Are the Washington Nationals Doomed?

The Nats are getting dangerously close to playing themselves right out of postseason contention. What happened?

The Washington Nationals lost again on Thursday, falling 3-1 to the San Francisco Giants. It was their third straight loss. Since July 31, the start of a three-game series against the New York Mets, the Nats have gone 4-10.

This has been happening all year, a season of ups and downs. After starting the season 7-13, they were eight games back of the NL East. However, they rallied, and on July 5th, after a 3-1 win against the Giants, had a 4.5-game lead in the NL East, their high point this season.

But now, after losing 10 of their last 14, Washington now finds themselves drowning as the New York Mets hold their heads under water, laughing maniacally. Since July 31st, the Mets have gone 11-2, thanks mainly to the acquisitions of Yoenis Cespedes, Juan Uribe, Kelly Johnson and Tyler Clippard, and a starting rotation that has become one of the most dominant in baseball. 

As a result, the Nats, now just two games over .500 at 58-56, have fallen 4.5 games behind New York, who are now 63-52. New York's run differential of +32 is now 10 runs higher than the Nats' +22. And according to our metrics, a wild swing of fortunes now sees New York as the far better bet to make the postseason.

TeamJuly 24thAugust 14thDifference

The table above shows that since a week before the trade deadline, July 24, the Nationals have seen their playoff odds drop from 74.4% to 16.6%, while the Mets have seen their odds increase from 32.3% to 88.8%. 

In other words, it would take a startling reversal of fortune for Washington to make the playoffs.

Part of the problem for the Nationals is that there is even less of a chance that they can snag one of the NL's two wild card spots, now 7.5 games behind the Cubs for the second wild card. They'd also have to leapfrog the San Francisco Giants, who are three games ahead of them, too. 

So, what is going on with the Nats?

At the beginning of the season, people were saying the rotation of Max Scherzer, Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Doug Fister could become of the all-time greats, but so far this year, it hasn't even been the best in its own division. Their 3.68 ERA ranks sixth in the National League, with the Mets' 3.28 ERA third-best in the NL. Opponents are hitting .255 against Nationals starters this year, tied for ninth-best in the NL, while the Mets rotation is giving up just a .239 batting average. And Washington's starters have a WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched) of 1.22, fifth-best in the NL, but below New York's 1.13, which is the best in the National League.

The Nats do have a better Fielding Independent Pitching than New York, and Nats' starters have been worth 13.0 fWAR so far this year, slightly better than the Mets' 12.9. Washington is also superior when it comes to the strikeout, whiffing 8.12 batters per nine innings, tied for third-best in the NL. The Mets have struck out 7.82 batters per nine, seventh-best in the National League. But obviously, it's at the very least a close horse race.

What had allowed the Nationals to hold the Mets at arms' length over the course of the season was a brutally weak New York lineup. But that has all changed since the deadline, as the Mets have the most home runs (16), runs scored (67), fourth-highest OPS (.791) and weighted on base percentage (.340) and third-best slugging percentage (.462). Meanwhile, the Nationals have hit 13 homers (tied for sixth), scored 48 runs (11th), have a wOBA of .301 (10th), a OPS of .679 (10th), and a .370 slugging percentage (11th).

Of course, injuries have taken their toll on Washington this season, with Jayson Werth, Anthony Rendon, Ryan Zimmerman, Denard Span and Strasburg all hitting the team hard this year. Yes, Bryce Harper has had a dominant season and is one of the favorites for NL MVP, and the Nationals were hoping the returning veterans would act as trade deadline acquisitions for them. But so far, for the most part, it hasn't worked out.

Since returning from the disabled list, Werth has hit .143/.180/.250 with one home run and three doubles in 61 plate appearances. Rendon has hit .224/.312/.313 with one homer and three doubles in 77 plate appearances. Zimmerman has been better, at .288/.348/.610 with four home runs and seven doubles in 66 plate appearances. But who knows when Span will be back, and the team is sorely missing the production of the healthy Ian Desmond, who is hitting .222/.273/.378 this season with 14 homers and 40 RBI in 451 plate appearances.

It also hasn't helped that the bullpen, which was the chief concern analysts had of the Nationals coming into the season, has lived up to those concerns. Their 3.59 ERA is 10th best in the NL, and recent blown saves by the guy who had been their dominant closer until Jonathan Papelbon arrived, Drew Storen, has led to a couple back-breaking losses as well.

If the Nationals don't get their act in gear soon, they may see their window of opportunity slam shut. Fister, Desmond and Zimmermann are likely to all leave the team via free agency after this season. Strasburg may not be far behind, and could be trade bait over the winter anyway. Werth and Ryan Zimmerman will be another year older, and who knows how long Span's back issues will linger (although he has resumed baseball activities). 

Right now, it would take a remarkable collapse by a Mets' rotation that appears to be better than the Nationals' in order for this race to swing back in Washington's favor. And if the Nats can't chase down the Mets in the final six weeks of the season, it's fair to wonder if their window to win a championship will have closed.