The 2019 Washington Nationals are the underachiever team’s life preserver, for just about any disappointing squad can draw inspiration from the way they recovered from an unthinkably lousy start.
At Memorial Day, they lost to the Miami Marlins to drop back to 10 games under .500 at 22-32, and nine games back of the Phillies. FanGraphs’ Devan Fink used the Nationals to explore the idea of Memorial Day as a checkpoint, figuring out the correlation between winning percentages at Memorial Day and the end of the year over the previous nine years, and then running a regression model for an adjusted end-of-season projection.
The Twins, who were off to a flying start that season, were projected to finish 98-64. They ended the year 101-61.
The Nationals, who spent the first two months scuffling despite all the on-paper talent, were projected to finish 71-91 if the standard pattern took hold. Instead, they finished the season 93-69, and while that wasn’t good enough to take the division, they were able to host the Wild Card game, and they parlayed that smallest of October openings into the franchise’s first World Series title.
It’s fun to read that article as a snapshot, because while Fink stops short of burying the Nationals, he laid out a pretty grim forecast based on precedents …
The 2013 Dodgers struggled at the beginning of the season. On May 27, the team defeated their crosstown American League counterpart, the Angels, in an 8-7 thriller. In the bottom of the seventh, Jerry Hairston singled off of Robert Coello to give the Dodgers the lead for good. They improved their record to 21-28, good for a .429 winning percentage on Memorial Day. Our regression equation would expect the Dodgers to finish at .456, or just about 74 wins. A scorching second half (45-23) led the Dodgers to a 92-70 record and a .568 win percentage, 112 points higher than the expectation.
That should give Nationals fans at least some hope, though a 112-point improvement on their current expectation would only result in 89 wins. I’m not sure that will be enough to win a playoff spot in the National League, but it would certainly give them a shot. Still, it’s worth remembering that this is probably the absolute best the Nationals could do, which is a little alarming, to say the least. If the Nationals want to even reach 81 wins, they’d still need to outpace their projection by 64 points of winning percentage, something only 23 of the 270 teams (about 8%) were able to do. That’s just to reach .500, mind you. Things don’t look great in D.C.
… and Washington went out and beat those incredibly steep odds. They became that precedent people sought, and now they’re an influence/crutch for others in similar situations.
So when Rick Hahn says that the White Sox don’t have to decide whether they’re buying or selling by Memorial Day, he’s technically correct.
“Sitting here (on) Memorial Day, the first two months have not been up to the level that we wanted it to be. We get that. It’s not acceptable. Could that one day lead to changes over the course of the season? Absolutely. But for now, this is a group that is now hopefully coming together as a full unit, and we’ll see how it performs over the next several weeks before we have to make that decision.”
But the Nationals cut the crap when the calendar turned to June. They went 18-8 to pull back to .500 at the season’s halfway point, and then they advanced further into the black with each passing month.
The White Sox have two days left in May, and at 14-13 with two games to play, they haven’t yet secured a winning month. Hovering around .500 against the weakest part of the schedule is like allowing a .741 OPS to No. 9 hitters, which is another thing the White Sox have done.
The arrival of the Angels — and the White Sox’s 6-4 loss to them on Monday night — marks the start of a difficult stretch of nine series, eight of which are against teams over .500. The exception is a three-game set against a Tigers team that just took three of four against the White Sox in Detroit. It’s not the best time to hope that the White Sox break out of a malaise that stretches back to the second half of 2021, or the last 10 baseball months.
It’s also all the White Sox have, because the alternative is listening to Hahn talk about the future of a team that he and many, many others in the front office should have no part in.
“If that doesn’t happen, it’s the responsibility of all of us in the front office to realize where objectively we’re at and what’s best for the club going forward. We’re not at that date yet. But we know it’s a possibility.”
I have no real appetite for a sell-off because of who would be doing the selling, but there’s a point where retaining everybody who’s leaving makes little sense. It doesn’t have to be decided now because there’s still a lot of season to go, which isn’t so much a reason for hope as a reminder of how long purgatory can take.