Beginning a blog post with a clichéd saying is a quick way to turn readers off, but I’m going to do it anyway. There is an old saying in baseball that you’re never as good as you look when you win and never as bad as you look when you lose. When the Washington Nationals win this season they are doing so by an average margin of victory of 3.9 runs and when they lose it is by an average margin of victory of 3.7 runs. In other words the Nationals look just as good as they win as they do poor when they lose. Considering that a margin of victory or defeat of five or more runs is considered a blowout the Washington Nationals are hovering on the edge of blowouts whenever they win or lose.
With 18 wins the Nationals are tied with several other teams with the seventh most victories in baseball. It may not sound that great when put that way but at 18-15 the Nationals are on pace to win 88 games. That wouldn’t have been enough for the playoffs last season, but it may this season and it may even be enough to win the suddenly competitive NL East. Add in the Nats positive run differential and they are sitting right on the borders of being a 90 win or a very good baseball team. This all again begs the question of: why are they so frustrating to watch?
The average margin of victory and defeat being roughly the same explains it in some fashion. When the Washington Nationals win they look like the best team in baseball, but when they lose they look like the worst. They are either on the verge of blowing out another team or on the edge of being blown out. Out of the Nationals 18 wins only six of them have been save situations. That means the Nationals have either won by walk-off fashion or by four or more runs in two thirds of their victories. When they are winning they are looking not just good but great doing it.
On the flip side of this when the Nationals lose they are doing so in just as spectacular fashion. Take the sixth inning of last evening’s loss to the Dodgers as an example. The formula to winning that game was simple. It wasn’t going to happen against Clayton Kershaw. The man is a machine and he wasn’t going to allow any runs to the Washington Nationals. A surprising five innings of scoreless ball put the Nationals in a position to survive until Kershaw was no longer on the mound and then they’d have a chance to win. But the sixth inning saw the Nationals do what they’ve done so well this season. Treinen made an error that allowed Kershaw to reach and then LaRoche had a brain fart that allowed Dee Gordon to reach. One more soft dribbler on the infield and the bases were loaded and all three of those runners would score before the inning ended.
The four unearned runs that the Nationals allowed last night increased their league leading total to 26 unearned runs allowed on the season. A lot of this has to do with a high error total from the defense, but it isn’t all on them. For a pitcher, a base runner should be a base runner. How they reach base is inconsequential. The pitchers’ job is to buckle down and get the next man out, but the Nationals pitchers, for whatever reason, seem wholly unable to accomplish this task, and as good as the Nats are of allowing other teams to take advantage of the opportunities they give them they are as bad at taking advantage of the opportunities they’re given.
With the third highest OBP in the NL the Nationals are getting plenty of opportunities to hit with men on base and men in scoring position. In fact the Nationals 349 plate appearances with runners in scoring position is third in the NL. The problem is the Nationals .670 team OPS is tenth in the NL and it gives the team the appearance of one that has trouble scoring despite the fact that they’ve scored the fifth most runs in the league.
The perception of the Nationals offense as one that can’t score may have something to do with its feast or famine nature. The Nationals have scored two or less runs 11 times and five or more runs 13, and as people are more likely to remember negative events the 11 games with two or less runs stand out far more than the 13 with five or more. Then look at the Nationals winning percentage in those low scoring games. In the 17 games that the Nationals have scored three or less runs they are 3-14. A good winning percentage can’t be expected in those games, but the Nationals .176 winning percentage in those games is far below the NL average of .232 and with a better than average starting rotation and excellent bullpen a better record than average should be expected in those games.
The 2014 Washington Nationals have a good record. They are producing on offense and the pitching is getting healthy and looking better in their last few starts. The total picture of the 2014 Washington Nationals looks pretty good, but the games they play and the way they play them has fans frustrated and it is understandable. The Washington Nationals one night look like a dominant machine beating one of the best right handed pitchers in baseball 4-0 and then the very next night they give themselves a chance to win and then rip it from their very own grasp through a series of incompetent bumbles. The Washington Nationals have not won more than four games in a row, but they also haven’t lost more than three games in a row.
With several injuries the Washington Nationals are in a good place, but every time it looks like they are finally about to go on that big run or play a long stretch of winning baseball they hit a self-imposed roadblock. Errors, unearned runs, and failure to come through with runners in scoring position have created big loses while great starting pitching, a dominant bullpen, and the third highest OPS in the NL have created lopsided victories, and that is the cause of the frustration. When the switch is on the Nationals look like an unstoppable juggernaut, but when it’s off they look more like the 2008 or 2009 Nationals that lost 100 games. Or to put it another way getting beat is one thing, but being the cause of your own loses more often than not is an easy way to give your fans premature baldness.