Let's turn the headline into a question: Considering this is basically the same team that stunk on ice each of the past two seasons, especially in April, how are the Nats .500 through this season's first 20 games? Let's try to figure it out by looking at four key components:
Batting: 4.35 runs per game, .750 OPS (4.38, .743 last year)
Ivan Rodriguez is batting .411, so that’s a bit out of step. But no one else in the lineup is far exceeding expectations, except for maybe Josh Willingham, and Ryan Zimmerman’s only played about half the time. Plus, they’ve gotten absolutely nothing out of the RF Willies, Harris and Tavares, neither of whom is hitting his weight, which is bad, because they’re little guys.
Overall, this is in line with last year’s production, and the Nats should keep hitting at this clip, if not slightly higher, as the year goes on.
Pitching: 5.01 ERA, 1.48 WHIP (5.00 ERA, 1.52 WHIP last year)
Livan Hernandez, Tyler Clippard and Matt Capps (Clip & Save!) all have ERAs below 1, which is as fleeting as it is awesome. On the flip side, the rest of the starting rotation and bullpen have been a hot mess.
While this year’s staff isn’t much better on paper than the 2009 version, reinforcements are on the way in the form of Stephen Strasburg and Drew Storen as well as possibly Chien-Mien Wang and a not-disastrous Jason Marquis. It’s easy to see them shaving off some of that overgrown ERA.
Fielding: 0.6 errors per game this year (0.88 last year)
Errors are probably the worst way to quantify defensive performance, but I don’t really know any other way, so there you go.
Chris, however, came to my rescue with FanGraph’s fielding stats, one of which, DRS, states that the Nats already have five defensive runs saved this year versus eight all of last year. The Nats’ UZR/150 is also at 6.7 this year vs. -3.3 last year. I have no idea what that means; let’s assume it’s good.
Unlike the Nats’ hitting and pitching through the first 20 games, this is a big improvement and probably has something to do with Nyjer Morgan, Ian Desmond and the Willies in the defensive lineup.
Pythagorean: 8-12 record, .412 winning percentage (64-98, .398)
Wikipedia defines this as “how many games a baseball team ‘should’ have won based on the number of runs they scored and allowed.” Considering the Nats have allowed 17 more runs than they’ve scored, they should be 8-12 and pacing towards an eight-games-better-than-last-year 67-win season.
But they’re not 8-12; they’re 10-10. Given that, and that their hitting and pitching figure to improve, however slightly, the Nats seem headed for 70-plus wins. That would be drastic improvement, enough to provide hope.
Talk of contending is still fiction, but I don’t care. It’s time to pretend.
Update: Make it 11-10.