The optimist will look at the Washington Nationals’ performance Sunday night in a 6-5 loss against the Chicago Cubs and talk about how plucky they were. The team trailed 4-0 early and saw that deficit widen to 6-1 by the sixth inning before Anthony Rendon hit a three-run home run to close the gap to 6-4. In the seventh inning, Howie Kendrick added a solo home run to make it a one-run game before the Nats succumbed.
The realist will look at that game and note the Nationals were outplayed early and never had a chance. According to FanGraphs, Washington’s win probability never rose above 36 percent and in the end the team won just once in the three-game series against Chicago.
No matter how you look at it, this latest loss dropped Washington’s record to 19-27, giving the Nationals a 23 percent chance to win the division and a 42 percent chance to make the playoffs, per FanGraphs, heading into a four-game series against the Mets.
That’s far from how most people expected this season to go for Washington, but there are circumstances that could lead to a turnaround.
The pitching, while tough to watch sometimes, isn’t as bad as it looks. No team has a bigger gap between its actual ERA and its expected ERA than the Nationals. The latter is a numerical representation of how their ERA would look if they experienced league average results on balls in play and league average timing (also known as fielding independent pitching). If the difference between Washington’s actual ERA (4.88) and expected ERA (4.03 FIP) were to hold for the entire season, it would be the largest gap since 1938. The Nationals’ bullpen, the source of most of the team’s pitching woes, is sixth worst in the majors this year by expected ERA, not the worst as indicated by its robust 6.60 ERA.
Plus, the team, as a whole, has been unlucky. The Nationals have a minus-30 run differential over 46 games, which translates to a 20-26 record, slightly better than their actual 19-27 record, heading into Monday night. If we look at the type of results they have at the plate and the sequence of those results, which also plays a role — think of how four consecutive walks in an inning would produce a run but those same four walks spread out over the course of the game might not result in anything of note — we would expect Washington to sport a 21-25 record. Not a huge improvement, but every win counts when fighting for the division.
The main takeaways: The Nationals are better than they have shown. But they still have to improve significantly to reach the postseason.
Helping in that regard is a relatively weak remaining schedule. According to FanGraphs, Washington’s average remaining opponent is expected to win less than 50 percent of its games. When compared with the Philadelphia Phillies (.505 average win rate for remaining opponents) and Atlanta Braves (.495) this could be the Nationals’ best opportunity to gain ground.
Add in health for a lineup that is starting to resemble the one we expected on Opening Day, and the Nationals can continue to climb. But they will have to outpace their preseason projections to reach the playoffs.
If Washington simply played to its preseason expectations (that of a 91-win team) the rest of the way, we would expect it to finish the season with 84 wins, two fewer than the Phillies and one fewer than the Braves.
After such a big early-season hole, the key for a Washington playoff push will be the confluence of the three factors above — better luck, better health and an easier schedule.
It all starts with the upcoming pair of four-game stints against the Mets and Miami Marlins. There is a 61 percent chance they go 5-3 or better during this stretch. If they don’t, it might be time to start looking toward next year.
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