The baseball pundits of the world are on the cusp of getting their wish: the Washington Nationals soaring back into a playoff spot.
If you take some time to dig through the various “expert predictions” that were released throughout the winter, the Nationals were a common fixture to represent the National League in the World Series. Jayson Stark of ESPN had them winning all the marbles. So did 16 of ESPN’s 43 experts.
It’s not worth digging through all of the many predictions. But you get the point: oddsmakers, experts and analysts loved the Nationals’ chances.
And at the time, it was tough pick to argue. A full season of Stephen Strasburg, more Bryce Harper, a dominant rotation, a bolstered bullpen (signing of Rafael Soriano) and a solution to their lead-off problem (Denard Span) made them the seemingly invincible pick.
But here we are a few months later, and well, the Nationals do have a slight chance to garner a playoff berth. They’re 7-3 over their last 10 games, 13-7 over their last 20 and 17-13 over their last 30. They’ve hung around, to be sure, but they have to start making their move.
The Nationals’ 69-67 record puts them seven games behind the Cincinnati Reds for the second wild card spot, and the Arizona Diamondbacks are smushed in between the two, and the rest of the pack is a distance away.
However, the Nationals have one gigantic factor working in their favor: an easy remaining schedule.
With that said, let’s dig in.
New York Mets (62-73): 4 away
Philadelphia Phillies (62-75): 3 away, 3 home
Miami Marlins (50-85): 3 away, 4 home
Atlanta Braves (83-53): 3 home
St. Louis Cardinals (79-57): 3 away
Arizona Diamondbacks (69-66): 3 away
Putting it all together…you get a .470 winning percentage. And with the help of PlayoffStatus.com, we learn that only the Braves have an easier remaining schedule among NL teams.
The Nationals have done a solid job of beating their inferiors, posting a 49-31 record against teams under .500. They’ll have a fair share of games against teams of that variety in September, so, if that trend remains consistent, then they may have something cooking, right?
Perhaps. Of course beating sub-par teams doesn’t cover it all, just ask, well, the Nationals. They’re 18 games over .500 against teams under .500. That’s good. On the flip side, they’re 16 games under .500 against teams with records north of the .500 mark. That’s the equalizer.
Over a smaller scale, however…(basically just a raw breakdown of the numbers instead of the total winning percentage of their remaining opponents that I mentioned above).
Games left against .500-plus teams: 9
Games left against below .500 teams: 17
As for the winnable ones…
The soft spots in Washington’s remaining schedule are pretty easy to spot: six games against the Phillies, seven against the Marlins and five against the Mets.
The Nationals are 7-6 against Phillies, 8-7 against the Mets and 9-3 against the Marlins. However, the idea of predicting future performance on past records, at least in this case, is a flawed approach.
Yes, you’d expect the Nationals to boast better records against the Phillies and Mets. But don’t let those figures mislead you into false assumptions. The Phillies own a paltry 14-27 mark since the All-Star break, a far step below their .500 record in the first half.
The Mets, meanwhile, have improved to the tune of a 21-23 record in the second half after going 41-50 in the first half. Still, a slew of injuries to their pitching staff leaves it on the skimpy side, and their offense got a whole lot weaker when Marlon Byrd recently packed his bags for Pittsburgh.
To throw in a twist: Nationals hitters have mashed against Mets, Phillies and Marlins pitchers in 2013. Against NL opponents, Washington’s .285 team average against the Marlins tops the charts (side note: Jose Fernandez’s rookie season likely has just two starts left, so Washington might miss him altogether). Their .268 average against the Phillies is only slightly worse, and a .263 mark against the Mets stills sits in the respectable range.
On the other side of the ball, the Nationals own a 2.01 team ERA against the Marlins (team best), a 2.83 mark against the Phillies (fourth-best) and a 4.36 ERA against the Mets.
So sure, it’d be easy to chalk the lion’s share of the Nationals’ 17 remaining games against the Mets, Phillies and Marlins as wins. It never seems to be that simple, though. the old phrase “that’s why they play the games” fits perfectly here.
Like the easy ones, or so I speculate, we can easily spot the challenges, and for the most part, the challenges come in a big cluster: A seven-game road trip to St. Louis and Arizona to wrap up the season. There’s that three-game set against the Braves too.
As you’d expect, the Nationals haven’t exactly beat up on any of these three teams. They’re 2-1 against the Diamondbacks, 0-3 against the Cardinals and 4-12 against the Braves. Hence their dreadful 20-36 record against teams better than .500.
There are a couple of interesting trends, though, most notably Washington’s strong pitching against the Diamondbacks (2.79 ERA), Braves (3.47) and Cardinals (3.00). It hasn’t translated into a ton of wins, but that’s largely due to a lack of production offensively against these three particular pitching staffs.
Versus Diamondbacks: .714 OPS
Versus Cardinals: .451 OPS
Versus Braves: .558 OPS
The league average OPS in 2013 comes out to .741, so the Nats are well below average against their hardest remaining obstacles. And while the small sample size excuse does apply to some degree (not quite against the Braves), I wouldn’t put too much stock into it.
Plus, Washington’s offense has shown signs of something far better than “league average.” In August, they checked in as baseball’s third-best offense by wOBA’s count and second-best by wRC+’s count–wRC+ is a park-adjusted offensive metric while wOBA values hits differently.
For the Nats, changing the perception that they can’t hit on the road will be key. Per FanGraphs, they’re baseball’s fifth-worst road offense, and with 16 road games and 10 home games left, that trend doesn’t bode them well.
Simply playing a bit better than .500 ball against the Braves, Cardinals and Diamondbacks will do–if the Nationals take care of business against their inferiors. And I mean take care of business.
Is making the playoffs a long shot for the Nationals? Yes. Is it possible? Well, sure. A 6.5-game deficit isn’t huge. It’s not small considering that fact that it is September, the final month of the regular season. The clock is indeed winding down to October.
And the big question: Will an easy remaining schedule prove to be the factor that propels them into the playoffs? Maybe. I wouldn’t call it super easy, as six and 10-game road trips don’t classify as easy, regardless of the opposition. If we’re basing it purely off numbers, you could call it easy, but doing so wouldn’t be factoring in road trips, just the raw number.
However, winning is winning. Washington needs to do a lot of that over the next month, while simultaneously hoping that the Reds endure somewhat of a collapse.