The Nationals’ Hot Start Has Had Some Help by Jeff Sullivan April 28, 2016 I feel like I just wrote this recently somewhere, but I guess I’ll write it again. In baseball, people don’t pay too much attention to strength of schedule. In part this is because numbers aren’t easy to come by. In probably larger part, this is because strengths tend to mostly even out. That’s true over full seasons, for sure, but there’s no reason it should be true over smaller samples. Like, here’s a stat for you. Pitchers Aledmys Diaz has faced so far have allowed a combined .877 OPS. Pitchers Brad Miller has faced so far have allowed a combined .653 OPS. Is it any wonder why Diaz is presently out-hitting Miller? That’s an enormous gap, and it isn’t going to remain so enormous. Let’s turn our attention to the overall standings. By wins and losses, no one has been better than the Cubs. That’s no surprise. They’re even with the White Sox, which is a bigger surprise. Then you find the Nationals. Though they’ve lost a couple in a row, they’re still 14-6, and while we expected the Nationals to be pretty good, we didn’t expect them to be this good. Of course, we’re kind of still waiting for the Nationals to play a major-league opponent. That’s an exaggeration, but here’s where we are: the Nationals have played 20 games, and six of them have been against the Braves. Five have been against the Phillies. Six have been against the Marlins, and three have been against the Twins. To the Nationals’ credit, they’ve done what they were supposed to, but this is an example of schedules not balancing out in the little picture. Oh, and the Nationals have also played more home games than road games. In part, they’ve started well because they’re good. And in part, they’ve started well because their opponents have mostly been bad. I decided to run some math, for fun, which is a weird sentence. Obviously, it’s easy to find a team’s actual winning percentage so far. But I also calculated an expected winning percentage so far, based on our pre-game odds. You’ve seen those odds before, and they factor in pitchers, lineups, and home-field advantage. The Nationals lead baseball in expected winning percentage, at 61%. The Braves are in last, at 38%. The plot below shows the difference so far between actual winning percentage and expected winning percentage. Think of this as a more accurate gauge of early under- and over-achievers. You might’ve had a similar mental picture already. It’s pretty obvious no one has over-achieved quite like the White Sox. It’s no less obvious that no one has under-achieved quite like the Astros. And the Nationals, by this measure, have definitely played well, even adjusting for the soft slate. But even within the division, the Phillies come out as superior over-achievers. The Nationals rank right there with the Royals. Here’s a related plot. Our Playoff Odds page shows a projected rest-of-season winning percentage. This takes schedule strengths and whatnot into account. Earlier I already calculated an expected winning percentage to this point. The plot below shows the difference, which more or less reflects schedule strength to date. This is rest-of-season Win% – expected Win% so far. The Nationals stand out, for reasons already discussed. They’ve had that expected winning percentage of 61%, but the rest of the way, they’re projected at 55%. Which is clearly still good, but we won’t have a great feel for the Nationals until their opponents start getting stronger. That won’t take long — they’re about to play 10 straight road games in St. Louis, Kansas City, and Chicago. Shortly thereafter they’ll finally start playing the Mets. The early schedule has allowed the Nationals to build some confidence, rallying around Dusty Baker and putting memories of 2015 out of mind. That’s all positive, and I liked the Baker hiring, but there’s plenty left yet to be learned. The Mets have taken some advantage of a favorable beginning. More ominously, the Yankees haven’t, and things aren’t about to get easier. You can see that the Cardinals and Pirates have had it just a little easy. Now look at the other end. There’s no one there on the Nationals’ level. But the Indians should have it a little easier moving forward. In fairness, a chunk of this probably just reflects the return of Michael Brantley. The Tigers are there with the Indians — they’ve had a relatively tough start. And the Braves are looking for a let-up, after having gone literally 1-17 against the Mets, Nationals, Dodgers, Red Sox, and Cardinals. The Braves somehow swept the Marlins, but you also see the Marlins there above; the Braves have been their one poor opponent. They’re also in for a more favorable road, which’ll boost their wild-card chances. And, I guess, their division chances, but, let’s be serious. Over any small sample, you absolutely do have to consider strength of opponent. Just because it mostly evens out in the big picture doesn’t mean it’s always a non-factor, and sometimes it can drive great success or embarrassing failure. To be sure, the Nationals have played good baseball, and the Braves have played bad baseball. But the Nationals have also played bad baseball teams, while the Braves have done the reverse. Chin up, Braves fans. Things ought to get a little less embarrassing.