MLB Handicapping: Nationals are MLB's Best Bet
by Robert Ferringo - 5/11/2010
One of the most interesting stories early in this MLB betting season has been the success of the Washington Nationals. Yes, the same Washington Nationals that have posted a record slightly above that of the Washington Generals over the course of the last two years and the team that has been treating the legacy of the Montreal Expos like a necropheliac at a funeral parlor.
But hey, the Nationals beat the Mets 3-2 last night – their eighth one-run win of the season – and this perennial 100-game loser is presently one of just seven National League teams above .500. They are 18-14, in second place in the East and they are presently the No. 1 moneymaker, by far, in the sport.
But before you run out and grab that Willie Harris or Craig Stammen jersey I have to warn you: we’ve seen this before.
Last year Kansas City was 18-14 on May 10 and tied with Detroit for first place in the American League Central. That only precipitated a typical Royals debacle of a summer and Kansas City finished the year in the basement at 65-97. So for bad teams and bad franchises things can, and typically do, turn south quickly.
But I have been impressed with the Nationals through the first month. They have been playing sharp, relatively consistent baseball and are relying on more consistent pitching (than they are used to) and clutch hitting to stay in the win column. I have definitely noticed that this isn’t the same team and they aren’t shackled by the same trademark deficiencies that we’ve seen from past Nats.
The primary reason that the Nationals are better is that they no longer are a locker room full of thugs, wife beaters, drug dealers and cast offs. I mean, imagine what road trips must’ve been like with Lastings Milledge, Elijah Dukes, Wily Mo Pena and Dmitri Young in tow. Take that contingent and mix it with the Latin contingent that every team has. Then sprinkle in the third group, the “what the hell is going on here” veterans like Ryan Zimmerman, Willie Harris and Nick Johnson. Top it off with way-over-his-head manager Manny Acta and I don’t think “awkward” is near enough to describe the chemistry of that clubhouse.
But relatively new manager Jim Riggleman (he took over for the last 76 games of last season on an interim basis) has been getting the most out of this group. The front office has completely turned over the roster in just two years. Of the 25 players that appeared in at least 10 games for the 2008 Nationals only two starters and five total position players remain. Also, while the Nats have used 16 pitchers so far this season only five of them threw as much as an inning for that 2008 club.
The results have been solid and this group actually looks like a Major League team, as opposed to the circus that this franchise has been trotting out there while ringing up a 118-205 record over the past two seasons.
That said, the raw numbers for this team are still far from fetching. The Nationals are No. 24 in the league for runs and after a very slow start they have improved to a mediocre No. 16 in batting. Their team ERA is No. 20 in the Majors so far and, perhaps most importantly, their relievers’ ERA is very steady at 3.87 just one year after being the worst in the Majors at 5.09. But that 3.87 ERA is still just No. 15 in the Bigs.
The Nationals have made this impressive early season run despite a rash of injuries to its already flimsy pitching staff. Their projected No. 1 and No. 2 starters, Jason Marquis and John Lannan, are both presently on the shelf. Garrett Mock made it exactly one start before going down and two other starters expected to contribute this season, Ross Detwiler and Chien-Ming Wang, still haven’t sniffed the mound.
But their starting pitching has actually been a plus and has been a bit better than their No. 20 ranked starters’ ERA would suggest. Livan Hernandez has stepped into the vacuum and is anchoring this fledgling staff. He is 4-1 with a 1.04 ERA and has a complete game shutout on his early resume.
However, Hernandez is also a good example of why the Nationals are doing well but also why they are probably overachieving and could be due to hit a wall, hard. Hernandez only has 14 strikeouts to 14 walks in his 43 innings this year. He is No. 1 in BABIP and is No. 2 in left on base percentage. Because he is pitching to contact those numbers are undoubtedly the product of good luck as much as they are good locating of pitches. And considering that his ERA over the course of the last three seasons has been 4.93, 6.05 and 5.44 last year I think that this allegedly 36-year-old pitcher is going to come back to reality a bit.
Further, he Nationals are also No. 24 in the league in errors and No. 25 in fielding percentage. When you are dead last in the Majors by 20 errors and dead last in fielding by three full percentage points like the Nats were last season then that is considered progress. But it is still nowhere near “good”. And considering their low-scoring style of play the Nats could end up giving a few games away as a result of their shoddy defense.
Washington is improved. But to this point I wouldn’t say that their overall performance is conducive to their record. They aren’t in the Top 20 in runs, homers, WHIP, strikeouts or quality starts. They have been winning with better-than-expected pitching and by playing small-ball, stealing bases and manufacturing runs. All of that has led to a tidy 8-3 mark in one-run games. Some of that can be contributed to good fortune while even more can be attributed to the fact that as the home team in 16 of their last 23 games they’ve simply had more opportunities for late-inning heroics.
Another underrated aspect of Washington’s early season success is that they have benefited from a soft schedule. Prior to their win over the Mets on Monday the Nationals hadn’t played a team that is currently over .500 in nearly a month. They started this year with a tough slate; playing six of their first nine against the defending champion Phillies (they went 2-4). But since leaving Citizen’s Bank on April 15 the Nationals have played 16 of 23 games at home and have done so against middling and underachieving groups that, frankly, haven’t been taking them seriously.
Washington is actually 5-1-1 in their last seven series, taking two of three from Milwaukee, the Dodgers, the Cubs, Atlanta and Florida. They split a four-game series against Colorado and their lone series loss was in Florida.
But I think that over the course of the next month we’re going to find out everything we need to know about the Nationals. The game in New York kicks off what could be a season-defining four weeks and that game was the start of a three-city, nine-game road trip that includes trips to Colorado and St. Louis. After that the Nats get five at home before another 10-game West Coast road swing. They open June with a three-game home stand against the Reds. And when that game is finished on D-Day the Nationals will have played 27 games in 28 days with 19 of them coming outside of The Beltway.
Personally, I don’t think that they will keep up their current pace. I think that they’ll end up sliding back down as the No. 4 team in the East this summer. But I do think that this Nationals team will continue to be a spectacular earner. At the first hint of trouble the books are going to jack the numbers back up on this team. However, barring a run of injuries I think that they will be able to stave off any prolonged losing streaks and could manage to earn a solid 74 wins (give or take) while giving their fans and backers, finally, something to revel in.
Seven of nine winning nights for MLB picks for Robert Ferringo. He has cemented himself as one of the brightest baseball handicapping minds in the business over the course of the last several years – find out more info on his baseball picks here.
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