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The Nationals have been historically unlucky to start 2018

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And their luck should turn around.

Washington Nationals  v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

It’s been a pretty rough season for the Nationals. Coming off back-to-back NL East crowns, the team has struggled to get going, while the upstart Mets, Braves, and Phillies have taken control of the divisional race. At 13-16, Washington appears to be in some serious trouble.

Appearances can deceive, though. While the Nats’ actual record isn’t great, further inspection reveals they’ve actually done pretty well. By Baseball Prospectus’ third-order record — which uses peripheral statistics to model how many wins and losses a team should have — they’ve played like an 18-win ballclub. That’s the best mark in the division:

Image via Baseball Prospectus

So the Nationals have excelled, but their record doesn’t show it. If you’re a regular reader of Beyond the Box Score — or if you read the headline on this article — you can probably figure out what that means: They’re super unlucky. The 4.5-win gap between their third-order record and actual record is the biggest in MLB, by a pretty wide margin.

Underperformance on this scale, at this point in the year, is remarkably uncommon. Since 1950 — the earliest year BP’s data goes to — only 13 teams have ended the month of April with four fewer wins than they should have had:

Unluckiest teams through April 30, 1950-2018

Rank Year Team W L W% W3 L3 W3% W-W3
Rank Year Team W L W% W3 L3 W3% W-W3
1 1982 Los Angeles Dodgers 10 11 .476 15.3 5.7 .728 -5.3
2 1978 Minnesota Twins 8 16 .333 13.2 10.8 .550 -5.2
3 1989 Toronto Blue Jays 9 16 .360 14.1 10.9 .564 -5.1
4 2015 Oakland Athletics 9 14 .391 13.6 9.4 .593 -4.6
5 2008 Atlanta Braves 12 15 .444 16.6 10.4 .616 -4.6
6 2018 Washington Nationals 13 16 .448 17.5 11.5 .605 -4.2
7 2006 New York Yankees 13 10 .565 17.2 5.8 .747 -4.2
8 1997 Chicago White Sox 8 17 .320 12.2 12.8 .489 -4.2
9 2009 Tampa Bay Rays 9 14 .391 13.1 9.9 .571 -4.1
10 2006 Washington Nationals 8 17 .320 12.1 12.9 .483 -4.1
11 2011 Boston Red Sox 11 15 .423 15.0 11.0 .578 -4.0
12 2009 Washington Nationals 5 16 .238 9.0 12.0 .428 -4.0
13 2004 Kansas City Royals 7 14 .333 11.0 10.0 .524 -4.0
Data via Baseball Prospectus

What’s to blame for the disappearance of those 4.5 victories? As the name would imply, third-order record is one of three statistical models BP has; looking at the finer points of each one can illuminate the source of the Nationals’ woes.

1.9 of the missing wins come from Washington’s first-order record, which is based on runs scored and allowed. Despite being three games under .500, the Nats have a positive run differential, at +4. They haven’t had a great offense (4.34 RS/G) or a great pitching staff (4.21 RA/G), but that’s still better than you’d expect from a club on pace for 89 losses.

Last week’s series in San Francisco encapsulates what’s gone wrong. The Giants won 4-2 on Monday and 4-3 on Tuesday, behind a few timely hits and solid starts from Chris Stratton and Ty Blach. Then on Wednesday, the tables turned: The Nats battered Jeff Samardzija and Max Scherzer dominated en route to a 15-2 blowout victory. In any given game, Washington’s offense has the potential to explode, and its rotation has the potential to be lights-out; the team has had trouble combining the two.

Runs aren’t an exact measure of production, either. The Nationals’ second-order record — based on their expected runs scored and given up — accounts for 2.3 of the absent W’s. The model thinks they should have averaged 4.69 runs and 3.81 runs allowed per game, noteworthy improvement from the aforementioned marks.

Another NL West series can illustrates this one. A couple of weeks ago, the Rockies took three of four in the nation’s capital, scoring 15 runs total to 13 for the Nationals. But Washington (.207/.317/.355) outhit Colorado (.169/.210/.362) in that series, with an advantage of more than 100 points in OPS. The Nats just couldn’t string enough of those baserunners together, nor could they prevent the Rox from doing so.

The remaining 0.3 victories are found in third-order record, which is the same as second-order but adjusted for strength of schedule. Of the 29 games the Nationals have played, 23 have been against teams that are currently at or above .500. The only losing clubs on the list are the Reds and Dodgers. With the Mets, Braves, and Phillies each on pace for 90+ wins, things won’t get much easier from here.

You might be wondering — will the Nationals remain this unlucky for the rest of the year? From the results of the other 12 teams on the aforementioned list, it’s hard to reach a conclusion:

Unluckiest teams through April 30 — rest-of-season performance (1950-2018)

Rank Year Team April W April L April W% April W3 April L3 April W3% April W-W3 RoS W RoS L RoS W% RoS W3 RoS L3 RoS w3% RoS W-W3
Rank Year Team April W April L April W% April W3 April L3 April W3% April W-W3 RoS W RoS L RoS W% RoS W3 RoS L3 RoS w3% RoS W-W3
1 1982 Los Angeles Dodgers 10 11 .476 15.3 5.7 .728 -5.3 78 63 .553 83.8 57.2 .594 -5.8
2 1978 Minnesota Twins 8 16 .333 13.2 10.8 .550 -5.2 65 73 .471 68.7 69.3 .498 -3.7
3 1989 Toronto Blue Jays 9 16 .360 14.1 10.9 .564 -5.1 80 57 .584 74.0 63.0 .540 6.0
4 2015 Oakland Athletics 9 14 .391 13.6 9.4 .593 -4.6 59 80 .424 66.3 72.7 .477 -7.3
5 2008 Atlanta Braves 12 15 .444 16.6 10.4 .616 -4.6 60 75 .444 65.5 69.5 .485 -5.5
6 2018 Washington Nationals 13 16 .448 17.5 11.5 .605 -4.5 -- -- -- -- -- -- --
7 2006 New York Yankees 13 10 .565 17.2 5.8 .747 -4.2 84 55 .604 82.3 56.7 .592 1.7
8 1997 Chicago White Sox 8 17 .320 12.2 12.8 .489 -4.2 72 64 .529 61.9 74.1 .455 10.1
9 2009 Tampa Bay Rays 9 14 .391 13.1 9.9 .571 -4.1 75 64 .540 77.8 61.2 .560 -2.8
10 2006 Washington Nationals 8 17 .320 12.1 12.9 .483 -4.1 63 74 .460 57.1 79.9 .417 5.9
11 2011 Boston Red Sox 11 15 .423 15.0 11.0 .578 -4.0 79 57 .581 84.0 52.0 .618 -5.0
12 2009 Washington Nationals 5 16 .238 9.0 12.0 .428 -4.0 54 87 .383 58.9 82.1 .418 -4.9
13 2004 Kansas City Royals 7 14 .333 11.0 10.0 .524 -4.0 51 90 .362 48.3 92.7 .343 2.7
I know, it’s a big table, but bear with me here. Data via Baseball Prospectus

Some of them got better down the stretch; other sank even further. Underperformance is random by definition — it’s bad luck, not bad skill — so there’s really no way to know what the future holds.

The Nationals can take solace in the fact that they’ll probably get healthier soon. Two of the team’s starting infielders are nearing a return — Daniel Murphy is back with the team after rehabbing his knee injury, and Anthony Rendon shouldn’t be far behind. If Adam Eaton’s leg heals, and Joe Ross progresses from last summer’s Tommy John surgery, they’ll bolster the team further.

As is always the case, we shouldn’t read too deeply into April results — the Nationals have played less than one-fifth of their games for this season. They’re 13-16, sure, but that doesn’t mean they’re not the contender we thought they were before the season. Washington’s had an unlucky start, and the thing about bad luck is it tends to turn around at some point.


Ryan Romano is the co-managing editor for Beyond the Box Score. Follow him on Twitter if you enjoy angry tweets about Maryland sports.