Following their defeat on Saturday, the Nationals’ record sat at 19-31 on the season. Yes, the same record they had through their first 50 games last season and turned into shirts and a rallying cry on the way to winning the World Series. But, as we’ve heard over and over, this year is different. Because of the late start due to Coronavirus, this season is only 60 games. There aren’t another 112 games to become the best team in baseball. Instead, they face elimination, sitting 6.5 GB of the last National League playoff spot with just 10 games remaining.
Prior to the season, there was a lot of talk about whether a 60-game schedule was enough for the best teams to separate themselves. For the most part, that has happened, with the top 7 teams in our Diamond Digest Opening Day power rankings all currently in playoff spots. But through 51 games, the Astros are under .500. Through 42, the mighty Yankees were at .500 and 3 GB of the Blue Jays. The Yankees have made their great run in games 43-51, going 9-0 over that span, but what about the team that would’ve made their run in games 70-79 or 121-130? Instead, they’ll be sitting at home during the playoffs, thinking about what should’ve been and would’ve been in any other year. That just shows the longer the season is, the better it sorts itself out.
It could be argued that this Nationals team is worse than last year’s and therefore don’t deserve to make the playoffs, even in a longer season, but that’s only when you compare to the second half of last year. When looking at last year’s first 50 games vs this year’s first 50 games, last year’s team might actually be worse. The Nats’ run differential this year is -35, compared to -40 through 50 games last year. Another key factor is injuries. Just as the 2019 Nats were starting to return players from injury around this time, this year’s team would be getting players back soon as well. Opening Day starter Starlin Castro would be coming back soon. Howie Kendrick, Adam Eaton, and Sean Doolittle would also be nearing returns in a longer season. Juan Soto just returned from a second set of missed games about a week ago. With a healthy lineup, this team starts looking more and more like a playoff contender.
There’s also the other side, that we won’t get to see happen, of a team that starts hot that gets exposed late in the season. Last year, that was the Phillies, who started 29-21, only to go 52-60 the rest of the way and completely miss the postseason. A team like the Marlins this year, now at 27-24, might not be able to keep that up through a full season. Are they actually a better team just because their hot stretch came at the beginning of the season, rather than the end?
Expanding to 16 teams during a shortened season was a good start, but baseball is supposed to be a marathon, not a sprint. The league and the players should have worked out the details while they could have still played 100+ games or just cancelled the season altogether. As much as I have enjoyed having baseball to watch over the last couple months, the playoffs and eventual champion are not going to mean the same thing as they have in years past.