Where to begin with the Washington Nationals? How does a team that was projected to win 95 games finish so far from the playoffs? How does a team with Max Scherzer and two of the best young players in baseball, Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg, muddle their way through the second half of the season? How does a team allow an inside-the-park grand slam? How does a team watch its imported closer attack its best player and then send the closer back onto the field to finish the game?
The Nationals were a consensus pick to win the National League East, both by experts and by statistical analysis. Only 27 other teams since 2003 have had a better win-total projection than the Nationals’ 90.8 this year, according to my calculations.1 When you consider that baseball currently lives in an era of unprecedented parity,2 the Nationals’ dominance becomes even more pronounced: The Nationals, who were projected to be 1.81 standard deviations better than average, were supposed to be a juggernaut at a time when such teams have become extinct.
And yet on Saturday, the Nationals were eliminated from playoff contention. If you examine only teams with preseason win projections as high as the Nationals’ since 2003, just two teams have imploded as much: the 2009 Chicago Cubs and the 2004 New York Mets.3 After adjusting for the smaller spread in team talent in recent years, no team has been projected so high and fallen so far as these 2015 Nationals. But we don’t know exactly why it happened. The breakdown came in a weak division,4 and over the second half of the season, the Nationals had the second-easiest schedule in baseball and still managed to run a sub-.500 record.
Don’t blame the pitchers, though. The Nationals built a formidable rotation and an adequate bullpen that tallied 20.0 wins above replacement, good for sixth in all of baseball. (All WAR stats in this piece were current as of Monday.) One could argue that even this excellent performance is underwhelming, given preseason hopes. But at least for the starting rotation, the pitching has matched the projections almost exactly.5
Blame the hitters instead. The Nationals’ position players have accrued 19.0 WAR, placing them 15th in MLB, sandwiched between the Texas Rangers and the Tampa Bay Rays. Of this total, more than half has been provided by likely-MVP Harper alone. Arguably the most disappointing years belong to second baseman Anthony Rendon (0.9 WAR), shortstop Ian Desmond (1.5), and outfielder Jayson Werth (0). The trio was predicted to produce almost one Bryce Harper’s worth of value (9.5 WAR) but have thus far combined for only 2.4 wins. Close the deficit between their projections and actual production, and it would be like adding another MVP candidate to the team.
Hot takedown tries to untangle The Nationals’ implosion
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We also can’t dismiss the impact of chemistry, even if it can’t yet be measured in any rigorous way. Sabermetricians are normally hesitant to entertain such explanations, but there’s some evidence that things were getting tense in the Nationals’ clubhouse. There was a midseason trade for a notorious veteran (closer Jonathan Papelbon), which preceded a stretch of poor performance. Over and above correlation, however, Papelbon has blown several saves and literally tried to choke the team’s best player in the dugout.
A similarly undetermined factor is the team’s coaching, in particular manager Matt Williams. Anecdotally, Williams has seen a number of poor strategic decisions cost his team wins, but we lack a definitive stat to measure managerial performance, even at a basic level.
Even in a worst-case scenario, the Nationals should have had enough talent to qualify for a wild card spot. Instead, they’ll be watching the Mets compete for the World Series, and they don’t have any one person to blame. Whether by bad luck, injuries, mismanagement or poor chemistry, the Nationals let a chance at contention slip through their fingers in an unparalleled breakdown.