The Washington Nationals, for those of you who haven't noticed, are 17-13 going into Sunday's game in San Francisco and are sporting the third-best winning percentage among the NL's non-division leaders and fith-best overall. Not bad for a team picked almost unanimously to finish dead last in the NL East.
Can they keep it up and contend for a playoff spot this year, about, oh, 10 years before anyone thought they would?
Certainly, there's a long way to go, but we're far enough along so that we can begin to gather some clues as to whether this relatively hot start can last into the dog days of summer. Statistics start to take on some meaning after 30 games, to the point where we can have a degree of confidence, albeit a small one, in what they tell us.
One thing I always look for when a team is performing considerably over expectations is whether or not it is performing considerably better than its stats. It's simple, really. It's very unusual for a team with poor batting stats to score a lot of runs over the course of a full season. Such a team is usually getting it done with the proverbial smoke and mirrors. As the season wears on, it's much more likely that its run production will be dragged down to the level of the stats than the numbers rising to meet the runs scored. Conversely, a team that is scoring considerably fewer runs that one might expect from its stats will tend to start to score more runs as time goes by.
Keeping it simple here (not much purpose in putting too fine a point on it after less than a fifth of a season), the main factors in scoring runs are getting on base, statistically expressed as On-Base Percentage or OBP and moving those who get on base further towards home, expressed as Total Bases or TB. A team among the league leaders in these areas should be among the leaders in runs scored and a team performing poorly here will not get many runs across the plate.
The Nats have scored 140 runs, eighth in the NL. However, their OBP of .342 is fourth in the league as is their TB number of 452.
They should be scoring more runs than they are and, if they keep it up, the chances are that they will cross the plate more. The chances are also good that they could maintain their current run production even if their OBP and TB numbers fall off significantly.
On the pitching and defense side of the ledger, the picture is similar. The Nats have allowed 133 runs, the tenth-best performance in the league. However they've yielded their opponents just 316 Total Bases, second-best in the NL. Their opponents' OBP of .333 is tenth. They're underachieving slightly here as well.
Certainly, you don't want to put too much into all of this. It's only brought up to point out that the Nationals have not built their record on smoke and mirrors. They haven't been lucky; one could argue, in fact, that they've been a bit unlucky.