The Nationals’ winning finish Wednesday had only one potential downside. Their 80-81 record was the 15th-best in the majors, and the teams with the top 15 records have an unprotected first-round draft choice in the event they sign a Type A player. In other words, if the Nationals add an elite free agent, they will lose their first-round pick. There’s a full explanation here.
Their draft status is an annoying byproduct of a wholly satisfying development. The Nationals were very nearly a winning team. As Nationals players packed up their things Wednesday and prepared to split for the winter, General Manager Mike Rizzo mingled around the clubhouse and chatted with them one last time. He brought up 2012 spring training to Jayson Werth, and Werth replied, “Can’t wait.”
The Nationals will enter next season with enhanced expectations after their strong finish and 80-win season. The Nationals improved by 11 wins over their 2010 team, which improved by 10 wins over the 2009 debacle. That’s a 21-win improvement over two seasons.
Consecutive 10-win improvements are surprisingly rare. Here is the full list of teams since divisional play began that have improved by at least 10 wins in two consecutive seasons, with their record the following season included:
1982: 60-102, 7th
1983: 70-92, 5th
1984: 81-81, 2nd
1985: 77-85, 4th
1998: 54-108, 5th
1999: 64-98, 5th
2000: 79-82, 3rd
2001: 76-86, 4th
1999: 79-83, 3rd
2000: 91-71, 2nd (lost in ALCS)
2001: 116-45, 1st (lost in ALCS)
2002: 93-69, 3rd
2003: 69-94, 4th
2004: 80-82, 3rd
2005: 93-69, 2nd
2006: 78-84, 4th
New York Mets
2004: 71-91, 4th
2005: 83-79, 3rd
2006: 97-65, 1st (lost in NLCS)
2007: 88-74, 2nd
2006: 66-96, 6th
2007: 85-77, 1st (lost in NLDS)
2008: 97-64, 1st (lost in NLDS)
2009: 83-78, 2nd
San Diego Padres
2008: 63-99, 5th
2009: 75-87, 4th
2010: 90-72, 2nd
2011: 71-91, 5th
2009: 59-103, 5th
2010: 69-93, 5th
2011: 80-81, 3rd
That’s it. That’s the whole list. Only seven teams have improved by at least 10 wins in consecutive years since the implementation of divisional play in 1969, and none of those teams made the playoffs the year after, though three of them made the playoffs during their two 10-win improvement years.
The surprising thing is that all seven teams actually REGRESSED the season after they improved by 10 games in two straight years. That’s clearly not predictive. Each team had a unique set of circumstances, and the Nationals’ arrow seems quite obviously to be pointing up. The 2001 Mariners set the modern wins record. The 1997 Marlins won the World Series and then underwent a massive fire sale. The 2011 Padres traded their best player. The 2011 Nationals started players aged 23, 29, 24, 26 and 25 at five of their everyday positions.
Another surprising aspect of the research was that the idea that teams approach contention incrementally, at least with regard to major league performance, seems to be a myth. It is far more common for teams to make one big leap of something like 20 wins, often all the way from mediocrity to the playoffs, than a pair of small hops like the Nationals have taken. The most famous worst-to-first examples have been the 1990s Braves and the Rays of recent vintage, but there are several that jumped up and suddenly reached the postseason.
The problem with this is the narrow criteria. I probably could have found teams that improved by a minimum of, say, seven wins two consecutive years and found a totally different correlation.
The Nationals’ slower ascension — and we’re making a reasonably big assumption that they will contend next season — may owe to the state of their farm system. The dearth of major league-ready talent at the upper levels of their system in recent years may have forced players such as Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa and a host of pitchers to contribute heavily in the majors a year too early. That’s not to say they haven’t acquitted themselves well, but they have done a lot of learning on the job. The payoff could come next year. The Nationals can’t wait.
“We start thinking about 2012 on the plane ride home,” Rizzo said.