OK... I know that the title of this post is going to make most of you believe that this post is going to be pessimistic despite the 7-2 start. I assure you that it's not. I made a crack on Twitter last week after the Mets series that the "real" regular season was beginning with the first Braves series. That may have been a bit harsh, but it's time to point out my reasoning a bit.
For all of the talk of the disappointment of last season, it's important to note that the Nats went 86-76. With the exception of the 2012 campaign, that was the franchise's best record since 1996 in Montreal (88-74). It was just the fifth time they've finished above .500 since that 1994 strike that some of us (errr... all my fellow former Expos fans) would like to forget. It was their fourth best record in the past twenty years (counting the 74-40 1994 season). They fell ten games short of the Braves for the NL East crown in 2013. Just as importantly, they finished four games shy of the Cincinnati Reds for the second wildcard spot. Disappointing? When the expectations created by the 2012 campaign were taken into account, sure. Other than that, they had a terrific season... particularly when playing teams that they were expected to beat.
The National League was a bit top-heavy last season. Just six teams (the five NL playoff teams and the Nats) finished above .500. The Diamondbacks finished 81-81. No other team won more than 76 games. No team won 100 games, but all five playoff teams won 90 or more. Only one team (the Marlins) lost 100, while all but two teams (Cubs, Marlins) won at least 70 games.
You would expect, based on this (admittedly pretty simplified) data as well as common sense that the Nationals would perform better against the teams below them in the standings. The better the competition is that you're facing, the less likely you are to win. However, the difference was pretty dramatic.
Here is a breakdown of the Nationals' performance against every team they faced last season. I'll highlight the five NL playoff teams. The Nats also went 3-4 against the 2 AL playoff teams (Cleveland & Detroit) they played in interleague play.
Yes... Those highlighted games add up to a 14-31 record, good for a .311 winning percentage. For context, the Houston Astros (51-111) had a .315 winning percentage last season. Yes... Against the five NL playoff teams last season, the Nats were pretty much the Houston Astros. The Nats were 72-45 in their other 117 games, good for a .615 winning percentage. No team in baseball had a winning percentage better than .599 (Boston and St. Louis.. 97-85), so they were better than the best team(s) in baseball when they were playing lesser competition. Let's play around with the record against contenders, though.
How should the Nats have performed against those teams ahead of them in the standings? In truth, they played pretty terribly against all five of those teams, being outscored 181-125. That's an average of 1.25 runs/game (4.02-2.77). They didn't outscore a single one of those teams. Even the Reds (the only one of those teams that the Nats beat in the season series) outscored the Nats 36-27. The Pirates (Nats went 3-4) were the team that the Nats came closest to outscoring, as they were outscored 31-29.
Still, when applying Pythagorean W-L, their projected Win Percentage in those games should have been .408 based on run differential. That's 18.38 wins (yes... let's round down to 18). With all else being equal, had the Nats played .400 ball (18-27) against those five teams, they would have been playing the Reds for the right to play in the wildcard game at Pittsburgh.... In other words, they'd have made the tournament!
OK... There's (most of) the positive spin. Here's just a little more. The Nats went a combined 26-12 against the Mets and Marlins last season. While that tells us that they'd have been projected to win 2 out of 3 against both the Mets and Marlins in their series so far this season, the Nats went 6-0 in those games. You can't take away those two wins that the Nats weren't projected to get... they're in the bank. Good teams beat teams that they're supposed to beat, but they're certainly not going to win all of them. So far, the Nats have, which can only be a good thing.
I'm still not being negative, but it's obvious that the Nats are going to have to perform better against the other contenders in the National League this season than they did last year. Not only is this an important factor for the regular season, but it's even more important if the Nats make the playoffs. If they aren't competitive against the Braves, Cardinals, Dodgers, Pirates, and Reds during the regular season, then making the playoffs is probably going to mean just that... They'll make it and have an early exit. If there's a silver lining here, it's that they'll have a difficult time performing worse against these teams than they did in 2013.
I have no theories on how or why they didn't perform against any of those teams. I'm not going to preach about how they're not "doing the little things" or "taking the extra base" or "grinding out ABs" or anything like that. I'm not going to say that those other teams were better or that the Nats didn't perform well against them. It's baseball! Over a 162 game season, some of this game can always be chalked up to random variation. You're going to have your good days and your bad days. You're going to have your times when nobody's going right and your times when everything's clicking for two weeks straight. What I'm saying is simply that the Nats must perform better against the other teams that figure to be legitimate playoff contenders.
I'm excited about the start. If you'd told me that the Nats would be 7-2 after their first three series, I'd have assumed that they went 2-1, 2-1, 3-0 in some way, shape, or form. The wins against the Marlins and Mets count exactly the same in the standings as a win against the Braves would. The Braves losses to the Mets and Brewers provide the same number in the loss column that a loss to the Nats would. The fact remains that the Nats are going to have to play better against the other contenders in the National League than they did last season.
Let's start making that happen tonight in Atlanta!