The Nationals Path to the Playoffs

On paper, the playoff race in the National League looks pretty boring. The Braves have a 14 game lead in the NL East, and while nothing is ever a completely sure thing in mid-August, they’re about as close to a lock to win their division as you’re going to find. The Dodgers, meanwhile, haven’t lost a game since some time back in May — okay, they have, it just feels that way — and look poised to run away with the NL West, especially if Matt Kemp ever gets healthy.

The NL Central is shaping up to be a fun fight, but with St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati fighting over one division title and two wild card spots, it mostly seems to be a fight to avoid the wild card game, with the two runners up likely to face off once the regular season is over. It’s not impossible to see Arizona running down one of the Central teams and perhaps adding a little more intrigue, but even if they make a run, we’re still looking at six teams fighting for five spots. The NL does not look like it’s in for any kind of dramatic finish.

However, there is a seventh team quietly lurking, hanging out on the periphery of the playoff bubble, not quite a serious threat yet but with enough potential to pull off a miracle. Of all the teams in baseball that look like their season may already be over, the Washington Nationals are the one who might just have a chance to shock the world and end up playing in October.

On the one hand, the Nationals making the postseason wouldn’t be a stunner, because this team was supposed to be good. They had the best record in baseball last year, and then added pieces like Denard Span, Dan Haren, and Rafael Soriano to fortify their defenses. With Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper ready for stardom, this was supposed to be the year of Natitude. Instead, pretty much everyone on the team has been a disappointment in some manner, and the Nationals find themselves 14 games behind the Braves in mid-August.

The division race is probably over at this point. Not officially, of course, as teams have come back from this kind of deficit before, but it would take a collapse of historic proportions for Atlanta to give the NL East title away. It’s theoretically possible — the 1995 Angels say hello — but it’s unrealistic to expect that kind of comeback; the gap is just too large.

However, with the Cardinals and Reds both showing some vulnerability and the Nationals winning five straight, sneaking back into the wild card race isn’t completely out of the question. After Wednesday’s games, Cool Standings gives the Nationals a 3.1% chance of winning the wild card. 1-in-33 odds aren’t very good, of course, but there are reasons to think that maybe the Nationals can be the one who pulls this kind of miracle off.

For one, they’re better than they’ve played so far this year. The thing about underachievers is that they’re underachieving because they’ve played better in the recent past, and some percentage of those underachievers are likely to play more like their old track records than their 2013 performances. The Nationals have no shortage of candidates for improvement over the final six weeks, starting with Dan Haren.

Haren is certainly not the front line starter he used to be, but he also is showing signs of pitching significantly better than he did in the first half of the year. He was atrocious for the first three months of the year, giving up 19 home runs in just 82 innings pitched, looking like the same broken down starter that the Angels dumped over the winter. However, after a short stint on the DL, Haren has been fantastic since June ended, having allowed just two home runs in 37 innings since July 1st.

Even during his early season struggles, his walk and strikeout rates were solid enough, but the frequent home runs were his undoing. Now, with the ball staying in play far more regularly, he’s been giving his team a strong chance to win, allowing a 2.43 ERA during this stretch. He’s not likely to keep that recent performance up, but his finish to 2013 should be a lot better than the cumulative performance he’s put up to date, and getting solid performance from Haren down the stretch would go a long way to stabilizing a rotation that was supposed to be among the league’s best.

And Haren has done this before. In 2010, the D’Backs got tired of Haren’s home run problem, dumping him on the Angels after he posted a 4.60 ERA over 140 innings. In Anaheim, the home runs went away, and he posted a 2.87 ERA over the rest of the season. It’s easy to watch a pitch give up a lot of dingers and think it’s just because he’s a terrible pitcher, but home run rates can fluctuate wildly and are often not very predictive, so don’t rule out a strong finish from Haren just because he gave up too many long balls in the first half of the year.

The other reason for some optimism? The Nationals offense has been hilariously un-clutch so far this year. Here are their position players batting lines — so that this isn’t skewed by the pitchers feeble attempts to hit — by the various leverage states, with leverage representing the relative importance of the situation based on the score, inning, number of baserunners, and how many outs there are.

Low Leverage: .251/.316/.401, .315 wOBA (13th)
Medium Leverage: .259/.315/.417, .319 woBA (19th)
High Leverage: .203/.269/.322, .255 wOBA (30th)

The Nationals offense hasn’t been great overall, but early in the game or when there aren’t men on base, they’ve been roughly average. However, in important situations with the game on the line, they’ve been completely inept, and no one is even in their same area code of terrible high leverage hitting. The second high leverage offense, by wOBA, is the Chicago Cubs, who check in at .276, 21 points better than the Nationals. The gap between 29th and 30th is larger than the gap between 19th and 29th.

As we detailed a few weeks back when looking at the Tigers un-clutch pitching staff, however, this is the kind of thing that has no real predictive value. There’s no reason to believe that the Nationals hitters just lack the intestinal fortitude to deliver in key situations, especially as essentially the same line-up of hitters ranked 9th in high leverage wOBA a year ago.

Even if the Nationals offense doesn’t get more hits in the next six weeks than they have in the first 4 1/2 months, a simple redistribution of when those hits occur should lead to more runs and more wins. It probably won’t be enough to catch the Braves, but the Nationals have enough talent on hand to make one final run. It won’t be easy to run down the three NL Central contenders and potentially Arizona as well, but the Nationals aren’t dead quite yet. If anyone is going to pull off a miracle comeback this year, it’s probably going to be the team in D.C.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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Nah, Dave. As in all great tragedies, the Nationals’ hubris must utterly destroy them. I’m talking South Capitol Street running with blood, the stadium flattened, Mike Rizzo’s head on a spike, and Bryce Harper traded to the Astros for some reason. I will accept nothing less than utter calamity for the 2013 Washington Nationals.