. Maybe when Werth comes back, that will be enough to get them to league average. Maybe. But it's a long way between now and then. Let's hope the starting pitching goes back to being 4 Bob Gibsons and a Bob Welch.