Swing and a miss

The Nats have hope. They’re only 8.5 games out of the final Wild Card spot. They just swept the hapless Phillies. The Nats have a hot hitter in Jayson Werth, and Stephen Strasburg just pitched his first complete-game shut-out. The team scored a bunch of runs this weekend, and won by comfortable margins. There are some good trends here. Moreover, as we Nats fans ponder the chances of the team, we recognize that we’re not supposed to be rational. It’s not our job to weigh the situation in a dispassionate manner. We’re supposed to believe.

But this gets me thinking about golf, another irrational process. If you’ve ever played golf you know how infernal the game is, how impossible most of the time, how unlikely it is that the little white ball will land in yonder hole in anything fewer than about 7 or 8 whacks. Or 10 or 11.

And yet golf is also seductive and deceptive. You have about five moments per round of golf when you delude yourself into thinking you can actually play this game. These transitory triumphs stick in the brain later, as you review your round and savor the muscle memory of the way the club felt that one time when you struck the ball perfectly. You can see the  ball flying straight and true, descending from the clouds to drop softly upon the green not far from the flag. Just as you’d planned! You’re good! Sure, from there you three-putted for bogey, but whatever. You had that sublime moment.

Unfortunately, our true self is our average self. We can’t pretend to be our exceptional self.

The reverse also holds: Our worst self is not who we really are either.

In golf this means you’re not as terrible as you appeared to be when you deposited two consecutive tee shots into the deep woods, the ball rocketing at an insane angle from the tee box, not just out of bounds but possibly into a different Zip code. No, the golfer you are, fundamentally, is the one you are most of the time: your average self, the one who, though theoretically capable of making pars, usually cards a bogey or double-bogey, and sometimes a number yet more crooked and hideous. You are the golfer who spends a lot of time looking for your ball in the long grass, mystified by its disappearance. You’re the golfer who knows, standing over the ball, that anything can happen, that no trajectory is off the table. You’re just another duffer.

Baseball is a sport of averages, and it has a very long season, and so a good weekend isn’t going to be enough to make the Nats a plausible playoff team. As a fan, I’ll keep believing, but as someone mulling the stats and writing a few paragraphs here, I have to think that the Nats are pretty much the team they appear to be: an average one. That what you see is what you get — on average, over time.

Over the course of the season so far, the Nats have scored 442 runs and given up 465. So maybe that’s the first milestone: Get positive in run differential. Then we can start talking about playoff chances.

 

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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