Wednesday, October 8, 2014

What the Result of the NLDS Does and Doesn't Mean

The Cardinals defeated the Dodgers and the Giants defeated the Nationals, thus guaranteeing that, as has been the case every year this decade, the Cardinals or Giants will be the National League representative in the World Series.

But if you're here, you probably already knew that.

What you might not have known, at least if you weren't listening to Sirius/XM this morning when I was, what it means.

(Disclaimer: I have been a subscriber to Sirius/XM for years, and I like it. Particularly during the baseball season, a long drive while listening to a ballgame makes the miles shoot by. I will always remember hearing the entirety of Roy Halladay's perfect game against the Marlins while on a drive home in 2010. What I heard on satellite radio, this morning, I'm sure, is duplicated in all sorts of major media outlets that I choose not to read/watch/hear.)

Here's what the two series do not mean: That the Cardinals and Giants have some quality--Guts? Grit? Fortitude? Grace under pressure? Knowing How To Win?--that the Dodgers and Nationals don't possess. I mean, come on. We're talking FOUR BASEBALL GAMES. 

The overarching response should be, to quote baseball analyst Joe Sheehan: Variance swamps everything. Take the Giants-Nationals series. Giants pitcher Tim Hudson had an 8.72 ERA in September. He allowed 35 hits in 21.2 innings. In five starts, he lasted only 5, 6, 1, 4.1, and 5.1 innings. (I know this, he was on my fantasy team.) That 18-inning Giants win Saturday would not have happened if Hudson hadn't held the third-highest-scoring team in the league to one run and seven baserunners over 7.1 inning pitched. His rotation mate, Ryan Vogelsong was nearly as bad, matching Hudson's 0-4 record in September while compiling a 5.53 ERA. Last night, he held the Nationals to two hits and two walks over 5.2 innings. On offense, oft-criticized Washington outfielder Bryce Harper batted .294 with three homers and had some great plays in the field, while the Nationals' 3 and 4 hitters, Jayson Werth and Adam LaRoche, hit .059 and .056 respectively, racking up only one single each. Does that say that Hudson, Vogelsong, and Harper stepped up their games, while Werth and LaRoche collapsed under pressure? If so, how do you explain the way that Hudson and Vogelsong pitched down the stretch, when the Giants both lost a chance to beat the Dodgers for the divisional crown and ceded home field advantage for the wild card game to Pittsburgh? If Harper's a young stud, what was going on when he returned from the disabled list on June 30 with the Nationals struggling to get past the Braves and proceeded to hit .209 with a .329 on base percentage and .328 slugging percentage (and only two home runs) over the next 21 games? If Werth's a choker, how do you explain his .351/.500/.676 slash line in eleven World Series games? If LaRoche succumbed to the pressure, how is that he had a .392 on base percentage and .595 slugging percentage in three prior Divisional Series?

The answer is: None of it means anything. As John Sterling and the very clever website would say, you can't predict baseball. There's a random element that doesn't have to do with character, or leadership, or sucking it up, or whatever. It's just random. 

And really, isn't that what we like about sports? We don't know what the outcome will be. We go to work and do more or less the same thing every day. Not a lot of variance there. We go to the mall, we know what we'll find. Hey, thanks to Nate Silver, even elections are predictable. And there's nothing wrong with that--one of the things that separates our lives from those in the third world is the certainty that when we flip the light switch the room will get bright, that when we go to the grocery store there'll be food on the shelves, that when we turn the faucet we'll get potable water. Our games are fun because we don't know the outcome. The Nationals had the best record in the National League, but that didn't guarantee them victory. Same for the Dodgers, who had the second best record. You gotta play the games to see how it'll turn out. It's like flipping a coin--it's unlikely that you'll get heads ten times in a row, but once every 1,024 or so times, it'll happen. That randomness, not the intestinal fortitude or lack thereof of the participants, is what we tune in to see.

Now, that doesn't say it's all random. The pitchers have to make the pitches, the batters have to hit the ball, and the fielders have to catch it. But also, the managers have to put their teams in the best position to win, through lineup construction, in-game tactics, and managing the starting rotation and the bullpen. And I think that's where we can say the losing teams demonstrated some shortcomings. FanGraphs managing editor Dave Cameron has a great essay up today entitled "Matt Williams and How Not to Run a Bullpen"--here's the link--explaining how the Nationals manager's moves probably cost the team during the seventh inning last night, when the Giants took the 3-2 lead that was the game's final score. 

In the other game, Dodgers manager Don Mattingly benched Yasiel Puig, the team's best hitter (.863 OPS) during the regular season, in favor of Andre Ethier, who was picked off third, snuffing out a Dodgers rally in the sixth inning (two runs in, runners on first and third for A.J. Ellis, the team's hottest hitter). Granted, Puig had had a tough series, batting .250 and striking out eight times through three games, but was it reasonable to believe that Ethier, whose slash line was .249/.322/.370 during the regular season, would fare better than Puig, with a .296/.382/.480 slash line? Against Vogelsong, against whom Puig was 2-for-5 over the past two years while Ethier was 1-for-6? (Yes, those are samples too small to be relevant. Which is my point: There was no basis to assume Ethier was the better choice, when he hadn't been all season.) Then, when starter Clayton Kershaw, pitching on short rest, tired in the seventh, did Mattingly bring in Kenley Jansen, by far his best relief pitcher, to face the heart of the Cardinals order? Granted, that would have made Jansen likely unavailable to close the game, but the Cards had their 3-4-5 hitters due up on the seventh. Why not bring in Jansen for the pressure at-bats, leave him in for an inning or two, and let someone else face the weaker Cardinals hitters? Instead, Mattingly stuck with a tiring Kershaw, who allowed a game-winning three-run bomb to Matt Adams. (Jansen, for the record, over four games in which three games were decided by one run and the fourth by two, faced three batters over the entire series, appearing in just one game.)

I'm not suggesting that Williams and Mattingly lost the series for their clubs. But I think it's a lot easier to assign blame to them, for some of their decisions, than to their players, for some unquantifiable, unmeasurable, and likely non-existent character traits.

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