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The Nats Are Peaking At The Perfect Time

After sweeping the first two games of the National League Championship Series In St. Louis, the Washington Nationals were hoping to keep things rolling in front of their home fans for Game 3. They got their wish — and then some. The Nats jumped all over Cardinals starter Jack Flaherty for four runs in the third inning and never looked back en route to an 8-1 win and a commanding 3-0 series lead.

Our model now gives Washington a 38 percent chance of winning its first-ever World Series — the best of any team remaining in the field.1 And the Nats have been saving their best baseball for the exact right moment on the calendar. Here’s a plot of Washington’s Elo rating (our power rating for a team at any given moment, where league average is around 1500) by game for the entire season:

Washington was favored to win the NL East before the year, but its Elo quickly plummeted from 1540 to 1511 as the team got out to a rough 19-31 start (causing me to, ahem, kinda write them off at the time). Back on May 21, our model gave the Nats a mere 20 percent chance to make the playoffs, much less reach the World Series. Ever since then, however, it’s basically been a steady climb uphill for the Nats, who closed the regular season on a 74-38 run after those first 50 games — the equivalent of a 107-win pace per 162 games. Without erstwhile franchise leader Bryce Harper but with a strong cast of remaining talent — including precocious outfielder Juan Soto — Washington was better this year (seventh in total wins above replacement)2 than it was last year (11th).

Not that there weren’t moments of even more uncertainty along the way. The Nats’ season was on life support late in the NL wild-card game against the Milwaukee Brewers, when they trailed 3-1 in the bottom of the eighth inning and were facing dominating reliever Josh Hader. According to The Baseball Gauge, Washington had only a 12.9 percent chance of advancing several plays before Soto ripped a bases-loaded single to right that got the go-ahead run home with the help of an error by Brewers outfielder Trent Grisham.

After that early brush with doom, Washington also had a mere 10.7 percent chance of winning their Division Series matchup against the Los Angeles Dodgers, when the Nats trailed 3-1 in the middle of the seventh inning of Game 5, before staging another massive comeback. Other teams have made the Series after even bigger scares than those — the Kansas City Royals had a 99.2 percent chance of being eliminated in the 2015 ALDS against Houston before mounting a comeback, and even more famously, the Boston Red Sox had a 98.1 percent chance of elimination against the Yankees in 2004 — but only the 2012 San Francisco Giants would have come closer to elimination on two separate occasions and still won:

How close to elimination did the eventual champs get?

Lowest series win probability by a World Series champion (plus the 2019 Washington Nationals) at any point in the postseason, 1995-2019

Season Team Series Opponent Lowest Win Prob.
2015 Kansas City Royals ALDS Houston Astros 0.8%
2002 Anaheim Angels WS San Francisco Giants 1.7
2004 Boston Red Sox ALCS New York Yankees 1.9
2003 Florida Marlins NLCS Chicago Cubs 2.0
2011 St. Louis Cardinals WS Texas Rangers 2.4
2012 San Francisco Giants NLDS Cincinnati Reds 6.6
2012 San Francisco Giants NLCS St. Louis Cardinals 8.2
2016 Chicago Cubs WS Cleveland Indians 8.7
2019* Washington Nationals NLDS Los Angeles Dodgers 10.7
2007 Boston Red Sox ALCS Cleveland Indians 11.6
2019* Washington Nationals NLWC Milwaukee Brewers 12.9

* The Nationals are listed for context; they’ll play Game 4 of the NLCS Tuesday night.

Source: The Baseball Gauge

So the Nats could go down as one of history’s most resilient champs if they do reach the World Series and win it. And with a 7-2 postseason record, few teams have ever peaked at a more appropriate time than these Nats. While most World Series teams are, by definition, playing well going into the Fall Classic, only two since the postseason expanded in 1995 — the 2007 Colorado Rockies and 2013 Boston Red Sox — came back from a lower Elo rating at their low point3 than the Nats will have done this year.

The Nats would be one of best comeback teams

Biggest Elo rating gains from season’s low point (min. 40 games in) for World Series teams and the 2019 Washington Nationals, since 1995

Low Point
Season Team Game No. Rating Pre-WS Rating Gain
2007 Rockies 45 1470 1567 +97.0
2013 Red Sox 40 1497 1576 79.4
2019 Nationals* 50 1511 1579 67.9
2002 Angels 40 1520 1587 67.7
2004 Cardinals 45 1519 1585 66.5
2003 Marlins 48 1483 1549 65.2
2008 Rays 40 1504 1565 60.9
2011 Rangers 85 1527 1586 58.8
2005 Astros 54 1501 1558 57.8
2009 Yankees 44 1532 1589 57.3

* Pre-World Series rating is estimated conditional on beating the Cardinals in the NLCS.

Source: ESPN, Retrosheet

Do postseason hot streaks carry over into the Series itself? Perhaps. The team with the superior pre-World Series postseason record does tend to win the championship more often than not, with a 62 percent success rate since 1995. So Washington is hoping it can keep its red-hot form going through the NLCS and beyond.

Of course, the Nats still need one more win against a tough Cardinals team to punch their World Series ticket. And no matter who prevails in the American League, the Nats would be underdogs; we give them a 40 percent shot at the title conditional on making the World Series. Then again, our model has been counting Washington out all season long — and it keeps beating those odds.

Check out our latest MLB predictions.

Footnotes

  1. In large part because the Astros and Yankees are very close to 50-50 in the AL, while the Nats have all but locked up the NL.

  2. Using our JEFFBAGWELL metric to blend WAR from Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.

  3. At least 40 games into a season, to filter out any residual effect from the previous season.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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