The Benefits and Drawbacks to the 1 Seed for the Nationals

Much debate has been had over whether it is worthwhile for the Nationals to pursue the #1 seed after they clinch the division. Now that the playoff picture has come into better focus, it seems like a good time to reexamine the benefits and drawbacks to the #1 seed. First, let's examine the logistical benefits and drawbacks:

Benefit #1: With the #1 seed, the Nationals would be guaranteed home-field advantage in both the divisional round and in the NLCS. Home fans, batting last, ticket sales. Self-explanatory.

Drawback #1: With the #1 seed, the Nationals would be forced to play their first two playoff games on the road, at the home of the wild card playoff winner. They will not know this location until the wild card game was played, which may result in some degree of travel-related problems. If the Nats were the #2 seed, they would also start off on the road, but would know well in advance where they will be playing (San Francisco) and would be able to make travel plans that they are comfortable with.

Benefit #2: With the #1 seed, the Nationals enjoy the advantage of playing a team in the divisional round that has spent its resources, most importantly its best starter (?) and its bullpen, just to get in to the playoffs.

Drawback #2: With the #1 seed, the Nationals have less prep time for whoever they play in the divisional round, whereas their opponent will know well in advance who their divisional round opponent will be. If, for example, the Dodgers win the wild card game, they will know a week in advance that if they win, they will be playing the Nationals, whereas the Nationals will only know that they are playing the Dodgers once the Dodgers win the wild card game.


After examining the logistical benefits and drawbacks, it is not clear whether having the #1 seed is helpful. To determine whether the Nats should go after the #1 seed, we need to look at who they will play. A cursory examination reveals that even considering the teams, there is no clear answer.

If the Nats have the #2 seed, they will play the Giants. The Giants went 1-5 against the Nats this year, but importantly, in four of those six games the Nationals had a righty starter. The Giants are a much better hitting team against lefty starters (.275/.321/.421) than righty starters (.267/.331/.383), and in fact have hit nearly half of their home runs in games against lefty starters, despite having roughly half as many of these. In the divisional series, the Nats would like to throw Gio twice and Det once, but against the Giants this could be too risky. Against the Giants, the Nationals would likely massage the rotation and start Zimmermann in game 1, which is less than ideal, but better given the Giants splits.

If the Nats have the #1 seed, they will play the wild card team.

If the wild Card team is Atlanta, they are in luck: Atlanta hits poorly against left handed starters (.243/.306/.367) compared to righty starters (.251/.329/.405). Here, maybe the Nationals even give Lannan a start instead of EJax.

If the wild card team is St. Louis, the Nats may again have to massage their rotation and start Zimmermann in games 1 and 5, like they would against the Giants. St. Louis hits left handers much better (.286/.356/.475) than right handers (.265/.330/.398).

If the wild card team is the Dodgers, the Nats can rest easy and order their rotation however they want. The Dodgers hit about evenly versus lefty starters (.250/.312/.375) and righty starters (.251/.318/.366).


With all of these teams, there are also the intangibles to consider. Atlanta has a sort of vendetta against the Nats, and just swept the Nats a few weeks ago. Even though their splits perhaps favor the Nats pitching, I don't think any of us want the team to face them. They have perhaps the most fearsome back-end reliever in the game in Kimbrel. Both of the teams who hit lefties well are recent champions: the Cardinals are the defending champs, and the Giants won it all two years ago. The Dodgers are the only team without a real intangible to consider.


Given all of this, I remain uncertain whether the #1 seed is worth striving for. The team would have home field and the advantage of playing a tired team, but in return they get travel issues, prep issues, and the possibility of either playing a hated rival who has had the Nats number in recent games (the Braves) or a defending champion with huge splits against left-handed pitching (the Cardinals). The Dodgers would seem to be a blessing, if they're the opponent, but how likely is that?

As the #2 seed, the Nats would get more prep time because they would know their opponent well in advance, but they would not be facing a tired ballclub. And they wouldn't have the home field in the NLCS if the opponent there is the Reds.

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