Putting the Nationals Disappointment In Context

Other teams are clinching divisions, and Nationals players are fighting one another. Not that players on good teams haven’t fought, and not that the Nationals’ incident was in some way unique, but this isn’t how it was supposed to go. A few days ago, the Nationals were mathematically eliminated from winning the division, and in reality it feels like it’s been even longer. They haven’t been within three games of the Mets since August 11. They’re currently behind by 9.5, and only the AL Central has a bigger gap between first and second place — by a half-game. It’s not an exaggeration to say the Nationals are feeling pretty embarrassed.

This is all review to you, but it’s not like the Nationals were simply the favorites. They didn’t come in with slightly better odds than any of their rivals. After the Max Scherzer acquisition, Bryce Harper talked about rings, and the only issue there was Harper was expressing what the rest of us thought. It looked like the Nationals would win the East in a landslide. Our projections figured as much. The PECOTA projections figured as much. The Clay Davenport projections figured as much. The whole entire media figured as much. And it wasn’t just about looking forward. Between 2012 – 2014, the Nationals won more games than any other team in baseball. They had 280 wins, and their closest division rival had 269. Those were the Braves, who were rebuilding. The Nationals looked good, and they didn’t have a serious threat.

It’s not like I need to go over everything that’s happened. We’ve all lived it, and we know how the Mets have surprised, and how the Nationals have under-achieved. Those stories are old stories, but now that the Mets have actually clinched the division, I wanted to re-visit something. I wrote in March about the Nationals’ projected division advantage. Time to go back to that. How significant is what we’ve seen happen?

There’s no way to pull numbers out of qualitative expectations. Team projections are the best estimates we have, and right before this season started, we had the Nationals projected to finish 13 games clear of the Mets, and 14 games clear of the Marlins. You’ll recognize that as a huge gap. And it’s indeed a very huge gap. Some time ago, I assembled team projections going back to 2005, and though methods have changed over the years, ultimately they’ve all been measuring the same stuff. So I put them all into the same spreadsheet. What we have now are 11 years of team projections. That’s 11 years with six divisions in each, so, that’s 66 projected division leads. In the plot below, you’ll see the projected differences between first and second place. This isn’t really different from the image you saw in March, but now, of course, we know a little something about what happened in the NL East.

division-winning-margin-2005-2015

66 divisions. 53 projected to be decided by no more than five games. 64 projected to be decided by no more than 10 games. So, two are left. In 2005, the Cardinals were projected to win the NL Central by 17 games, and they eventually won by 11 games. And in 2015, the Nationals were projected to win the NL East by 13 games, and they’re going to lose, by a lot of games. Not even by a small margin! They’re going to lose to the Mets by a difference in the neighborhood of how badly the Mets were supposed to lose to the Nationals. Distilled: the Nationals had the biggest projected division advantage in a decade, and they didn’t win the division. They did worse than they were supposed to, and the Mets had a lot go right, despite how horrible things looked in July. (Even in July, the Nationals were in first.)

And as you know, the Nationals aren’t just settling for something other than a trip to the NLDS. No, they don’t get the wild card, either. On the eve of the regular season, we gave the Nationals 87% division odds, and 95% playoff odds. That leaves some room for a playoff miss, but it doesn’t mean it’s not extraordinary. This always had a chance of happening, but it had less of a chance than it almost ever does.

There is a way to make this a little less extraordinary. Since, again, 2005, we have 330 individual team projections. That’s 11, for all 30 teams. The Mets are on track to beat their projection by about 11 games. Each year, an average of almost four teams does that. And the Nationals are on track to miss their projection by about 12 games. Each year, an average of about three teams does that. This year alone, the Nationals are on track to miss by 12 games, but so are the Mariners. The A’s are on track to miss by 15. The Brewers and Tigers are on track to miss by 10. Only two of the projected division winners are going to win their divisions.

So if you want to think of the Nationals as the biggest bust ever, there’s competition. They’ve blown what seemed like a huge division advantage, but if the Mets played to their expectations, the Nationals would still be in this in the final week. Just compared to their projected win total, the Nationals aren’t a bigger bust than this year’s Mariners or A’s. And going beyond 2015, the 2012 Red Sox missed their projection by 22 wins. The 2005 Dodgers missed theirs by 21. The 2009 Indians missed theirs by 21. The 2010 Mariners, 20; the 2014 Red Sox, 18; the 2008 Tigers, 17. There’s a long list of disappointments. They didn’t all project for first place, but they all won less than they should’ve.

Just in the division sense, the Nationals have been an enormous bust. On an individual-team sense, they’ve been a lesser degree of bust. But that doesn’t mean they haven’t been a bust, and that doesn’t excuse them for their performance. Recency bias makes them look worse than they really are, historically speaking, but they don’t look good, and they appear to have real problems. Problems not just with imminent free agencies, but problems within the clubhouse, problems that might have to do with the leadership. Previously, the Nationals would underachieve in October. This year, they got it out of their system early. Their mission is to figure out why this went how it did. There’s nothing they could’ve done about the rise of the Mets, but they could’ve and should’ve stopped their own sinking. Instead, despite one of the biggest individual breakthrough seasons ever, the Nationals get to think on what the hell just happened.





Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Shirtless George Brett

I assumed that this was just going to be a picture of Paplebon choking Harper in the dugout.