Nationals Baseball: Monday Quickie - Specialness

Monday, April 25, 2016

Monday Quickie - Specialness

On April 28th, 2015 the Washington Nationals' record stood at 7-13. They were 8 games out of first place to start the day and while the Mets had lost earlier that night, the Nats looked destined to stay exactly where they were. Spot starter AJ Cole was crushed by the Braves early and the Nats attempt at digging out of that hole was stalling out just short.  Down two runs and down to their last two outs, Matt Williams sent up pinch hugger, Dan Uggla, to try to get a big hit against the Braves closer. On an 0-2 count Uggla miraculously delivered, hitting a three run home run and giving the Nats a 13-12 lead that Storen would close out.

Starting with that game the Nats would go 20-5 over the next four weeks and would climb from 8 games out all the way to a 2.5 game lead. That game turned the season around. That game sparked the team to a division lead. Those fun-loving chocolate sauce pouring guys were special!

Except then they'd find themselves unable to shake the Mets, playing .500 ball through the end of July until a sweep by the Mets would give New York a lead they'd never relinquish.

I bring this up not as a warning, or to try to draw comparisons between last year and this one. I bring this up because I'm hearing a lot of talk recently about how "special" this Nationals team is. The strong start, the big hits, the apparent camaraderie. I'm here to remind you that the history of baseball is littered with the corpses of teams thought to be special. The 2007 Rockies that went 14-1 to end the year and swept through the NL... only to get swept themselves in the Series.  The "best team in baseball" Seatttle Mariners of 2001 who won 116 games in the regular season, best record in half a century, only to lose in the ALCS to the "9/11 inspired" Yankees.  Those same Yankees who got 2-out, bottom of the ninth, home runs in back to back games to take a 3-2 World Series lead... only to lose the championship in 7. Hell, I bet a good chunk of you felt that the 2014 Nats who cruised through August and September (33-13 to end year) and capped the season with a no-hitter were special. I could go on.

This happens every year in a half-dozen cities in every sport. Fans buy into a seemingly obvious truth. Your team wins a lot, therefore they are special.  It's just a trick though. A way to explain why a team is doing better than expected without taking away anything from them.  If it isn't fleeting, if it is something intrinsic to the team, why then it can go on forever.

It won't. Those teams were not "special" in some way beyond the talent assembled. Neither are the Nats.

What are the Nats then? The Nats are a very, very good team. The Nats are a team that most people picked to make the playoffs, many people picked to win the NL East and even a few had winning it all. They are a team with Bryce Harper, who has in one month moved from arguably to inarguably the best player in baseball. They are a team with a good shot of having the best starting pitching staff in the majors. They are a team that has started out hot and have moved themselves from slight underdogs to win the NL East to solid favorites. They are also a team who have played the weakest schedule by far in baseball and a team that might have gotten a break or two along the way.

But the reaction to that last sentence should be "so what" or "we'll take it", not to try to make this team into something beyond what they are. There's nothing that happened with this team that can't be explained by the talent and the competition.

Side Note :
I think some portion of this has to do with the strangely polarizing effect Dusty Baker has had for fans in regards to not the team, but HIM. Dusty has held some questionable views, has never been able to win a championship, and has had some messy exists in his past. This has left various fanbases and pundits selling him short on a career that shows he is nothing but a day to day winner. At the same time, Dusty has shown himself a master of controlling his story, and in engendering enough good will with those around him to create "Us vs Them" scenarios. This has left the current fanbase (and media, IMO) far more willing to ignore his occasionally poor decisions and side with Dusty in instances where that's really not necessary. For a soulless automaton like myself, dealing with a LOVE/HATE persona is unnerving.


Robot said...

*sigh* Harper, you are, of course, correct on all of this. I will not, however, let your soulless commitment to "statistics" and "analysis" detract from my excitement over the sheer insanity of yesterday's game.

Good God, that was nuts.

G Cracka X said...

RIZZO: O that deferred contracts had not repulsed
But one more of those veteran free agents who got away!

BAKER: What's he that wishes so?
My boss, Mr. Rizzo? No, my fair friend;
If we are mark'd to lose, we are enough
To do this city loss; and if to win,
The fewer the free agents, the greater share of honour.
God's will! I pray thee, wish not one veteran more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for salary,
Nor long I for the bottom line;
I don't care if men my jerseys wear;
Such outward things don't compare to Barry Bonds.
But if it be a sin to covet rings,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my GM, wish not for free agents.
God's peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more methinks would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Mr. Rizzo, through my hitting coach,
That he who does not believe we can rally,
Let him depart; his train ticket shall be stamped for Syracuse,
And transfer costs put into his bank account;
We would not manage in that man's company
That opposes my 'Ya gotta believe' mantra.

This day is call'd the Feast of Rallies.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will wear their hats like shark fins when this day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Rallies.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbors,
And say "To-morrow is the Feast of Rallies."
Then will he open his closet and show his cap,
And say "This cap I wore shark-style on Rally day."
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household names—
Dusty the Manager, Strasburg and Ramos,
Harper and Heisey, Petit and Perez—
Be in their flowing cups freshly remembered.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And the Feast of Rallies shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we nascent Nationals;
For he to-day that plays this game for me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so angry about called 3rd strikes,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And lawyers in D.C. now arguing
Shall think themselves filibustered they did not attend,
And hold their manhoods cheap when any speak
That watched us play on Rally day.

(Adapted from Shakespeare's 'Henry V')

Old Man River said...

^ Bravo!

If it truly is about the journey rather than the end result, these are the games I'll remember.

Anonymous said...

For some reason, we have some of the dumbest sports fans with the biggest mouths in the world in this town, who never seem to learn anything from experience. It's especially ludicrous when you think about just how little justification there is for us to talk trash about anything sports-related.

Let's see how this team performs through the Month of Hell starting on Friday before we start bragging so much.

blovy8 said...

Flowing cups. Now there's a Shakespearean pun.

JE34 said...

I was yelling at the radio/TV throughout the day, decrying the Nats' penchant for leaving runners nailed to their bases, thinking aloud that good teams do not waste so many opportunities against mediocre opponents. The upcoming STL/KC/CHC/DET/NYM on the schedule definitely has me concerned.

That said, the programmer of Harper's AI needs to build in a *little* soul, for use on occasions such as these!

Fries said...

@JE34 iirc, the Nats were 1 for 16 with RISP. That is...ugly. I know it's been echoed here before, but where the Nats stand at the end of that Mets series will dictate how I feel about this team. I'm liking the way the bench and bullpen are playing, but the lineup outside of Bryce and Murphy needs to wake up, and Scherzer needs to shake whatever it is that's causing such scary results so far. If the Nats want to be an elite team and contend over the next couple of weeks, then they need to wake up the bats, or at the very least string together their hits

Bryceroni said...

That game was unbelievable. "The bunt."

I loved the outcome, but I feel the need to grow some cold water on the dusty love-fest.

1. Left stras in too long. I feel like sometimes people say this in hindsight, but it was oooooobvious at the time that he needed to be pulled. 2. Not leaving BRYCE in the game, especially with an off day today. Plus it left dusty with no more position players.

Yeah he's good in the clubhouse, yeah he's better than ole PBN, but that doesn't mean we should just ignore the ingame strategy.

Bryceroni said...

Not to mention den Dekker and MAT batting 1/2. It's not like you want your 1/2 bitters to be over the Mendoza line or anything...

Section 220 said...

Hey, don't you listen to FP??? This team is having fun! They're doing the little things to win a ballgame! They're playing the game the right way! They're just playing good baseball! Something special is happening!

Donald said...

I think the Nats have been more lucky than good so far, in a lot of ways. Not that there's anything wrong with being lucky. But before we anoint the Nats the NL East champs we need to remember that while the Nats are playing Stl, KC and the Cubs, the Mets will be playing SF, Atl, and the Padres. The Nats lead will certainly shrink and may disappear during that stretch.

I agree with Fries that we need to see how they do against good competition before we can have a sense of how good they are.

Bjd1207 said...

@Bryceroni - I can't get past it, even for yesterday's game. How can you consistently hit your worst hitter leadoff and then your two worst hitters in the lineup 1 and 2? Like come on.....

Froggy said...

I was at the game and sat through the whole 6 hour affair. You're wrong Harper, whether due to Dusty or not,the team is special and is having fun (did you not see the rally attire everyone was wearing?). Bryce pinch hitting a dinger in the bottom of the 9th, Danny stealing second, and a relief pitcher who hasn't batted since 2010 dropping a drag bunt down, then a walk-off blast by Heisey isn't special?

Anonymous said...

We were driving around and I was following the game on twitter, and I turned to my wife and said, they’re down a run with two outs and a relief pitcher is up to bat and the other manager is making a pitching change. She said, I don’t know anything about baseball, but isn’t that kind of strange? I said, yes, it is. Then I refreshed, laughed, and she said, what happened?

Bravo to the Shakespearean take off above.

Mr. Bill said...

"We have the best player on the planet, but wake me up when we win the WS"

"We are 14-4, best record in baseball, and 3.5 games ahead of the Mets. But wake me up when they play a real opponent."

"We have a manager who finally seems in-tune with his players to put them into positions to succeed, but wake me up when he's won manager of the year."

"We won the game, but wake me up when we don't go 1-16 with RISP."

"Strasburg is pitching lights out right now, but wake me up when he's better than Kershaw."

"Joe Ross is off the a hot start, but wake me up when Scherzer stops sucking."

"Ramos is hitting the ball fairly well (perhaps lacik), but wake me up when we get Lucroy."

"The bullpen was supposed to be suspect and is anything but that so far. But me up when they've done it for a full season."

"Papelbon leads the league in saves, but wake me up when he's done choking our MVP."

"Rizzo continues to find quality ballplayers through the draft and FA. But wake me up when we've won a WS."

Its amazing to me how many people see this team from a glass-half empty approach. Has just a mere 10+ seasons, 4+ years of recent success, and 2 postseason results really broken ya'll that much? That you just can't believe this team is worth its salt until they are the last ones standing? Us DC fans are quite fickle, and that is really unfortunate. And yes Harper, many people said Uggla's homer last year was the turning point. Hell, we did go on quite a run after that. But all for naught, because we didn't make the postseason. That "run" was a dysfunctional manager's club that fed off of consecutive wins. Everyone gets hot at some point. If you think that run and these Nats so far look similar, you're sorely mistaken. And it all starts with the man at the helm. Now. its grown men having fun playing a kid's game. Before it was men "doing their job." This isn't a guarantee of a title, but sure is a reason to think these Nats are different. Loving every game this season, because despite their statistical troubles, they are winning games and having a blast doing it. Quit being a Negative Nancy.

SM said...

Negative Nancy?

Nattydread said...

Besides being a good manager, Dusty Baker is enjoyable --- and it is obvious that his aura affects the team. Leaders inspire. Don't need any statistics to show this, just watch the team in the dugout. At the end of the day, it is all entertainment.

It also looks like having Maddux is also rubbing off on the pitching staff. Pitchers (Strasburg, Ross) seem to have better game plans. Maddux looks to be paying very close attention.

Is the soulless robot ready to consider whether Murphy's improvement might be due to a better approach and learned behaviour? He may be on a hot streak --- perhaps built something he changed?

Kenny B. said...

Good ol' soulless automaton.

I agree that "specialness" is a post hoc assessment that basically just means "happy about doing well." I think viewing it as some kind of magic formula that is in any way repeatable or measurable is dumb.

BUT, half the fun of sports is the way more or less random on-field results can drive interesting narratives. Data-driven analysis is critical to team success, but so are narratives, because interesting and fun narrratives put butts in seats and eyes on telecasts. You use cold, soulless automaton analysis to field the teams that can drive the fun stories, which draws attention, brings success, fueling more/better resources and analysis, more fun narratives, and you have yourself a virtuous loop and successful franchise.

So the narratives may not be helpful for statisticians, but they are critical for fans, so let's not be too dismissive of them.

W. Patterson said...

Interesting comparison this year to last. I don't have the numbers in front of me but the number of errors is much lower this year compared to last. And, apropos of nothing, Ian Desmond is now with the Rangers


Good post, Harper. I don't get to it as often as I'd like but it's always a joy to read your insights.

Kevin Rusch said...

As you've said before, these wins still count. Also, I think it's somewhat inconsistent to conclude that MAT is never going to be any good (he improved through last season, has superb defense, and good power. he's not hitting now and that's a real problem, but his improvement is at least 2/3 as likely as Murphy's regression to the mean)

Sure, we should all curb our enthusiasm. Kinda. We should, however, enjoy the wins too.

John C. said...

The Nats' pitching has been really good. Part of that has been their defense. They are 5th in MLB in defensive efficiency (DE), and 3rd in park adjusted defensive efficiency (PADE). Last year at this time they were in the bottom five (Desmond's early season struggles, Werth/Zim adjusting to new positions, Escobar, etc.); they finished 21st overall in DE and 12th in PADE.

Yeah, they stunk with RISP yesterday. They also hit into some bad luck (thinking of Drew's scorched liner right to the second baseman). They do need to get the bats going, but to be sitting where they are with the (non-Bryce/Murphy) bats slumbering is an accomplishment no matter who the opposition is.

Some people don't like prosperity. Not to worry, though - it's a long season, they will have a chance to be gloom & doom-y soon enough. No matter how the season turns out.

Gr8day4Bsbll said...

Special or not, yesterday's game is why we love this game so much... And if nothing else, it's starting again to feel like it felt during the 20-5 run last year; it just FEELS like they're going to come back and do something strange to win. Granted, it's been against the dregs of MLB thus far and the next few weeks will tell. But right now, it sure is fun to watch -- when even the unconventional moves work out, you just have to sit back, smile and shake your head, and make sure you watch again tomorrow because if you don't you're going to miss something...

Bjd1207 said...

In defense of Harper/the soulless automoton take -

First, it's what we come here for. As fans who are emotionally invested it's easy for us to get carried away by a game like yesterdays. And like many of you have pointed out I think it's definitely natural, fun, and probably what an area fanbase is "supposed" to do on a ride like this. But Harper, removed from the hullabaloo of the city/sportstalk radio and only invested in the team insofar as this blog, can give us the critical, objective eye that's sometimes lost. I come to this thread to get a rational, often statistical analysis of our successes and failures along with reasonable predicitons for the future.

Second, the "specialness narrative" (as I'm going to refer to it here) is often looked down upon by myself, Harper (I'm pretty sure), and others is because it offers extremely limited explanatory power, and almost zero predictive power. As you look back on a successful season you can say there was "something about them that clicked." But writers and some on this thread are trying to make the case NOW that this team has that "something special." The problem with that is that if we end up at the end of the season with a disappointment, then clearly this team wasn't something special. Or maybe then the explanation is tailored to meet the events that did happen (we WERE special until X happened). And it's even truer for predictions. Those with the "glass half full" approach boldly state that this team has something special, and then when it doesn't work out it's simply because they weren't.

It's not measurable at all, much less correlative with success. The definition just begs the question. They're successful because they're special, and they're special because of the success we've seen.

But all of that is not to say that there's no such thing as clubhouse chemistry, or that having guys loose in the clubhouse doesn't help them play better. In my limited experience it probably does. But until we can point to and track these things independent of club success, it will always simply be a discussion and nothing more, where as things like mph/spin rates can be tracked prior to, and after, a pitcher's blossoming and can be pointed to a reasonable CAUSE for that success. Or even less "measurable" things like eliminating a leg-kick from a swing. We can see before, we can see after, we can see results before, and we can see results after. "Specialness," "grit," or "wanting it more" just don't lend themselves well to analysis

Bryceroni said...


To add something about specialness being unknowable: why is it unsatisfactory to say that the nats and twins played a weird game that happened to go the nats way? It was thrilling,BRYCE is spectacular, and ultimately the nats had a chance to win because a backup catcher had a brain cramp.

That game should be enjoyed for the singular gem that it was without trying to attach silly narratives to it.

Ric said...

@byceronie and @bjd: Sure, we batted the two worst hitters 1st and 2nd. However, they hit .364 (4 for 11). So whereas I agree it was foolish, I'm not sure I would have brought it up myself.

@MrBill: Half the scenarios you spelled out were correct. But half, I don't see people making those arguments. For instance, nobody is complaining "Strasburg is pitching lights out right now, but wake me up when he's better than Kershaw." I think you are seeing more half-empty than is really out there.

@byceroni: Agreed. Everyone could see Strasburg was in too long. Even facing the first batter in the seventh; his pitches were still hitting 94 mph, but he as laboring, and those pitches were missing badly outside. Even the wife of the man sitting next to me was saying he looked tired. And regardless of Baker's reasoning he shared postgame, it was just flat out silly not to leave Harper in. "I promised him." Really?! Because I am certain Harper wanted to stay in. I continue to be wary of Dusty.

@Anonymous: "For some reason, we have some of the dumbest sports fans with the biggest mouths in the world in this town, who never seem to learn anything from experience." Sure. But I could name at least five other towns with the same problem. This isn't unique to DC. At all.

@JohnC: Agreed. 1 for 16 RISP is awful, but there were quite a number of scorched balls that couldn't find the ground. You pointed out Drew, but Werth Drew, but Werth, Murphy, and Espinosa (?) also hit some good balls that resulted in outs. We still left too many people on base, but 1 for 16 was deceptive.

Zimmerman11 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Zimmerman11 said...

STL, CHC, KC, DET... and our first matchup against Jordan Zimmermann??? Scherz V. Znn?

We will know a lot more about this team after this stretch of games for sure.

Let's get these W's against the Phils while we can!!!

Chas R said...

They're playing good baseball and getting some breaks. I want to believe they are special, they have played like they are special up to this point, regardless of the quality of the competition. I don't expect them to have the same results in the upcoming 10 game road trip gauntlet. If they go 5-5, I think that would be awesome.

Zimmerman11 said...

5-5 will be tough on the road against the best teams in the NL... I'd agree 5-5 is awesome.

Flapjack said...

A dose of reality is what we're here for, Harper. Well, some of us...

Consider that this team performed exceptionally well throughout spring training. What's happened since is more of the same. If there is a rash of injury, we'll have to recalibrate. Until then, this is the stuff of dreams, exstacy.

I do worry, though, that Dusty is going to burn out the starters. Both Roark and Straus threw too many pitches.

And while we're at it, here's to Rizzo, who actually did rebuild the bullpen into (apparently) one of the best.

Josh Higham said...

On the value of narratives: baseball, for the majority of us, is just entertainment. It's not a job, our livelihoods don't depend on it, and our ability to predict outcomes is deeply unimportant. What is important is enjoying something we love, preferably with people that we love. In that context, narratives have value.

For people like our favorite soulless automaton, people in the Nats front office, bookies, etc., it actually does matter to some degree whether success is predictable, so for them narratives are unhelpful distractions, except insofar as they use narratives they don't actually believe to get what they want from other people (I think we can assume Harper lacks this motivation, but Rizzo sure has it).

If baseball is only fun for you when you can forecast future outcomes, I'm inclined to say you're a weirdo, but feel free to do your thing. For my part, I don't care if tomorrow's game depends on the fun Bryce has in the dugout yesterday, I loved when the camera's cut to him laughing and joking with Dusty and co. It's fun.

Sammy Kent said...

I would have loved to have been at the park for that one Sunday. Anyone that left early (and unfortunately that was most of the crowd) should be publicly shamed.

The Nationals won't get away with leaving a dozen men on base without scoring very often, but Dusty seems to have brought the charmed life to Nats Park. His genius luck Sunday:

1. Started .190 hitting Matt den Dekker in the leadoff spot, where he promptly knocked a dinger to start the game.

2. Brought Bryce Harper in to pinch hit in the bottom of the ninth down a run, and he promptly went yard to tie the game. (Well, that was a no-brainer.)

3. Moved den Dekker to center and put Heisy in right in the tenth, instead of leaving Harper in to play right. den Dekker later made two hit-saving sliding or diving catches of line drives. Heisy later won the game with a walk-off seeyoulater.

4. Put Danny Espinosa in to pinch-run for Wilson Ramos in the eighth inning hoping to tie the score, and left him in to play short when Drew and Robinson failed to bring him home. Danny later stole second and scored the tying run in the bottom of the 15th on pitcher Oliver Perez's ridiculous two-out bunt that the Twins' catcher threw into the right field foul ground.

5. Used pitcher Joe Ross to pinch-hit for pitcher Yusmiero Petit because he was out of position players. Ross got a hit.

So far about the only thing Dusty has guessed wrong about is challenges.

A sweep is always nice. I don't like how poorly we're batting with men in scoring position (five-years-running-broken-record), but I am certainly enjoying winning, even if it is against the teams we're supposed to beat. Much better than LOSING to the teams we're supposed to beat. Now let's get this series against the Phils.

Old Man River said...

To Sammy's point - while a lot of this might be luck, I would say it is Dusty's intuition being more in tune that MW. Knowing your players. The ability to look down the bench and "get a feeling" about a certain player in a particular situation cannot be quantified/measured, but certainly plays a large role in this game. Bravo to our manager.

Ric said...

@Flapjack: "And while we're at it, here's to Rizzo, who actually did rebuild the bullpen into (apparently) one of the best."

Correct. One of the reasons I follow this blog is because the majority of posters are fairly insightful. You go to the comment section of ESPN, Yahoo! Sports, or countless others, and everyone is bashing Rizzo, calling him to be fired for Papelbon, or MW.

Yeah, those were bad moves. But my gosh, two bad moves in a sea of great moves in the last seven years. Rizzo is a tremendous GM, one of the best.

(Unrelated: I never liked Stan Kasten. He avoided answering so many questions. I would get physically uncomfortable avoiding the tough questions. And he lied. A lot.)

@OldManRiver: I'd say what the players like most about Baker over MW is that Baker lets them know what is going on. Letting bench players know days ahead of time that they will be starting a game. Letting regulars know in advance when they will have the day off. Not burning a relief pitcher five days in a row just warming up in the bullpen, without ever getting in the game.

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