The National League is as competitive as it’s been in recent memory. In addition to the Brewers and suddenly the Pirates vying for a Wild Card spot, the Phillies and Braves have both emerged as serious playoff contenders. Of course, surprise seasons need to come at the expense of other teams. An upset, by its very nature, upsets someone. This year, it has upset the Nationals. Washington is no stranger to disappointment, but they usually make it to October before their season comes to a bitter end.
The Nationals began the season with a 67 percent chance of making the playoffs according to Baseball Prospectus. FanGraphs was even more optimistic about Washington’s chances, giving them an 89 percent chance. FanGraphs has also been more optimistic about their demise, still giving them a 45 percent chance of making the playoffs, but Baseball Prospectus has them at just 21 percent.
Going into the trade deadline, the reports were that the clubhouse was a mess, and things were so dire that Mike Rizzo made Bryce Harper available on the trade market. Adam Eaton refuted the claim of dysfunction. Of course he did. Things in the clubhouse probably aren’t good, but they aren’t so bad that players will admit to strife. Harper stayed put, but Rizzo did send Brandon Kintzler to the Cubs.
The Nationals got a little worse after the trade deadline, and their divisional rivals each got better. Still, all is not lost. Less talented teams have faced worse odds and still made it to October. In 2014, FanGraphs had the Royals at a 17 percent chance of making the playoffs on August 3, and they made it to game seven of the World Series. There’s a reason the Nationals were considered the favorites at the beginning of the season, and there’s still a chance for them to get to the postseason.
Something that has held the Nationals back all year is injuries. Washington players have spent the most time on the disabled list out of any team in the majors.
Missing Stephen Strasburg has certainly hurt the Nationals. Strasburg was off to a fine start to the season, posting a 3.46 ERA and a 3.60 FIP until he got injured in June. Around that time, the Nationals’ rotation took a turn for the worse.
It's been about One Week since the Nationals' rotation started looking like itself again, and they've won 5 of 7 entering tonight. On May 31, they were 10 games over and had the best ERA in the NL. From June 1-July 29, they fell to a game under, and had the worst ERA in MLB.— Chelsea Janes (@chelsea_janes) August 3, 2018
There might not be a clear timetable for Strasburg’s return, but perhaps the rotation is beginning to pull itself out of its funk.
Even with an injury-impacted lineup, the Nationals have done a better job of outscoring their opponents than the first place Phillies. Philadelphia’s run differential is just +26 runs while Washington’s is +67. The Nationals should be right around the Braves who have a +71 run differential. Even If you remove the Nationals’ 25-4 drubbing of the Mets earlier this week, the Nationals still have a better run differential than the Phillies and Rockies, and they’re just barely beneath the Brewers.
The Nationals are underperforming their Pythagorean record by six games, and part of that is because they’re 10-18 in one-run games. Dealing away Brandon Kintzler and designating Shawn Kelley for assignment likely won’t help in that regard. Even if the Nationals had added to their bullpen rather than subtracted, it’s too late in the season to hope for their luck to even out.
Also, that thrashing of the Mets is emblematic of something the Nationals have done all season: beat up on bad teams. The Nationals are 26-15 against teams below .500, but they are 28-38 against winning teams.
The Nationals still have their fair share of games against losing teams. They have three against the Reds, eight against the Marlins, and seven against the Mets. Of course, the Braves and Phillies also have several games against the NL East’s cellar dwellers. It likely won’t help them gain ground, but they should help Washington maintain pace.
If the Nationals are to make it to the postseason, they’ll need to beat the two teams currently sitting on their chest. The Nationals have seven games against the Braves and nine against Philadelphia. The can control their own destiny to an extent. Nine head-to-head games likely won’t be enough to make up the five games that separate them from Philadelphia, so the Nationals will have to cross their fingers and hope for at least a partial collapse.
It’s going to be an uphill battle to overtake the Braves and Phillies, but it’s one they can win with some proper play and a whole lot of luck.