Nats are better than just a 'Cinderella' story

Only one team has more wins since 2012 than Washington's 730

October 20th, 2019

If the Nationals go on to beat the Astros to win the World Series -- perhaps even if they don't, maybe just having reached the Fall Classic will be enough -- you know how the story will go. After stumbling so badly to start the year that they didn't reach .500 for good until June 27, or claim even second place in the National League East until July 6, if they finish this off with a ring, they'll be a "Cinderella story." They'll be, as the Athletic (subscription required) writes, the "Miracle Nats."

That would be true, in a historical sense. The season did start off horribly. Only three previous teams in history had ever gone from 12 games under .500, as the Nats were on May 23 at 19-31, to the World Series, and only one of them, the 1914 Boston Braves, actually won it. Since the Wild Card came into existence in '95, just six Wild Card teams have won the World Series, and only the 2005 Astros have been worse through 50 games (they were 18-32) and gone on to win a pennant.

So yes, the Nationals have earned all of their platitudes, no matter what happens from here on out. But what if that version of the story is actually a little unfair? It makes for good copy, but it also undersells how good Washington is. This isn't the scrappy little team that got hot at the right time. This isn't the 1997 or 2003 Marlins using the Wild Card to have bursts of success. This isn't the '14 Giants overcoming a merely OK 88-win regular season. For nearly a decade, this franchise has been one of baseball's most successful.

The Nationals won 93 games this season to mark the fifth time in the past eight years they've won 90. (Only the Dodgers, with seven, have done it more.) Since 2012, the start of their current run, they've won 730 games, the second most in baseball (the Dodgers have 757). They haven't had a losing record, or finished lower than second in their division, since 2011.

If we want to give them credit for overcoming an absolutely brutal start, we should definitely do so, but let's not let an atrocious first eight weeks or so shadow the actual truth here: This is a good team, and it was always expected to be a good team.

To prove that, let's go back to the start of the baseball calendar. Let's go back to March and see how a few of the major stats-based projection sites viewed the season, as well as how several collections of writers thought things would work out for Washington:

FanGraphs: 91-71, first in NL East (7.2% odds to win World Series)

FiveThirtyEight: 89-73, first in NL East (6% odds to win World Series)

Baseball Prospectus: 89-73, tied for first in NL East 27 experts picked WSH, 25 for PHI 13 experts picked WSH, ahead of 5 for PHI

Across the board, the Nationals were viewed as the best team in the division, and generally the second-best team in the NL behind only the Dodgers. It wasn't exactly that controversial of a decision, because that's been the truth for years -- as we said, since 2012, only the Dodgers have more wins in all of baseball. (Yes, it's fair to note that we definitely all underrated the Braves, who earned an enormous amount of credit.)

As GM Mike Rizzo said on May 24, the low point of the season, just after being swept by a Mets team that had itself just been swept by the Marlins:

“There’s a lot of people in this group right here that predicted us to win 90, 92 games, and win the division and World Series. That was our expectation coming into this, and a third into the season, I’m certainly not going to pull the pin on that and blow it up.”

He continued by saying:

“If we play up to our capabilities -- I’ve said this since Spring Training -- if we play up to our capabilities, I’ll pit this team against anybody in baseball."

Exactly right. It took a while, but they did, and here they are.

Part of that is, despite going a disappointing 82-80 in 2018 and losing Bryce Harper to free agency, there were plenty of reasons to be high on the '19 Nationals, and to expect them to succeed.

(A quick aside: Despite what you may hear elsewhere, subtracting Harper wasn't "a good thing," and it didn't fuel this run. Harper had a .372 OBP and a .510 SLG with 35 homers; he would have been a massive upgrade in right field over , who had a .365 OBP and a .428 SLG with 15 homers.)

That was partially because they spent to improve their rotation by signing Patrick Corbin, last year's best available starting pitcher. It was partially because we were all excited to see how would follow up his historic 2018 debut -- spoiler alert: he was great. It was partially because after missed much of '18 with a right elbow injury, he was expected to take over center field full-time, and all he did was lead baseball's best defensive outfield. It was partially because after having baseball's fourth-weakest-hitting catchers in 2018, they added and and had slightly above-average hitting behind the plate this year. Success in '19 wasn't entirely a surprise, is the point.

So we expected the Nationals to be good, and they were. They were a top-10 team in most metrics, aside of course from the generally wretched bullpen.

93 wins // tied, eighth-best
111 wRC+ // fifth-best (100 is 'MLB average')
873 runs scored // sixth-best
724 runs allowed // ninth-best
+149 run differential // second-best in NL
20.9% strikeout rate (batters) // tied, fourth-lowest
24.6% strikeout rate (pitchers) // eighth-highest
26.4 WAR (position players) // eighth-best
22.3 WAR (pitchers) // fifth-best

For the first 30 percent of the season, Washington was a losing team. For the final 70 percent -- when the Nats went 74-38 (a .661 winning percentage) after that 19-31 start -- they had the best record in the NL (tied with the Dodgers) and the third-best in the Majors. That's more of the version of the Nationals we've seen for years, and we shouldn't let the early-third club -- which, for the record, was still trying out Trevor Rosenthal and saw Trea Turner miss 40 games with a broken right index finger -- overwhelm our perception of what the Nationals actually are and have been.

When the Expos first landed in Washington in 2005, they got off to a decent, 81-81 start -- which somehow was still last place in the NL East that year -- but it was all downhill from there. They finished in last place in five of their first six years in the nation's capital, and between 2005-11, their 492-640 record was the fourth worst in the Majors. Over the past eight years, as we mentioned above, only the Dodgers have won more games.

This is, famously, the first time the Nationals have won a playoff series, making it the first time they've made it to the NLCS or, obviously, a World Series. But they didn't come out of nowhere, and they didn't just get here. They've always been here.