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The Nationals Finally Look Ready to Win in the Playoffs

Washington has rebounded from a disastrous start to the season to play like the preseason favorite it appeared to be. And now it might be the Dodgers’ best NL competition in October.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Washington Nationals’ season bottomed out on May 23, when new Met Carlos Gómez blasted a two-out, two-strike, eighth-inning home run to transform a deficit into a lead. The Nationals lost the game—the last in a four-day sweep at Citi Field—and saw their record drop to 19-31, and their chances of making the playoffs, according to Baseball Prospectus, plummeting in tandem to a mere 8.3 percent. Only the Marlins had a worse record in the entire National League.

Through 50 games and nearly two months, the Nationals had utterly failed to live up to their projected contender status—and made a bunch of baseball writers look foolish in the process. Before the season, I predicted Washington to win the World Series, viewing them as a prime “Ewing theory” candidate after the loss of Bryce Harper in free agency, and they were a popular playoff pick at The Ringer and around the rest of the baseball internet too.

Fortunately for their own fortunes and the reputation of the baseball intelligentsia, the Nationals have swung on an upward trajectory. Since May 23, the Nationals are an MLB-best 58-28 and have a scorching run differential that ranks second only to the Dodgers’ over that span. By both record and run differential, the Nationals/Expos have never had a better 86-game stretch in franchise history. And it is this current run—as well as the underlying factors that have made it possible—that have the franchise positioned, possibly, for its first lengthy playoff campaign.

Washington has regained its preseason aura in the typical manner for the franchise: by relying on its stars. Using FanGraphs’ version of WAR, Washington’s top five players this year have combined for 26.4 WAR, a narrow second to Houston top five’s 26.7 for the MLB lead.

That quintet includes three pitchers—Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin—and two position players: dark horse MVP candidate Anthony Rendon and sophomore Juan Soto. Rendon is enjoying a career year in his final season before free agency with a .337/.417/.639 slash line that looks even better (a comical .442/.510/.930) in high-leverage situations. Soto has had nearly the exact same season at the plate this year (.295/.403/.573) as he did in his breakout 2018 (.292/.406/.517), but just with a little extra power that seems to be the combination of the juiced ball and a greater focus on elevating on contact. Last season, Soto’s overall hitting performance was 46 percent better than the league average; this year, it’s 47 percent better.

The pitchers, meanwhile, have been every bit as dominant as anticipated when the Nationals landed lefty Corbin for six years and $140 million in free agency during the offseason. In all three brands of wins above replacement, Scherzer, Strasburg, and Corbin rank in the top five of all NL pitchers. It almost goes without saying that no other team matches that level of consistent excellence from its best pitchers.

Ranks Among NL Pitchers in WAR

Pitcher Baseball-Reference FanGraphs Baseball Prospectus
Pitcher Baseball-Reference FanGraphs Baseball Prospectus
Max Scherzer 1st 1st 4th
Stephen Strasburg 5th 3rd 1st
Patrick Corbin 4th 5th 3rd

But as compared with other star-studded rosters like those in Houston and Los Angeles, the Nationals lack sturdy complements to the awards contenders. As ever, this roster has taken on a stars-and-scrubs appearance. The likes of Aníbal Sánchez, Howie Kendrick, and stellar defender Víctor Robles have turned in average or slightly better campaigns, but largely, the Nats’ hoped-for depth hasn’t materialized. In particular, the offseason acquisitions aside from Corbin have underwhelmed. The position-player quartet of Yan Gomes, Kurt Suzuki, Matt Adams, and Brian Dozier has accumulated just 2.2 bWAR/2.3 fWAR, and in 32 combined innings, relievers Trevor Rosenthal and Kyle Barraclough allowed 37 runs (35 earned, for a 9.84 ERA); neither pitcher is still with the club.

Overall, 65 percent of the Nats’ WAR comes from just the top five players. That’s the high point among the 10 teams currently in playoff position, whose average in the metric is just 51 percent, meaning other playoff teams have an even split in production between the top five players and the rest of the roster.

That’s not a problem come October, necessarily, when there is no strong historical preference for teams with more stars or more democratized production. In fact, it might even be construed as a positive, particularly on the pitching side, because the playoff schedule allows teams to rely on more innings from its top arms and remove the Joe Rosses and Jeremy Hellicksons of the world from their innings distribution. Heck, even pure win-loss record—the inverse of advanced, analytically sound modern metrics—paints the same sort of picture. The Nationals’ big three starters are a combined 36-16 this season, while all other Washington pitchers are 41-43—and in a five- or seven-game series, that trio will start every game except one, or all of them, with some short rest mixed in.

Unfortunately for the Nationals, despite the romantic visions of October acedom that this group of starters might inspire, there is scant historical indication that elite pitching cores help teams an inordinate amount in the playoffs. The strongest indicator of postseason record is regular-season record; the rotation quality plays little extra role.

For instance, the Nationals will become the 11th team in the divisional era to have had three pitchers reach five or more bWAR (including the Nationals of just two years ago, with Gio González in Corbin’s place). None of the previous 10 won the World Series; nor did other historically dominant rotations of recent vintages, like those of the 2018 Astros, 2017 Indians, or 2013 Tigers (with Scherzer). Put simply, a top rotation does not guarantee postseason success.

Teams in Divisional Era With Three 5-WAR Pitchers

Team Pitchers Playoff Result
Team Pitchers Playoff Result
2018 Indians Bauer, Clevinger, Kluber Lost in ALDS
2017 Nationals González, Scherzer, Strasburg Lost in NLDS
2011 Phillies Halladay, Hamels, Lee Lost in NLDS
2005 Astros Clemens, Oswalt, Pettitte Lost in WS
2003 Cubs Prior, Wood, Zambrano Lost in NLCS
2003 Athletics Hudson, Mulder, Zito Lost in ALDS
1996 Braves Glavine, Maddux, Smoltz Lost in WS
1991 Braves Avery, Glavine, Smoltz Lost in WS
1973 Tigers Coleman, Hiller, Lolich Didn't Reach Playoffs
1970 Cubs Hands, Holtzman, Jenkins Didn't Reach Playoffs

A host of studies have revealed no significant effect on a team’s playoff outcomes from the quality of its ace or playoff rotation. In one such analysis, pegged to the 2014 Tigers because their rotation featured four past or future Cy Young winners still in their prime age range, Ben Lindbergh wrote for Grantland, “No indicator of the quality of those starters (strikeout rate, walk rate, home run rate, ground ball rate, linear weights) proved to be a significant predictor of a team’s postseason success, after controlling for that club’s regular-season record.” Sure enough, in their first playoff series that fall, the Tigers fell in a sweep against Baltimore, despite a trio of starting pitching matchups that seemed heavily slanted in Detroit’s favor:

  • Game 1: Scherzer vs. Chris Tillman
  • Game 2: Justin Verlander vs. Wei-Yin Chen
  • Game 3: David Price vs. Bud Norris

Of course, as Lindbergh also wrote in that piece, one of the problems with analyzing the results of elite rotations in the playoffs is that “a team can spend a season assembling a super-rotation, but once it gets to October, it might find that its opponent has a super-rotation, too.” If the Nationals advance past the wild-card game, which is when they are likely to begin their playoff journey, they’d encounter that exact dilemma with the Dodgers in the NLDS, when L.A. could build a top three of Clayton Kershaw, Hyun-Jin Ryu, and Walker Buehler.

From a narrative perspective, however, that’s part of the Nationals’ appeal. Any other NL contender—any other contender, really, besides the Astros—would pale next to the L.A. pitching machine, whereas the Nationals could capably match the Dodgers co-ace for co-ace. And in splitting a four-game series in L.A. this year, the Nationals and Dodgers combined for three shutouts.

It’s not too early to start anticipating that series and all the delectable pitching it would contain. With four weeks left in the season, Washington trails Atlanta by 6.5 games for the division lead, yet leads in the wild-card chase by six games (and leads the Cubs for the first wild-card spot by 3.5). BP now gives the team a 96.4 percent chance of reaching October, of which more than 90 percent comes via the wild-card route. And while the vagaries of single-game baseball mean the Nationals could easily lose before advancing to play the Dodgers, who are practically guaranteed to finish with the NL’s best record, Washington’s likely home-field and pitching advantage means they would be the favorite against any wild-card opponent. (If the Phillies or Mets sneak in to the second spot, Aaron Nola or Jacob deGrom could turn that second factor into a wash.)

Whether they can string together enough wins in a row to actually advance in the playoffs is another question entirely, given both the franchise’s historic inability to do so, in increasingly bizarre fashion, and the extant holes on the 2019 roster. The lack of depth stands out against the Dodgers, whose second-string lineup and rotation might compete for a playoff spot, and the bullpen has, per Nationals tradition, been erratic all year.

Through the whole season, Washington’s relievers rank 29th in the majors in park-adjusted ERA, 26th in park-adjusted FIP, and 30th in win probability added. And since the start of August—which folds in their deadline additions and removes Rosenthal and Barraclough’s numbers from the calculus—they have barely improved, ranking 23rd, 24th, and 26th in those respective categories.

In high-leverage situations, Nationals relievers have been the worst in baseball. (The rest of the bottom five comprises the disastrous Orioles, Royals, and Mariners, as well as the league-best Dodgers, whose high-leverage performance points to bullpen concerns of their own.) And they’ve been even worse in those situations since the trade deadline, allowing an unfathomable .317/.380/.667 slash line in 71 plate appearances—the rough equivalent of Nelson Cruz’s season line.

The ultimate conclusion of the Nationals’ 2019 season to date is that, despite the tumultuous, streaky road the team has traveled, it has essentially ended up where it has found itself in past winning seasons—on the precipice of the playoffs, with the excitement of stars and top starters mellowed, somewhat, by a lack of depth and bullpen worries. For more than half a season now, as expected in March, the Nationals have proved themselves one of the majors’ best teams, and Washington looks like the strongest candidate to unseat the league-leading Dodgers en route to their third consecutive World Series. (The NL East–leading Braves have a better record than the Nationals, but worse underlying performances by metrics like Pythagorean and BaseRuns records.)

But as the Nationals well know, merely a top-notch top of the rotation is not sufficient to win in October, nor is a shiny cluster of stars, nor is home-field advantage or a favorable matchup or any other factor. Playoff wins require plain fortune, too, and the Nationals have been on the wrong side of that equation for the balance of the decade. That factor can sometimes make predictions look silly. It also would make a Dodgers–Nationals showdown even more thrilling than it already appears.

Stats through Monday’s games.