WASHINGTON — With the first dozen games in the books, the Washington Nationals sit atop the NL East at 9-3, matching the 2012 squad for the best start since the team moved to Washington. Even with the blown save in extra innings Sunday and a loss in Miami Monday, the Nats are three games clear of the New York Mets in the division.
But what does the hot start really tell us about the Nats?
While it’s a small slice of the season — and, as we learned last year, we should never judge baseball on such a slice — it certainly feels a lot more comfortable than the 5-7 mark the team owned at the same point last season.
The National League is heavily divided this year into the haves and have-nots. There are seven or eight teams expected to have a good shot at the playoffs, while the other half of the league should spend most of the year as punching bags for that crew. That makes taking advantage of the soft parts of the schedule particularly important. Which is exactly what the Nats have done so far, having only faced the bottom three teams from the 2015 NL East.
Bryce Harper has looked as nasty as ever, but against opponents he also crushed last year. In 55 games against the Braves, Marlins and Phillies, Harper batted .344 (64-for-186) with 13 doubles and 21 home runs along with 41 walks. That equates to better than a .450 on-base percentage and 62 home runs over a full 162 games. So it should be no surprise he has continued to mash at a similar clip to start the 2016 campaign.
New acquisition Daniel Murphy is off to a great start with the bat in a Nats uniform, and early returns on Wilson Ramos have been promising, after two straight seasons of major decline. The fact that they’ve won at a high rate while nobody else in the lineup has posted an OPS above .650 is a good sign of things to come when the rest of the offense rounds into form.
The Nationals also led the majors in ERA at 2.32 (until the Cubs snuck past them down to 2.24 with a shutout Monday night), despite ranking toward the middle of the pack in walks and strikeouts per nine innings. This helps explain why their FIP, while strong, is only (fifth-best) in the NL. Their rotation is still very strong, but not nearly as dominant as last year, with more question marks at the back end. The Sunday blowup aside, the bullpen has been noticeably more reliable than last year to date, with the team 7-0 when leading after seven innings and 8-0 when leading after eight.
Again, all of this has been done against bad teams. But it’s important to note that the Nats didn’t play all that well against the Marlins last year. While they were a healthy 26-12 (.684) against the Phillies and Braves, they were just 10-9 against Miami. The Nationals and Mets actually finished the year with identical 36-21 records against the other three teams in the division, neutralizing any direct advantage they might have had against their top division rival from beating up on the bottom-feeders.
The bottom three teams in the NL East all struggled mightily against teams .500 or better in 2015, while the Nats won 57 percent of their games against teams with losing records.
These numbers suggest the Nats ought to take an average of two-thirds of all their games against the division bottom feeders to keep pace with the other strong teams in the league. The good news is that the schedule remains soft, at least for another week. The middling Twins come to town this weekend, followed by the Phillies. But then Washington embarks on perhaps the single toughest road trip any team in baseball will face this season.
The Cardinals may not be the 100-win team they were last season, but the Nats are just 2-11 against the Cards over the last three regular seasons, including a 1-8 mark at Busch Stadium. From there, it’s off across the state for three games in Kansas City against the two-time defending American League Champion Royals. And the 10-game-in-10-day trip concludes with a four-pack at Wrigley Field against the Chicago Cubs, who might be the best team in all of baseball. The next reprieve won’t come until after the Detroit Tigers visit for a three-game home set.
And what will likely be the biggest season series all year — the 18 games with the New York Mets — won’t even begin until May 17 at Citi Field.
So, how good are the Nats? Definitely good enough to clean up on the bad teams, which shouldn’t be understated. With this year’s dynamic and the chasm between the good and bad teams, that is crucial. But we won’t really know until after their brutal stretch in May how they stack up against the elite teams around the league.