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The Washington Nationals and run differential

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The Nationals have struggled this season. Let’s look at run differential.

MLB: AUG 23 Marlins at Nationals

Thus far, the Washington Nationals have been lackluster, to say the least. The team vacillates between fourth and fifth place in the National League East — a division that hasn’t been very good — and can’t find traction to get this season headed in the right direction.

They don’t have much time because the season is nearly halfway over. That’s right, the 2020 Major League Baseball season will conclude in a matter of weeks. The good news for Washington is that they’re still well in contention for a playoff spot, especially under this season’s expanded playoff format. The bad news is we all expected them to be much better.

Over the course of the campaign, the Nationals have been utterly average. It doesn’t take a detective to deliver that news to you, but it’s a point that still needs to be made. Throughout a normal season, I keep a close eye on run differential. It’s one of my favorite and simple go-to’s in order to surmise how well a team is performing versus expectations, given the simple math of what comes in and what goes out.

As I’m writing this, the Nats have a +2 run differential but they’re three games under .500. That math doesn’t quite work out as expected. MLB.com’s x/W-L tab thinks the team should be one game over .500, not three below it — that’s just not how it always works. Baseball can be funky, and it’s true that outlier games can skew the results of this kind of sampling, especially with a season as short as this one.

Generally, I wait until the midway point or even the All-Star break to start making assumptions based off of run differential, but this year we have a different halfway mark, so I’m jumping into the differential a bit earlier this time around.

For plenty of teams — even this early — the run differential mark is pretty accurate, guessing a record that’s around one win or loss away from what’s true to life. In fact, the Nationals are one of the teams that are further down along the curve than what’s expected (the Chicago Cubs trend positively, despite results that suggest they aren’t that good).

Right now, it’s hard to determine exactly why the Nationals are the way that they are. I tried to find a culprit: Pitching or hitting? But both turned back results that screamed average baseball team. For example, the team’s wRC+ is 103, which is three points above average and 14th best in baseball. Other metrics, like wOBA, are a little bit better (.327), which puts them 10th in baseball.

As for pitching, a classical stat like ERA (4.67) has them at 19th in baseball, but a new age stat like FIP says they’re 21st in baseball (4.64). The staff has accumulated 2.0 fWAR, also 21st in baseball. For a final example: Their HR/9 is 1.56, sixth worst in baseball.

If I had to put my money on the bigger problem — based on these numbers available at FanGraphs — I’d say pitching, but only marginally.