The Nats’ triumph, and the narrative it created


The Washington Nationals, who had won one postseason series in the franchise’s first 49 years, won the World Series last week. And before the week was out, Anthony Rendon and Stephen Strasburg, two of the prime architects of the victory, had opted for free agency, and Ryan Zimmerman, the longest-tenured Nat, had his $18 million option understandably declined.

Lack of loyalty is a two-way street, even in the glow of celebration.

But the return to business shortly after the suds stopped flowing shows just how fleeting the moment is, and how tenuous the coalition to produce it.

The Washington Post’s Thomas Boswell compared this year’s Nationals to the 1914 Boston Braves, who lost 14 of their first 18 games, were still under .500 on July 31 and 10 games out of first place on July 30. The Miracle Braves finished 90-41 and then won the World Series over the defending champion Philadelphia Athletics in four games.

(The Braves used three pitchers in the four games; the A’s six. The Nationals and Astros used their ninth pitcher with Justin Verlander’s first offering of Game 2; in total, 23 pitchers were used.)

As Boswell suggests, the Nationals were a modern miracle. On May 23, they were 19-31, 10 games out of first, one-and-a-half games ahead of only the tanking Marlins. Blessed be the Marlins was the Nats’ mantra then, not win the World Series.

Manager Dave Martinez’s career record was 101-111, and he seemed just as much a failure as Matt Williams, without the excruciating playoff defeat. Who would have thought then that Martinez, on the verge of being fired, would five-and-a-half-months later be at the side of a president about to be impeached?

The Nationals were 74-38 for the last four months plus one week, not 1914 Boston Braves good, but pretty impressive. Then they were 12-5 in the postseason — coming from behind in half the wins, and 5-0 in elimination games, coming from behind in all of those.

They had some help at the management level from two of their opponents, but the Nats’ postseason was as impressive and deserved as it was unlikely on May 23.

(It was also a testament to what happens when you try to win. Four or the final seven postseason series went to deciding games. The margins of victory were that small.)

Yet for some, a miracle wasn’t a good enough story, and they celebrated the Nats’ triumph because of what they perceived it symbolized: a Series victory for small ball and scouting over analytics.

From Bob Nightengale’s USA Today column on Oct. 24 after the Nats won the first two games: “’We’re proving the old-school ways still work, and that’s the message we’re sending,’ said Nats special assistant Dan Jennings, a former GM, manager and farm director.”

You can perhaps forgive the Nats employees, caught in the euphoria of the moment. Less so impartial observers who created a narrative of scouting and small ball. Nightengale: “The Nationals are proving that it’s still cool to believe in old-fashioned scouting, treat players like human beings instead of assets and value experience as a positive instead of a negative.”

It’s almost as if Nightengale is convinced the Astros don’t know how to win a World Series.

But if you’re picking a business model, here’s one vote for the Astros, who are perhaps three Jackie Bradley extra-base hits and a Howie Kendrick seventh-inning homer away from having won three World Series in a row. Compare that to the Nationals, who hadn’t won a playoff series in their first four appearances.

The Nationals didn’t win the final series or any of the preceding series by playing small ball. They homered twice to tie Game 5 of the NLDS vs. the Dodgers, then won it in the 10th with Kendrick’s grand slam. They tied and took the lead in Game 6 of the World Series with homers, then took the lead in Game 7 with another. In the final two games of the Series, the Nats outhomered the Astros, 5-2.

The Astros were arguably better at small ball in the Series: they put the ball in play more (51 strikeouts in 250 at-bats to the Nats’ 61 in 241) and stole more bases (6 of 7 to the Nats’ 4 of 4). A lot of good it did them.

The Nationals’ triumph wasn’t one of old-school baseball over new-school baseball any more than the Miracle on Ice was one of capitalism over Communism. The Nats’ win was one of their players and manager/coaches over the Astros’.

Arrogant was what one scout, in Nightengale’s column, called the Astros, for not sending an advance scout to the NLCS, but it’s hard to see, after five games, how that had anything to do with the Nats’ Game 6 and 7 wins. Technology, as so many in the newspaper business can attest, makes some jobs obsolete. Though it’s easy to empathize with the scouts and comprehend their motivation, it’s hard to argue with innovation. The radar gun isn’t the phenomenon it used to be, when every pitch of every game is tracked and measured for spin, speed and break.

But there’s truth in the scout’s accusation, if not as intended. The Astros’ PR muff before the Series was supremely arrogant and boorish, though that didn’t lose them the Series.

But their roster construction — and lack of prescience — might have helped do exactly that. The Astros used 12 pitchers in the World Series, and not one was left-handed. It’s more than coincidence that the top two OPSes turned in by the Nats in the Series were from lefties Juan Soto (1.178, three homers, two doubles) and Adam Eaton (.993, two homers, eight hits).

The Astros didn’t have a reliable lefty reliever all season, and their failure to add one at the deadline was ill-planned. It’s not as if the Dodgers, their likely Series opponent, weren’t heavy with left-handed power hitters (Cody Bellinger, Max Muncy, Joc Pederson). What’s worse: the Astros’ sin of omission, or the Dodgers’ sin of amnesia, getting a lefty reliever in Adam Kolarek and then not using him at the most opportune time?

In the Series, the Astros carried Hector Rondon, who pitched one inning in two blowouts and Chris Devenski, who pitched three innings in three blowouts. They left off their roster lefties Wade Miley (21 earned runs in 11.1 innings in in his final five starts) and hyrbid Framber Valdez, who overall wasn’t very good (5.86 ERA), but was against lefties (.197 average, .261 slugging).

As bad as Valdez was at times this year (15.43 ERA in July), he was potentially more useful against Eaton (no real platoon differential) and/or Soto (.850 OPS vs. lefties, which was 150 points worse than vs. righties). Valdez might not have been Kolarek, but it would have been nice to find out how close he could come.

The Red Sox won last year’s World Series without a left-handed relief specialist, but they had three left-handed starters, all of whom pitched out of the pen in a five-game series. The Astros didn’t have that option.

That was but one example of Astros arrogance. The other was, of course, hiding Gerrit Cole in Game 7. Somewhere Buck Showalter, who kept Zach Britton in the pen in the 2016 AL wild-card game, wondered what the Astros were saving Cole for.

Astros manager A.J. Hinch said Cole wasn’t entering the game in the middle of an inning or if the Astros were behind. Hinch: “He had never pitched in relief, he had never pitched on two days of rest. I wanted to be very fair to him and make sure that not only was he able to do it, but he was good.”

That was considerate of Hinch, but Game 7s are not for etiquette; they’re the time for breaking the rules, not conforming to them. We can be pretty sure Giants manager Bruce Bochy, who used Madison Bumgarner for five innings in Game 7 on two days rest, wasn’t consulting any preconceived rules when he made the change that won the 2014 Series. The only rule of Game 7 Hinch should have adhered to was to use Cole when the Astros most needed him.

The Astros got their comeuppance, which made the scouts happy, and in the coming days they’re likely to get another. Astros owner Jim Crane said, “we’re going to take a run at it,” when asked about re-signing Cole.

Given Cole’s reaction to the Series loss just minutes after — “technically, I’m unemployed” — there seems a better chance of the Astros playing next year at the Astrodome than having Cole pitch for them.

 

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