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June 16, 2011 / Nat Anacostia

Can the Nats break .500 this season?

Which is the better predictor of team’s future wins—its win-loss record or its run differential? Everyone who is familiar with the stats-centric sites knows that it’s the latter. The Nats’ run differential has been better than their W–L record for a while, and after tonight’s 10–0 pounding of the Cardinals it has gone positive—263 runs scored versus 262 runs allowed. On that basis alone, we might expect the Nats to play .500 ball going forward.

The thing is, the Nats team that’s playing right now is better than the team that put up the +1 run differential in its first 68 games. Playing Ryan Zimmerman instead of Jerry Hairston, by itself, is probably worth at least +3 wins over the remainder of the season. The injured Adam LaRoche ineffectually used up 177 plate appearances; giving those PAs instead to Michael Morse and Laynce Nix, even assuming that these two red-hot hitters cool off some, should be worth another one or two wins.

Has the team been playing over its head? (I’m talking about the first 68 games, not just tonight’s game, where of course we were playing over our heads.) My sense is that the starting pitchers have been a bit over their heads and are likely to revert some. The Nats’ starters rank 10th in the National League in both ERA and FIP, but 16th (last) in xFIP, suggesting that they may have been somewhat lucky in issuing fewer home runs than expected.

For the batters it’s more of a mixed bag. The team’s batting average on balls in play was  only .278 before tonight’s game, last in the league. I wouldn’t attribute that all to bad luck—the struggles of LaRoche and Iván Rodríguez have doubtless been more attributable to declining skill than to luck—but I think that several players—especially Jayson Werth and Danny Espinosa (at least batting from the left side) have been somewhat unlucky.  On the other hand, Morse and Nix have been somewhat lucky.

Of course, we can’t expect to go the rest of the season without any injuries. Nix and Jason Marquis probably will be (and should be) traded. Jordan Zimmermann will be shut down after he reaches his innings limit. Nevertheless, I think the Nats really do have a realistic shot to play +4 wins over the rest of the season and end up .500 or higher. The improvements are starting to show.

I know I’m probably just caught up in the euphoria of our fifth consecutive win, but this is the best I’ve felt about this team since that fluke first-place run in 2005 (and we all knew that was a fluke, whereas now we seem to be progressing toward the real thing). Finishing above .500 is a worthy and reasonable goal for the remainder of this season.

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