The Washington Nationals Deserve Your Full Attention

Forget everything you thought you knew – the young and scrappy Nationals have the best record in the NL East since the trade deadline.

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 01: CJ Abrams #5 of the Washington Nationals takes a swing during game two of a doubleheader baseball game against the Philadelphia Phillies at Nationals Park on October 1, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

At 13-6, the Washington Nationals have the best record in the NL East since the trade deadline.

Better than the Phillies, the reigning NL champs. Better than the Marlins, who made some big moves to improve their club. And yes, even better than the Braves, the class of the National League.

They’ve also outplayed the Cubs – the team to whom they dealt their best player, Jeimer Candelario.

Indeed, the Nationals are tied with the Braves for the best record in their division in the last ten, twenty, and thirty games. They are 22-15 (.595) since the All-Star break. That’s better than the Rays, the Blue Jays, the Astros, and the Rangers, just to name a few of the most talented teams in baseball.

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Now, let’s make one thing clear: The Nationals aren’t actually the best (or even the second-best) team in their division. They may have won seven of their last ten and 13 of their last 20, but they still have a negative run differential in both those spans. They have been outscored 196-182 in the second half. No NL club has given up more runs since the All-Star break.

Even so, the Nationals are playing better baseball than anyone expected. They are above .500 in their last 65 games; that’s just over half the season at this point. Their performance since the trade deadline is especially impressive, considering they gave up Candelario – their best hitter and their most valuable defensive player.

Entering the season, most sources saw the Nationals as something of a joke. ESPN, FanGraphs, The Athletic, and Baseball America all ranked the Nationals dead last in their preseason power rankings, as did I here at Just Baseball. More than 100 losses seemed well within the realm of possibility.

Five months later, no one would argue the Nationals have turned into a “good” baseball team. However, they have significantly outperformed preseason expectations. Right now, they’re on pace to lose only 88 games. That won’t get them anywhere close to the playoffs, but there’s a big difference between 88 losses and 100.

Think about it like this: Washington has outperformed expectations about as much as the Texas Rangers. Yet one of those teams has gotten a lot more media coverage than the other…

The Nationals are tied with the Tigers for 24th in winning percentage, and they’re within three games of the Mets, Guardians, Padres, and Angels. They’re a little worse off by run differential (14th in the NL, 25th in baseball), but still, they’re closer to teams like the Pirates, Cardinals, and Marlins than they are to the Royals, Rockies, and Athletics.

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Keibert Ruiz has been a stud since the All-Star break, hitting .333/.396/.550 in 33 games. Meanwhile, CJ Abrams has been unstoppable on the basepaths, with 19 stolen bases in 20 attempts. He has racked up 4.1 baserunning runs, per FanGraphs; no other player has more than 2.6.

Ruiz and Abrams will be essential to the success of the next competitive Nationals team, and it has been delightful to watch them blossom at the big league level.

However, this team isn’t being driven by star power. Instead, they’re getting solid contributions across the board. Only five players on their 26-man roster have been below replacement level since the All-Star break, per FanGraphs. The hitters have a .721 OPS; the pitchers have a 4.38 ERA. Those numbers don’t jump off the page, but boring, middle-of-the-pack numbers represent a vast improvement for this club.

The Nationals may not be a contending team, but they can play competitive baseball.

From 2020-’22, Washington went 146-238 (.380). That’s abysmal, especially coming off a World Series victory. Thus, to see them playing competitive baseball this season is a breath of fresh air.

Need further proof? Just look at their attendance numbers, which have shot up since the start of June. To be fair, MLB attendance figures always rise in the summer, when the weather is nice, school is out, and the NBA and NHL seasons are over. However, Washington’s attendance rose slowly and steadily throughout the summer last season. This year, it skyrocketed. Fans were excited to go see the Nats play.

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Per Baseball Reference

The Nationals aren’t a “good” baseball team, but no one can deny they’re playing good baseball. More to the point, they have already gone above and beyond preseason expectations. During a season in which so many tanking teams have looked utterly pitiful, Washington’s small success is something to celebrate.

Baseball is better when every team is actually watchable, and over the last few weeks, the Washington Nationals have made for some excellent viewing. Here’s hoping they can keep it up.