During the 2017 season, the Washington Nationals had a mixed bag of success against the National League East Division aka the NL East. While the Nats had a winning record against every team in the NL East, they did not dominate the Atlanta Braves and finished with a 10-9 won/loss record, and the Nationals were outscored by both the Braves and the Phillies. The Nationals did dominate the Mets and Marlins finishing with identical 13-6 won/loss records against both teams and healthy run differentials versus both.
The Phillies were one of the worst teams in baseball in 2017 as they lost 96 games, and the Atlanta Braves were not much better as they lost 90 games. Why didn’t the Nationals dominate them more? There is no simple answer. Some of the mixed bag of success can be attributed to small sample sizes, both sides of luck, and some dominating players.
Dominating Position Players
To pick dominating position players, we set the minimum criteria to consider a player at a minimum of 25 plate appearances. Most people thought Freddie Freeman was the player who dominated the Nationals most in 2017. Not even close. Freeman was good, but his teammate Johan Camargo in 36 at-bats hit .389 against the Nationals. Ozzie Albies of the Braves had a .462 OBP against the Nationals. Some guy named Matt Adams had the best OPS against the Nationals from any player in the NL East. Adams OPS against the Nationals last year was 1.193.
For the Phillies, it was Nick Williams in 27 at-bats who led the Phillies offense against the Nationals in 2017 as he batted .370. It was Aaron Altherr of the Phillies who led their team in OPS against the Nationals at 1.048, and Cameron Rupp and Tommy Joseph were not too far behind in OPS at .974 and .940 respectively.
Michael Conforto was the top New York Mets player on offense against the Nationals in 2017 as he slashed just below Matt Adams with a 1.147 OPS. For Miami, it was Christian Yelich who led the Marlins in OPS against the Nationals at .821.
While Jacob deGrom of the New York Mets had the best overall numbers against the Nationals, it was Julio Teheran who found something that worked against the Nationals in his last three starts against the Nationals. Teheran gave up 7-runs to the Nationals in his first start against them on April 19th, and then followed that up with 3 straight wins including 2 shutouts.
Both Aaron Nola and Jeremy Hellickson had several good games against the Nats and it was Vance Worley of the Marlins who had some good games against the Nationals in 2 of his 3 starts. Ironically, Vance Worley was with the Nationals to begin Spring Training in 2017.
In 19 head-to-head games, the runs for/runs against can be skewed in run differentials by blowout games and there were several of those lopsided losses by the Nationals in 2017. There was the Jeremy Guthrie game as well as three starts by Julio Teheran that turned into Braves blowouts. The Guthrie game was as ugly as it gets and it finished at a final score of 17-to-3. Teheran won three games by the scores of 13-0, 8-0, and 13-2.
Improving for 2018
In 2018, Dave Martinez and his coaching staff along with the analytics group must find a way to neutralize some of these players who dominated the Nationals in 2017 — except of course Matt Adams! The Nationals have had success in doing this before as they were dominated by Willson Contreras in the regular season as he slashed .375/.400 /1.000/ 1.400 and in the NLDS the Nats held Contreras to a .214 batting average.
Julio Teheran seemed to figure something out in his pitching repertoire in his second start against the Nationals. Maybe it was a case of analytics working for him or working with his new catchers. Something clicked for Teheran. He threw a 5-pitch barrage on the Nats including a four-seamer, sinker, changeup and two breaking pitches with a hard slider and a curveball.
The Nationals won 47 games against the NL East in 2017 out of 76 games. That type of domination almost assures the Nats of winning the NL East. There is no magic number to say that xx wins gets you a division clinch with 100% surety. The number 94 is usually safe in baseball history in over 99% of the seasons to win the division and 100% for a Wild Card berth. If we use 94 wins as the benchmark to win the NL East, they may only have to win 47 out of their 86 remaining games against teams outside the NL East which would be a .547 winning percentage. Davey Martinez just needs to match that type of winning percentage (.618) or better in the NL East this season to follow a similar path to win another NL East crown.