A good start ...
So, I was thinking, "What do the Nats have to do to make the playoffs this year?" (you can do these kinds of things in January). Anyway, more precisely, what kind of pace do they need to maintain for playoff contention? I reviewed the records of the 80 playoff teams since they were expanded in 1995, and found some interesting things. First, no team that has won 97 or more games has failed to make the playoffs. Only one team that won 96 failed -- the 1999 Reds, who lost a playoff game to the Mets. On the other end, the worst record to make the playoffs is 84-78, the 1997 Astros. But that's a bit of a fluke, as they were the only team to do that, and no team with 85 or 86 wins have made it. When you get to 88 wins, 8 teams have made it, so that is really the low end of the serious contenders.
That means the real target is 88 to 96 wins. The average record for playoff teams is 95 wins. The amazing thing about baseball is that the difference between 87 wins (out) and 97 wins (in) is less than one game in every ten. In other words, if you go 5-5 every ten games, you are out. If you go 6-4, you're pretty much in. Just one game about every two weeks. SuperNoVa's White Sox blog tracks the 10-game segments during the season, which is a very useful way to measure progress, but also reveals what a punishing march the entire season is. (You can see there that the 2004 White Sox were holding their own until Segments 10 through 13, where simply going 4-6 for four straight segments killed their playoff chances.).
My rule of thumb has been that a team should play .500 ball on the road and take 2 of 3 at home, which gives you 95 wins (54-27 home and 41-40 road), and pretty good shot at post-season. The problem is that that is a tough pace to keep up.
But what about the Nats? Our problem is the April schedule, which makes it tough to start out on a playoff pace, as we play all the Eastern teams, who are good on paper, except for the home opener series against Arizona. As I see it, we will need to sweep the D'Backs and pick one East team to beat up on (my guess is Florida) to overcome the expected losses against the Phils, Braves and Mets. But even maintaining .500 ball for April will be an accomplishment, so if we go 5-5 and 5-5 for our first two 10-game segments in April, that would be terrific. On the other hand, I wouldn't be surprised if we go 3-7 and 2-8.
[May 2006 Update] Due to circumstances beyond our control, we can no longer in good conscience provide Playoff Pace. We have refocused our efforts to a more realistic measure of the Nats 2006 season: the Royals Watch. SuperNoVa mentioned about a month ago that our personnel had dropped to the Royals level, so we'll track that for the rest of the season.