I don't know why I am obsessed with trying to define the Nationals position in baseball's pecking order but I am. I know they are good. The record says it. The runs scored and runs allowed say it. Just watching the team conveys that. But HOW good? 95 ish wins, normally an easy division winning total? 85 wins, normally a fighting for Wild Card total? I'd like to believe the former but I don't fully not yet.
There are two things working against the easy defining of the Nats. First is simply where we are time wise. At this point some teams define themselves by beating everyone in their path (Cubs) and others define themselves the opposite way (Twins, Braves). But for everyone else it's not that simple and how you are defined is in large part how you do against specific teams. Who are you beating? Who are you losing to?
The problem is though, if you are not defined, how exactly can we define the teams you are playing? Teams get lucky. Teams get unlucky. Sometimes you face all the good pitchers, sometimes you face all the bad ones. Sometimes you play teams when they are hot, sometimes you play them when they are cold. You expect that all to even out over a season, (you expect...) but over 50 games? It remains a question.
The other issue is that the league this year has several teams playing truly terrible baseball, but only one playing true great baseball. Three teams are currently playing at a 50 win pace and only one is
winning at a 110 plus win pace* This is skewing the data to create more
over .500 teams. Going into yesterday we had 18 teams .500 or better (17
today). So simply saying "Look at all the .500 teams we've played" doesn't necessarily mean you are playing teams better than average. The average has shifted up.
Bringing it back to the Nats the Nats have played roughly .500 ball (19-18) after they started the season 9-1. Some have noted that this is against a tough schedule that features one team under .500 (Twins). But what does that really mean? When we look at records, the Cubs, as mentioned before are clearly great. The Twins clearly terrible. The Mets are very good. The rest? PHI, KC, MIA, STL, and DET are 12th - 17th (with LA sneaking in at 15th) in winning percentage. So that would suggest the Nats are doing ok (13-11) against ... good? above average? C+ B-? teams
But is record the best indicator? What if we look at the pythag record that tries to estimate a teams wins and losses purely looking at runs? Nothing you can imagine changes about Cubs, Mets, or Twins. But the Cardinals look better, while Miami and KC drop a little and the Phillies (14-4 in one run games) look much worse. So the Nats would be doing ok against a mix that comes out as decidedly average.
What about SRS which tries to take into account strength of schedule with all the flaws noted so far? The Mets are no longer very good, merely good. However, STL is now a Top 5 team. But none of the other teams are above average so the Nats are beating up on not an average schedule but a below average one.
Of course during this whole time the Nats are being ranked too and that's what I keep coming back to. They are 5th in winning percentage, 3rd in pythagorean winning percentage, t3rd for strength of schedule. All of it agrees that the Nats are very very good.
Now what I want is that to translate to a nice long winning streak. Of course that isn't likely to happen soon. They face one across the board bad team between now and June 15th. They also play those darn Cubbies again. The other games are 6 vs the Phillies** (probably much worse than record), 4 vs STL (probably better than record), and 3 vs White Sox (probably at record - which would be like the Mets). All in all... I guess .500 during this time would actually probably be ok?
I said earlier that not being bad mixed with the occasional hot streak makes a very good baseball team. That's true. But Nats have a schedule as a whole that really doesn't clump the good or the bad together. And right now are in a weird place with a super long stretch with no gimmes. A place where not being bad is all that is really asked for, and yet going say 55 games (a third of the season) playing .500 ball can't help but feel like... well like playing 55 games of .500 ball.
Just an aside but I noted yesterday on the Twitters that for May Bryce is hitting like 35% of his balls in play softly. That's bad. Like one of the worst for the month out of anyone with enough ABs. Like no one does that for a season bad. So it's not just bad luck with BABIP. The balls he's hitting shouldn't be hits a lot of the time.
*in another sense the Cubs winning percentage, if kept up for a year would be 15th best since 1900. The Red Sox, currently with the 2nd best W% in baseball, would be t 96th. In contrast the Twins and Braves would be 6th and 7th worst and the Reds would be 39th worst.
**You know what I blame the Phillies. If they were just
losing like they should we could really hold that 2-4 record against
them against the Nats. Stupid lucky Phillies.