Nationals Baseball: Rambling on Intangibles

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Rambling on Intangibles

1 2 2 2 2

Those are the margins of victory in the games the Nats have played this year. Would it kill this team to blow someone out? Or at least score some runs and hold the other team down at the same time? A nice easy victory?

What do a lot of close games and a 4-1 record in them mean? Probably nothing. You'd might want to believe it means the pen is better and maybe it is, but it's far too early to tell. I mean, they've given up runs in more games (3) than they haven't (2). It's just a matter of the when and how much not mattering. As much as "pitching to the score" sounds good I doubt a reliever in the 7th was pitching with the idea that giving up a run is ok because the Nats are up 2.

You might want to believe it has something to do with the manager being better, and maybe (let's face it - almost certainly*) he is but that's going to be lost to the ether. In his Q&A Boz notes how he finds sabrmetric dismissing of manager intuition funny but you have to be careful here. There are two types of dismissal.

The first type of dismissal, the type that is ok, is the dismissal from analysis. You can't measure these things, manager intuition, leadership, clutchness, momentum, etc., accurately. If you can't measure them accurately then they can't be used in analysis. That's not only ok, it's the only reasonable thing to do. If you try to add it an adjustment for these things you are introducing a crazy amount of bias into your analysis, basically rendering it unusable. You feel Dusty might add a game or two to the Nats. There is someone out there, I guarantee, that feels, not sabrmetrically mind you just with his gut, that Dusty is terrible and should cost you a game or two. Who is right? Who knows. So you have to leave it out. You can put it in your opinion. You can say analysis leads the Nats to have 88 wins but I like Dusty so I'm making it 91. But you can't say your attempt at unbiased analysis lead you to that point.

The second type or dismissal, the type that isn't ok, is dismissing things from mattering just because you can't measure them. They can't be in analysis but that doesn't mean they don't matter. These things all exist. That's not an opinion. That's a fact. We know they do. We know from our own experiences. We know from psychological studies. Since they exist, you have to assume they matter at some level. How much? With who? Oh god, good luck trying to figure that out.

This is where things usually break down because people usually DO think they can figure it out. That they can see how much something matters because of the results. Here is where you get they are winning "because the chemistry is better" or "because they have some strong personalitites" or "because their manager's gut knows best" or "because their manager knows his analysis" or "because they are playing looser" or "because they are playing more focused". You see the problem don't you? There is no link being proven here. You are just taking a snapshot of the team when they are winning, pulling out what you think you see, and making those things winning attributes. It's likely some of that does matter, but the certainty in which it is usually presented is laughable. This, to me, is why you often get the "it doesn't matter" push back. It does matter, but it should be presented as a big question mark. Because it is presented with authority, then there is a natural tendency to push back in kind.

But that's also wrong and if you are going to claim to be taking a smarter view of the game, you really have to fight that urge. When you talk about it you have to note it matters, accept you don't know how and no one probably does, and that the reader can add his own impression of it to what you are saying.  You don't have to mention the "intangibles" every time, but you can't just dismiss them as not mattering at all. They don't matter to analysis that is working with only what can be measured, but they do matter in reality.

*Last year Matt Williams had an uncanny ability to pull the wrong guy at the wrong time. Bad luck? Perhaps. He didn't seem to have much of this issue in 2014. But maybe he just couldn't read the pen. Even though if that is true it takes some bad luck to have it matter. So does Dusty have a good idea of who to use and when? I don't know. I do know he probably won't have the same issue as Matt did, because even if Dusty can't read the pen either, we probably won't see it as bad as we did with Matt last year. Also the pen itself is just better. Not very good with certainty, but better talent. Veteran talent that you can get a better read on.


markus said...

regarding managin':
any take on the apparent running game? maybe after bryce's two steals yesterday it just stuck out more than it should, but it seems like this might actually end up being a part of our game. Bryce swiping two is definitely exciting, but i'm worried he might be trying for a 40-30 season or something crazy.

Bryan said...

Your last two posts have me worrying, greatly, that we have the same Nats teams from the last few years: They can beat the bad teams, but aren't good enough to beat the good ones regularly.


Mythra said...

Nice to see Davey Lopes helping Harper add a new threat. Walk him and if 2nd is open, it's the same as giving up a double most of the times. A new threat added to punish teams who pitch around him. A revived Zim seems to enjoy hitting behind Bryce as well, which sets the table for Murphy. who also seems to be feasting now.

A healthy middle of this lineup does make a pitcher work and feasts on mistakes. The Mets are really missing Murphy and 2015 Cespedes seems to be on a milk carton somewhere. Also, the hunter suits this team way better than the hunted.

Fries said...

I'm LOVING how Zimm is playing right now. 2/3 with a walk yesterday and his only out being a sharply hit grounder makes me really happy. Plus the way he's running the bases, it just shows that the plantar fasciitis was a major hindrance. How he holds up throughout the rest of the year is a question mark, plus it's a small sample, but i think we can all agree that Zimm could've been something special if luck had been on his side.

Hoo said...

Natsbaseball blog:

Come for some neutral Nats takes.

Stay for the behavioral economics /stas explainers!

neat piece and thanks for hiding the Williams gold to dross footnote.

Donald said...

Along the unmeasurable intangibles line, it's probably completely random that the Nats have come from behind in each of their wins. If the Marlins first inning runs happened in the 5th inning, the Nats would have lead the whole game, for instance. But having the Nats runs come after runs from the opposing team should give them more confidence, and I do think there's something to the notion of having to believe you can win in order to make it happen. If they start to think that no matter how much they get behind, they can always come back, it should be a net plus. In that regard, while it would be nice to have a blow-out win, just maybe a come from behind win is worth more than other wins. Remember how that huge comeback in Atlanta last year seemed to jump start the team.

On an unrelated note, I saw that Sean Burnett got picked up by the Dodger's AAA team yesterday. I'm really surprised he didn't land a spot on a major league team, but given that, couldn't the Nats have kept him?

Sammy Kent said...

I don't think Papa John's will be having too many half-off days this baseball season for the Nats scoring seven runs. I'll be shocked if it's ten for the whole year.

SM said...

Bryan - Interesting point you raise.

Successful--playoff-bound--teams almost invariably have winning records against good (over .500) teams.

Last season, in the American League, for example, Toronto, Texas and K.C., in that order, had the best records against good teams. (The Jays led the majors with a 53-33 record.) They were the only teams with winning records against good teams.

In the NL, St. Louis, Chicago, and Pittsburgh were the only clubs with winning records against good teams. The correlation seems so clear you can almost devise an Iron Law of Playoff Baseball.

Yet in the NL East in 2015, the Mets' record against good teams was 28-38. The Nats' record? 28-37.

Against not-so-good, even bad (under .500 teams), the Nats were 55-42. The Mets? 62-34.
The difference last year, at least--and Harper nagged on this from time to time--was the Nats' inability to bury bad teams.

Harper said...

Bryan/SM - we'll see. That's going to be the difference between an ~95 win team and a ~85 win team. One thing that SM hints at, because the NL East is likely to be so bad, you can still have a pretty decent record without beating good teams. Look at the difference above - the Jays played 86 games against "good" opponents. The Nats played 65.

Anonymous said...

Now we aren't winning by enough?

Jay said...

Yes, but doesn't the reverse also apply. If you are in a good division then your'e going to have be facing opponents with better records (thus the wins against teams with winning record goes up). Plus, a bad team still usually plays other teams in it's division tough. Remember when the Nats were horrible and the only important thing was spoiling the playoffs for the Braves the year they collapsed. Plus the Mets seem a little tight to me. Sort of like the Nats did when everyone picked them to win it year after year.

The wheels came off last year when good ole MW decided our best pitcher didn't need to pitch against the Mets. He then proceeded to manage us to getting swept. Several questionable bullpen moves back then. Problem is then he only got more uptight and unapproachable. Team tightened up more and floundered (given those Nats were wound too tight anyway). I think MW likely lost the clubhouse all the way back in the Giants playoff series with Storen in game 2 and then leaving Stras and other pitchers - Clippard etc on the bench for game 4. They lost to the Giants with Aaron Barrett pitching.

Dusty is as far away from MW as you can possibly get. He has fun and tries to keep everyone confident and loose. Now in the postseason the knock on him is that he won't play for today - i.e. he tries to treat it like the regular season. He would never bring Bumgarner in game 7 in relief to close it out. We'll see if he has changed any if the Nats make it back to the postseason. In my opinion, they should give Rizzo and Baker an extension and see what happens the next few years. We'll see.

Harper said...

Winning by a lot (1) is fun and less tense (2) usually indicates the quality of the team is high. Teams generally don't win close games at a consistently high rate. Hye if you want a 95 win team and an easy NL East title - these are things you gotta think about. But Ws are Ws. 4 in hand. So no worry. More good job - get even better.

Donald said...

I've kind of broken down the Nats start to the season into 3 blocks. The first is the long run against poor teams that goes through April 28th. The Nats should really be stockpiling wins during this stretch. So far so good, but way too early yet. With 23 games in this set, you'd hope the Nats are way over .500 -- like 15-8 or better at least. But no matter how well they do here, the question Bryan raised will still linger

The second is the 13 games against really good teams, mostly on the road. Nats play the Cards, Cubs, Royals and Tigers. This is where we get to see if the Nats are just good at beating the bad teams or if they can actually hold their own against the big boys. Going roughly .500 (7-6 or 6-7) would be good. Doing much worse and you start to wonder that even if they make the playoffs, they won't go far. Doing much better, though, and you start to fantasize about those 95 wins.

The third stretch is in the middle of May when they play the Mets 6 times in 9 games -- the first head-to-head match up. Even if the Nats do well okay against the good teams, until they show they can beat the Mets it won't matter too much. And if they do poorly against the good teams but can still manage to outplay the Mets, it'll be okay. Anything worse than a split here and memories of 2015 start to come back. But going 4-2 or better exorcises 2015. In any case, I'm not sure we'll really have a sense of the 2016 Nats until late May.

Mythra said...

That 13 game stretch end of April and into May is tough to call. .500, mostly on the road is a very good result against those teams. Teams like those should win more at home than they lose. I'd say win 6 of those and I'm happy. Win 5 and it's not panic time. Anything more than 6 and this team has something good cooking.

All that matters is the Mets and Fish in the end, though. NL East will be garbage, especially at the bottom. Just be on top of the heap and take care of business. Playoffs, anything can happen.

John C. said...

re: The Nats' record against the Mets. This is not a situation where the Nats are in the "until they show they can beat the Mets" they should be at some huge disadvantage or that the Mets are (or should be) in the Nats' heads in some meaningful way. The two disastrous sweeps between 31 July and 9 September are all that fans remember from 2015, but even with those the Nats record last year against the Mets was 8-11. Below .500, but hardly disastrous. Before the sweeps the Nats were 6-4 (including taking 2 of 3 after the ASB after the Mets had lined up their top 3 starters against the back end of the Nats rotation - Mets fans were in full meltdown mode at that point) against them. The Nats also took 2 of 3 (including Scherzer's second no hitter) to end the season. And the Nats simply demolished the Mets in 2014 (15-4), did well in 2013 (12-7), and demolished them in 2012 (14-4).

The 2016 Mets and Nationals have their own paths to trod, and I'm not expecting the Nationals to automatically revert to pummeling the Mets. But to adopt an inferiority complex/assume that the Mets are going to beat the Nationals until proven otherwise is pretty silly, IMHO.

Bryceroni said...

Bryce da man

JE34 said...

The Nats teams of years past have had issues getting guys on-over-in... Ks with guys in scoring position, unproductive outs, etc. Given that the lineup is mostly the same, that problem is still there, but subtracting Desi and adding Murphy has to help that, as does the emphasis on stolen bases.

The Nats offense seems to live and die by the long ball. In past years, the games with big margins of victory featured multiple homers... on cold April nights, they just won't blow anyone out.