Embracing the average

Sometimes you have to cast aside your delusions and embrace the empirical reality. This can be upsetting. This can lead to a jarring recalibration of expectations. It may require a realization that imagined abilities and potentialities never truly existed, and that all along you were fundamentally ordinary, which is to say, more or less average. Of course I’m talking about the Washington Nationals.

The Nationals were Power Point Champions earlier this year — winners of the February and March prognostication competition. So much talent! “World Series or bust,” the manager, Davey Johnson, said. A better goal, we now realize, may have been “win more games than we lose” or perhaps “score more runs than we give up.”

The Nationals aren’t bad. They’re average. Their record, after being swept over the weekend by the Dodgers (a better team), is 48-50, placing them in the middle of the pack of the National League East, behind Atlanta and Philadelphia. Their scoring differential over the course of the season is minus-24.

One of the great things about baseball is that it studiously tracks average performance. Players have that all-important number following them around: batting average. If that’s not good enough, you also have on-base percentage, and slugging percentage, and various other stats that let you know precisely how good the performance has been over the course of a season as opposed to any given day. And pitchers have the ERA, the earned run average. It’s as though baseball understands that a fundamental principle of the universe is the regression to the mean. So far this year, the Nationals are slightly better than average in pitching (measured by ERA), but next to last in the league in runs scored. So that averages out to “average,” at best.

Although it is certainly true that they have the potential to go on a hot streak, I’m sorry to tell you that we don’t put potential performances in fine print in the sports section.

Greatness is as greatness does. Which is also true of averageness.

Raw talent is important in all pursuits in life, but it’s not the most important quality. The most important quality is the ability to deliver. Raw talent is actually a bit overrated. Any manager, boss, supervisor, teacher, orchestra conductor, coach, captain or general would rather have a subordinate of average talent who shows up day after day after day and grinds away and gets a little better over time and solves problems and doesn’t know the meaning of quit than to have a subordinate whose immense talent somehow never got out of bed this morning.

 

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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Joel Achenbach | July 17, 2013