Mar 28, 2014, 11:53 AM EDT
In examining what went wrong for the Nationals last season, one could argue it all started off on the wrong foot. After beginning 2012 with a winning record after their first month, the Nats finished April of 2013 a game below .500. They posted the best record in baseball from Aug. 9 to Sept. 24 at 30-12, but it was too little too late.
Though the importance of starting fast could be stressed every season, the Nationals have been vocal about avoiding what happened last year. Plus, recently the Atlanta Braves have made scorching out of the gate their calling card. Last season, for instance, they began the year 12-1.
Here is a look at how the Nats and Braves have fared through April over the last two seasons:
2012 Nationals – 14-8
2013 Nationals – 13-14
2012 Braves – 14-9
2013 Braves – 17-9
In terms of strength of schedule, both the Nationals and Braves are expected to have a relatively easy time this year. FanGraphs recently projected the difficulty of each team’s regular season calendar based on average opponent WAR. The Nats have the easiest schedule and the Braves are second. That probably has a lot to do with each team facing the Phillies, Mets and Marlins all the time as FanGraphs also projects the National League East to be the worst division in baseball.
Of course, just because the other three teams aren’t expected to contend for the division this season, it doesn’t mean it can’t happen. Every year teams make surprise leaps.
If it were to happen, however, those teams will have to survive tough early schedules. Based on 2013 opponent win percentages, the Nationals and Braves have it the easiest early on.
Here’s a look at each NL East team’s March and April schedules:
New York Mets – .520 opponent win % in 2013
Schedule – Nationals, Reds, Braves*, Angels*, Diamondbacks*, Braves, Cardinals, Marlins, Phillies*
Miami Marlins – .502 opponent win % in 2013
Schedule – Rockies, Padres, Nationals*, Phillies*, Nationals, Mariners, Braves*, Mets*, Braves
Philadelphia Phillies – .487 opponent win % win 2013
Schedule – Rangers*, Cubs*, Brewers, Marlins, Braves, Rockies*, Dodgers*, Diamondbacks*, Mets
Washington Nationals – .475 opponent win % in 2013
Schedule – Mets*, Braves, Marlins, Braves*, Marlins*, Cardinals, Angels, Padres, Astros*
Atlanta Braves – .467 opponent win % in 2013
Schedule – Brewers*, Nationals*, Mets, Nationals, Phillies*, Mets*, Marlins, Reds, Marlins*
As you see, the three hardest first month schedules – at least by this measure – belong to the Mets, Marlins and Phillies. If the Mets were to make some noise this season, for example, they would have survive what is a brutal first run in April. After facing the Nats in the season opening series, they play the Reds, Braves, Angels, D-Backs, Braves and then the Cardinals. All of those teams could conceivably win their divisions this year.
Health could also play a factor in how these teams begin the season. The Braves have well-documented injuries to their pitching staff, and the Mets will play the year without Matt Harvey. Jon Niese will also not be ready for Opening Day. Though the Nationals are unsure of when Doug Fister will debut, they look pretty healthy in comparison.
When it’s all said and done, schedules are just schedules. The Nationals have to take care of business when the actual games start. But just looking at the road ahead, the stage is set for a good April. It’s up to them to take advantage.
NL EAST STANDINGS
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As ESPN-980 AM's Nats Insider, Mark makes daily appearances on the station's various shows. Here's the 2015 schedule (subject to change)...
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