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MLB bettors finding value in Washington Nationals

To say that the Washington Nationals have gotten off to a disappointing start in 2009 would be quite an understatement. Through Friday they had won just 21 of their first 71 games, coming in at a pathetic 29.6% clip. That gives them the worst record in baseball, and it’s not even close; the Arizona Diamondbacks have the 29th best record in MLB, and even they are 7.5 games ahead of Washington.

And it’s not like the Nationals’ big underdog lines have made up for their poor start to those unfortunate enough to have wagered on them. Even considering the lines, they’ve also been the least profitable team in baseball, and it’s not even close, as they’re nearly 50% behind the team in second to last (Arizona again) in terms of losses if you’d bet on them every day.

Given all of that, it may seem strange to say that they’re value in wagering on them the rest of the year, but that’s exactly what I’m about to do. The most important issue here is that they are not nearly as bad as their miserable record. Just looking at their runs scored and allowed, a much better predictor of future performance than W-L record, the Padres have actually been worse than Washington. And if you break it down even further, as Baseball Prospectus does with their Adjusted Standings and third-order records, Washington’s performance doesn’t look very remarkable at all, as they’re right there along with a variety of National League bottom dwellers.

Nobody is saying Washington is good, and they are certainly way, way out of the pennant race. But they don’t have to actually be good for there to be value in betting on them; they simply need to be better than people think. And there’s very little doubt that that’s true, as we saw above. And even that is only looking at their performance thus far this year, which has admittedly been less than admirable.

Washington is no longer throwing guys like Scott Olsen and Daniel Cabrera out there, which can only help them. Olsen made five starts and complied a horrendous 7.24 ERA, managing a 1-4 record. Cabrera’s ERA was better, at 5.85, but his actual performance was unbelievably bad, with 35 walks against just 16 strikeouts in 40 innings, totals that are only unheard of for a major league starting pitcher.

Even better news is that one of those spots has been filled with someone who can legitimately pitch. Rookie righty Jordan Zimmermann’s ERA, at 4.65, may not jump out on you, but he should be expected to improve on that the rest of the year. Zimmermann has made 12 starts for the Nats, compiling 69.2 innings pitched. In those innings he’s struck out an impressive 69 batters, while walking only 20. That 3.5 to 1 strikeout to walk ratio puts him in the company of such studs as Justin Verlander, Johan Santana, and Jake Peavy. More than anything else, the Nationals should absolutely be a play when Zimmermann is on the mound, especially considering most people probably think you’re talking about Washington’s third baseman when you mention his last name.

Washington’s offense also isn’t bad, coming in sixth in the 16 team NL with a .747 team OPS. They’re only 10th in runs scored, but that can be attributed to an unusually poor performance with runners in scoring position, which should not be expected to continue. Their offense really shouldn’t require all that much convincing, since there are a bunch of fairly big names in there. Nick Johnson has always hit when healthy, and 2009 has been no different in that respect, as he has an excellent .417 OBP. Adam Dunn is on pace for another 40-homer season. Cristian Guzman has been very good since having laser eye surgery a couple years ago, and that’s continued this year, as he’s put up a .806 OPS thus far, excellent for a shortstop. Finally, the previously mentioned Zimmerman made headlines with a 30-game hitting streak in April and May, and has put together a solid year, with 20 doubles, 12 homers and a .856 OPS. The Nationals are going to score some runs, making it worth suffering through some of their pitching when you consider the excellent odds that are being offered on their games at this point.

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