Harris had been one of the best setup arms in all of baseball that season with a ridiculous 1.50 ERA over 68 appearances. Though his peripherals (3.15 FIP, 21% K-BB%) cast some doubt on the peerless nature of his performance, he’d been spotless in the playoffs. Just the night before, Harris surrendered a run for the first time that postseason after ten consecutive scoreless outings and an 11-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. And while public sentiment wasn’t yet presenting full-throated animosity towards the AL Champs, the Astros were a towering presence in the league on the verge of dynastic achievement – and success always breeds contempt.
Conversely, Kendrick was a 35-year-old veteran recently returned from an Achilles injury. He was so close to retiring, that he picked up photography in preparation for his life after baseball. He played for the Nationals, a team who before that season had never won a postseason series. Kendrick ended that drought with an extra-inning grand slam in the division series, and in the sequel, he earned MVP honors in Washington’s second-ever postseason series win. The Nationals weren’t the ultimate underdog, but they proved themselves the ’it’ team of 2019, and they were having a moment.
In the vacuum of those few weeks of postseason baseball, Kendrick and Harris were titans.
The rest is history. Kendrick clanked a home run off the right field foul pole, immortalizing himself in Washington DC. The Kendrick/Harris showdown proved the fourth most impactful playoff at-bat of the Wild Card Era by championship win probability added. It will be replayed in highlight reels ad infinitum.
But on this date last year, January 3rd, 2020, the Nationals announced a three-year, $24MM pact with Harris. Kendrick had already agreed to a victory tour season in Washington, giving these two rivals – like many nemeses over time – an opportunity to join forces.
It was a year to forget in Washington, however, as 2020 brought a stark contrast to the soaring highs of 2019. Harris hit the injured list with a groin injury after just two appearances, and by the time he’d make his next appearance, the champs had already fallen to 7-10, well on their way to a last place finish in the NL East. Kendrick fared no better, twice spending time on the injured list and finishing the year with a .275/.320/.375 line, a year-over-year drop from 146 wRC+ to 82 wRC+. Kendrick chose to retire this winter, and hard as this would be to imagine when the Nationals stormed the field at Minute Maid Park to celebrate the 2019 World Series, it’s Harris – not Kendrick – who will don the Curly W in 2021.
Ultimately, Harris hasn’t yet had the opportunity to prove himself the vital bullpen cog the Nationals expected when they signed him a year ago. Like many Nats, his numbers were down in 2020: 5.22 xERA, 4.55 FIP, a ballooned 10.7 BB%, 46.3 HardHit%, and 91.7 mph exit velocity, all three of which were easily career-worst marks. Much of 2020, however, can be chalked up to the bizarre circumstances of the coronavirus-affected, truncated season. He’ll have a clean slate in 2021 and the opportunity to once again flip the script in his eventful history with the Nationals.