First-place Nationals beat odds, opponents

Outscored on the season, team has 23 wins by 1 run

July 08, 2005|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

The Washington Nationals are not only in first place, but also on pace to win nearly 100 games and have the fourth-best record in baseball.

Those numbers smack of a runaway contender but for one odd fact - the Nationals have been outscored this season.

Baseball history says you just don't win pennants, much less hit the century mark, on a foundation of nail-biting victories.

"It's almost impossible to do what they've done," said Rob Neyer, an columnist and co-author of a book about baseball's greatest teams.

The Nationals, 51-34 after yesterday's 3-2 loss to the New York Mets, are a statistical underdog if there ever was one. They don't get men on base, hit home runs or strike out batters at even league-average rates. Twenty-three of their 51 wins have been one-run squeakers. Their most visible star is a live-on-the-edge closer, Chad Cordero.

Fans and players, of course, love the drama. "Maybe somebody up there looks after you when things are going good," Nationals manager Frank Robinson said after a typically tight, 2-1 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates last week.

But can it keep up?

In the late 1970s, baseball historian Bill James discovered that over time, won-lost records correspond closely to the difference between runs scored and runs allowed.

A team that outscores its opponents by 100 runs is expected to win about 91 games, according to the James formula. Teams that win at least 100 games are likely to outscore their opponents by more than 200 runs.

James dubbed the product of his formula the Pythagorean winning percentage, and stat lovers have long considered the number a truer measure of team quality than won-lost records.

Thus the Nationals, despite having been outscored by three runs, have been quite the topic of conversation. They're spitting on Pythagoras.

Dayn Perry wrote about the conundrum in a Tuesday article for, concluding that the Nationals are neither as good as their record nor as bad as their scoring numbers.

"The Nats are certainly overperforming to date," he wrote, "but it's a bit facile to say their success is merely the product of good fortune."

Perry boiled the surprising success down to two factors: Robinson's efficient use of a deep bullpen and the Nationals' uncanny ability to win at home.

Neyer was less optimistic. Not only have the Nationals been outscored this year, he noted, they were a bad team last year with many of the same players.

"You combine all those things and you have to think they're roughly a .500 team," he said.

A few details from baseball history might sober a giddy Nationals fan.

Only one team, the 1987 Minnesota Twins, has won a World Series after being outscored during the regular season. Only three teams - the 1932 Pirates, the 1984 Mets and the 1997 San Francisco Giants - have finished with winning percentages above .550 despite being outscored.

Looking closer to home, of the 30 winning teams in Orioles history, only one, the 59-46 Orioles of strike-shortened 1981, was outscored.

Championship teams dominate as a general rule. Last year's Boston Red Sox outscored opponents by 181 runs. The 1983 Orioles, hardly regarded as an all-time great, outscored opponents by 147 runs. Even noted fluke teams of yore such as Boston's 1914 Miracle Braves and the 1969 Amazin' Mets outscored opponents by 109 and 91 runs, respectively.

The other major surprise of this season, the 57-26 Chicago White Sox, had outscored their opponents by 86 runs through Wednesday night.

No particular factor unites history's unlikely winners.

The 1987 Twins were outscored by 20 runs overall but went 56-25 at the Metrodome, the type of home-field dominance the Nationals are showing.

The 1984 Mets went 90-72 despite being outscored by 26 runs. Like the Nationals, the Mets had a mix-and-match offense led by a patient hitting first baseman (Keith Hernandez) and a powerful but still maturing right fielder (Darryl Strawberry). The one really special element on the team was 19-year-old Dwight Gooden, who set a rookie strikeout record with 276 and looked like the second coming of Tom Seaver.

The 1932 Pirates were also a team on the rise when they went 86-68 despite being outscored. The team featured a core of four Hall of Famers in shortstop Arky Vaughan, third baseman Pie Traynor and the Waner brothers, Paul and Lloyd.

The 1997 Giants featured one superstar in Barry Bonds, a secondary star in Jeff Kent and a few guys, J.T. Snow and Shawn Estes, playing over their heads.

On the plus side for the Nationals, none of those "fluke" teams fell back to earth in subsequent seasons. The Twins posted a better record in 1988 and won the World Series again in 1991. The Mets won 108 games and the World Series two years later. The Pirates after 1932 and Giants after 1997 posted consistently excellent records for long stretches.

Statistical devotees say the improbability of the Nationals' success should not be taken as a downer.

Neyer said the team has built enough of a cushion that a mediocre second half wouldn't necessarily keep it from the playoffs. Others said the numbers don't account for the excitement of watching the team.

"I know there's been a lot of talk about them being outscored but this is still just a terrific story and a really fun team to watch," said Joe Sheehan, managing editor at "I mean, you look at a guy like Chad Cordero and for a baseball fan, he's just a lot of fun."

One-run wonders

The Washington Nationals have been outscored by three runs but have a knack of winning the close games, posting a major league best 23-8 record in one-run games.

Team Record Pct.

Nationals 23-8 .742

White Sox 22-8 .733

Padres 18-9 .667

Angels 17-12 .586

Red Sox 11-8 .579

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