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Exploring how the 2019 Nationals made their comeback, and if the 2021 Yankees can do the same

The 2019 Washington Nationals were absolutely dreadful in April and May, but turned it around to become World Series champions.

Detroit Tigers v Houston Astros, Washington Nationals

In the two years since the 2019 Washington Nationals overcame the odds to win the World Series after a truly disastrous April and May, they have served as a reminder that the length of the baseball season can see a team’s fortunes radically shift. After a 6-5 start in the first 11 games of the season, Washington fell on its face in April and May, finishing the former at 12-16 and the latter at 24-33 — ultimately, they did not make it above .500 until June 28th. Only five games above .500 at the All-Star Break, the Nats proceeded to go 46-27 in the second half (a 102-win pace) to secure a Wild Card spot, from which they beat the Brewers, the Dodgers, the Cardinals, and the Astros for one of the most improbable World Series titles in recent history.

Since mid-April, those Nationals have been used as a beacon of hope for the numerous teams that were expected to compete this year but stumbled out of the gate, including the Minnesota Twins, Atlanta Braves, and, of course, the New York Yankees. But how much should they be held up as an example? Did their hot second half come out of nowhere, or were there signs that resurgence was on its way? Let’s dive into the numbers.

For the season as a whole, the Nationals put together very dominant numbers, and looking at them without context, you would not have expected them to have had such a rough start: their 5.39 runs/game and 105 OPS+ were second in the National League, while on the mound, their 4.47 runs allowed/game and 4.14 FIP were top-five. When we look at the numbers before and after June 11th (the day that the Nationals played their 67th game, the same number that the Yankees have played this year), we see the following:

The data is clear — after June 11th, the Nationals’ offense improved greatly, while the pitching staff, led by Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin, saw some positive regression. So what changed in that offense? It’s … complicated.

The simple answer is that the Washington Nationals had a much larger percentage of competitive at-bats in the final 95 games of the season compared to the first 67: in the first 40 percent of the season, three of the four leaders in plate appearances had a wRC+ below 100, while in the latter sixty percent of the season, five of the top six had a wRC+ above 105. Some of that came from improved performances from key contributors, such as Adam Eaton, who saw his 99 wRC+ on June 11th eventually become a 108 wRC+ by season’s end thanks to a 115 wRC+ after June 11th. Part of that is due to players returning from injury — after all, shortstop Trea Turner missed almost all of April and more than two weeks of May due to a broken finger. And some of that is due to midseason acquisitions like Asdrúbal Cabrera, who posted a .323/.404/.565 slash and accrued 1.2 fWAR in 38 games after being signed off the scrap heap on August 6th.

The good news is, the Yankees offense is in a fairly similar position. First baseman and 2020 home run king Luke Voit is currently on his way back from his second IL stint, hopefully giving the team a much-needed jolt by removing Rougned Odor from the lineup, shifting DJ LeMahieu back to second, and actually getting some offensive production out of the first base spot in the lineup. Miguel Andújar, Gary Sánchez, and Gleyber Torres have swung hot bats of late. And, earlier this week, Brian Cashman said that the Yankees are looking to add another bat, most likely at the center field position.

The pieces are in motion that could, hypothetically, allow the Yankees to copy the 2019 Nationals. It is, of course, far from a sure thing, but at least it’s not impossible.