The Washington Nationals and the Great Leap Forward

[Image courtesy of Yahoo! Sports]

Let it be known that on the 1st of October,the year of our lord two thousand and twelve, the franchise formerly known as the Les Expos de Montréal and currently reincarnated as the second coming of Jesus Washington Bryce Harpers Washington Nationals won their first MLB division title and with it, of course, the opportunity to play several games into October.  The ultimate prize: a World Series Title (pan to Yankee fans yawning).  For a city that has endured a hate-love-anger-hate-love relationship with its sports franchises (coupled with the fact that the team with the most recent success and rise in popularity, the NHL franchise Capitals, has been forced into non-existence by its own league) the city of Washington was due some winning time.  In 1971, the Washington Senators Part Deux departed the Chocolate City for Dallas and baseball has been non-existent in the region ever since.  Then again there was a franchise less than an hour up the road in Baltimore that won titles left and right and has sent several players to Cooperstown on top of playing in one of the most beautiful stadiums in all the land.  But for the people of the Washington metro area, that was a (Woodrow Wilson) bridge too far (pan to all Yankees, Phillies, Red Sox fans that live outside the NYC, Philadelphia, and Boston city limits shifting in their chairs awkwardly).  So, after decades of shunning (or being shunned by) the baseball world, local fans have embraced this upstart, Rock the Other Red franchise and proudly hang all their 2012 curly W’s with pride.

Now, this particular writer may have some qualms about the real quality of the talent on this 2012 team, with the words Jayson Werth being repeated over and over again.  But admission is in due order and this team comprises of some good, solid talent (at leat for this season).  Zimmerman, Morse, and even Harper up the middle is a solid 1-2-3.  They’ve had good, albeit sub-All Star, production from their middle infielders and outfielders and I’m hoping to god Jayson Werth has done everything he can to spend his $Kajillion salary on local charities.  And of course the real strength of this team is the pitching staff.  Four starting pitchers with sub-4.00 ERAs and almost 200 innings from 3 of them.  A top notch bullpen (3.26 ERA, 8th in the MLB) and competent managing by almost in the ground Davey Johnson (last seen tanking the Dodgers circa 2000) kept the team steady during injuries to Zimmerman and Morse, Harper’s mid-season slump and the Strasburg shutdown.  Only warning signs going forward are the coming back down to earth of Adam LaRoche (who has a mutual option after this season for $10,000,000, so not exactly contract year but let’s just say this is the last time he’ll ever sniff $10m short of robbing a Brinks truck), Harper’s development, Strasburg not blowing out his arm (again) and gambling on Zimmerman (-250) and Detwiler (+300) to repeat their so-far career seasons.  Again, the only warning signs.  But the future is was not important last night as champagne and beer were splattered all over the Nat’s clubhouse (and the children present, seriously there were children present!).  It was a proud day for a potentially emerging powerhouse that has a good chance to win it all this postseason (current odds are 5/1 in Vegas, 2nd only to Texas’s 4/1 and tied with the Reds).

HOWEVER, this bitter Los Angeles Dodgers fan is not here to talk baseball mainly because there are 8,911 experts out there in the Saber and non-Saber world that can better dissect what just happened this season and what might happen over the next four weeks.  Instead, my quarrel comes with that of the Washington Nationals fanbase.  I will preface that there are many, if not a majority, of die-hard Nationals fans that for some reason abandoned the Baltimore Orioles years (or even weeks) ago for their new local implant.  I’m sure there are many fans that know the team moved to DC from Montreal and know what is meant by “Gary Carter #8”, “Andre Dawson #10”, and “Tim Raines #30”.  I’m sure there are many fans that can rattle off a conversation about whether Wins, ERA, ERA+ or K’s are a better metric for a pitcher.  I’m sure somebody at Nationals Park on any given night knows the difference between a Mike Schmidt and a Mike Moustakas.

Unfortunately for the Nationals franchise (and really for the world) there exists what I like to call the Clarendon Fan.  DC has transient populace due to the influx of citizens from across the country and really the world, so its understandable that it took the Nationals a while to catch on.  I mean, nothing speaks of a rabid, devoted fanbase like finishing 11, 21, 25, 19, 24, 23, and 20 (out of 32) in MLB attendance before this season.  And when the Red Porch and Bullpen bar areas are jam packed one minute before the first pitch, well you know people came here for the balls and not the beer.  And I’m not even going to touch on trying to comprehend why non-DC raised residents are rocking the Nats red while  leaving their hometown teams in the dust.  Actually I will.  Your typical Clarendon Fan is a sub-30, Yuppie, happy hour consorting, happy to be far away from home thinking they are acting like an adult, college educated, politically savvy, working for a government contractor firm, Caucasian person.  And 60% chance female (hello UMW ratio!).  So it makes sense that this person spent their formative years studying and going to soccer practice (add drinking once into college) and not spending hours and hours of their youth pouring over things like Yahoo! Fantasy Sports, ESPN, Sports Weekly, or Madden.  Unfortunately, some of us did and suffered the anguish on not only devastating sports losses, but devastating sex-lives (or lack thereof).

So, we only ask that Nationals fans spin up their baseball knowledge a little more than is currently being practiced.  I mean, even today’s Post had to explain to the “casual Nationals fan” the difference between winning the division and winning the wild card.  That’s like trying explaining to the casual driver that car’s have four wheels!  Yikes.  But last night was a moment for celebration for the players on the field and they deserve their credit.  And while at an Arlington bar the night the Nats seured the NL East title I felt a sense of joy and congratulations for those guys that had tried so hard all season, like all teams do, and come out on top.  Cue the casual Nats fan. A probably inebriated Nats fan approached the table I was sitting at with my buddies and pointed to the screen where the Nats were champagne showering to announce (paraphrasing), “You see this!  They did it!  They only won 59 wins 2 seasons ago and now they’re division champions!”.  Bitter Dodgers fan aside, I quickly objected to the value of this statement since the first thought in my mind was that the Rays had only done something similar a few years back.  Luckily, Mr. Switzerland was around to stop any escalation with Mr. Drunko.  But still, I had some wheels to grind.  As is always the case with the 500 Section, we need some statistical research to back up our outrageous opinions and claims (unless we’re talking NCAA, where statistics are just for fun and games, just like the college fb concussions!).  So, was this drunken assertion really a valued claim on the magnitude of the Nationals going from worst to first?  Or is it just another notch on baseball’s belt of parity.  Let’s examine the biggest turnarounds of the past 40 years to see if this astonishing turnaround (because everyone loves an underdog!) actually has a legitimate claim for astonishment.

In 2009, the Washington Nationals won 59 games (their second 59 win campaign in a row).  Fast forward 3 years later, they’re popping bottles to celebrate 96 wins (potentially 98) for a +39 win turnaround.  Impressive, yes, but singular?  Let’s see.  Below are a list of the largest season win turnarounds over a 5 year span since 1972:

As the chart shows, while the +39 win differential (potentially +41) for the ’12 Nationals over their ’09 counterparts is remarkable since it has only occurred 16 times since the 70’s, it is by no means a standalone phenomenon.  Baseball has moved closer to parity over the years so for a team to bottom out at 100 losses is less commonplace, but the chances that team can come back from 100 losses to a winning, if not pennant/championship season is by no means a rare feat.  Tampa Bay was mired as the AL East doormat for a decade before pulling off its ongoing dominance, and it only took one season for the turnaround.  And we (as in baseball fans pre-2005) remember the god-awful, forlorn ’04 Detroit Tigers and their march into the loser record books and remember even more their march to the World Series in ’06.  Hell, even this Nationals franchise pulled it off once before with the ’76 and ’79 Expos fora +40 win differential!  Factcheckers are placing the number of Washington Nationals fans that knew this feat happened before for their franchise at approximately 2.

I digress…

Baseball fans, the oldest fanbase in America short of whatever the Native Americans were playing pre-Columbus, have gone through years of disbelief, joy, anger, capitulation, shock, and tears, both good and bad.  But we’ve stuck through it and all we can hope is that Nationals fans begin to steer away from the $20 ticket + beer deals and focus (as hard as it is for 4 hours of baseball) on the field now that they’ve got a platinum product.  So, to all the fans wearing your pink hats and tag-still-on Bryce Harper jerseys, I say on behalf of all baseball fans that have been baseball fans for years, congratulations on this victory because they are oh so rare commodities.  Don’t take it for granted. Go Orioles.


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