The Expected Unexpected: The Nationals Clinch

With a victory last night in Atlanta the Washington Nationals finally fulfilled their destiny by clinching the National League East division title. To say that this was preordained would be to understate how easy of a path the Nationals had to winning the East. The Nationals entered the season the overwhelming favorites and outside of temporary injuries in May, showed no reason to doubt they weren’t the team they were expected to be. While Nats fans emotions may have been a roller coaster this season, the Nationals’ chances of reaching this day were flatter than Keira Knightley.

On April 1 the Nationals had a 75.3% chance to win the division. At the All Star break the Nationals had a 76.2% chance of winning the division. And on August 8 the Nationals odds of winning the division went over 90%, never to return. The Nats were never more than four games out of the division and that only lasted one day in April. The Nats never had a losing streak longer than four games and they only did that twice, once in May and once in June. There was no drama, there was no doubt. They were the best team in baseball in 2012 and had nearly the same team in 2014 except for a few key upgrades. Doug Fister came over in a trade that will stump future baseball historians for years. Denard Span bumped the stumbling Michael Morse out of outfield, while young phenom Anthony Rendon took over at second base for the struggling Danny Espinosa.

To not expect the Nats to be a great team in 2014 you didn’t watch the 2013 Nationals correctly. While the core stars were great, they were let down by an awful bench, bullpen and fifth starter. They started 2014 with an entirely new bench, with three new players, a former starter in Espinosa and a late season pickup from 2013. The bullpen too had a revitalized closer, a former starter, and two new members. The rotation took on the excellent Fister and while it was unreasonable to expect Tanner Roark’s season, it wasn’t as unreasonable to expect one of Roark, Taylor Jordan and Ross Detwiler to cobble together a good fifth starter season. And all of this ignores the midseason acquisitions of Asdrubal Cabrera and Matt Thornton to strengthen an already great team.  There is little doubt that the 2014 Nationals are substantially better than the 2012 edition, even if they don’t win as many games.

And all of that overlooks just how terrible the NL East is. The Phillies are a sinking ship that jettisoned the life boats in hopes that it would lighten the boat enough to float again. The Mets and Marlins had a handful of young exciting stars between them, but like the 2011 Nationals they were never a serious threat to take the division crown. That leaves the Atlanta Braves, the Nats fan’s monster under the bed. While Nats fans were scared witless of the perceived beast, everyone else knew that there was nothing under the bed. The only people that gave the Braves a good chance at winning the East besides Braves fans were Nationals fans.

Brian McCann was replaced with Evan Gattis, who could replicate his bat, but could not replace McCann’s league leading pitch framing numbers. BJ Upton and Dan Uggla were two of the worst regulars in MLB in 2013 and only got worse in 2014. Chris Johnson wasn’t going to have a 126 wRC+ and Mike Minor wasn’t going to be worth 3.5 wins above replacement again. Andrelton Simmons, while awesome on defense, is always going to be dead weight on offense. They let Tim Hudson walk away and then saw Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy hit the DL for the season. This wasn’t a team that was going to ever seriously compete for a division title.

This was the expected unexpected. Everyone knew the Nationals should win the division running away, but were too scared by a disappointing 2013 to say it. Sure people whispered it among friends and when asked for a prediction nearly every baseball writer took the Nats to win the division, but no one dared to declare it confidently. Even in the last few weeks when the Nationals held a commanding lead with only a handful of games to play there was an air of fear. It wasn’t until last night in Atlanta that Nats fans finally took the plunge, threw off the covers and looked under the bed. There was no monster, because there never was.

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