WASHINGTON — Since the Montreal Expos moved south to become the Washington Nationals in 2005, only once have both they and the Baltimore Orioles made the postseason in the same year. That was in 2012, when the Nats went to the playoffs for the first time ever and the O’s snapped a 14-year October drought.
Both teams were promptly eliminated in the first round that year, but entering the final 30 games of this regular season, hope abounds for a potential Beltways World Series. There are plenty of subplots in play, with the ongoing MASN negotiations becoming ever more contentious and fans of both markets long starved for a championship.
Entering play on Wednesday, each team holds the largest division lead of any team in their respective league. Winners of 12 of their past 15 games, the Nationals have the best run differential in the NL at +105 and a 99.3 percent chance to make the playoffs, according to Baseball Prospectus. The Orioles, meanwhile, are six games clear in the AL East, with a 96.6 percent playoff chance.
On its face, things look pretty great for both teams. But before you start planning for an epic October showdown, it may be prudent to temper expectations.
Both the Nationals and Orioles have seen their playoff chances bolstered by the good fortune of playing in the divisions featuring the worst second-place team in each league. The Nationals’ 7.5-game edge over the Braves would be just four games over the Cardinals. Meanwhile, the Orioles’ six-game cushion would be just four over the Detroit Tigers, and they would be in third place in the vaunted AL West, 1.5 games back of both the Angels and A’s and just 3.5 games ahead of the Mariners.
So while they are both in great shape to make the playoffs, a decent percentage of the reason rests in the futility of their competition. Assuming that both get in, though, bigger issues await them, and history is not on their side. First, the Orioles:
World WAR 3.0
Only seven teams have a total fWAR (Wins Above Replacement per FanGraphs) over 30 heading into action on Wednesday. The Orioles rank last of the seven, but more disconcerting is where their pitching ranks. Of the six teams above them — the Angels, Nationals, Athletics, Tigers, Rays and Dodgers — none rank lower than eighth in batting WAR or 13th in pitching WAR. While the O’s are third in hitting, they are just 19th in the league in pitching.
Chris Tillman has been the O’s best pitcher of late, but hardly meets the definition of a playoff ace. (Getty Images/Rob Carr)
Along with the Diamondbacks, Padres and Rockies, the Orioles are one of just four teams without a single pitcher who has racked up 2.0 WAR individually. With less than 20 percent of the season remaining, even a strong finish from Chris Tillman (who has been at his best recently to reach 1.9) or Wei-Yin Chen (1.7) would leave them short of 3.0 WAR on the season.
Why is that a problem?
No team in the last decade has made a World Series without at least one 3+ WAR pitcher on the squad. The last team to do so was the 2004 St. Louis Cardinals — led by Chris Carpenter (2.8) and Woody Williams (2.6) — who were swept out of the Series by Curt Schilling (7.3), Pedro Martinez (5.7) Bronson Arroyo (4.1) and Derek Lowe (3.0) of the Boston Red Sox. Of the 18 teams to play in the Fall Classic since then, 13 have had multiple 3+ WAR pitchers, with World Series participants averaging nearly 2.4 such players each.
The team this 2014 Orioles squad resembles the most is the 2012 edition, featuring Jason Hammel (2.6) and Chen (2.2). With both Manny Machado and Matt Wieters (the team’s second-highest ranked WAR players in 2013 and 2012, respectively) out, the prospects of a deep playoff run seem dim.
All about the matchups
Now, about the Nationals: Right now, the Nats enjoy the largest run differential in the National League at +105, well ahead of the next closest club, the Dodgers.
But since 2005, of senior circuit clubs leading the league in run differential, only the ’07 Rockies and ’13 Cardinals have made the World Series, each losing. Of course, the Nationals know this all too well — their +137 differential in 2012 was tops in all of baseball.
The Nationals have watched the Cardinals celebrate 11 times in 13 matchups since Game 5 in 2012. (Getty Images/Jeff Curry)
Having a good run differential is certainly not a bad thing; it’s just no guarantee of postseason success. Much more disconcerting are Washington’s records against their potential postseason foes over the past couple seasons.
Since that 2012 first-round exit, Washington is just 2-11 against the Cardinals. With three games remaining at Dodger Stadium next week, the Nats are 3-8 against Los Angeles. Their struggles against the Braves (10-22 since the beginning of last year) are also well-documented at this point, and they are just 7-7 against the Pirates. The only bright spots are 8-5 records against Milwaukee and the fast-fading San Francisco Giants, who may well miss the postseason entirely.
Considering Washington also was swept in Oakland and dropped two of three at home against the Angels earlier this year, there are very few favorable postseason matchups for the Nats at all. Washington is 57-32 (.640) against non-playoff teams and just 18-24 (.429) against those within a half-game of postseason position.
Both the Nationals and Orioles seem like locks to make it to the 2014 postseason, which gives them just as much of a fighting chance as any other team. The playoffs are fluky and weird, and anything can happen. Both teams should take as much solace in that as they do in their success so far. As well as they may have played to this point, they will each need to buck history to give us a Battle of the Beltways on the biggest stage.