Do the Nationals have the NL East won? It's worth asking now, because with a six-game lead over the Braves after their latest victory over the Mets on Thursday night, we might end up with the Nats walking away. That would no doubt be especially sweet for Matt Williams in what has already been a bit of an emotional roller-coaster of a season, but as the season nears the three-quarter mark, I would suggest it's remarkable that we've been able to talk about the Braves as a plausible rival this far into the season.
The number of things that people get hung up on about the Nationals is legion, especially as a traditionally sports-crazy town warms to theme of a team that gives it something to talk about day after day. Williams and Bryce Harper, mixing it up with the press and saying stuff that both of them probably shouldn’t? That’s just Fourth Estate hijinks at their best, the stuff of easy headlines and team media relations staff nightmares. They don't add up to much in terms of the things that have been telling us the Nats are going to win all along.
Take the way in which we can fidget over how star players aren't performing up to an ideal. As David Schoenfield wrote last week, Stephen Strasburg has failed to dominate the way you'd expect according to metrics like FIP, but as he pointed out, that's in part because of some easily identifiable problems, like how he’s pitched with men on base. That’s not only something you can diagnose, ideally, it's something you can fix. And, if not, heck, he wouldn't be the first guy with plus stuff and some fly in his statistical ointment. Nolan Ryan had an annoying tendency to have a worse real-world ERA than FIP for some of the same reasons.
Or take Harper's homering a second time this week on Thursday, leading Williams to say his swing looked more free than it has at any previous point this season. It's easy to fret over the performance this season as Harper has struggled through injuries, as my old Baseball Prospectus colleague Jonah Keri did for Grantland on Wednesday. And here again, that's diagnosable because of the expanding spread of statistical resources we have at our disposal, and, as Jonah noted, against something like what you can suss out of this year's hard-hit average from Harper, you have the rest of Harper’s career to look back on, which generated big projections, big expectations and a lot to look forward to. That didn't go away just because the kid got hurt and played through it, not if the underlying talent is still there. It just means his final season line won't be pretty.
And then there's Ryan Zimmerman's injuries, availability and his eventual position, and Gio Gonzalez doing less well this year, or Jordan Zimmermann's stack of frustrating non-decisions, or the bullpen having a bad week or two since the All-Star break, highlighted by Rafael Soriano blowing a couple of save opportunities. Put all of that together and you have no end of reasons to get worked up and start talking about why this team won't win except when I look at all of those guys, all of that talent and so many of them parked in the middle of their peak seasons, and I think those are all things they can iron out by October because, once there, nobody's going to remember or worry about what Harper's May looked like if he's right by then, starting now.
All of that talent adds up to a run differential that is pushing plus-100 (at plus-89 so far) and an expected record of 71-48, five games better than they are. That's a pole position, not just a poll position, a level of performance that you might think is pulling them toward where they ought to be. Yet nobody on the Nats is having what I think any of us would call a career year. But they won't need it to win the NL East going away.
In contrast, without getting into the Braves in any depth, by run differential alone -- having allowed four more runs than they've scored -- they're essentially a team that you should expect to play .500 ball (60-61), and they are playing .500 ball (61-60). Is that about what we might have expected after they had to cobble together a rotation on the fly during the spring? Yes, I suspect it was. Is that about where they'll wind up? If they do, I'd consider it a moral victory.
But the Nats? They won't have to settle for that. They'll be winning the victories that count in the standings and living up to what so many of us predicted for them back on Opening Day.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.