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The Meaning of “Underdog” and the 2019 Washington Nationals

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This piece is part of this week’s SB Nation “underdog” series.

World Series - Washington Nationals v Houston Astros - Game Seven Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

When you Google the word “underdog,” one of the first results is a Dictionary.com entry. The first entry for underdog is: “noun: a person who is expected to lose in a contest of conflict.” Unsurprisingly, Merriam-Webster features a similar definition: “noun: a loser or predicted loser in a struggle or contest.”

We’ve all heard the term underdog before. But where does it come from?

Let’s begin with where it first appeared. Webster was also helpful in that it included the first year the word was seen in text: 1859.

In its 19th century context, it literally meant “a dog that is beaten in a fight.”

Underdogs are present throughout history, including major global battles, religious stories, or sports stories. For example, the United States would be considered an underdog when they tried to separate from British rule; the religious story about David and Goliath is perhaps an archetypical example of an underdog overcoming the odds; as for sports, the 2007 Appalachian State Mountaineers — the team that beat Michigan at the Big House — would also fall into that category.

Entering the 2019 Major League Baseball season, the Washington Nationals weren’t exactly an underdog in the classic sense.

They weren’t expected to be as good as the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League, or the New York Yankees or Houston Astros in the American League, and they weren’t favored to win the World Series.

According to FanGraphs, the Nats were odds on favorites to take the National League East division, however, but by the end of April that number had dwindled significantly as they dropped further and further back in the division. By the end of May, the Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves looked more poised to win the East, rendering Washington’s chances of capturing the division title, much less the World Series, negligible.

People began to write off the Nationals as they watched the surging Braves ascend to the top of the division. Atlanta would, after all, go on to win the 2019 NL East.

Once the playoffs rolled around, according to FiveThirtyEight, the only series Washington was expected to win on a game-by-game basis was the National League Championship Series against the St. Louis Cardinals.

They were expected to beat the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Wild Card game — a game that saw Brandon Woodruff and Max Scherzer square off.

Despite that prediction, the Baseball Reference Win Probability Chart during that game shows Milwaukee the likely victor throughout the majority of the duration of the contest.

The highest percentage chance the Brewers had to win that game came with one out in the bottom of the eighth inning with Josh Hader on the mound, when the expected win probability was 87 percent. The Nationals three-run eighth, courtesy of Juan Soto, would be the difference.

Then, in the National League Division Series against the Dodgers — a series that went the five game distance — Washington was only projected to win once. That was Game 4 when Rich Hill faced Scherzer. The Nationals did win that game, 6-1. It was a must win to set up a decisive Game 5.

In Game 5, the Dodgers were given a 59 percent advantage with Walker Buehler on the mound against Stephen Strasburg.

Washington only needed four games to dispatch the Cardinals, three of which they were projected to win.

Once in the World Series, the Astros were the expected winner in four of the seven games. Despite Washington’s praise at the beginning of the season, due to their sluggish April and May, they set themselves up to be considered underdogs for the remainder of the season — a season in which they wouldn’t have Bryce Harper for the first time since 2011.

They became billed as the scrappy team that wouldn’t give up, clawing their way back into contention throughout the rest of the summer and eventually becoming the number one team in the Wild Card race. The team went from a two percent chance to win the World Series in mid-May, which was near middle of the pack in probabilistic terms, sandwiched between the Braves and Arizona Diamondbacks.

Of course, in true underdog rising above their station fashion, the Nationals’ May chances of two percent went from roughly league average to, well, this:

Photo Retrieved from FiveThirtyEight

Due to the nature of Washington’s season, they were, in my estimation, underdogs.