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Last night, the Nationals lost 5-4 to the Dodgers, dropping to 56-50 and falling 5 1/2 games behind the Braves in the NL East race. That record is still far ahead of what you might project from their runs scored (408) and allowed (434), which mark them as a sub-.500 club. The Adjusted Standings Report, which considers that and more, calls the Nationals a “true” 49-57 team.

The Nationals’ second-half swoon should not come as a surprise. This was never a great baseball team, despite being the “It Boys” of baseball for a few weeks in June. A run of good fortune–and poor competition–in one-run games helped the Nationals push their record over .500 while they were just barely outscoring their opponents on the season. Once the good fortune ended, so did their run atop the NL East. The Nationals have lost nine straight one-run games, and now have a 24-19 record in those contests. Since their last one-run win, over the Phillies on July 8, the Nats are 4-16 overall, but have been outscored just 79-53 in that stretch. It’s just the reverse of their outcomes for much of the first half, and just as there was no underlying reason for them to go 24-8 in one-run games, there’s no underlying reason for them to be 0-9 since. That’s just the way one-run games go; the outcomes are generally unrelated to team quality. (See the chart at the bottom of the column for more on this.)

Baseball is not a morality play. There’s no good and bad way to play, and you don’t win or lose because you adopt or reject a particular style. All the ex post facto analysis of the Nationals that talked about their bullpen, their ballpark, their fundamentals, their clutchness, their veterans who had been through so much in Montreal and who now got to play in front of big, enthusiastic crowds…that was all a mirage. The Nationals were in first place because they’d played with about the quality of a .500 team, and they’d been fortunate in close games.

In baseball, you win by being good at scoring runs and preventing them. In the short term, you might distribute those runs in a way that inflates or deflates your record, but those two skills are going to dictate your final record more often than not. If your record is disconnected from your run differential, you can usually bet that the former will find its way back in line with the latter in short order.

That’s what has happened to the Nationals. They’re the same team they were in the first half, just with a bit less good fortune, and now with a lot fewer people paying attention.

The difference between the Nationals and, say, the White Sox is that the White Sox, while playing well in one-run games (23-11), are also playing very well outside of those contests (46-25). Moreover, there are considerable underlying reasons for the overall success the Sox are having–improved team defense, much improved home-run rates for their pitchers, both of which contributed to excellent run prevention–that aren’t in play for the Nationals. They have a lousy offense, and once you strip away the park effects, their pitching staff isn’t much to look at. They’re 11th in the NL in K/BB, 15th in strikeout rate.

The NL East being what it is, the Nationals could find themselves in last place by the end of the weekend. That is, of course, where most people projected them to finish, albeit not with a record of around .500. They’ve provided some good copy this year, to be sure, but by the end of the season, they’re just going to be another .450 baseball team that got lucky for a little while.

Now, maybe the mainstream press was fooled by the Nationals and I wasn’t. Hooray for me. That doesn’t mean I haven’t been just as wrong about the short-term results put up by other teams. Look back at some of the things I wrote in May, especially about the two teams currently leading the wild-card races. You’ll find me pretty much writing both of them off thanks to their anemic offenses. I made the same mistake with the A’s and Astros that so many people did with the Nationals: overreacted to a snapshot. A baseball season is six months long, and six months is plenty of time for a good team to look very bad and still be successful, and vice versa.

The challenge going forward is going to be finding ways to write interesting baseball content in the first months of the season without overreacting to snapshots. I’ve been associating this problem with April, largely, but let’s face it; it’s very possible for a team to fool us for two months or even half a season. There’s plenty of salient analysis to be done, plenty of good stories to tell, that don’t require jumping to conclusions. If the Nationals, A’s and Astros teach us all anything, it’s that we have to be patient, and balancing patience with the 24-hour media cycle is a challenge that everyone covering the game faces.

I didn’t want to run this in the middle of the column because it would have been awkward. What follows are two sets of standings: record in one-run games, and record in other games. I think it’s illustrative of the point that the latter is more indicative of team quality than the former.

Record in one-run games is essentially the team version of player performance in whatever clutch situation (late-inning pressure situations, runners in scoring position, et al) you care to measure. It’s not predictive, and is generally unrelated to overall quality. Within a season, however, it is valuable and can be the difference between success and failure.

              W   L    Pct.   GB                 W   L    Pct.   GB
Red Sox      14   9   .608    --   Blue Jays    47  35   .573    --
Yankees      12  10   .545   1.5   Red Sox      46  36   .561    1
Devil Rays   16  14   .533   1.5   Yankees      44  38   .537    3
Orioles       8  13   .380    5    Orioles      43  42   .506   5.5
Blue Jays     7  16   .304    7    Devil Rays   25  52   .325  19.5

White Sox    23  11   .676    --   White Sox    46  25   .648    --
Twins        20  22   .476    7    Indians      39  26   .600    4
Tigers       12  17   .414   8.5   Twins        34  30   .531   9.5
Indians      17  25   .405   10    Tigers       38  38   .500  10.5
Royals        9  18   .333  10.5   Royals       29  50   .367   21

A's          16  12   .571   --    Angels       40  28   .588    --
Angels       21  17   .553   --    A's          44  34   .564    1
Rangers      17  17   .500   4     Rangers      36  35   .507   5.5
Mariners     16  16   .500   4     Mariners     30  43   .411  12.5

Braves       19  15   .559   .5    Braves       43  30   .589    --
Nationals    24  19   .558   --    Marlins      42  33   .560    2
Phillies     13  15   .464   3     Phillies     42  37   .532    4
Mets         12  15   .444  3.5    Mets         42  37   .532    4
Marlins      12  17   .414  4.5    Nationals    32  31   .508    6

Astros       16  13   .551   --    Cardinals    50  18   .735    --
Reds         17  14   .548   --    Astros       42  35   .545  12.5
Cubs         18  15   .545   --    Brewers      37  38   .493  16.5
Cardinals    17  17   .500  1.5    Cubs         36  37   .493  16.5
Brewers      15  17   .469  2.5    Pirates      35  43   .449   20
Pirates      10  19   .345   6     Reds         30  45   .400  23.5

Padres       19  10   .655   --    Diamondbacks 31  41   .431    --
Diamondbacks 21  15   .583  1.5    Dodgers      34  45   .430    .5
Dodgers      14  13   .519   4     Padres       33  44   .429    .5
Giants       14  14   .500  4.5    Giants       31  46   .403   2.5
Rockies      13  17   .433  6.5    Rockies      25  50   .333  12.5

Thank you for reading

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