The Washington Nationals are no strangers to long-shot comeback bids. At multiple junctures in last year’s World Series run, their odds of being eliminated were extremely high — from the 84 percent chance they had to miss the playoffs in late May (after starting the season 19-31), to the 87 percent chance they had to lose the wild-card game before Trent Grisham’s error, to another 87 percent chance of losing the World Series when they trailed the Astros for most of Game 7.
Each time, the Nats prevailed against near-insurmountable odds. But what they’re trying to do this year might be their most quixotic pursuit yet.
Just like last year, Washington is attempting to turn its season around after a slow start. As recently as last week, the Nats were challenging the fire-sale 1998 Marlins for the worst record by a defending champion in baseball history:
Even now, after four wins in its last six games, Washington’s record is one game worse through 42 games (16-26) than it was last year.
From that moment on, the 2019 Nats went 76-44 — good for a .633 winning percentage, fifth-best in baseball — and the rest was history. But of course, there aren’t 120 games left this season — there are only 18. If Washington posts another .633 winning percentage from here on out, its final record would still be more than a few games below .500 (27-33).
In other words, the Nats are rapidly running out of time to salvage their season. According to FiveThirtyEight’s MLB prediction model, Washington has just a 7 percent chance of making the playoffs, even with the 2020 postseason field expanded to 16 teams. While not impossible to overcome, those odds are actually more daunting than any of the obstacles last season’s team conquered along its path to the championship.
For one thing, the Nationals’ division, the NL East, isn’t getting any easier: The Braves, Phillies and Mets (who were already expected to be pretty good) are all in the playoff hunt, and even the Miami Marlins are exceeding expectations.
Some of the Nats’ stretch-run problems aren’t fixable, either. Reigning World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg was lost for the season in August with carpal tunnel syndrome in his throwing hand, depriving the team of one of its two best pitchers (alongside Max Scherzer) by wins above replacement1 from a year ago. First baseman Howie Kendrick, who delivered the clutchest hit of the 2019 postseason, was sent to the injured list this week with a strained hamstring after struggling to a .705 on-base plus slugging so far this season. Second baseman Starlin Castro is out until October with a broken wrist. Ryan Zimmerman, one of the best players in franchise history,2 opted out before the 2020 season over COVID-19 concerns.
Still, the Nats could be getting more out of a defense that ranks dead last in MLB in total defensive value,3 after finishing around average last season. They have gotten the league’s fewest WAR (-0.93) out of their corner infielders — primarily Kendrick, Asdrúbal Cabrera, Eric Thames and Carter Kieboom. Aside from the stellar Juan Soto, who is hitting better than ever after missing the first eight games of the season with a positive COVID-19 test, Washington’s outfielders have generated a grand total of -1.23 WAR. And without Strasburg, the rotation can’t make up for the rest of the roster’s shortcomings as effectively anymore: Nationals starters have fallen from No. 1 in WAR in 2019 to No. 15 this year.
The team didn’t do much of anything to address any of these flaws at last month’s trade deadline, under the theory that the existing talent on hand would turn it around eventually. Using our Doyle metric to judge buyers and sellers, that wasn’t a totally unreasonable conclusion; the Nats’ recent uptick in play might even be seen as a vindication of the premise. Nor is the team’s remaining schedule particularly challenging. Looking at the Elo ratings of Washington’s remaining opponents, an average team would be expected to have a .499 winning percentage against the Nats’ schedule down the stretch, a relatively unimposing slate of contests.
But again, 2020 packs a lot more urgency into each game than 2019 did. If you look at our game-by-game Elo ratings, the current version of the Nationals may have started its ascent comparatively earlier than last year’s did, in terms of how many games it took for the turnaround to begin. Yet a glance at the same chart shows just how little runway the Nats have left for takeoff:
As we noted early in the season, the 60-game schedule could be hiding good teams with poor records (or vice versa). Whether they make the playoffs or — more likely — not, the Nationals are probably one of those hidden good teams. Even after the disappointing start, they still rank as MLB’s 11th-best team by Elo, barely behind the Chicago Cubs and surging San Diego Padres despite a record many games worse than either.
In baseball, it takes a very large sample of games to really move the needle and judge a team’s true quality. But unfortunately, a very large sample of games is not a luxury Washington has in 2020 — and the team’s title defense could end up being a victim of it.
Check out our latest MLB predictions.