Column: The Nats are better than the Mets, but it might not matter

Run differential Run differential is often a good predictor for how a team will finish the season. It’s why, even though they were on the periphery of the playoff race, the Toronto Blue Jays went for it. Their +110 differential is tied with St. Louis for the best in baseball, and they look like a sleeping giant in the American League. While it’s good news for Washington that New York’s differential is only +9, the Nationals’ own +26 mark isn’t exactly flattering. In fact, it’s only fifth-best in the National League and 12th-best in baseball. And as much as people have lamented all the injuries on the offensive side of the ball, Washington has allowed more runs than the Cardinals, Dodgers, Mets, Pirates and Cubs. (
Health While Denard Span has been a solid lineup contributor when healthy (.367 OBP, 121 OPS+), the rest of Washington’s walking wounded haven’t really added much to the lineup even when they’ve been a part of it. Anthony Rendon’s home run Sunday night was his first of the season, but wasn’t enough to propel his slugging percentage north of .400. Meanwhile, Ryan Zimmerman has batted at sub-replacement level, and Jayson Werth has been worse than that, with just five extra-base hits in 141 plate appearances. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
Regression During the ESPN broadcast Sunday night, Aaron Boone mused about how Jordan Zimmermann seemed to have overcome some recent struggles and was pitching much better of late. No sooner had the words escaped his mouth than three of the next four Mets batters homered, giving them a 5-1 lead they would not relinquish. It was the first time Zimmermann had allowed three homers in a start since May 29, 2013 in Baltimore. It was the first time the Mets had hit three dingers in the same inning since 2008, when they still played at Shea Stadium. After holding opponents to two or fewer runs in 41 of 64 starts the past two years (64 percent), Zimmermann has done so just 11 times in 22 starts this year. His 1.26 WHIP is the highest it’s been since 2010, his 6.6 K/9 IP the lowest of his career. He’s allowed more than a hit per inning for the first time since his rookie year. The same trends have plagued Doug Fister (career-worst WHIP, career-low K/9 IP), whose 4.39 ERA entering his Monday disaster was supported by his 4.36 FIP. Both pitchers had excellent 2014 campaigns, but both have regressed a bit in 2015. Even Gio Gonzalez (1.43 WHIP, 8.0 K/9 IP) is posting some of the worst peripherals of his career, though the difference is slightly less noticeable. With those three looking average, it’s no wonder that the Mets’ primary starting five of Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, Jon Niese, Bartolo Colon and Noah Syndergaard has actually posted a lower ERA (3.24 to 3.53) and better strikeout-to-walk rate (4.26 to 3.85) through Sunday than Washington’s top five starters. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
Personnel management Many others have spoken to this after Matt Williams’s inexplicable decision-making in Saturday’s loss to the Mets. But it’s clear that despite nearly two full seasons at the helm, he still views relief pitchers as mechanical parts locked into predestined roles, rather than players with skill sets to be applied when their strengths can be best utilized. Even with the addition of Papelbon, Williams left both him and Storen trapped in the Citi Field visitors bullpen all weekend while the division lead was chopped away one game at a time. The problem has been the same when it comes to replacing injured players. Take Michael Taylor. After Denard Span went down, Williams turned to the young outfielder to man center field. As a defender, he’s been excellent, far better than Span, with 8 defensive runs saved, per Fangraphs (Span is a -10 DRS this year). But Taylor’s offense — particularly his on-base percentage — has never been his calling card. He’s managed just a .282 OBP this year. And yet, Williams insisted on jamming him into the leadoff spot time after time, creating a black hole at the top of the lineup. The Nats are 37-38 in games in which Taylor starts, but just 10-15 when he leads off. That means when he hits low in the order, they are 27-23, actually a higher winning percentage (. 540) than their overall record (. 519). Nothing in Taylor’s statistical profile supports him leading off, yet he did so 12 times in July. Usage will become even more up to Williams’ discretion as more players return from injury, making these decisions more critical. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
The benches Thanks to their busy trade deadline, the Mets are far more flexible than they were 10 days ago. The additions of Kelly Johnson, Juan Uribe and Yoenis Cespedes give them viable, Major League options at multiple positions. Cespedes can play center, then shift to left late in games with the excellent defender Juan Lagares taking over. Johnson can play multiple positions in the infield and outfield, and Uribe is an offensive upgrade over a number of regulars off the bench. They allow for different lineups depending on the day, and expand manager Terry Collins’ options during games. The Nationals are not really built to split time. But the way certain players are going right now, it may be time to examine doing just that to maximize the team’s potential. A friend of mine pointed out to me going into the Nats’ recent game against Jose Fernandez that Ian Desmond was 0-for-9 with 7 strikeouts in his career against the Marlins’ righty. With Fernandez’s huge, sweeping breaking ball, the matchup is a nightmare for Desmond. But he started at shortstop anyway. The results were predictable — a trio of swinging strikeouts in as many at-bats. While Danny Espinosa’s career splits have been dreadful against righties, he’s hit them better this year, and at least has an extra-base hit in his three at-bats against Fernandez. That seemed to be an opportunity to sit Desmond, something Williams should look out for, considering the down year his shortstop is having. Doing so might even further crush Desmond’s open market value as an impending free agent, but as the Papelbon trade showed us, that clearly is not a priority for the organization. The time may come when Williams is forced to start platooning Zimmerman and Clint Robinson at first, as well. Zim was still salvaging a .245/.281/.434 line against lefties, but was a disastrous .199/.262/.331 vs. righties through Sunday. Robinson has a very small sample reverse split this year, but has been consistently much stronger against right-handed pitching throughout his professional career. All of this speaks to why a versatile defender with a strong left-handed bat would have been a terrific pickup, and something the Nats should still be on the prowl for during August. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
The remaining schedule Nationals Home/Away: 33/25 +/- .500: 19/39 Days off: 4 This looks like a prime opportunity for the Nats to take advantage of a soft schedule. In addition to feasting on the East, they get the Rockies, Brewers and Diamondbacks and play eight more games in D.C. than on the road. However, they just rescheduled that Reds rainout for Sept. 28, costing them their final off day, and giving them a stretch of 23 games in 24 days to close the regular season. Yes, rosters will expand in September, but the Nationals don’t exactly have a lot of Major League ready position players just waiting to break through and become difference makers. And while the Mets have a more road-heavy path to the finish line, their schedule is somehow even softer than Washington’s. Mets Home/Away: 25/31 +/- .500: 14/42 Days off: 6 The Mets play 43 of their final 57 games against teams with losing records. Aside from their two series with the Nats, they only have eight more games against teams with winning records: three apiece at home with the Yankees and Pirates, and two in Baltimore. That schedule is softer than a featherbed. The best news for both clubs might be that the Giants face a brutal stretch, one that could easily knock them out of the race. But neither the Cubs nor Pirates show any signs of slowing down, meaning there is no clear backup path to a Wild Card spot available. Barring an unforeseen collapse, the two will duke it out against the cupcakes for one playoff spot. (

WASHINGTON — The Washington Nationals are a better baseball team than the New York Mets.

They have the best pitcher in the division in Max Scherzer. They have the best hitter in the division in Bryce Harper. They now have, arguably, the two best closers in the division in Drew Storen and Jonathan Papelbon in the back of the bullpen. But there’s a very real possibility that none of that will matter, and they will not only fail to win the National League East, but miss the 2015 postseason entirely.

Even though they’ve fallen a game behind in the standings, I don’t think this is going to happen. I believe the Baseball Prospectus playoff odds, which gave Washington a 56.1 percent chance to win the division before Monday night (both teams currently have the same number of simulated wins, despite the deficit). But after the events of the past week, the number of “ifs,” of things that could go wrong, that could derail the season, seems to have doubled.

On July 5, the Nationals’ division win probability was 85 percent. On Thursday, it was 76.8 percent.

Washington should get stronger by merit of getting lineup regulars back from the disabled list, but thus far the ones who have returned haven’t produced much. That’s why the team that looked like a juggernaut on paper, the one a majority of media outlets picked to win the World Series, may not even make the playoffs.

Flip through the slides above to see what could prevent the Nationals from even getting a chance to exorcise their playoff demons of 2012 and 2014.

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