On May 23, the Washington Nationals lost a matinee to the Mets in heartbreaking fashion, taking a lead 4-3 with a three-run eighth inning only to give up three runs of their own in the bottom of the frame. The loss dropped the Nationals to 19-31, a whopping 10 games back of the division-leading Phillies. They had been outscored by 40 runs on the season, and Dave Martinez’s seat was getting hot in only his second year as manager.
On Tuesday night, the Nationals will play in the World Series. It’s a change in fortune so extreme that it begs for explanation, and at first glance the explanation is easy. The Nationals have star power but lack depth, the exact kind of team “built for October.” Their starting lineup and top four starting pitchers are phenomenal; the less said about the backups and bullpen, the better. The kind of Nationals team losing 6-4 on a Tuesday afternoon in Queens is simply not the same team playing now.
That’s a convenient explanation, but it’s also wrong. Stephen Strasburg threw seven innings that day, and no regular had the day off. Wander Suero was the only reliever to pitch, and he wasn’t one of the relievers who weighed the Nationals down this year; he had a 4.54 ERA and 3.07 FIP over 71.1 innings, a solid season for a middle reliever.
No, the Nationals sent out their best, their co-ace starter backed by the A-squad, and they lost to a Mets team playing Adeiny Hechavarría, Carlos Gómez, and Juan Lagares all at once. That same team survived the Brewers, outlasted the Dodgers, and walked all over the Cardinals on their way to the first World Series appearance in franchise history. The convenient story isn’t always the right one. Washington simply started playing better.
After that bleak day in May, the Nations went 74-38 to finish the regular season. They outscored their opponents by 189 runs, scoring the most runs in the National League and allowing the third-least. The talent at the top of the roster shone through; the combined brilliance of Strasburg, Max Scherzer, Anthony Rendon, Juan Soto, and all the rest was so great that no amount of bullpen incompetence or lack of bench depth (36-year-old Howie Kendrick played the second-most innings at third base for them this year) could hold the team down.
Shockingly, that 74-38 record wasn’t the best in baseball. The Houston Astros, their World Series opponents, went 74-37 over the same stretch, a scant half-game ahead. They scored four fewer runs than the Nationals and allowed one more. The two hottest teams in baseball are facing off in the World Series, and if you don’t think about it too literally, you could even say they’re constructed from the same blueprint.
The Do-Everything Third Baseman
Anthony Rendon and Alex Bregman have such similar games that I wrote an article about it before the season started. They’re both having their best seasons this year, and each of them does everything well. Impressed by Rendon’s 12.4% walk rate and 13.3% strikeout rate? Wait until you see Bregman’s comical 17.2% walk rate and 12% strikeout rate.
Like Bregman’s .592 slugging percentage, the seventh-best mark in baseball? Rendon’s .598 places him fifth. Do you enjoy Rendon’s slick defensive play at third base, all soft hands and cannon arm? Bregman looks great out there himself, and he filled in at shortstop throughout the season when Carlos Correa missed time.
The biggest way the two players differ is in their public personas. Rendon comes across as preternaturally calm, the kind of person who might, after a particularly rough day at work, frown slightly. Bregman seems to exult in playing the heel, flexing and posing for the camera in the dugout after his heroics. Both are a joy to watch, and both are coming into the World Series at the peak of their powers, with excellent postseason offensive numbers to back up their MVP-level regular seasons.
The Number One Overall Pick Hurler
Gerrit Cole is the Platonic ideal of an ace. He throws literally 100 miles an hour, breaks off curveballs that make you question physics, and pairs his top-notch arsenal with a bulldog demeanor on the mound. Watch Cole, and you immediately understand why he’s great; you might even wonder how people ever square him up.
Stephen Strasburg will likely finish second in Cy Young voting, behind only Jacob deGrom. He’s having perhaps his finest year, impressive for someone who has compiled 36.7 WAR in his career. He doesn’t inspire awe in quite the same way as Cole, but he’s an absolute artist on the mound, with a gorgeous curveball and lethal changeup that combine to carve batters up.
Not too long ago, both of them could have been considered disappointments. Cole never quite made good on his promise while he was a Pirate; his stellar 2015 was more exception than rule. His trade to the Astros was significant, but not because he was the best pitcher in baseball; it was because everyone wanted to see what the Astros could do to transform a pitcher with Cole’s raw stuff.
Strasburg was the game’s most heralded pitching prospect. He arrived in the major leagues fully formed, striking out 14 in seven dominant innings in his first start. He signed a $175 million contract with the Nationals, and has had an ERA above 3.5 only twice in his 10 major league seasons (3.6 and 3.74). And yet, it always felt like there was more in the tank. Before 2019, he’d only made 30 starts in a season twice, and he only managed 130 innings in an injury-shortened 2018.
After the seasons Cole and Strasburg put together, no one’s doubting them anymore. Cole is a free agent after the season, and Strasburg could join him if he opts out of his current contract. They’ll be the two most sought-after pitchers on the market, and they’re both entering the World Series in the midst of dominant postseasons; Strasburg has thrown 22 innings with a 1.64 ERA, while Cole has a 0.40 ERA in 22 and two-thirds innings of his own.
The Former Tiger Cy Young Winner
Max Scherzer might go down in history as the best free agent pitcher signing of all time. His worst season out of his five with the Nationals was worth 5.6 WAR, and he’s won two Cy Young Awards to pair with the one he won in Detroit. The next season he has an ERA above 3.00 for the Nationals or strikes out less than 30% of the batters he faces will be his first.
For his part, Justin Verlander might go down in history as the best waiver-deadline trade acquisition of all time. He may not win a Cy Young this year due to the brilliance of his own teammate, and he was denied last year by Blake Snell, but it’s hard to overstate how impressive he’s been with the Astros. When Houston traded for him, the general consensus was that he was a decent pitcher with an overpriced contract. A year later, the Astros signed him to an extension with a higher yearly value.
Both Scherzer and Verlander have been among the game’s very best for a decade, including five years when they overlapped in Detroit. They’ll both be interesting test cases in what it means to have a Hall of Fame career as a starting pitcher; both have the hardware and rate statistics that make them unquestionably belong, but both lack the counting stats that we associate with the Hall. A World Series title for Scherzer, or a second for Verlander, would be a feather in their eventual candidacy’s cap.
The Former Diamondback Who Is Really Good But Not As Good As The Other Guys
When Bryce Harper reached free agency last year, you could have called it the end of an era in Washington. The only National ever to win an MVP award was headed out of town, and the team would have to find a way to replace him. Their plan, as it turned out, was to already have three good outfielders and use the payroll space Harper had occupied to sign Patrick Corbin.
Corbin was tremendous in 2018 for Arizona, and even if you thought he’d never replicate those numbers again, he represented the best pitcher available in free agency. The Nationals brought him in to be an absurdly overqualified third starter (he finished fifth in Cy Young voting in 2018!), and he delivered. His 2019 couldn’t quite match his 2018, but it was still one of the 25 or so best pitching seasons in baseball this year, exactly what the Nationals needed to turn their rotation from a strength into a seemingly unfair advantage.
The Astros must have liked what the Nationals did in signing Corbin, because they brought in their own Diamondback at the trade deadline this year. Zack Greinke, Corbin’s teammate in the desert, isn’t quite at his peak anymore; he’d been good but inconsistent since signing with Arizona in 2016. Probably 25 teams in baseball would be happy to have him as their best pitcher — in Houston, he slots in a comfortable third, which is a preposterous thing to say about someone worth 5.4 WAR this year.
The Lefty Wunderkind
Juan Soto burst onto the national radar this postseason with his delightful antics at the plate and timely hitting against the Brewers, but he’s been excellent for two years now. He’ll turn 21 this Friday, which means that he’ll be legally allowed to drink champagne alongside his teammates if the Nationals prevail, and all he’s done before his 21st birthday is bat .287/.403/.535 with 56 home runs in around 1000 PA. The list of hitters as good as Soto at such a young age is basically comprised of Hall of Famers.
The list of the best hitters 22 and under in 2019, though, doesn’t have Soto at the top. Yordan Alvarez, the Astros rookie, sits there, with a ridiculous 178 wRC+ over nearly 400 plate appearances. Alvarez spent the first part of the season in the minor leagues, which kept him from qualifying for the batting title, but he hit .343/.443/.742 in Triple-A before being called up and .313/.412/.655 in the majors. He’s had a quiet postseason, but he’s a fearsome hitter. Expect to see a lot of off-day appearances from Patrick Corbin to face Alvarez, because the Nationals aren’t exactly flush with lefty specialists.
That’s a fun way to look at this series; the two hottest teams in baseball, constructed in an eerily similar way, are facing off for all the marbles. That would be the wrong takeaway, though. The teams might have a lot of similarities, but they have even more differences. The Astros are startlingly deep; we haven’t even talked about José Altuve, George Springer, Yuli Gurriel, or Carlos Correa yet. The Nationals get strong production from their lineup even aside from Rendon and Soto; Howie Kendrick is having a postseason to remember and Trea Turner is relatively unheralded but excellent. Heck, Victor Robles was supposed to be the breakout Nationals prospect before Soto blew up, and he’s having a solid year as well.
The Astros have a deep bullpen that compiled a 3.75 ERA this season, and they’re so confident in it (or nervous about their fourth starter, Jose Urquidy) that they threw a bullpen game against the Yankees on Saturday. The Nationals are using their ace starters wherever possible in relief, which should tell you everything you need to know about their bullpen; Dave Martinez trusts Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson, but that’s about it.
The arbitrary endpoints also blur the story in the Nationals’ favor. Yes, both teams have played at a 107 win pace since late May. The difference is that the Astros were already 15 games over .500 before May 23, while the Nationals were 12 games under. It’s not even fair to call what the Astros did a 107 win pace; they actually won 107 games this year, while the Nationals won 93.
The Astros and the Nationals are both deserving league champions. They have star power to burn and some fun superficial similarities that will make for wonderful stories throughout the series. But make no mistake: the Astros are the favorites. Convenient framing and selective use of statistics makes them sound like peers, but that’s not the case. ZiPS gives the Astros a 59.7% chance of raising another flag to fly forever.
For the Nationals, a 40% chance of winning the World Series must sound pretty good. We only gave them a 22.2% chance of making the playoffs at their lowest point. For the Astros, a 60% chance of winning the World Series sounds like business as usual. They were the best team in baseball by acclamation before the year, and they’ve held serve so far. The World Series should be excellent, and it should be close, and Houston will likely prevail, even if I picked the Nationals to win it all before the postseason started. Here’s to a great series!
Ben is a contributor to FanGraphs. A lifelong Cardinals fan, he got his start writing for Viva El Birdos. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.