For years the Philadelphia Phillies have been the bully on the playground, stealing everyone’s lunch money while only withstanding cursory challenges from the other kids. Since beginning their run of success in the 2007 season, the Phillies seemed to be saving their meanest scowl for the new kid, the Washington Nationals. Scrawny and underfed since moving to their new school, the Nationals struggled to a 21-51 record against Philadelphia over the 2007-10 seasons, every year finishing the same — with Philadelphia first and Washington at or near the bottom.
Something happened though, late last season. Apparently tired of being pushed around, the Nationals decided to fight back. Taking advantage of a Phillies team that had already clinched the National League East, Washington swept the Phillies in four straight games at Citizens Bank Park to capture the season series 10-8 and plant the seed of hope in a club whose future was getting closer.
Now, after winning both series against the Phillies this season, Washington has won nine of its last 11 against Philadelphia. What happened?
Let’s look at some objective numbers to see if we can straighten it out. Things go better when you’re winning, and the numbers should bear that out. So, let’s take three areas where this year’s Nationals are struggling a little and see if they are being corrected when facing the Phillies. First, Washington batters are second in the National League in strikeouts. If you came up with a “strikeout average” using the same formula as batting average (K/AB), the Nationals would sit at .244. Over the last 11 games against the Phillies, the SA is only slightly lower, at .236. An improvement, but probably a negligible one.
Another complaint is that the Nationals leadoff hitters aren’t getting on base often enough. For the season, Washington is 11th in NL with a .303 OBP for its leadoff man. Over the last 11 games with Philly, the number jumps to .308. Again, a small but mostly irrelevant improvement.
Lastly, Washington sits 12th in the National League with a .219 batting average with runners in scoring position. Since hits with runners in scoring position are rarely empty, BA/RISP is a perfectly fine indicator of how well your team is doing in the clutch. And now we’re getting somewhere. The team’s number jumps from .219 for the entire 2012 season to .278 against the Phillies. Not bad, but in reality that amounts to five extra hits, which doesn’t account for a 9-2 record.
Nope, ultimately it seems like the main thrust behind Washington’s strong showing against the Phillies is the same formula the Phillies have been using for years — strong starting pitching. While the Phils have been solid on the bump against Washington over this stretch, with their starters posting a 3.52 ERA, Washington’s hurlers have been even better, coming in with a 2.26 ERA. Six of the starters gave up one or fewer earned runs in their appearances, and the most runs allowed in any of those starts was three. Even as well as Washington’s staff has thrown this season, this number is a half a run better.
Here the Nationals decided to take on the bully at his own game and have been coming out ahead more often than not of late. The biggest thing to take away from all this might be that the National League East will in all likelihood be decided on the mound, and Washington is as well-armed as anyone on the playground.