Why I’m rooting for the Washington Nationals and you should, too

If New York or Houston wins the World Series, baseball will get even more boring...

Full disclosure: I know and like a couple guys on the Washington Nationals – catcher Kurt Suzuki and first base coach Tim Bogar.

Journalists like to pretend they’re completely unbiased which as long as they’re human (and there are questions about a few of us) is impossible. Spend any time covering a player or a team and you’re going to develop feelings and opinions about them, which you can try to ignore, but you still have those feelings and opinions even if you won’t admit they exist.

But Tim and Kurt being likeable isn’t the only reason I’m pulling for Washington: I also like underdogs and anyone who succeeds when some blowhard says they can’t.

Back on May 23rd a story posted on an NBC Sports website had this headline:

“If the Nationals’ season isn’t over, it’s close”

According to the article the sky was falling because the Nationals had just been swept by the Mets, were 19-31 and would have to play .634 ball to get to 90 wins which was clearly impossible. Also, manager Davey Martinez was on the verge of getting fired and being tried as a war criminal. (OK, I made that last item up, but that was the tone of the piece; the Nationals sucked and they weren’t getting better anytime soon.)

But it turned out the only accurate word in that May headline was “Nationals” as in:

“Nationals going to World Series”

I’d say I don’t get how anybody who’s watched much baseball can announce a team’s season is over with 112 games left to play – way too many examples of teams failing to meet expectations or exceeding them – but unfortunately, I do.

In the wonderful world of the internet, we’re all fighting for attention and want you to click on our story, so dramatic statements are the way to go; everything is either the worst or best thing that ever happened so keep that in mind when you find out Keith Olbermann once named me “The Worst Person in the World.”

Off the top of my head I can think of at least two or three people who have me beat and one of them is Keith Olbermann.

But enough about me and Keith, we’re here to talk about the Nationals.

Playoff baseball and versatility

So far I think I’ve done a bang-up job explaining why I’m rooting for the Nationals, but why should you?

If you like the way the game is going – everybody standing around waiting for someone to hit a home, a dozen pitching changes and three-and-a-hour contests – forget I said anything.

But if you like strategy – steals, bunts, moving the runner over, getting the ball in play and starting pitchers who go more than two innings… y’know…baseball – then the Nationals should definitely be your team.

Another guy I know and like – former Pittsburgh Pirate manager Clint Hurdle – once said if you want to go deep in the playoffs it helps to be versatile.

During the regular season you can stick to one style of play and as long as you win 90-some games you don’t mind losing over 60. But in the playoffs you might have to win right now tonight and it helps if you can adjust your style of play to the game you happen to be playing at the moment.

Now take a look at the Nationals:

They were second in the NL in runs scored, sixth in home runs, third in slugging percentage, fourth in walks and second in OPS: everything an analytics fan wants for Christmas.

But the Nationals were also tied for first in NL batting average, tied for first in stolen bases, third in sac bunts and only one team struck out less often: all the stuff traditional baseball guys like.

Washington was also pretty good at catching the ball: fifth in fielding percentage and only three teams made fewer errors.

The bullpen had the worst collective ERA in the league – more on that shortly – but their starting pitchers finished with the second-best ERA in the NL.

And what have we seen in the playoffs so far?

  • The Nationals won the Wild Card Game 4-3 because they played better defense than the Brewers.

  • They beat the Dodgers 4-2 in Game 2 of the NLDS because they put down two sac bunts and advanced runners who later scored.

  • They won Game 1 of the NLCS 2-0 because starting pitcher Anibal Sanchez was lights out and went 7 2/3 innings.

  • They won Game 2 of the NLCS 3-1 because Max Scherzer went seven innings and Adam Eaton had a good two-strike approach, got the ball in play and hit a two-run double on the seventh pitch of an at bat.

In this postseason the Nationals have yet to steal a base or even make an attempt, but having a base stealer standing on first base puts pressure on the opposition pitcher and defense. You don’t have to steal a base for the stolen base to have an effect.

The things I mentioned aren’t the only reason the Nationals won those games, but they’re pretty high on the list. Versatility – the ability to play all the parts of the game – has served the Nationals well.  

Old-school pitching

These days more and more teams are asking less and less of their starting pitchers, so those pitchers are more likely to throw everything they have right away. Why save a pitch for a third trip through the order when you’re not making one?

The Nationals don’t want to over-expose their bullpen and that means they need to get as much out of their starters as possible. A look at Game 3 of the NLCS is a good example of how they’re making that happen.  

First trip through the Cardinals lineup pitcher Stephen Strasburg and catcher Kurt Suzuki threw off-speed pitches about 40 percent of the time, but only threw those off-speed pitches for strikes a bit over 20 percent of the time — and that’s part of the strategy.

If a pitcher wants to save a pitch for later at bats, he can’t just ignore that pitch for three innings; he might lose the feel for it. So smart catchers – and Suzuki qualifies – call for that pitch when the pitcher is ahead in the count and doesn’t have to throw it for a strike.

That allows the pitcher to keep his touch without showing the batters a hittable version of the pitch he’s going to throw for a strike in the later innings. (And the only reason I know that is Kurt told me how he does it.)

Second time through the Cardinals order Strasburg-Suzuki threw off-speed pitches about 65 percent of the time and this time the strike percentage on those off-speed pitches was over 40 percent.

Third time through the order the percentage of off-speed pitches and off-speed strikes remained about the same, but Strasburg and Suzuki were mixing in more changeups for strikes – or what turns into a changeup strike when the batter chases one. (Ideally changeups start in the zone and finish just below it and by the time the batter realizes what’s happening it’s too late.)

By mixing up the percentage of off-speed pitches thrown, the percentage off-speed pitches thrown for strikes and the percentage of changeups thrown, Strasburg and Suzuki gave the Cardinals hitters a different look every time they came to the plate.

Take a look: Dexter Fowler had four at bats and here are the pitches he saw and his results:

1.       Fastball, fastball, curve: K

2.      Curve, changeup, changeup, changeup: K

3.      Changeup: F9

4.      Curve, fastball, changeup: K

Now that’s good pitching and good pitch-calling.

My closing argument

During the regular season the New York Yankees and Houston Astros ranked 25th and 26th in sac bunts, 24th and 17th in stolen bases and 2nd and 3rd in home runs.

If one of them wins the World Series it’s going to add credibility to that approach and were going to see even more swing-for-the-fences-stand-around-on-the-base-paths-a-dozen-pitching-changes-three-and-a-half-hour-game-boring-baseball that is currently being played all across the country.  

That being the case, I’m rooting for the Nationals and if you like baseball that’s actually entertaining, you should, too.