The Nats are going in to this year’s All Star break in a different place than they were last year – first. Sure, they’re only percentage points ahead of the Braves, but even a virtual tie for first place is still first place.
A Strong Start
They’re also sitting at 51-42, 9 games above .500. And they’re healthy – after a frustrating early 2014 which seemed to show a repeat of last year’s injuries – other than a scare involving Jordan Zimmermann their roster is fully stocked. The only names on their DL are Eury Perez, Ross Ohlendorf, and Erik Davis. Ohlendorf is potentially the most useful guy on that list, but assuming JZimm is healthy, he isn’t even needed in his most valuable role as a spot starter.
Their offense is still streaky, but going in to the break Denard Span, Ian Desmond, Jayson Werth, Anthony Rendon and Ryan Zimmerman all have good numbers in July. As a team, they rank 6th in the NL in runs scored, 7th in OBP and 6th in OPS. Above average is not too bad, considering their injuries have mostly been on offense, and well, because of their pitching.
The pitching is the best in baseball – they lead all of MLB in ERA with an unbelievable 3.10 mark. The 3 next best teams – Oakland, Seattle and San Diego – all play in pitchers’ parks, in divisions full of pitchers’ parks. Besides ranking 1st in ERA in the NL, they rank 1st in runs allowed, 1st in walks, and 2nd in OPS against.
All of this combines to a run differential of +61, best in the NL (by quite a bit) and third best in MLB. The 9 games above .500 are no fluke, and it could be argued that they’ve been a little unlucky (actually, their pythagorean W-L says just that).
And Then There Was Last Season
It all looks good, but compared to last season, it looks great. Despite the similar health story last year – getting the team back a few weeks before the break – they just looked like a different team. In 2013, they went in to the All Star break at 48-47. They had lost 5 of their last 7, finishing up with a series loss at Miami. Like this team, they were finally getting healthy – they started the exact same lineup in their final game before the break last year as they did on Friday and Saturday night this year.
Their hitting was still pretty awful at that point, 13th in runs scored in the NL, 14th in OBP and 13th in OPS. And their pitching just wasn’t the kind of dominant pitching staff they are this year. At the break in 2013, they ranked 5th in ERA, 11th in runs allowed, 2nd in walks, and 5th in OPS against.
They weren’t playing well, they looked like a talented team that just couldn’t put it together. And they were 6.0 games behind the Braves at that point, and their run differential was a miserable -14. Then, they came out of the break and went on a 6 game losing streak, and essentially their season ended there.
I actually declared the season to be pretty much over in between game 3 and 4 of that streak, comparing it to a crushing defeat of the overconfident Roman Republic who thought they’d just continue to dominate their enemies like they had done so much recently (I thought it was a good analogy). Looking back I’m surprised because it seems so early, but, yeah, they looked done THREE GAMES AFTER THE ALL STAR BREAK. Despite that, they ended up going 38-29 after the break, and were playing great at the end of the season, but it was too little too late.
The More Things Change
One thing that looks surprisingly like last season is Bryce Harper. In 2013 was just coming off the DL and had hit only .196/.328/.333 in 14 games, with 14 strikes outs. This year he’s played in 12 games and is hitting .150/.244/.250 with 16 strikeouts. If it’s any consolation, last season starting after the All Star break he went 2 for 4 his first game back, and proceeded to hit .283/.366/.453 for the rest of the season.
69 Games Left
This year feels different – if they were to come out and lose 6 straight I don’t think anyone would be ready to declare the season over. But they also seem to be a better team, one that probably won’t do that. They’ve still got to perform. If they do that, they’re in a great position to take the division. First place, that is.
And if they look as good in August and September this season as they did last year, they’ll be in really great shape. If they manage to again go 9 games above .500 in the second “half” they’ll finish 18 games over, with 90 wins, and that might just be enough to leave the Braves behind.
Whether or not they finish up just like they did last year, I think Nats fans have confidence in this team. And it’s because they are playing like a good team. Last year you could point to individuals and swear the team should be good, this year their record just shows it.