Bryce Harper Returns and Second Half Expectations

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As you've probably read from the reputable news sources this morning the Nationals will be getting Bryce Harper back tonight, and in case you've been living under a rock the replacement left fielders haven't hit well in his absence. To highlight this in the most simple of fashions the Washington Nationals are 25-19 when Harper is in the line-up and 16-19 when he isn't. This shouldn't come as much of a surprise. It is hard for any team to cope without their best player and even harder when their back-ups all have an under .600 OPS. Roger Bernadina, Steve Lombardozzi, Tyler Moore, and Jeff Kobernus haven't just looked like bench players getting exposed, but like AAAA players getting exposed. 

In many ways the Nationals are lucky to be only 6.5 games back from the Braves, and Harper will provide a boast. It is possible to look back at how many runs a game the Nationals scored with Harper in the line-up, but that is close to meaningless. As it has been noted before the Nationals haven't had anything close to their Opening Day line-up on the field since April 15. So while Harper was in the line-up it was without Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth, Espinosa instead of Rendon, and a hard slumping Adam LaRoche. The line-up Harper is returning to is different than the one he left. Since the Nationals inserted Rendon at second the Nationals offense has averaged over four runs a game and it is hard to imagine that that won't get better with Harper. 

The real question is if the Nationals can still win the division at 6.5 games back from the Braves on July 1. Some have said that this is such a rare occurrence that it shouldn't even be counted as realistic, but when the reality of 2013 lies somewhere west of Parts Unknown it is impossible to say what is and isn't realistic. Everything that is possible is realistic, but that shouldn't be the question. The Nationals are not eliminated from the division and therefore can still win it, but how many times in the last ten seasons has a team 6.5 games back in their division won the division? This may be somewhat hard to quantify because, I suspect, that many of the teams that are historically down at least 6.5 games aren't in second place. As of this moment at 6.5 games back the Nationals are further back from the Braves than the last place team in the NL West. So perhaps it isn't only important to look at the number of games back but how many times a team behind in the division by a margin greater than four games back was able to win that division.  

Going back a year ago to 2012 and there is immediately some bad news. Four of the six division winners were leading their division on the morning of July 1, but then there is this. The Detroit Tigers were in third place behind the White Sox and Indians 4.0 games back in the division, and even more amazing the Oakland A's were in third place with a record of 37-42 and 13.0 games out of their division. Expecting the Nationals to go on an Oakland A's type run is a little unreasonable, but at 6.5 games out as opposed to 13.0, they don't need to.   

2011 will always be remembered for its final day in which the Cardinals overtook the Braves for the NL Wild Card and the Rays the Red Sox for the AL Wild Card, but as of the morning of July first only one eventual division winner was in second place and that was the Arizona Diamondbacks who set a measly 2.0 games back of the Giants.

2010 offers some good news as only half the eventual division winners were leading their division as the sun rose on July 1, but the furthest back were the San Francisco Giants at 5.5 games. The Phillies were in third place but were only 3.5 games back of the Braves, and the Rays were also in third but 2.0 games back from the Yankees.    

Again in 2009 half of the division winners were not in the lead on this date in history, but of those the furthest back were the Minnesota Twins who were 4.0 games back of the Detroit Tigers and tied for second place with the White Sox. If anyone remembers the end of 2009 it was very exciting. The Twins looked out of it as the last month of the season started and plans were made to say goodbye to the Metrodome, but then the Twins started winning, and kept winning, and wouldn't stop winning, and then they forced a game 163 to win the division and go to the playoffs. So what was scheduled as the last game in the Metrodome ended up being the fourth to last game in the Metrodome or something like that.  

2008 is a little depressing as only one division winner wasn't in first, and those were the Dodgers who had an under .500 record, but were chasing the 42-41 Diamondbacks and ended up winning the division with 84 wins. I can say with confidence right now that it is going to take more than 84 wins to win the 2013 NL East.

2007. To fans of the NL East that year should bring back a few memories of a team blowing a big lead. The Mets had a 6.0 lead on the Phillies on July 1 and a 4.0 division lead overall. As the season wore on they increased this lead to 7.0 games on September 12, and then with two weeks left to play in the season were swept by the Phillies, lost two of three to the Nats, righted the ship for a minute taking three of four from the Marlins, then getting swept by the Nationals, and after entering the final series of the season trailing in the division by a game they would lose two out of three to the Marlins and surrender the division to the Phillies.   

The only real drama in 2006 was the Twins sitting at 43-35, in third place, and 11.0 games out of the division going on the classic Minnesota run and winning the 2006 AL Central. Aside from that every other eventual division winner was in first place on the morning of July 1. Perhaps Denard Span brought a little bit of that Twins magic with him and the Nationals are poised for a big second half run. Or it could be that bringing back Bryce Harper to complement what Anthony Rendon has already meant to the offense will spark the Nationals to go on an extended run to catch and eventually take down the Braves. I have to admit that I am stalling a bit on 2006, but I know what I am going to see when I look at 2005, and I am not all that interested in reliving that, but here we go. 

On July 1 of 2005 the Washington Nationals had a 4.5 game lead on the Atlanta Braves and an 8.0 game lead on the last place team in the division, the New York Mets. By the time the season was over every team in the NL East would pass the Nationals. The 2005 Washington Nationals didn't just lose the division they finished last. There are many reasons for this. Most of the early season success was done with smoke and mirrors. The 2005 Washington Nationals didn't have the players, the pitching, or much of anything of a first place team. There was no youth and barely any talent. Think about the stars of that team. None of Nick Johnson, Jose Guillen, Brad Wilkerson, John Patterson, and Chad Cordero were long for baseball after the 2005 season. I remember July 1 of 2005. It was exciting. The Nats were going to win the division. There was no way they were going to lose it. The tired Expos just needed a boost of playing in front of people. We believed in magic, but there were so many signs that this was a mirage, but we were all too new to baseball to understand this.  

As far as the rest of the divisions in 2005 only one other winner wasn't in first place and those were the Yankees who were one game over .500 at 39-38 and 6.0 games out. They ended up winning 95 games and the division.  

Take this however you want, but when I look at this I find hope. Every season from since the Nationals have moved to DC a team has come back and won the division from second place or lower, and on many of those occasions those teams are down by at least 6.0 games. The Nationals are 6.5 games back, but they are about to get back one of the best players in the NL, Strasburg, Zimmermann, and Gio have all been pitching like themselves, the Nationals can add bench and a fifth starter at the deadline. They have the ability to come back. It is not going to be easy, and on the scale of probability it is closer to unlikely than anything else, but to say it isn't realistic is short sighted. If it isn't the Nationals that come back and take their division it is going to be someone else, and not many other teams have the talent to do it. The Dodgers certainly could, anyone in the AL East could win that division, and from just looking back at history I'm not going to count out the Twins, scrap that I am counting out the Twins.

Nothing is decided yet and there is still a lot of baseball left to play. With Bryce Harper back and a majority of the dead weight cut the Washington Nationals are uniquely positioned to play that baseball 6.5 games better than the Atlanta Braves.    

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