April 30, 2017

Winning Ugly? Winning Often Will Do That

August 21, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

Anyone who watched the entirety of the Nationals 13-inning 5-4 win over the Atlanta Braves on Monday night is susceptible to one part of the Stephen Strasburg argument. It goes like this: Washington’s pennant run in 2012 is a “perfect storm” convergence of talent and luck. Strasburg does not want to sit this out because it may not come round again.

The Washington Nationals have had almost as many walk-off games where the other team has wild-pitched the winning run in during the bottom of the final frame as anything else. Unless you count those where the other team threw the ball away, or committed some other brand of ineptitude that chased home the winning run for the Nationals. And it makes watchers nervous because it seems like just a fortunate carom of the baseball, something that could just as easily have gone the other way. Grab your glove and head to the mound Mr. Strasburg, the ball won’t bounce like this again.

But baseball is all about catching and throwing the ball as much as anything else and the Nationals do that part of the game as well as anyone. The home team that botched more wins than I care to remember, has become a smooth machine on the field. They make mistakes, but fewer than almost any one else. And that is what makes for championship baseball. They lead the NL in fielding efficiency and are second to the Braves in fielding percentage.

There is reason to believe this is something more than a convergence of random events, some rare alignment of the stars. There is method in this madness, as easy to understand as a linear regression formula.

In this morning’s Washington Post, Tom Boswell offered evidence for such an assertion. The Nationals are a well-planned attack on the NL Championship, engineered by Davey Johnson most recently. Any time I see someone teaching hitting the way Ted Williams intended it, I have more confidence that there is something more than a mojo hoedown at work.

My surmise is that any NL pitcher will tell you the change in the Nationals approach at the plate this year is a stark one. If indeed it is a rejection of a failed batting philosophy as Boswell opines, then more power to Davey. Watching Ian Desmond last season is one example of exactly what Boswell is teaching. Desmond spent most of the year flailing at outside pitches as the opposition threw the first one on the outside edge of the plate and then extended Desmond until he was flailing at pitches three and four inches off the plate. However, the same could be said of Danny Espinosa except his weakness was the inside pitch under his hands. So the point that Boswell makes that gets lost in the foo frah about “the move” is the old Ted Williams bromide: “get a good pitch to hit.”

No one ever boiled it down to the essentials any better. For Ted it helped that he could so effectively punish the ball when he got that pitch. Lesser men will foul them off and pop them up, but Boswell is correct about one thing. Talent will out when it takes an effective approach. Ian Desmond, Michael Morse, Danny Espinosa and the rest of the Nationals lineup have been far more successful this season because they are getting themselves out less often. More frequently they are aggressive at the plate and when thrown a good pitch, are hammering it hard.

As a result, the team that was well below league average in offensive production in 2011, is well above average in 2012. The sixth best offense in the NL is scoring 4.43 runs per game. And they are fronted by the best pitching staff that is allowing only 3.54. When FanGraphs rates the Nationals as the best team in their power rankings, it is on the strength of this run differential. No team combines the ability to score runs and prevent runs better than Washington.

Can they do it again in 2013 when Mr. Strasburg will be allowed to pitch until Commissioner Selig turns out the lights. There are many lucky breaks that propel a team. No rational fan would argue otherwise–as sick as that may sound. But the core of talent that is the Washington Nationals will return in 2013. There is no reason to believe that the same logic and reason that propels this year’s version will change greatly. And if they do, it will be because GM Mike Rizzo attempts to strengthen them in the off-season.

The only perfect storm at work in 2012 is that of the media who believe that Stephen Strasburg has a once in a lifetime chance to visit the winners circle in 2012. Me thinks they doth protest too much. There will be plenty of playoff baseball for him in years to come as long as he can remain healthy. And that is what this debate is about after all: keeping Strasburg healthy for years to come. That logic will fuel more playoff baseball in DC than it has ever seen before. Get used to it.

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