The Nationals are MLB’s Under-the-Radar Juggernaut
The Nationals clinched the NL East earlier this week. Somehow, they were the first team to sew up their respective division, thanks to the Dodgers and their newfound ineptitude. While the focus of the baseball-watching world has been on the streaking teams in Cleveland and Los Angeles, the Nationals have somewhat surreptitiously wrapped up a playoff berth long before anyone else.
You’d be forgiven for paying close attention to the incredible streak the Indians have put together and the unenviable crash the Dodgers are suffering through. Those are, rightfully, among the biggest stories in sports right now. Yet what the Nationals have managed to do this season, amidst a rash of injuries to supremely important players, all the while mostly avoiding the national spotlight, is nonetheless remarkable.
The Nationals are 88-55, the second-best record in baseball behind LA. They sport a +149 run differential, second in the National League. They’re tops in the NL in runs per game, and 3rd in the NL in runs allowed per game. They are 43-28 at home and 45-27 on the road. They have consistently crushed teams all year, out-hitting and out-pitching them, on the home and on the road, en route to opening a 20-game lead in the NL East by early September.
This couldn’t possibly have been the most likely outcome for a team that’s dealt with a laundry list of injuries. Adam Eaton, for whom Washington mortgaged their farm system in an offseason trade, went down in April with a knee injury. Young, promising starter Joe Ross has missed most of the year. Trea Turner missed the summer, Jayson Werth has only played 55 games, and Bryce Harper is still on the shelf. Even staff aces Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer have hit the DL at points during the season.
It’s not quite the littany of injuries that torpedoed the Mets this year, but it’s pretty close, and the Mets are 25 games back in the division. Nearly every player that the Nationals have missed for significant chunks of time has really strong performance on their recent track record, and the team has kept dominating.
Why? Because the players that have been on the field have played out of their minds when healthy. In fact, the Nats may have as many as four or five MVP-caliber players on the team.
Anthony Rendon is basically tied with Charlie Blackmon for the NL lead in fWAR, with 6.3. Bryce Harper was hitting .326/.419/.614 and appeared to have the inside track on the NL MVP award before injuring his knee. Max Scherzer looks pretty likely to secure a second consecutive Cy Young award, with a 2.32 ERA and over 12 strikeouts per nine. Stephen Strasburg is having the career year he’s always been expected to have, posting a 2.64 ERA and striking out double digits per nine. This is without even mentioning Gio Gonzalez, who trails only Scherzer among pitchers in rWAR with 6.8.
That’s five elite players, when most teams would kill to have a pair. Beyond that, the depth is enviable. Ryan Zimmermann has had a resurgent season and posted a 132 OPS+. Daniel Murphy has continued his late-career breakout with a 136 OPS+. Bench players like Michael Taylor (107 OPS+), Brian Goodwin (105 OPS+) and Adam Lind (115 OPS+) have unexpectedly chipped in. Trade acquisition Howie Kendrick has a 135 OPS+, and even Edwin Jackson has a 3.88 ERA in 10 starts.
Everything has come Nationals in terms of on-field performance. Injuries have been a major issue, but whichever players have taken the field for Washington have made the most of their chances. They have the look of a genuine juggernaut, clinching before anyone else and staying on pace to win 100 games. Almost any other year, they’d be the team everyone was talking about as the favorites to take the title.
Instead, the headlines have been stolen by teams across the league. Obviously, the awe-inspiring (in different ways) streaks of the Dodgers and Indians demand attention, but the Cubs generated headlines for their mid-season scuffles, the Yankees generated buzz with their fast, surprising start, and the Astros have dazzled with a historic offense. While all this was happening, the Nationals were quietly putting together a straightforward, tremendous season.
Of course, the question for the Nationals always comes down to whether they will execute in October. Three times in five seasons the Nats entered the playoffs as real threats to emerge from with the NL pennant, and three times they were dismissed in the division series. With free agency looming for players like Harper, Murphy, and Gonzalez in 2018, the Nationals are running out of time to make good on this era of Washington baseball.
Another disappointing first round exit would mean a great season lost to history, drowned out by the story-lines elsewhere in baseball. The Nats would make a great story of their own; the injury-riddled team, often criticized for failing when it mattered most, exorcises demons of postseason’s past in bringing the professional first title to Washington in decades. It’s up to them to execute in October. They certainly have the talent to win it all, and if they do, then this will be an overlooked juggernaut no longer.