In a few hours, the Washington Nationals will begin their post-season with a home game against the San Francisco Giants. Unfortunately, I won’t be there due to the Jewish religious holiday.
I don’t follow baseball very closely any more, so take the following statement for what it’s worth: The Nationals are the best team in baseball.
This doesn’t mean they will win, or even make it to, the World Series. The odds are against both outcomes, the baseball post-season having devolved into something of a crapshoot. (This is one of the reasons for my disillusionment with the modern game. The way to punish a team for not winning its division is to exclude it from the post-season, not to have a one-game playoff, which goes against the nature of baseball and what baseball once stood for).
The Nationals won 96 games this season, tied with the Baltimore Orioles for second best in the Major Leagues (the L.A. Angels won 98). But the Nats were plagued by injuries to key players early in the year. Starting catcher Wilson Ramos missed 26 games, starting first baseman Adam LaRoche missed 14, starting third baseman Ryan Zimmerman missed 44 (and then 55 more later in the season), and starting left fielder Bryce Harper missed 57. Among the starting pitchers, Doug Fister was out for 34 games and Gio Gonzalez for 27.
Thus, after 50 games the Nationals’ record was 25-25. Since then, the largely healthy version has gone 71-41.
How good is the Nationals’ starting rotation? So good that Tanner Roark (15-10 with a 2.85 ERA) will be in the bullpen for the playoffs, unable to crack the top four. So good that Jordan Zimmermann (14-5 with a 2.66 ERA) and Doug Fister (16-6 with a 2.41 ERA) are the number 2 and 3 starters.
How good is the pitching staff overall? It allowed the fewest runs in baseball.
As for the offense, among National League teams only the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Colorado Rockies (with that hitter friendly home park) outscored Washington. The Nats combine power (most home runs of any National League playoff team and third most in the NL) and base-running ability (best stolen base percentage (81%) and second most stolen bases of any NL playoff team).
What could go wrong? Anything; this is baseball. But I can’t find a weakness.
Those in the know seem to agree. FanGraphs deems the Nats the team most likely to win the World Series (with a 1 in 5 chance). Baseball Prospectus gives the Los Angeles Angels a slightly better chance than Nats. Vegas likes the Dodgers a little better than the Nats, which may reflect the betting public’s sentiment.
Both the betting public and the experts know more about this than I do. But I still say that, when healthy (as they are now), the Nats are the best team in baseball.