The Washington Nationals haven't hit very well this season, as their .252 TAv ranks ninth in the National League (for an explanation of TAv, click here). They haven't run very well, either: They rank third from last in the big leagues in baserunning runs (minus-2.2). Nonetheless, the Nats have an 11-4 record, good for first place in the National League East and the third-best record in baseball, behind only the 11-2 Texas Rangers and 10-3 Los Angeles Dodgers. In a tight division like the NL East, a quick start can improve a team's playoff odds significantly. The Nats' chances of making the playoffs have risen from 7.9 percent before their first game to 19.2 percent today.
How have the Nats succeeded, if not by outslugging their opponents or regularly taking the extra base? The source of the team's success has been defense and pitching -- starting pitching, in particular. Before Edwin Jackson allowed five runs in five innings against the Houston Astros on Thursday night, no Nats starter had allowed more than four runs in an outing. Through the team's first 13 games, the starting rotation produced nine quality starts with a 1.65 ERA and a 2.20 RA, by far the best marks in baseball.
That string of strong starts is impressive, but it's not quite as superlative as it sounds. It seems especially significant because it came at the start of the season; in the middle of the year, it might not have attracted much notice. Last year, there were no fewer than 90 13-start stretches in which a team outpitched the Nats' 2.20 RA. Even poor-pitching teams got into the act: The Astros finished with a 4.99 RA, the worst in the National League, but beginning April 27 they reeled off 13 games in which their starters averaged only 2.07 runs allowed per nine innings. After that, they went back to being the Astros.
Obviously, a team with good pitching is more likely to have a hot streak than a team that isn't as talented, but a two-week period of elite run prevention isn't necessarily a sign of several strong months to come.
Of course, we know the Nationals aren't the Astros, given the pedigree and past performance of their arms. All five starters -- Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Jackson, Gio Gonzalez and Ross Detwiler -- once ranked 51st or higher on Baseball America's list of the top 100 prospects. But even if we didn't know that, we could tell from one number that their starters possess some serious stuff.