A couple weeks ago I noticed a disturbing fact. No team that had failed to win a series in their first two playoff appearances ever came back to win a series in a time frame that I considered "the same group" since the BlueJays lost in 89 & 91 and went on to win back to back series. That covers the entire WC period, a period that still exists today and a period in which the Nats failed to win a series in their first two playoff appearances.
Now part of this, a small tiny part of this, is how I was defining "same group". I separated groups if they went two consecutive years without making the playoffs or if they failed to go to 3 times in four years. That means if you went every other year for 5 years I didn't consider that team. That definition doesn't play a big role (generally you flop out for at least 2 years, usually more) but it did kick out one, and only one, instance where a team did end up winning a series in the end. So in fairness I'll get to that team below.
The question I have is - do these teams resemble the Nats? Are they good teams that have something lacking that we can't quantify? Or are they teams that sneak in and generally should get beat? The latter would give the Nats more hope than the former. Yeah this isn't real analysis. Deal.
Here are the long list of teams that lost back to back series to start a run:
The 95/96 Dodgers - Took advantage of a weak NL West to win division in 95. Better in 96 but a WC team. All pitching (staffs were #2 and #1 in the league for the two years in ERA), no hitting (10th and 12th in RS). Would disappear from relevance.
The 96/98 Rangers - Initially a nicely balanced team in 96, they devolved into just a slugging team in 98 (2nd in RS, 12th in RA). They were formidable in 96, ok in a weak West in 98, but ran into the Yankees both years and lost. They'd return in 99 with the same slugging mindset (.293 TEAM average, 6 guys hit 20+ Hrs, 3 hit 35+). Yanks beat them again.
The 97/98 Astros - This was a good team. They were better than their record in 97 with a balanced attack, but they lost to the always good Braves. They were a supremely good team in 1998, a year that featured other monster teams like the Braves (106 wins) and the Yankees (114). They would lose to the out of nowhere Padres (won were also very good but not 98 wins good as their record would suggest). They'd make it again in 99 as a slightly worse, but still very good team (lose to Braves), and in 2001 as a slugging squad (lose to Braves) before fading away. The core would get their run a few years later as part of a separate group in 2004/2005.
The 00/01 A's - Very well balanced teams who could pitch and scored in the Top 5 in runs. If you're looking for a direct Nats comparison, here you go. They'd lose in close DSs to the battle-tested Yankees both years. They'd return in 02 and 03 as more pitching carried teams (best pitching, average hitting) but never got over the hump losing to Minnesota* and Boston
*the 03/04 Twins didn't make this list because of the 02 series win, but it could have easily been them here as they'd lose in the DS in 03/04/06. The 06 loss finally giving the A's a series win, though a completely different squad than the guys above. Consider their exclusion the balance to the inclusion we next talk about
The 04/06 Dodgers - A team I initially left out because their playoff pattern didn't fit what I was looking for, the Dodgers weren't all that good. They were basically a 90 win team in a division that has spent most of the WC years schizophrenic. They got deservedly crushed out in DSs by better teams (Cardinals in 04, Mets in 06) but in 08 they made the playoffs and finally got over the hump by beating another snake-bit squad, the Cubs. They'd make it to the CS again in 09 finally as a good team. Both in 08 and 09 a good Phillies team would keep them from the World Series.
The 07/08 Cubs - Hey hey! After the debacle of 2003 the Cubs imploded but came back a few years later with this squad. They'd really sneak in in 07, where the NL West Winner of the Week Dbacks would beat them. But were a legit contender in 08 when a mediocre Dodgers team would sweep them out of the division series, never to be heard from again
The 09/10 Twins - The Santana Twins managed to escape the formal list but this group doesn't. Lucky in 2009, solid in 2010 they'd lose both years to the Yankees in sweeps. That was all she had. This team collapsed after that.
The 12/13 Athletics - Ongoing. The new A's have risen up but remain series losers. They would get their pitching in order first in 2012, then they'd be a complete team in 2013. Didn't matter. They would lose to the Tigers in both seasons. They'd remain a very good team in 2014 but be edged out by the Angels and lose in the WC. Maybe next year?
The 12/13 Reds - Solid both years (though I'm still trying to figure out how a team that was 3rd in RS and 4th in RA in 2013 wasn't better than it was - it's Dusty, right?) but more of a pitching team in the first year. The Giants would beat them in 2012, then the Pirates in the WC in 2013. The offense that was basically carried by Votto and whoever got hot that year, collapsed as Votto got injured. Next year is a toss up. The starting pitching is good and the line-up if healthy has promise. If it doesn't happen next year though they are likely to be gone from discussion for a few seasons due to impending free agencies.
It may seem like there is nothing here. In 20 years of WC playoffs, we've generally seen either teams winning a series in their first couple times out, or not winning a series because they aren't really that good in one of those years. The combination of good and losing series has only been seen three times, the late 90s Astros, the early 00s A's and the current A's. Three times in 20 years is hardly telling.
Still you'd think we'd have seen someone, anyone win a series after losing the first two. If not the good teams then the not good ones. Remember the odds of say an 88 win team taking out a 98 win team are far from insurmountable. Yet we haven't. Ok, really that's just the 90s Rangers but still you could apply the same logic to other teams. Losing multiple DS signaled a downfall to the mid 00's Twins as noted above, the early 00's Braves, the mid 00's Yankees, the recent Rays. The Angels would buck that trend (they'd lose in '07 and '08 but win a series in '09, this after winning a series in '05 so different animal). I don't know. This is one of those things facts can't back up but feels like something is there.
I'll say this. If I were a Nats fan, I'd root hard for the Reds to make the playoffs and to get to face them in the DS. Easiest path to getting off this slide may be keeping someone else on it.