Can the Nats be the Pats? Washington will try again for postseason success
The New England Patriots and Washington Nationals would seem to have little in common. On Sunday, the Patriots will play in their 10th AFC title game in the past 15 years. The Nationals (nee Expos), meanwhile, have not won a postseason series in 34 years, a drought more than a decade longer than any other team in baseball.
Where they resemble one another is where they have started recent seasons: with one of the easier paths to the playoffs in their respective sports. What separates the Pats from the Nats is what each franchise has done with that opportunity.
The Patriots play in the AFC East, which means six games every year against the Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins and New York Jets. Those three franchises have been flummoxed by the calculus of winning modern football: the coach-quarterback dynamic. The Nats play in the National League East, which for three straight years has posted a losing overall record, including a .462 mark last season that was the worst by any division in the past decade. So why can’t Washington leverage a weak division into at least winning a postseason series for the first time since their Montreal forefathers beat Philadelphia in the 1981 Divisional Playoffs?
Washington general manager Mike Rizzo turned over his 83-win team this winter in search of an answer.
“One of our goals is to be a much better defensive team,” Rizzo told me last month. “And with moves like getting [Anthony] Rendon back to third base, his natural position, I expect that’s what we will be when all is said and done.”
Rizzo made moves at shortstop (shifting Danny Espinosa there from second base, with Stephen Drew as caddie and Trea Turner as understudy), second base (signing the bat-first Daniel Murphy, with Drew as caddie there, too) and centerfield (acquiring Ben Revere in a trade with Toronto, with Michael A. Taylor as understudy). He also changed the manager (Dusty Baker replaced Matt Williams) and most of his bullpen (hello, Trevor Gott, Shawn Kelley, Oliver Perez and Yusmeiro Petit). On paper, he has better depth, more lefthanded hitting to provide better balance, and slightly more speed to improve one of the worst baserunning teams in the league last year.
Is it enough in what still figures to be a weak division? First, look to what the Patriots have done. They have punished the AFC East—just as the Nationals will have to do against the rebuilding Phillies and Braves. This is no knock on New England, which is a modern dynasty. As football changed its rules to encourage the passing game—the main vein of a better television product, a star-making system (i.e., quarterbacks and receivers) and the popularity of fantasy football—success belongs to teams that can get the ball out quickly and on target and have the brainpower to exploit such tactics, which de-emphasize the old ways of brute force and will. No team in NFL history has been better equipped in these leading roles than the Patriots of coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady.
Now think about this model franchise with the added advantage of playing six of its 16 games every year against the Bills, Dolphins and Jets. How terrible are these franchises at figuring out the coach-quarterback dynamic that wins in today’s NFL? Try these facts:
• In 39 combined seasons over the past 13 years, Buffalo, Miami and New York have played to a .440 winning percentage with only 11 winning seasons and only five playoff appearances—none in the past five years.
• The Jets, Dolphins and Bills are 21–69 against the Patriots since 2001 (the year Brady became quarterback)—a .233 winning percentage.
• The Pro Bowl has awarded 55 spots to AFC quarterbacks since 2003. Only one of them went to someone from Buffalo, Miami or New York: Brett Favre of the 2008 Jets.
• Brady owns four of the top 17 seasons by a quarterback over the past 13 seasons as ranked by passing yards. No quarterback from the Jets, Dolphins or Bills ranks among the top 65 such seasons.
With the Belichick-Brady combination, New England has never been worse than 4–2 in annual round-robin AFC East play. To be fair, the Patriots are great against all teams; since 2001, their winning percentage is .767 against Buffalo, Miami and New York and .753 against all other teams. But without a consistent threat in their division, the Patriots typically roll to impressive win totals that keep them out of the wild-card game and earn home postseason games, which are even more valuable in football than in baseball. Since 2003, NFL home teams have won 60.2% of postseason games, compared to 54.9% in MLB.
The Belichick-Brady combo is so good that the Patriots have turned that postseason homefield advantage into a monstrous 83.3% winning percentage. They are 15–3 at home, 3–3 on the road and 4–2 on neutral fields.
By getting the AFC title game in Denver this week, the Broncos have removed one of Belichick's and Brady’s big advantages. One of the quirks to New England’s enormous success in the regular season is that Brady has started only six road playoff games—as many as Mark Sanchez. Small sample size disclaimer: Sanchez, the Jets' one-time savior who is now with the Eagles, has a better career record in road postseason games (4–2, nine touchdowns, three interceptions) than Brady (3–3, seven touchdowns, six interceptions). Brady has lost three of his past four postseason road games, including two in Denver.
Only four years ago, the Nats looked like they could become baseball’s Pats. In 2012, they won 98 games, just as the Phillies were falling off a cliff and the Mets and Marlins were non-competitive. It was supposed to be the start of a long run: Seventeen of their top 20 players were not yet 30, including 19-year-old outfielder Bryce Harper and 23-year-old ace Stephen Strasburg (whom the club shut down when healthy that year).
The Nationals were one out away from winning the 2012 Division Series against St. Louis—up 7–5 in the ninth inning with light-hitting infielders Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma and pitcher Jason Motte as the next three Cardinals hitters—and somehow lost the game. They never recovered. They are the dynasty that never happened. Today, only six of those 20 core players remain: Harper, Strasburg, Espinosa, pitcher Gio Gonzalez, first baseman Ryan Zimmerman and rightfielder Jayson Werth.
Washington still hasn't won a playoff series, having also lost the 2014 Division Series to San Francisco. The franchise’s run of 34 consecutive years without advancing in the playoffs far exceeds the next longest droughts, those of the Reds (20), Padres (17) and Braves and Mariners (14).
Why haven’t the Nationals won? Since the 2012 meltdown with then-closer Drew Storen (who was traded to the Blue Jays in the Revere deal) on the mound, Washington has been poor at fundamental play. It has had a below-average defense (ranking 12th, eighth and ninth in NL defensive efficiency the past three seasons, respectively) and an offense that doesn’t hit well with runners in scoring position (ninth, 11th, ninth) or in high leverage spots (11th, seventh, 14th). Its baserunning was abysmal last year—12th in taking the extra base, 12th in going from first to third and 14th in stolen bases and in scoring from second on a single.
In 2016, for the first time in this run that never was, Washington will not be heavily favored to win its division. The reigning NL champion Mets are an established threat. Both teams went 36–21 against the Marlins, Braves and Phillies last year, but New York won the division by seven games largely because of the six-game swing in head-to-head meetings against Washington (11–8). The Mets have also eclipsed the Nats in what had been the latter's key strength: starting pitching.
Washington still has the dynamic Max Scherzer, but he’s 31 years old, has thrown more pitches over the past five years than anybody except James Shields and went 4–5 with a 3.72 ERA after the All-Star break last year. Strasburg, 27, enters his free-agent walk year as an enigma with great stuff. Last season, he was much more hittable as the situation grew more important: .210 with nobody on, .287 with runners on base and .316 with runners in scoring position, which would be of little concern but for the fact that it’s been a career-long pattern (.211, .257, .259). The typical NL pitcher last year had much less variance (.249, .263, .255). Gonzalez, 30, is a durable lefthander, but, after early promise, he is settling in as someone closer to the middle of a rotation than the top (32–26 with a 3.57 ERA over the past three years, with a full-season worst .711 OPS allowed last year).
What’s missing from the Nats is a winning identity. The rotation that boasted Strasburg, Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann could not win the big games the way the Tim Lincecum-Matt Cain-Madison Bumgarner rotation did as young aces for the Giants. Baker is the Nationals' third manager in five years, and his cool hand will be needed for a team that has hit turbulence transitioning from a team that belonged to Zimmerman and Werth to one that belongs to Harper, last year's NL MVP. Choking became too literal an association with Washington late last year when imported closer Jonathan Papelbon wrapped his hands around the neck of the franchise’s best player in full view of cameras.
On paper, Rizzo has constructed a team better than 83 wins, if only because having better depth will allow Taylor and Turner to fight for jobs. But look at the unforeseen forces that worked against the club last year: free-agents-to-be Zimmermann, Ian Desmond, Doug Fister and Denard Span all had down years; veterans Zimmerman, Span and Werth broke down; Strasburg, Zimmermann and Gonzalez posted their fewest combined wins and innings among their four years together; and Williams, growing tighter along with his team, could not get his club to respond down the stretch. Washington entered August in first place in the NL East, only to do a 29–32 fade. It was another organizational failure.
Four years after the Nats were poised to take baseball by storm, their instability and underachieving ways leave them looking nothing like New England. When a Washington season goes sideways, the team has no success in the vault on which to draw. The pressure to advance at least to the NLCS grows greater upon every empty year.