The Nationals, Phillies, Red Sox and Others are Defying Expectations

The Nationals, Phillies, Red Sox and Others are Defying Expectations

When the baseball season began, there were those who expected it to be fairly predictable. Five of the six divisions seemed to have comfortable favorites: the Indians, Astros, Nationals, Cubs and Dodgers. The lone hope for something competitive was a possible race between the Yankees and the Red Sox in the American League East.

At the All-Star Game break, nearly all of those favorites are playing well. The Red Sox and Yankees stand 1-2 in the East, and the Indians, Astros, Cubs and — after a slow start — Dodgers are in first place as well.

The exception are the Nationals. Winners of 97 games last season, they were expected to win 93 this year, based on BetOnline and other oddsmakers’ totals. So far they are 48-48.

How could a team with Max Scherzer (12-5, 2.41 E.R.A.) be playing .500 ball? Washington’s other ace, Stephen Strasburg, has pitched below his typical standards and is now on the disabled list. Gio Gonzalez has fallen off considerably from last year.

But worse is the offense. The Nationals are only scoring 4.3 runs per game, down from 5.1 last year. No one has underperformed more than Bryce Harper. He hit .319 last year; he’s now at .214. Though his 23 home runs mitigate his average some, his on-base plus slugging percentage is down to .833 from 1.008.

A .500 record might have seemed to be enough for Washington to be in contention in the N.L. East, since the rest of the division looked mediocre. But there have been two breakthrough teams there — the Phillies (53-42, projecting to 15 games above expectation) and the Braves (52-42, 16 games above).

The Phillies have done it with pitching. They are scoring around the same number of runs per game as when they were 66-96 last year but are giving up far fewer. Aaron Nola, a league-average pitcher coming in, is 12-3, with a 2.30 E.R.A. that is more than a point better than his previous best. And Jake Arrieta proved to be a solid signing even at age 32.

The Braves have improved on both offense and defense. Their established star is first baseman Freddie Freeman, who is batting .315 with 16 home runs, but they have gotten nearly as much production out of the 21-year-old second baseman Ozzie Albies, who is batting .281 with 20 homers. Equally surprising is the rebound season from Nick Markakis, who is rejuvenated at 34, earning his first All-Star selection thanks to a .323 batting average and numbers that are pushing his career bests from 10 years ago.

Also overachieving are the Oakland Athletics (who were expected to be mediocre but are 55-42) and the Mariners. Seattle is 58-39, but it has benefited from some luck: It has actually given up more runs than it has scored.

But the No. 1 overachievers are the Red Sox, who had been predicted to win 91 games. Their 68-30 record has them on track to win 112 games, though it would be a tall order to ask them to keep up that pace. The Yankees, expected to win 94, are on track to win 106 with the second-best record in baseball, but have the misfortune of playing in the same division as Boston.

The two biggest underachievers are also the two worst teams in baseball and two of the worst in recent years. No one expected too much from the Orioles (73 expected wins) and Royals (71). But did anyone expect them to be this atrocious? The Orioles, at 28-69, figure to win only 47 games, and the Royals, World Series winners less than three years ago, 46. While garbage time at the end of the season should help them increase those figures, they still may threaten the worst record of the last 10 years, the 51-111 Astros of 2013.

Also notably underachieving are the White Sox (33-62, projecting to 12 games below expectations). And what report on underachievement would be complete without the Mets? Bookmakers expected an 81-81 season, and plenty of fans were hoping for even more. They currently sit at 39-55 after starting the season 11-1.

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