The Nats respect all this higher learning, all these numbers provided by “analytics.” As one team executive said, “It’s good information. And you must be smart to figure out the math to get to the numbers. But once it’s been done, anybody can understand it.”
So once everybody has the numbers, you have to look for the next step, the next advantage. And the Nats may have found a few because they know that all these bright young things are just a new kind of herd. As on Wall Street, everyone thinks they are a contrarian. Few are.
There are several current tenets of modern dogma in baseball. The Nats appear to be going against the grain in of all of them.
Everybody now believes that players in their 20s are just as good or better than fading players in their 30s. Kids have an annual salary of less than $600,000, while those old guys, even if they’re just pretty good, can often be 10 times that figure. See, owner, what a solid I’ve done you. Age 30 is synonymous with waste, 32 equals retired, and 35 is deceased.
On Tuesday, the Nats’ 25-man playoff roster had 18 men past their 30th birthday, 13 who were 32 or older and six older than 35, including Fernando Rodney, 42, the oldest player in the game — by three years.
The MVP of the National League Championship Series was Howie Kendrick, 36, who over the past three years has the highest batting average in the majors (.325) and a slash line comparable to Houston star Jose Altuve, 29.
Of course, in other generations, such players would have been considered normal parts of a poised, veteran championship contender. The issue, for 100 years, was to figure out which old guys could still play, which still had the desire to rehab or play through pain. In other words, you had to know baseball and people, perhaps more than stats.
“It just makes it sweet because, as we’re getting older, the game keeps getting younger,” Kendrick said. “The mixture of people is what makes us so good. The big reason we have success is because we truly care about the next guy.”
There’s a word for that: maturity.
The real market inefficiency is that the nonconformist conformists left Gerardo Parra and Asdrúbal Cabrera (40 RBI in 38 games as a National) — on the market free while their former teams still pay their salaries. Closer Daniel Hudson, 32, cost almost nothing in trade despite his 3.00 ERA in Toronto because he didn’t strike out quite enough men to fit the modern relief profile. His ERA in D.C. is 1.44 — not sustainable but much appreciated.
Successful modern teams, with a few exceptions, believe that batting average means next to nothing and that it’s a great statistical idea to swing for the fences and trade five strikeouts for a home run.
The Nats, which usually means Mike Rizzo, believe that baseball always was and always will be baseball. You need to adjust to the times. You also need to respect eternal truths. Such as being able to hit enough home runs but also consistently put the ball in play, steal bases, work counts, get walks and hit to all fields to beat shifts and make opponents abandon exotic defenses.
Since May 23, when the Nats bottomed out at 19-31, they have scored 654 runs, second only to the Yankees (683) — despite ranking only 13th in the majors in home runs over that stretch. How is that possible? The Nats led everyone in that time in archaic batting average (.275) and on-base percentage (.353). They were also third in the majors in steals and had the fourth-best walk percentage. Only two teams, both in the American League, struck out less frequently.
That .275 batting average jumps out because it was done with far fewer homers than many teams. The Nats constantly “find grass,” not gloves. Why? Defensive shifts work; it’s a fundamental insight into the game, just like the value of launch angle. But the Nats (and Astros) may be damaged least by shifts because they have so many hitters who use the whole field, such as Kendrick, Juan Soto, Anthony Rendon, Adam Eaton and Cabrera.
“We can beat you with homers or we can manufacture runs,” shortstop Trea Turner said.
The Nats swept the NLCS with two home runs.
The pursuit of home runs, plus the love of shifts, has encouraged teams to find spots on the field for defensively challenged sluggers. How much range do you need if there are three infielders bunched on one side of second base? While analytic types love defense, it’s still hard to find outfield speed merchants who fit the power profile of the age.
The Nats’ outfield of Victor Robles, Eaton and Soto graded out as the best in the major leagues, according to Statcast data, with Robles the most valuable defender at any position. The Nats, as a group, are not elite defenders — ranked 10th in defensive runs (worth 25.9 runs). But their potential World Series foes are much worse — Houston is 20th in defense (minus-4.0) and the Yankees 21st (minus-4.5).
Ever since the Nats shut down Stephen Strasburg in September 2012, removing him from the playoff picture when they had a 98-win team, the knee-jerk verdict was that, while the Nats’ motives of trying to maximize the chances of a long Strasburg career might be noble, they may have jeopardized their best chance at reaching a World Series.
This was the first dramatic example of the Nationals not caring what others think. For years, some in or around the game have resented the team for its bluntness. How dare you be really contrarian?
Well, Strasburg led the NL in wins and innings this season, his 10th season as a National, and his career postseason ERA is 1.10.
As for never getting another title shot, the World Series starts Tuesday, and the Nats are the only team guaranteed a spot.
For years, as the Nats suffered four NLDS playoff exits, they maintained that they have two goals — build around strong starting pitching and try to win 90-plus games to reach the playoffs and take a shot. Sooner or later, you will break through.
Or as veteran second baseman Brian Dozier has said all season, “This team is made for October. If we can just get there.”
Yet in a no-pennant, no-praise sports culture, the Nats were nagged for not quite being as “up with the times” as others. For instance, how can you just drop out of the Bryce Harper sweepstakes — publicly — in early December and think you can approximate his power with platoons while improving your defense and clubhouse without him?
On Tuesday, the Nats’ stance on team-building — keep getting to the dance and eventually you will get kissed — had a night of vindication.
“People think it’s easy to win in the playoffs. First of all, it’s really hard to get to the playoffs,” Zimmerman said. “You’ve got to catch some breaks. In the years past, maybe we didn’t catch those breaks. We caught some breaks this year, but, more importantly, we took advantage of those breaks. So kind of made our own luck.”
More likely, the Nats, especially those who own and run them, probably were overdue for some breaks to help make their luck.
Don’t weep for the Nats. Plenty of well-run franchises have had to wait longer than eight straight winning seasons — with the second-best regular season record behind the Dodgers since 2012 — to get to a World Series. The postseason is cruel. And it can stay cruel longer than you can stay sane.
Every team likes to flatter itself in the good times with a chorus of “We Did It Our Way.” In the case of the Nats, it’s actually true.