Analysis: Here’s why the Marlins (!) could decide the NL East

  • Miami Marlins relief pitcher Wei-Yin Chen delivers a pitch during the sixth inning of a baseball game against the New York Mets, Tuesday, April 2, 2019, in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

  • Miami Marlins' Curtis Granderson flinches after being hit by a pitch during the sixth inning of a baseball game against the Washington Nationals, Friday, April 19, 2019, in Miami. Miami Marlins' Isaac Galloway scored on the play on a bases loaded walk by Granderson. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

The Washington Post
Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Sean Doolittle understood the importance of the series. It might have been early in the season, it might have been only three games, but the Washington Nationals closer believed his up-and-down team needed to take advantage of its crack at the then-MLB worst Miami Marlins, a team he politely described as “not playing their best right now.”

When Doolittle called the road trip “really important,” he meant the Nationals needed to establish consistency and beat the struggling opponents. But in a small way, the Miami series on its own represented something bigger.

With four teams forecast to vie for the National League East crown in a race unprecedentedly crowded and close in recent major league history, it’s the fifth team, the Marlins, that could decide the division.

Consider the numbers. As of Monday, Baseball Prospectus projected the Nationals to finish third in the NL East with 83.9 wins, just behind the Philadelphia Phillies (86.7) and New York Mets (85.6) and slightly ahead of the Atlanta Braves (83.2).

Baseball hasn’t had four teams finish within four games of each other in a division since the 1980s, when twice the top five squads in the seven-team American League East ended up within 3½ games of one another.

No matter how much stock you put in advanced analytics: This division race should be close.

That’s why the focus returns to Miami. The Marlins are predicted to win 65.4 games this season, and where those victories come from will be crucial. While Philadelphia, New York, Washington and Atlanta jockey for position as the season progresses, as the margin for error against one another shrinks down the stretch, which of the four can avoid beating themselves and rack up the most wins against the Marlins could become a critical edge in a division likely to be decided by a game or two.

Consider the numbers because, as it turns out, they mostly support the old coach’s axiom of “Beat the teams you’re supposed to beat.”

Since 2001, when MLB instituted its unbalanced schedule for teams to play each divisional opponent 18 or 19 times, there have been 11 races which resemble the dynamics of the one foretold for this year’s NL East. In each, two to three teams finished within four games at the top of the division while one bottom-feeder drifted into last place by double-digits.

Every time, the contenders’ record against the cellar-dweller was important. Almost always, the contenders were no more than four games above or below .500 against the division’s other teams. Altogether, the contenders averaged .501 against them, so while most of the division bludgeoned one another to a near-draw, the cellar-dwellers became chances on the margin to get ahead.

In those 11 races, the two contenders had the same record against the cellar-dwellers once. But, in the remaining 10 instances, the contender with the better record against the last-place squad won the division seven times.

The difference between division winners and runners up was small even against cellar-dwellers. Overall, the winners finished 13-6 against the last-place team while the runners up averaged a 12-7 record against them.

Last season, the Milwaukee Brewers illustrated the point perfectly when they tied the Chicago Cubs for the NL Central title because they took advantage of the last-place team. The Brewers had beaten the Cincinnati Reds, the division’s worst team, 13 times in 19 games, while the Cubs took just 11 from the Reds. In the one-game tiebreaker for the division, the Brewers then beat the only team that still mattered.

If this trend holds true again this season, the Nationals are already behind less than a month into the season. Atlanta, New York and Philadelphia are a combined 7-2 against Miami while, last weekend, Washington went 1-2 by themselves, becoming the first team in baseball to lose a series to the Marlins.

In Miami in Game 1, the Nationals unraveled in a decisive sixth inning to lose, 3-2, and they fell again in Game 2 when the then-worst run-scoring offense in the big leagues knocked around star starter Max Scherzer for 11 hits and six earned runs in a 9-3 loss.

Washington’s No. 2 pitcher, Stephen Strasburg, stopped the potential sweep with 11 strikeouts over eight scoreless innings Sunday.

For his part, Ryan Zimmerman rejected the supposed importance of one early series against one team because “it’s April” and “every win is important.”

“It doesn’t matter who you are playing,” the Nationals first baseman said. “Everyone says this team over here [the Marlins] is going to lose this many games and all that, but they are a big league baseball team with some talented young kids. We have to go out there and play good baseball and beat you. So, I hate when people say that about big league teams.”

The Nationals’ start against the Marlins is, of course, not insurmountable. There’s a long season ahead. But, when every game matters, the Nationals are already playing from behind.