The Nationals Went All In On Just A Few Great Pitchers. Will Others Do The Same?

The Nationals ended a 95-year World Series drought in Washington, D.C., by employing a different type of road map than that of most MLB champions this century. The blueprint? Consolidate dollars and postseason innings into the best pitchers you can sign.

As free agency gets underway, there are elite arms available, including two main cogs of the World Series rotations: Gerrit Cole, most recently of the Houston Astros, and postseason star Stephen Strasburg, who opted out of his contract with the Nationals. Rival clubs could easily copy Washington’s plan this winter — it would just be expensive.

While most World Series winners this century committed between 10 and 16 percent of total payroll to their top-paid player, the Nationals spent 19.4 percent of their $197 million payroll (the league’s fifth largest) on Strasburg ($38.33 million).2 This is the highest share of dollars spent on one player by a World Series-winning club since the 2003 Miami Marlins gave 22.2 percent of its payroll to Iván Rodríguez, according to FiveThirtyEight analysis of Cot’s Baseball Contracts database.

The Nats’ second highest-paid player, another ace in Max Scherzer, was signed to a then-record free agent deal in 2015. He isn’t far behind Strasburg, earning $37.4 million this year. In total, the $75.7 million the Nats spent on their two aces represents 38.4 percent of the team’s payroll. Add in Game 7-winning pitcher Patrick Corbin ($12.9 million), whom the team turned to last winter after being spurned by Bryce Harper, and the Nationals spent 44.9 percent of their payroll on three pitchers.

The lucrative deals paid off in October. Strasburg had a postseason for the ages, winning two World Series games and accumulating a 5-0 record in the playoffs. Scherzer won Game 1 of the World Series and allowed just two runs in Game 7 against the vaunted Astros offense. Corbin contributed three scoreless innings in the series clincher.

The nature of play changes in baseball’s postseason. With more off days and more urgency, teams can spread work around by going to the bullpen or electing to concentrate more innings in fewer arms. The five Nationals pitchers with the heaviest workloads, in terms of innings pitched this season, accounted for 57.5 percent of regular-season innings and 70.3 percent of Washington’s postseason innings — the greatest share among teams in the postseason, and way beyond the MLB average in recent years. That group included rotation stalwarts in Scherzer, Strasburg, Corbin and Aníbal Sánchez.

Many teams have moved away from concentrating significant portions of payroll in one player, perhaps because of injury risks or the decline in performance often witnessed in 30-something free agents. But the Nationals bet on consolidating their resources in established, experienced players — the pitching staff is tied as the second-oldest in baseball — and it paid off. (Though it obviously helped to have a young star like Juan Soto delivering 4.8 wins above replacement on a salary of just $578,300.)

So will other teams follow Washington’s lead and pay more for top players? Those that are serious about winning may be ready to reconsider spending more. The correlation between payroll and winning this season was the seventh strongest since 1984, according to salary data from Baseball-Reference.com.

Notable pitchers who will hit the market this offseason include Madison Bumgarner, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Dallas Keuchel and Zack Wheeler. But the biggest by far is Cole, who seems ready to test the open market. Instead of wearing a Houston Astros cap after the Game 7 loss, Cole spoke to reporters while sporting a hat from the Boras Corporation, which represents him.

There could actually be a bidding war for Cole’s services, something that has been lacking in recent offseasons. Cole, 29, developed into an ace in Houston, coming off a season of 326 strikeouts and 7.4 WAR. He figures to have a chance to set the record for a free agent pitching contract, potentially besting the $217 million contract David Price received from the Boston Red Sox after the 2015 season. Scherzer and Zack Greinke, Houston’s Game 7 starter, are the only other pitchers to have exceeded $200 million deals in free agency.3

Strasburg could be close behind Cole in terms of top-dollar contracts. The San Diego Padres are reportedly considering making an offer to the Southern California native, who has been the eighth most valuable pitcher in baseball since his debut in 2010.

It remains to be seen if clubs like the pitching-needy Padres will try to follow the Nats’ consolidation plan. It can work — but it could cost them.

Neil Paine contributed research.

Were The Best Umpires Behind The Plate During The Playoffs?

Major League Baseball umpires heard their job approval ratings plummet in Washington, D.C., during this World Series, culminating with chants of disdain from Nationals fans after missed calls on Sunday in Game 5. And that was before the controversial runner interference call on Washington shortstop Trea Turner in Game 6. Every decision, every call, every mistake is amplified in postseason baseball — and when the work behind the plate could affect the outcome of the game, everyone notices.

To be human is to be imperfect. Deciphering borderline pitches traveling at 100 mph and breaking balls that move more than ever is not easy. And there will always be errors made behind the plate unless humans are replaced with an automated zone (which MLB began experimenting with this past summer in the independent Atlantic League).

But one study tells us that MLB might do a better job of getting balls and strikes called correctly simply by employing different umpires in the postseason. Boston University professor Mark Williams looked at called pitches from 2008 to 2018 and compared the more than 4 million pitches against ball-location data provided by MLB tracking cameras.1 He calculated ball and strike accuracy performance for each umpire, producing a bad-call rate per umpire per season, and has launched an app that evaluates and updates umpire performance.

“Baseball has a problem behind home plate, too many ball-strike calling errors,” Williams told FiveThirtyEight.

MLB has disputed Williams’s findings. League spokesman Michael Teevan noted that the missed-call rates MLB uses internally differ from those of the Boston University data and that MLB’s methodology “takes into account the margin of error of the tracking system.” (Williams says that, via Statcast and PITCHf/x, he is using the same underlying pitch-tracking and zone data as MLB, and maintains that umpires miss far more calls than the league is willing to admit.) Teevan also said factors other than just ball-strike calls are important in determining which umpires are used in crucial postseason games.

In the postseason, there were 252 pitches called strikes outside the zone and 195 called balls that were in the strike zone. That’s 447 missed calls out of 5,459 called balls and strikes, a missed-call rate of 8.2 percent. That’s better than the regular-season miss rate of 9.1 percent,2 but those are still hundreds of errant calls influencing game outcomes.

Only three umpires who received an assignment behind the plate during LCS and World Series play ranked in the top 10 this season in missed-call rate, according to Williams’s data, though Nos. 11 and 12 did work home plate in the World Series. Three umpires who called LCS games ranked in the bottom half of MLB’s 76 full-time umpires, as did three umpires assigned to the World Series. And the postseason has featured four of the worst 15 game-calling umpires behind home plate.

Many of the game’s best ball-strike umpires are invited to the playoffs and placed behind the plate, but not all of them. Why not? Teevan said assignments are “merit based” but that the evaluation criteria goes beyond ball-strike accuracy. “A variety of factors [are taken] into account, including experience, skill sets, communication and situation-handling,” he told FiveThirtyEight.

That experience might be part of the issue. Williams found that less-experienced umpires often performed better than veterans in ball-strike performance. Moreover, Williams found that there was typically little change in an umpire’s year-to-year missed call rates, suggesting that improving umpiring skills is difficult. The average service time of all MLB umpires this year was 16 years. The umpires in the LCS who called games from behind the plate had slightly less experience, averaging 14.6 years in the league. But the average crept up again among World Series umpires, to 16.4 years.

Ball-strike calls are incredibly important. Offensive performance in the majors is tied to the count, and just one missed pitch can have a significant effect. During the regular season, hitters had a .351 batting average on a count of two balls and one strike, versus a .161 batting average on a count of one ball and two strikes — a difference of nearly 200 points in batting average. Moreover, umpires are responsible for calling more and more balls and strikes as fewer balls are being put in play because of the record strikeout levels of recent years. This season marked a record for pitches thrown in a season,3 and a record for the number of called strikes in a season.

As long as humans — and not robots — are behind the plate, a certain number of calls will be missed. But on baseball’s biggest stage, it’s more important to get them right.

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.