Nationals Baseball: What does history tell us?

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

What does history tell us?

Boz in his chat yesterday once again brought up the 1978 AL East pennant race. That was a crazy race where the Yankees would find themselves at 14 games behind the Red Sox soon after the All-Star break (mainly because the Red Sox were on a likely unsustainable 111 win pace). They'd not only catch the Red Sox but blow by them. They'd lead by 3.5 games with a little over two weeks to go. But Boston would come back and catch the Yankees forcing the one game playoff and Bucky Dent, etc. etc.

Anyway that's a great story that's meant to show that anything can happen in baseball and that you should maintain hope. However it's also an isolated incident from 40 years ago. There's having hope, and then there is the existence of a realistic possibility of a comeback. Looking at one isolated incident tells you nothing about that. Neither does cherry picking the half-dozen amazing 2nd half comebacks over the past 4 decades. So I went ahead and looked at the seasons since 2000 (that would be 18 of them or 108 pennant races) to see how often a team down by at least 5 games on May 1st came back to win the division. Note that this isn't making the playoffs or winning a playoff series - which is what the Nats and their fans are really after - it's winning the division.

What did I find? 14 such comebacks as described. That's about 13%. That's not a great chance but it's not terrible. You'd expect one such comeback at least every other year. Also it doesn't factor in a very important caveat. How many times has the consensus pre-season favorite been down 5+ games at the end of May and how many times did that end up with a division win. That's probably more applicable and I would think bump the numbers up a bit (though I don't know - could be a lot of these 5+ comebackers are surprises).

To me this is enough to think it's definitely possible for the Nats to catch the Mets, who lead them by 5.5 games.  Doesn't mean it's likely but if the Nats get healthy sooner (say in next couple of weeks have all but Murphy back) I still think they are better and they might have enough time to close the gap.  However, as I noted before there is a complication with this analysis. The Nats are not just 5.5 games behind the Mets. They are 5.5 games behind the Mets AND 4 games behind the Braves AND 3.5 games behind the Phillies.  All these comeback stories are great but they usually are about one team chasing down another with any other team involved being an early speed bump passed along the way. That's because they are usually have the floundering team still around .500 chasing down a leading team that is on some sort of crazy pace. To have multiple teams ahead of you means the floundering team is likely playing pretty poorly. So the question is has a team ever come back to take the division being down by this far to this many teams?

The answer is yes! In 2006 the Twins were down 3.5 to Cleveland, 6.5 to Detroit, and 8 to the White Sox and came back to win the division.   In the same year the Padres were down 2.5 to LA and ARI, 4 to SF, and 5.5 to Colorado and took the NL West. Not quite as far behind but 4 teams!  And...

Well nothing more really. There are a couple that would be similar. Chasing down two teams or three teams that aren't quite as far ahead as the Nats opponents but the Nats would obviously rank as a harder task than these (not knowing anything of the teams - but honestly at the time it would be like we are today - just guessing about how far off we might have been on our pre-season thinking).  So it can happn but now instead of around 14 out of 108 we're around 2 of 108 or about 2%.  You'd expect something like that to happen about once every 8-9 seasons or so.

I don't mean to discourage you at this point but I want to make clear that Boz's blase "Anything can happen so if the Nats are 12 games out at the All-Star break that's ok!" attitude is a little delusional. The Nats can win this division. However, it'll take a lot of work to make it happen and don't be surprised if the Nats are looking at trying to grab the Wild Card, not the NL East crown, come Labor Day weekend.


Anonymous said...

Sobering stuff indeed. What's your thought on the question that prompted Boz's response? How far back would the team have to be to actually consider selling Bryce, Murphy, etc.?

ocw5000 said...

Reasons for optimism:

1) Nats are 2-8 in one-run games. Very unlikely to sustain that pace.
2) BABIP is .285, not crazy low but the lowest it's been in the Good Nats Era (since 2012)
3) By Fangraphs Base Runs they have been the unluckiest team in the league with -4 expected wins (

Obviously they can't luck their way to a division title, but leading indicators of a resurgence are pretty strong.

G Cracka X said...

Both 538 and Fangraphs have 'Win Division%' and 'Make Playoffs%' numbers for each team. I find that a good way to calibrate Nats expectations for both goals is to simply average the two.

Harper, do you read Boz' chat each week? It seems that Boz has a somewhat negative reputation on this blog, at least with some of the commenters, but perhaps it is just simply, 'He's one of the better Nats writers there are, so when he makes a mistake, it seems inconsistent with the overall quality of work.' Or maybe its, 'He writes well and convincingly, but we don't like his selective use of anecdotes and stats'.

BxJaycobb said...

I think at this point that the most likely outcome for the season (between missing playoffs, getting into the wild card game, and winning the division) I think being a WC team may be the best bet. I sort of think one team from the Braves Phillies or Mets will slide big time to a .500 or below .500 finish, one team will roll to over 90 wins, and the Nats will be fighting with another at around 90 wins or right below along with somebody like the cardinals. And honestly, it’s disappointing, but injuries and bad luck happen folks. The Nats have had an insane run of dominance. Look at the dodgers. They may legit miss the playoffs now and they have every advantage ever.

BxJaycobb said...

Also Harper. An idea for future post. Trea Turner. Has he fundamentally changed his approach at the plate? Simply swinging less early in count? Or chasing less? To me, the difference between (for the future not just this year) a Trea Turner who can approach a .380 OBP and maybe one day approach .390-.400 and one who is closer to .345 is truly enormous. (On the other hand, his pop has sort of vanished.....exit velocity still up? Early season cold weather thing? Overall, an encouraging start in my view.....BB% is an early stat to stabilize....I think that’s for real.)

cass said...

Fangraphs playoff odds give the Nats a 55% chance of winning the division and a 72% chance of making the playoffs.

I think it's too easy to get wrapped up in the narrative. I trust the cold numbers more, good or bad. 55% is a far, far cry from 100% though. Just a coin flip.

Harper said...

Anon @ 6:55 - I wouldn't do it unless they were well back of the Wild Card coming out of the All-Star Break. Like 8 games out of that. And it would probably take another month like this one and no good months to make that happen.

ocw5000- remmeber though what this means is that 2-8 is likely to be followed by 5-5 or say 6-4 so the final 1 game run record of 8-12 looks more reasonable. And that they play to record that matches their run production/prevention going forward, not that they get lucky and go +4 so it evens out. They should do better is that enough is the question.

GCX - I've mellowed on Boz a little bit. A lot of this is carryover from the early seasons when Boz was selling the team hard with a lot of... selective information. Now it's more picking on him because he's the columnist for the post so he's going to offer more opinion pieces and in them will be some questionable comparisons. He is a good writer and loves and understands the game. So I'd say your last sentence is more what it is now but for long time readers / followers there's a little taint from those first few seasons. (at least for me)

BJC - It's the most likely outcome, but I think you don't prepare for anything. Play hard see where you are at the end of May.

I want to see a little more of Trea before I write anything. He had for the most part stopped walking as soon as he started hitting. It may have been not a shift in overall approach but in start of the season approach - "I'll be more patient until I start getting a feel for hitting the ball" So I want to see how he does now that he's ahad a stretch of hitting

Harper said...

cass - I'm curious at how Fangraphs' polayoff odds handle injuries. My assumption is players are taken off the roster as long as the DL stint they are assigned to unless other information is available. And then the remainder of season is pro-rated based on pre-season injury assumptions plus a bump for already being injured. But if that's true then guys like Eaton and Goodwin on permanent 10-Day DLs are having time missed underestimated. I need more info.

Fries said...

I think an underrated problem this season is the number of teams tanking this year. Now I know places like 538 use Elo and such which should be a little more robust, but how much data do we have to fall back on for seasons where there's a clear rift between the good and the bad? I think that's going to mess with projections and enable the handful of borderline teams (e.g. Braves and Phils) to overproduce.

Given that, I worry about how big a hole the Nats are going to dig before everyone's back from injury. If you initially thought the Braves and Phils would win 60% of their games against bottom feeders, but 40% of the league is bottom feeders, that makes it quite the hill to climb even if the Nats are playing those same teams and would be expected to win 70% of the time against those same opponents.

Anonymous said...

"Johnny Callison" here (he was my favorite player when I was six or seven), posting from a different computer, so unable to log into my account.

How does the fact that LA looks bad and the Cubs have come back to the pack affect the Nats? I think the WC looks more doable and if the Nats turn it around, they can have a good shot at that. Several WC teams have had good runs in post-season in the last ten years.

Just hope that the Nats can put together one long streak to get back in it, and then play .600 ball after that to stay in it. How many times have you seen an NBA team roar back from 20 down and then run out of gas at the end?

Anonymous said...

Note: the Dodgers are in pretty much the exact same situation as the Nats - a heavy preseason favorite, well behind the first place team, and sitting in fourth place. Actually, the Dodgers' hill to climb is higher (they are 8 games back), but they're closer to the teams in 2nd and 3rd than the Nats are.

Of course, the Dodgers just lost Corey Seager for the year, which is comparable to the Nats losing Rendon for the year (and the Dodgers have been without Justin Turner, which is comparable to the Nats being without Murphy).

BxJaycobb said...

Cubs haven’t really come back to the pack. They have an excellent record...AND Darvish and Chatwood and Quintana haven’t been that good AND they haven’t even started hitting yet. To me—-very very clearly the best team in the National League.

BxJaycobb said...

To me it’s even worse than that for the Dodgers. Not just because the DBacks are better than any NL east Team and 8 games is easily worse than 5.5. It’s also that every single dependable “beast” on the Dodgers looks worse or hurt or out this year. Bellinger has been adjusted to, big time. He may bounce back but he’s not going to have a year like last year. Seager is out. Kershaw looks more mortal than he ever has and has lost velocity and showing age. Jansen has looked horrible. I think it’s very possible the dodgers don’t make the playoffs, and I would be surprised if they won the division down 8 with their issues.

Nit Picketty said...

Nitpicking here, but the methodology is flawed.

1) It assumes that there was always a team that was 5 games back (probably a safe assumption or even a confirmed one, I dunno and don't want to check, but there might be a year in which it hadn't happened by May 1).
2) More importantly, it discounts where multiple teams were back 5 games or more. Case in point - there are 14 teams that are 5 games or more behind their division leader.

So let's assume that 1 team this year will come back from 5+ down at May 1. That'd be ~7% of the teams this year that will accomplish it having been down as much as 5 or more.

A better conclusion isn't that 13% of teams down 5+ win their division, but rather, only 13% of the teams leading on May 1 lose to a team down 5 from them on May 1.

I'm not saying that all things are equal nor are the teams engaged in equal competition, but *history* would certainly put the odds of the Nats winning the division at lower than 13%.

All that said, I do think things are different here and do think the Nats will catch the Mets. And ATL. And Philly. But my finger will be hovering over the panic button if we don't gain ground on at least the Phils by week's end.

Harper said...

Nit - Hmm I think you're right but I'm debating what that exactly means. I'm looking at pennant races, not teams. We have 108 pennant races and we're trying to see how many featured a team 5+ back in May coming back to win. If there was no team 5+ games back then it still counts as "it didn't happen" How many of the champs faced this predicament. 13% of all pennant races featured a team coming back from 5+ wins on May 1 to win the division. So it be more fair to say the NL East has a 13% chance of having this - which means the Nats OR the Marlins do it.

What you are trying to measure is something different - how many teams 5+ games back came back to win the division. We have the numerator at 14. While a few races would have no teams 5+ games back a lot would have more than that so the numerator would be a lot higher and thus the "Nats chances" would be a lot lower. But this would make a big assumption that the Nats are like the average team that was 5+ out on May 1 and I think we all agree they are much better than that.

I mean that's a big key and why even the 13% doesn't match up with what fangraphs / bPro are getting from their simulations. The Nats (healthy) are talented and thus aren't your ordinary 5+ team out. At the same time the Mets, Braves, and Phillies are all of questionable divisional winning talent, which helps again. The Nats have a much better chance than history would give them... but that still doesn't mean the chances are good.

I think as long as we come out of this with no expectations of a division title it's fine.

JE34 said...

Bryce to the leadoff spot. Why? I'm good with him getting as many ABs as possible, but I get the sense that Dave Martinez does things for the sake of doing things.

Tomorrow he'll have the whole team brush their teeth in clockwise circular strokes.

dc rl said...

JE - the "why" seems pretty clear. Harper's not been hitting because he's getting pitched around, but he's still getting on base at a great clip due to walks. Seems reasonable to put the guy with a great obp at leadoff; plus, at least with Difo batting 9th he's not right behind the pitcher; plus, Turner is about the only guy with a semi-hot bat, so it makes sense to put him behind Harper.

I like it, at least for a short term experiment.

Ole PBN said...

Just saw a stat the Nats bullpen is 1-7 with a 4.91 ERA. Doesn’t this point to this team’s ongoing problem the past few years? Bullpen struggles and situational hitting.

In terms of runs by inning comparisons, we rank 13th in innings 1-5 combined, and 21st in innings 6-9. Our pitching, meanwhile, ranks 21st in innings 6-9 and 3rd in innings 1-5. On the situational hitting front, we’re 0.01 from the worst in baseball with 4.28 runners left in scoring position per game. Third-worst in baseball with 7.72 runners left on base per game (suggesting that we’re getting guys on, but having a real hard time driving them in).

To me, this points to lineup construction, in part, as we’ve had the atrocious Ryan Zimmerman hitting behind the league leader in OBP for the majority of our games this year. The rest of it is a lack of a proper approach (or lacking the player on your roster to execute a proper approach) when a hitter is presented with a run-scoring opportunity. I see minimal adjustments across the board and now Bryce is starting to get impatient and flail away again. The bullpen is a mess and I have zero solutions there as guys just have to play better. Can’t fault the Lerner’s for refusing to go get 6 arms at the trade deadline with the little prospects that we have.

JDBrew said...

I dunno, I haven’t started to worry at all yet. It’s just SO early to be worried about that stuff yet. That and I think the Nats are way underachieving right now and he Mets, Phillies, and Braves are WAY overachieving. I still feel very confident that by July 4th the Nats will be in either a dead heat or up a couple on the Mets and the Braves and Phillies will have fallen WAY off the table. I dunno, I just don’t think these teams are nearly as good as their record, and the Nats are better, not a ton better but better than their record.

Unknown said...


I’m an optimistic, life long Braves fan in DC area but I do think they could be a lot stronger than you all currently consider.

3-3 vs Nats, but with 2x Scherzer and Stras
6-3 vs Phillies, vs top of staff 3x
3-1 vs Mets with three games vs Thor and deGrom

The rest of their schedule has included Rockies (2-1), Cubs (1-1), Reds (2-2).

They basically played a schedule that was supposed to bury them with only the Reds series that could be labeled disappointing.

Ronald Acuña Jr has the potential to have a Trout like start to his career. His early season exit velocities are extremely high (enough to have ranked 3rd last year) and his sprint speed to first last night was 31.5 ft/sec which is faster than highest player’s average. WAR estimators have him at 1.4-2.0. If he is at Trout’s level you can add 8-9 wins to the team’s total. Even if he is 75% of Trout at 20 we are talking about 7.5 WAR which is another 5-6 wins.

The bullpen has had issues but given their loaded arm talent coming up it should stabilize shortly. Soroka who’s debut vs Mets was impressive and Gohara is waiting gives the Braves a chance to clean up rotation (Wisler) and bullpen (Moylan).

I do think the Mets’ offense is quite mediocre and Phillies’ are having growing pains so this seems a race between Nats and Braves this season.

Hopefully, it can be an exciting one down to the wire, where both teams advance.

Harper said...

Ty - I definitely see the Braves as a threat today. Unlike the first couple of weeks the offense is being supported by the young guys - Acuna, Albies, Swanson. This is very important. Flaherty and Suzuki will crash. Markakis will level out. That's ineveitable. These young guys have to keep it going all year because it's going to be an offense led team in 2018.

I agree they should have SP help coming - they are deep there. So if these guys keep it up then by mid-season we could see a lot of arms filling in the holes.

I wouldn't sell off the Phillies. They have done pretty well considering the offense has yet to fire on all cylinders. I see more upside than downside although I'm not going to deny Kapler could uniquely run this team into the ground. The Mets come down to pitching health (which they have) and Conforto/Cespedes anchoring that line-up (which has been hit or miss so far)

Jay said...

Did you just equate Acuna to Mike Trout?? Wow. At least you are setting the bar low. I agree Acuna will likely be quite good. I don't think he is the best player in baseball. Anyway, I think the Mets are in the process of coming back to the pack - 6-9 since hot start 11-1. Braves I think lack SP and will likely drop off later in the year. Phils I think lack the offense and will drop off as well. That is just my opinion though. The Nats were a big surprise when they won the division in '12, so we'll see.

Mark said...

harper, you seem to recognize the flaw in the "Nats have 13% chance to win the division" analysis based on history of teams being 5+ games behind on May 1st. The vast majority of the time the best teams are already in first or hanging around first, or certainly not 5+ games back by May 1st. No question the Braves, Phillies and Mets are better than expected, but the nationals have had major injuries and bad luck and a new manager learning on the job. If they get healthy and the manager gets better, they should win the division. Big Ifs...