The Nats Are Peaking At The Perfect Time

After sweeping the first two games of the National League Championship Series In St. Louis, the Washington Nationals were hoping to keep things rolling in front of their home fans for Game 3. They got their wish — and then some. The Nats jumped all over Cardinals starter Jack Flaherty for four runs in the third inning and never looked back en route to an 8-1 win and a commanding 3-0 series lead.

Our model now gives Washington a 38 percent chance of winning its first-ever World Series — the best of any team remaining in the field.1 And the Nats have been saving their best baseball for the exact right moment on the calendar. Here’s a plot of Washington’s Elo rating (our power rating for a team at any given moment, where league average is around 1500) by game for the entire season:

Washington was favored to win the NL East before the year, but its Elo quickly plummeted from 1540 to 1511 as the team got out to a rough 19-31 start (causing me to, ahem, kinda write them off at the time). Back on May 21, our model gave the Nats a mere 20 percent chance to make the playoffs, much less reach the World Series. Ever since then, however, it’s basically been a steady climb uphill for the Nats, who closed the regular season on a 74-38 run after those first 50 games — the equivalent of a 107-win pace per 162 games. Without erstwhile franchise leader Bryce Harper but with a strong cast of remaining talent — including precocious outfielder Juan Soto — Washington was better this year (seventh in total wins above replacement)2 than it was last year (11th).

Not that there weren’t moments of even more uncertainty along the way. The Nats’ season was on life support late in the NL wild-card game against the Milwaukee Brewers, when they trailed 3-1 in the bottom of the eighth inning and were facing dominating reliever Josh Hader. According to The Baseball Gauge, Washington had only a 12.9 percent chance of advancing several plays before Soto ripped a bases-loaded single to right that got the go-ahead run home with the help of an error by Brewers outfielder Trent Grisham.

After that early brush with doom, Washington also had a mere 10.7 percent chance of winning their Division Series matchup against the Los Angeles Dodgers, when the Nats trailed 3-1 in the middle of the seventh inning of Game 5, before staging another massive comeback. Other teams have made the Series after even bigger scares than those — the Kansas City Royals had a 99.2 percent chance of being eliminated in the 2015 ALDS against Houston before mounting a comeback, and even more famously, the Boston Red Sox had a 98.1 percent chance of elimination against the Yankees in 2004 — but only the 2012 San Francisco Giants would have come closer to elimination on two separate occasions and still won:

How close to elimination did the eventual champs get?

Lowest series win probability by a World Series champion (plus the 2019 Washington Nationals) at any point in the postseason, 1995-2019

Season Team Series Opponent Lowest Win Prob.
2015 Kansas City Royals ALDS Houston Astros 0.8%
2002 Anaheim Angels WS San Francisco Giants 1.7
2004 Boston Red Sox ALCS New York Yankees 1.9
2003 Florida Marlins NLCS Chicago Cubs 2.0
2011 St. Louis Cardinals WS Texas Rangers 2.4
2012 San Francisco Giants NLDS Cincinnati Reds 6.6
2012 San Francisco Giants NLCS St. Louis Cardinals 8.2
2016 Chicago Cubs WS Cleveland Indians 8.7
2019* Washington Nationals NLDS Los Angeles Dodgers 10.7
2007 Boston Red Sox ALCS Cleveland Indians 11.6
2019* Washington Nationals NLWC Milwaukee Brewers 12.9

* The Nationals are listed for context; they’ll play Game 4 of the NLCS Tuesday night.

Source: The Baseball Gauge

So the Nats could go down as one of history’s most resilient champs if they do reach the World Series and win it. And with a 7-2 postseason record, few teams have ever peaked at a more appropriate time than these Nats. While most World Series teams are, by definition, playing well going into the Fall Classic, only two since the postseason expanded in 1995 — the 2007 Colorado Rockies and 2013 Boston Red Sox — came back from a lower Elo rating at their low point3 than the Nats will have done this year.

The Nats would be one of best comeback teams

Biggest Elo rating gains from season’s low point (min. 40 games in) for World Series teams and the 2019 Washington Nationals, since 1995

Low Point
Season Team Game No. Rating Pre-WS Rating Gain
2007 Rockies 45 1470 1567 +97.0
2013 Red Sox 40 1497 1576 79.4
2019 Nationals* 50 1511 1579 67.9
2002 Angels 40 1520 1587 67.7
2004 Cardinals 45 1519 1585 66.5
2003 Marlins 48 1483 1549 65.2
2008 Rays 40 1504 1565 60.9
2011 Rangers 85 1527 1586 58.8
2005 Astros 54 1501 1558 57.8
2009 Yankees 44 1532 1589 57.3

* Pre-World Series rating is estimated conditional on beating the Cardinals in the NLCS.

Source: ESPN, Retrosheet

Do postseason hot streaks carry over into the Series itself? Perhaps. The team with the superior pre-World Series postseason record does tend to win the championship more often than not, with a 62 percent success rate since 1995. So Washington is hoping it can keep its red-hot form going through the NLCS and beyond.

Of course, the Nats still need one more win against a tough Cardinals team to punch their World Series ticket. And no matter who prevails in the American League, the Nats would be underdogs; we give them a 40 percent shot at the title conditional on making the World Series. Then again, our model has been counting Washington out all season long — and it keeps beating those odds.

Check out our latest MLB predictions.

It Was Always Going To Be Astros-Yankees, Wasn’t It?

MLB’s 2019 postseason has had more than its share of surprises, from Washington’s amazing comebacks — and the Dodgers’ meltdowns — to St. Louis’s 10-run first inning in a do-or-die game against Atlanta. Even the Tampa Bay Rays extended their plucky season by pushing the Houston Astros to the brink of elimination, before losing Game 5. All that chaos has left the National League in particular with a championship-series matchup (Cardinals-Nationals) that was tough to see coming just a week and a half ago.

But after the division-series dust settled, the powerhouse Yankees and Astros are the teams left standing in the American League. In addition to being one of the best league championship series matchups ever on paper, it’s the titanic showdown that baseball fans have been anticipating all year — literally so.

As of Thursday night’s ALDS clincher in Houston, the Astros and Yankees rank Nos. 1 and 2 among remaining teams in FiveThirtyEight’s Elo ratings, 3 points of Elo apart from each other but 18 points clear of the other two contenders. They are also the two most likely champions left in the field, with a combined 65 percent chance that the winner of the ALCS will also win the title. In many ways, Yankees-Astros will be this year’s de facto World Series.

If we look at the harmonic mean of preseries Elo ratings for Houston (1590) and New York (1587),1 this year’s ALCS is the second-most impressive league championship series matchup in the entire history of baseball (or, at least, since the LCS began in 1969). The only LCS with a better matchup on paper was last year’s ALCS between the Boston Red Sox — who were in the midst of a historic season — and the Astros:

Elo’s most epic League Championship Series clashes ever

MLB league championship matchups with the highest combined preseries Elo ratings (according to the harmonic mean), 1969-2019

Winner/Favorite Loser/Underdog
Year League Team Rating Team Rating Harmonic Mean
2018 AL Red Sox 1590 Astros 1609 1599.3
2019 AL Astros* 1590 Yankees* 1587 1589.0
2009 AL Yankees 1581 Angels 1570 1575.7
1999 NL Braves 1585 Mets 1566 1575.5
2002 NL Giants 1569 Cardinals 1581 1574.8
2004 NL Cardinals 1584 Astros 1560 1572.2
1975 NL Reds 1593 Pirates 1551 1571.8
2018 NL Dodgers 1584 Brewers 1560 1571.5
2017 AL Astros 1572 Yankees 1570 1571.2
1970 AL Orioles 1595 Twins 1546 1570.4

*The Astros are currently favorites, with a 54 percent chance of making the World Series according to Elo.

Source: ESPN, Retrosheet

Baseball has been trending toward more superteams for a while now, so it’s not overly surprising that the past two seasons have seen the top two LCS matchups ever. In fact, according to Elo, the American League since 2017 has played host to three of history’s nine best LCS showdowns — and the Astros have been involved in all of them (winning in 2017, losing in 2018 and … well, we don’t know yet in 2019).

But perhaps more noteworthy about this year’s ALCS is simply how long baseball has had to keep an eye on this particular matchup. Although some other AL teams had great years — including the Twins, Rays and A’s, all of whom won at least 96 ballgames — the Astros and Yankees stood out as the cream of the league’s crop for essentially the entire season. There wasn’t a single week during the regular season that Houston and New York were not the AL’s top two teams according to our Elo ratings:

Yep, in the 26 weeks of the regular season, the Yankees and Astros topped the AL … 26 times. Then they eventually met up in the ALCS. That’s only the second time in history (again, since 1969) that two teams ranked 1-2 in their league every single week of the regular season, then ended up meeting in the league championship series:

Few LCS matchups have been brewing for so long

Eventual league championship matchups with the highest share of regular-season weeks with the teams at Nos. 1-2 in league Elo rankings, 1969-2019

Year League Teams in LCS Weeks as 1-2 Share of Possible
2019 AL Astros Yankees 26 100%
1970 AL Orioles Twins 25 100
1978 NL Dodgers Phillies 24 96
2009 NL Dodgers Phillies 24 92
1971 AL Orioles Athletics 23 92
1992 NL Braves Pirates 21 84
1973 AL Orioles Athletics 20 83
1976 AL Yankees Royals 17 68
1972 NL Pirates Reds 16 64
1976 NL Reds Phillies 16 64
1986 NL Mets Astros 16 64

Source: Retrosheet, ESPN

The only other LCS in which both teams finished every week of the regular season as Nos. 1 and 2 in league Elo came in 1970, when the Baltimore Orioles and Minnesota Twins dominated their respective divisions all season long, putting themselves on an ALCS collision course. The Orioles ended up sweeping that one, but they also went into the series with a sizable 49-point Elo edge over Minnesota despite the two teams’ favorite status being solidified for so much of the season.

The Astros, by contrast, lead the Yankees by only 3 points of Elo right now, and New York is much better rested after sweeping the Twins in the ALDS. We still give the Astros an edge, with a 54 percent probability of going to the World Series, but there’s every chance this terrific on-paper battle lives up to the hype that’s been building up every single week of the entire season.

Check out our latest MLB predictions.

College Teams Are Still Punting In Opponent Territory — Though Not Quite As Often

Like a makeover contestant who returns the tailored garments for a jeans-and-graphic-tee ensemble once the camera crew leaves, Paul Chryst is firmly set in his ways.1

Two weeks ago, the fifth-year Wisconsin coach notched one of the biggest wins of his career when his team trampled the Michigan Wolverines. In that game, the notoriously conservative Badgers attempted three fourth-down conversions, successfully converting all of them. That might not sound terribly surprising in a vacuum, but Wisconsin has gone for it on fourth down just 43 times since 2015, the second-fewest of any Power Five team, according to ESPN Stats & Information Group. By Badger standards, the Michigan game was downright aggressive.

But the following week against Northwestern, Chryst reverted to his old ways: decision-making as field-position optimization. When drives stalled inside Wildcat territory, out came the Badger punting unit — four separate times. Unless a team is facing a fourth-and-forever situation, the calculus suggests going for it in opponent territory, regardless of yardline, essentially every time. No college football team has punted more in plus territory in a game this season.2 You could almost hear the groans from Madison on the telecast.

Teams are punting less often once inside midfield

Punts in opponent territory per game and as a share of all drives, among Power Five schools

Punts in opponent territory
Season No. Per Game % of all Drives
2008 0.93 7.4%
2009 0.89 7.0
2010 0.81 6.4
2011 0.73 5.8
2012 0.84 6.4
2013 0.82 6.2
2014 0.92 7.0
2015 0.91 7.0
2016 0.82 6.3
2017 0.79 6.1
2018 0.80 6.3
2019 0.72 5.7

Source: ESPN STATS & INFORMATION GROUP

Asked why he abandoned an aggressive fourth-down strategy, Chryst didn’t provide much insight, saying, “I think a couple things go into it: What are you doing offensively? How is our defense playing? Different situations.” The Badgers do indeed feature arguably the nation’s most formidable defense, but it’s also true that since Chryst was named Wisconsin head coach in 2015, his team has elected to punt 77 times in opponent territory — second-most of any team in the country.

Chryst certainly isn’t the only coach to insist on waving the white flag after his offense advances into an opponent’s side of midfield.3 But the analytical community — and those who care about their teams’ chances of success — can rest easy knowing that the rate at which coaches dial up a punt in opponent territory is falling noticeably. Through Game 5, just 5.7 percent of all Power Five offensive drives this season have resulted in a punt in opponent territory, the lowest rate since at least 2008.

This is true, no matter the offense’s field position. At any point inside the 50-yard line, the number of punts in the 2019 season falls beneath the prior 10-year average.

A team with a lead is more likely to punt, so it should come as no surprise that 56.6 percent of all punts taken at midfield or closer by Power Five teams this season have been taken by the team with more points on the board.

But even those attempts to pin an opponent deep aren’t consistently effective — it’s difficult to control an oblong ball in a narrow window. Less than 40 percent of all punts this season taken inside the 50-yard line by Power Five teams have resulted in the opponent getting pinned inside the 10-yard line. Punts taken 40 to 49 yards from goal result in a touchback nearly one-quarter of the time.

By and large, punting at the college level is dying on the vine, despite what punt acolytes like Stanford’s David Shaw and Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz would have you believe. On average, Power Five games now feature nearly as many punts per drive (0.34) as they do offensive touchdowns (0.32), with punts falling to the lowest rate since at least 2008 while offensive touchdowns reach its highest.4

Not uncoincidentally, this is happening in conjunction with a spike in fourth-down conversion attempts, which have taken place on more than 12 percent of all drives at the Power Five level this season — also the highest rate since at least 2008.

For all of the machismo that football inherently brings to the table, it doesn’t take much to be considered an aggressive play-caller. Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera is nicknamed “Riverboat Ron” for his propensity to attempt to convert fourth-and-1s. Kansas coach Les Miles is dubbed the “Mad Hatter” because he wears a baseball cap and delights in calling fake field goals. There’s a chance your favorite coach is one play call away from some goofy nickname meant to intimate a take-no-prisoners ethos.

The sometimes infuriatingly conservative nature of college coaches is likely related to job preservation concerns in a pressure-cooker industry. It’s harder for a coach to justify a failed fourth-down conversion than it is to put it on the defense to make a stop or ask a punter — you had one job! — to pin an opponent inside the 10-yard line.5 But the statistical evidence is overwhelming: An aggressive fourth-down strategy maximizes a team’s chances of success.

Maybe even Paul Chryst will come around.

Looking ahead: Week 6

Game of the Week: Auburn (17 percent playoff odds) at Florida (10 percent)

How Auburn vs. Florida swings the playoff picture

Potential changes in College Football Playoff probability for teams with a change of at least 0.5 points of playoff probability, based on the outcome of the Oct. 5 Auburn-Florida game

Change in odds if Auburn…
Team Current Playoff % Wins Losses Weighted Difference*
Auburn 17.4% +9.4 -10.2 +/-9.8
Florida 10.2 -6.4 +7.0 6.7
Alabama 46.5 -1.1 +1.2 1.1
Oklahoma 43.6 -0.8 +0.9 0.9
Total† 22.3

* Difference in playoff odds is weighted by the chance of each outcome — win or lose — actually happening.

† Total swing includes every team in the country — not just those listed here.

After a week with hardly any meaningful upsets to alter the College Football Playoff landscape, there are a few better shakeup candidates this week. Take Florida versus Auburn: Both teams are currently 5-0, and the winner would receive a sizable bump to its playoff chances with a victory. In fact, either the Gators or Tigers could potentially pull within a few spots of the top four in our playoff model, depending on who wins. (The loser’s odds, meanwhile, will drop into the mid to low single digits.) The game has implications for a few other teams as well. Most notable among that group is Alabama, whose Iron Bowl task is tougher in the universes where the Tigers beat Florida.6 Despite being on the road, Auburn has a 52 percent chance of winning at the Swamp on Saturday — simply the next step in a brutal stretch of games that will also include LSU, Georgia and Alabama before the season is through.

The most important games of Week 6

Week 6 college football games, measured by how much the outcome projects to swing the playoff odds of every team in the country

Game Other Team Most Affected (Rooting interest)* Total Swing
1 Auburn-Florida Alabama (Florida) 22.27%
2 Ohio State-Michigan St. Alabama (MSU) 18.19
3 Michigan-Iowa Wisconsin (Michigan) 13.55
4 Oklahoma St.-Texas Tech Oklahoma (Texas Tech) 11.26
5 Washington-Stanford Alabama (Stanford) 10.39

*This is the team outside of the game in question whose playoff odds project to change the most, depending on the outcome. Listed in parentheses is the team whose victory would increase the affected team’s odds.

Source: ESPN

Check out our latest college football predictions.

The MLB’s Postseason Teams Were (Mostly) Obvious From The Start

A defining characteristic of Major League Baseball’s 2019 season — beyond the record home run totals — is how predictable it was.

Of the 15 teams with the lowest preseason playoff probabilities, per FiveThirtyEight’s predictions, only the Oakland A’s exceeded 50 percent playoff odds at any point in the season. (The A’s, who opened the season with the 16th-best playoff odds, are the only team from the bottom half of our preseason predictions to earn a postseason berth.) The only other bottom-half clubs that exceeded 40 percent playoff odds at any point in the season were the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Seattle Mariners. The Diamondbacks spent eight days with 40 percent or greater odds, topping out at 48.2 percent on May 4. The Mariners reached season-high playoff odds of 40.8 percent on April 11, and then quickly faded.

Teams that started in the top half of our playoff predictions rarely saw their playoff probabilities fall below those of the bottom half. In the American League, the division-winning Houston Astros, New York Yankees and Minnesota Twins enjoyed strong playoff probabilities for much of the season.1

FanGraphs produced a similar pattern with its playoff probabilities — and even did a little better than ours: Their preseason bottom 15 included the Colorado Rockies, who were 15th in our preseason rankings, and excluded the A’s.

MLB’s postseason field expanded in 2012. But even with the double-wild-card format and 10 total postseason berths, there wasn’t much drama this September. As of Sept. 13, eight teams had either clinched playoff berths or had 90 percent or greater playoff odds and would go on to clinch. Only the AL wild-card race and NL Central crown were up for grabs in the final week, and the runner-up in the NL Central — either the Milwaukee Brewers or the St. Louis Cardinals — was guaranteed a wild-card berth.

By some measures, there has never been a greater divide between the baseball Haves and Have Nots. The super teams and tanking teams have taken over: For the first time in MLB history, four teams recorded 100-plus wins in a season, with the Astros, Yankees and Twins eclipsing the mark to capture their respective divisions in the AL and the Dodgers surpassing it in the NL. And for the second time in MLB history, there were four 100-plus loss teams in a season.2

Super teams like the Dodgers and Astros have astutely acquired talent and become player development machines. Meanwhile, tanking has become more tolerated, in part because the Astros and Cubs offered models to follow, using premium draft picks accrued from 100-plus loss seasons to help build championship clubs.

And perhaps these trends also make for more predictable October baseball. The last three World Series champions each won 100-plus games in the regular season preceding their title. The Astros and Dodgers are the favorites to meet in the World Series, as they did in 2017. If they do, it will make the MLB postseason finale feel like an inevitable conclusion to an incredibly predictable season.

Check out our latest MLB predictions.