Turning Things Around: Here Come the Washington Nationals

After a disappointing 2013, the Washington Nationals have caught fire and are the World Series contenders we thought they would be.

They are who we thought they were. Only in this case, that old Dennis Green chestnut is a good thing.

The Washington Nationals, who many predicted would win the World Series last year only to stumble to an 86-76 record, are now playing like the contenders most thought they were.

After taking the first two games of their three-game series against the best team in the National League so far this year, the San Francisco Giants, the Nats have now won 9 of their last 11, and are tied for first in the NL East with the Atlanta Braves with a 34-29 record. You could argue the Nationals' record should be even better than it is too, thanks to their 6-12 record in one-run games this year.

The Nats currently hold the second-best run differential in the NL (+46), trailing only those same Giants (+57). It's the third-best differential in all of baseball, with only Oakland's insane +127 better than San Francisco's and Washington's. Through 63 games a season ago, the Nats were a game under .500, at 31-32.

And according to numberFire's own Power Rankings, the Nationals are currently the fourth-best team in baseball, with a 36.0% chance of making the playoffs, a 2.8% chance of winning the World Series and a team-wide nERD of 0.65.

So, why are they having more success in 2014 and, in particular, the last two weeks?


StartersERAFIPK/BB K/9
20133.60 (6)3.58 (5)3.31 (1)7.60 (4)
20143.40 (4)3.20 (1)3.95 (1)8.25 (1)

As you can see, the starters are striking a ton of guys out and own the league's best strikeout-to-walk ratio, although they were also pretty darn good there last year. Over the last two weeks, the staff has been particularly dominant, with a 1.85 ERA and 2.15 FIP. And over the last eight games, the starters have pitched a combined 58 innings and struck out 54, walked two and allowed seven earned runs.

The biggest difference, however, has been in the 'pen.

20133.56 (11)3.50 (5)74.8 (10).299 (4)2.65 (4)
20142.18 (1)2.99 (2)80.4 (3).284 (10)2.73 (7)

Last year's relievers had an ERA of 3.56, 11th in the National League. This year it's 2.18, tops in the NL. However, when you look at their K/BB ratio, it's actually a little worse than last year - so what's been the difference? Right now, Washington relievers are doing a much better job keeping inherited runners from scoring, stranding 80.4% of runners, fourth-best in the NL, and far better than the 74.8% they stranded last year. They've also been a bit luckier on batting average on balls in play (BABAIP) at .284, the 10th-highest mark in the NL. Last year, it was .299, the fourth-highest in the National League.

A little luck never hurt anyone.

Offensively, the team is pretty much where they were last year:

BattingBA (NL Rank)wOBA (NL Rank)Runs (NL Rank)
2013.251 (7).311 (8)656 (6)
2014.252 (8).316 (6)265 (7)

However, much of Washington's offensive output occurred late in the season when they were out of the race. Through their first 63 games last year, the Nats scored 219 runs, 3.47 runs per game. Through their first 63 this year, they've scored 267, an average of 4.23.

Simply put, Washington's doing a better job of scoring runs early in the season, supporting a pitching staff that is hurling out of their minds.

The question now becomes: Is it sustainable?

One would think so. Remember, this is largely the same team that went 98-64 and won the NL East by four games back in 2012. They have a solid rotation, an improved bullpen, and an offense that has been more consistent early in the season.

Oh, and the Nationals haven't even had Bryce Harper or Ryan Zimmerman for major chunks of the season. Zimmerman is back - in left field - while Harper will return at some point from the disabled list from an injured thumb.

It's likely Washington will be in the thick of the NL East race if they can stay healthy.