August 17, 2018

The Best Team Usually Wins

August 8, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

One of the bigger surprises in the 2018 season has been the impotence of the Washington Nationals. But that is why they play the games, why paper comparisons in March of this year failed to see how quickly the Atlanta Braves young team would gel with its veterans, or how Aaron Nola and Jake Arrieta would out pitch Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg.

The best pitching staff in the National League East has been the Philadelphia Phillies by most standards. The Braves aren’t quite as good, but Sean Newcomb is on track to follow Aaron Nola toward the top echelon of National League arms and others like Mike Foltynewicz, are likewise on the cusp.

What is most striking when you examine why the Phillies and Braves are well ahead of the Nationals is the ability, or willingness, of those two teams at the top to show up. The four pitchers atop the Phillies rotation have all logged well over 100 innings. They have a lineup of eight position players who have been grinding out the schedule in ways that have proven inconvenient to some in DC. The Braves players have been consistent in their presence all season, though their rotation has been hurt by numerous injuries. Their minor league organization–assessed by many as one of the best in the game–has been able to fill the gaps relatively well so far.

Max Scherzer is the face of the Washington Nationals. Sure, the MLB web site is papered with photographs of Bryce Harper. But that is more about Rob Manfred and what he is willing to do to help star players shape their brand, than it is about on-field performance. Harper, for all the neon gas devoted to the Home Run Derby, is hitting .234 and while he has hit 27 home runs to lead the league, he has only 70 RBI. Both Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis have 69 RBI for the Braves, though Freeman lost in the early rounds of the Home Run Derby and Markakis watched from the wings.

Max Scherzer has logged 161.2 innings to date, has a 2.28 ERA and 216 strikeouts. He is on pace for his fourth Cy Young Award and will hopefully log something very similar to the 220 innings he has averaged since 2013. Stephen Strasburg has logged 85.1 innings and is still on the disabled list with shoulder soreness. The Nationals two front line pitchers were seen in a heated discussion in the dugout several weeks ago, which can largely be explained by comparing the grit profile of the two most highly paid players on the Nationals roster–$42 million and $38 million respectively for 2019. One is doing everything possible to earn it, the other not so much.

In 2017, Ryan Zimmerman slashed .303/.358/.573 with 34 home runs in 524 at bats. Citing mysterious back problems and other ailments, Zimmerman first eschewed playing time during Spring Training in March of 2018 and has followed that up with a .253/.321/.480 slash line with 7 home runs over 150 at bats. Those figures project to 10 home runs over 215 at bats for the season overall. The lost at bats for Zimmerman and Daniel Murphy, the lost innings for Strasburg, and the reduced performance of Bryce Harper, all roll together in a seamed ball that explains why the Washington Nationals are in third place in the NL East, six and one-half games behind the Philadelphia Phillies.

There is no excuse in this analysis. There is no ability to hide the failure of the Nationals who have not shown up to play the way they have in four of the past six seasons. The 2018 season has almost two full months and it is conceivable that the Nationals will pull themselves together and win it all. But whether they do or not, whether they deserve to or not, the issues that have arisen this season should be instructive for future years.

When the Lerner family was building a franchise, one with a formidable presence, it was understandable to maximize the star caliber of its players. The argument– once conventional wisdom–that Washington, DC is not a fit place for baseball has been settled for once and for all. Nor will anyone argue that its teams cannot win. For that we can all be grateful to the Lerner family for their exertions.

But the ultimate prize is not won through glamour or glitz. Baseball is a team sport. I was in the company of several members of the Mayo Smith Society over the weekend and we tried to remember if there were any Hall of Fame players on the 1968 Tigers. Only Denny McLain had that level of talent and he wasted it. But the rest of that team played harder than the more talented St. Louis Cardinals who thought the World Series belonged to them as a right. They were wrong. The Tigers showed up for seven full games, every inning, every play. The Cardinals did not.

There is a new crop of talent making its way to DC. Fewer are drawn from the Rule Four Draft. Rosters in coming years will feature fewer top shelf draft picks like Ryan Zimmerman or Stephen Strasburg. Juan Soto did not go to UVA or Rice University. He comes from grittier surroundings. Victor Robles, Jefry Rodriguez and many of the talents coming through the organization share that trait, whether they are from Venezuela or Detroit–Sterling Sharp comes to mind. But whether the 2018 Washington Nationals or the 2024 Nationals make it to the World Series, it will be because the team showed up for every game of the long season, because they had the grit and commitment to one another to do it, not because they had a commitment to Under Armour or New Era Caps.

There are no guarantees in baseball, no sure things. The closest thing to certainty is that you cannot win if you don’t show up for all of it. The team that grinds through the entirety of 162 games is usually seen as the best and most talented. Not the one that talks about it, but the one that actually is there from the start and hardly misses a beat. So far, that does not look very much like the 2018 Washington Nationals.

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