Nats looked great on paper to start the season, but that's why they play the games - NBC Sports

Nats looked great on paper to start the season, but that's why they play the games
A stacked lineup, young flame throwers and smart acquisitions not adding up for Washington.
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August 8, 2013, 1:45 pm

WASHINGTON -- One of the coolest equations in baseball is Bill James’ Pythagorean Expectation Formula. In it, he shows how you can -- within a pretty small margin for error -- predict a team’s winning percentage based entirely on runs scored and runs allowed. This formula has many different uses for evaluating players value, but that’s not important right now.

No, the point now is this: To make the formula work, you don’t just take how many runs a team scores or allows and work the formula. No, you take those runs and you SQUARE them, that is you multiply those numbers by themselves.

So the Pythagorean Expecation Formula is actually: Runs scored (squared) / Runs scored (squared) + Runs allowed (squared).

Why do you square the numbers? James explains that there is a solid and rather complicated mathematical reason for this. But in the end it comes down to this: Baseball goes beyond basic math. A bunch of good players don’t necessarily make a good team. A bunch of mediocre players don’t necessarily make a team mediocre. Losing a star, weirdly, can help your team; adding one can hurt.

The Pittsburgh Pirates are 11th in the National League in runs scored -- they are 25 games over .500.

The Angels, meanwhile, have perhaps baseball’s best player (Mike Trout), one of the best to ever play the game (Albert Pujols), a guy who hit 43 homers and drove in 128 last year (Josh Hamilton), a guy on pace for 35 homers (Mark Trumbo), a gold glove winner at shortstop (Erick Aybar), a former All-Star at second base (Howie Kendrick), one of the best pitchers in the league (Jered Weaver), a two-time All-Star starter (C.J. Wilson), and they are 11 games under .500 and have been a non-factor pretty much from Opening Day.

People try to come to grips with these contradictions by using words like chemistry and clutch performance and makeup … those words are as good as any. Truth is, baseball doesn’t revolve around simple math. It wouldn’t be much fun if it did. There’s luck and opportunity and pivotal calls and key plays all swirling together to create a new kind of math.

Going into this season, the one team that seemed like a sure thing was the Washington Nationals. They had been great. They seemed to improve in the offseason. A sure thing. Instead, they’re pretty dreadful -- and 15 ½ games behind the Atlanta Braves in the National League East.

Why? It might be, at least in part, because they forgot to square the numbers.

* * *

Manager Davey Johnson looks 70 years old. He is 70 years old, of course, but he did not look it last year when his Nationals shocked everybody by winning 98 games and becoming the first Washington team in about 80 years to play postseason baseball. Winning baseball has a way of ironing the wrinkles and straightening the back and adding a little bit of volume to the voice. Losing baseball, meanwhile, has a way of doing the opposite. Davey Johnson actually looks 75 years old.

“I believe in the talent in that clubhouse,” he says, but so softly you can barely hear him.

How could they lose? Last year, they had those 98 wins -- best record in baseball -- but it was so clearly just the beginning. Nationals GM Mike Rizzo made the controversial decision to shut down their 23-year-old phenom, Stephen Strasburg, before the playoffs in order to protect his future. Strasburg was coming off a serious injury, and Rizzo never strayed from the club’s plan to insulate him even as people all around baseball criticized the decision.  He has never once expressed regret this year either.

But underneath the decision, there was this undercurrent of confidence. The Nationals were built to be great for many years. In other words: There would be other chances for Strasburg. Many chances. Better chances. Look at the rotation: Even beyond Strasburg, the Nationals had 26-year-old starter Gio Gonzalez, who finished third in the Cy Young voting.  They had fellow 26-year-old starter Jordan Zimmerman, who was almost exactly as good as Gonzalez. They had 27-year-old starter Ross Detwiler, who was finally healthy and had pitched brilliantly in his one postseason start.

Who else had four starters like that? And offensively? Well, they just happened to have a 19-year-old phenom named Bryce Harper who many believe believe will become the Mickey Mantle of his generation. And there were other All-Stars in their prime -- shortstop Ian Desmond, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. Jayson Werth, another All-Star, has hit tremendously this year. The Nationals were loaded, absolutely loaded, and they were young, and they were ascending, and … how could they lose?

How could they lose?

“It’s been a tough year,” Davey Johnson says, and if possible he’s speaking even more quietly.

* * *

Monday night, the Nationals played Atlanta in the first of a three-game series that, you might say, was Washington last chance to make any impact on the season. The Nationals entered the series 12 ½ games behind the Braves so, realistically, their chances might already have been gone. But, you never know. A sweep would drop the deficit to 9 ½ games, it might spark a shift in the team’s fortunes, crazy things do happen in baseball.

Bottom of the first inning, and the Nationals jumped on Atlanta starter Mike Minor. Ian Desmond walked. Catcher Wilson Ramos blooped in a single to move Desmond to third. And then Adam LaRoche scorched a line drive into the gap between right and center. The ball seemed to bounce around the outfield for roughly two days, as Desmond easily scored score. Eventually Ramos rounded third and headed for home.  He would surely score. The Nationals would surely lead 2-0.

Wilson Ramos is slow. He’s a pretty talented young hitter, a fine defensive catcher, a likable teammate by all accounts. He’s slow. He’s not typical Major League Baseball slow. He’s like ice-melting slow. When the ball was bounding around the outfield, his run seemed a given. But Wilson Ramos is slow, and though he took off immediately (there were two outs) the Braves realized in short order: 1. Hey, there might be a play at the plate; 2. No, really, we might have a chance to get Ramos at the plate; 3. Wow, you know what, this isn’t going to even be close.

“The Buffalo tries to score,” the Nationals TV announcer said. Wilson Ramos was out by five feet.

The reaction of the crowd -- a vibrant crowd of 33,000 or so; the Nationals may set an attendance record this year -- was priceless. The cheers were loud, then louder, then a crescendo … and then it was like you could feel 33,000 people all at once think: “Oh no, the Nationals are going to lose this game.” It’s been like that.

Last year was so magical for people in Washington. The Nationals were obviously improving, but nobody saw them as a championship contender, not yet.  And yet it came together brilliantly. The Nationals played in 48 one-run games … and won 27 of them. They went 13-7 in extra innings. They pitched magnificently. They got hits in the big moments. Breaks bounced their way. Their broken-bat dribblers became singles, their bloops dropped between outfielders, it was so charmed.

And this year? No. The opposite. Scoring runs has been harder than getting an airline representative on the phone when your flight’s been canceled. Fifty-two times already this year, they have scored two runs or less in a game -- they have a major-league-high 46 losses in those games. Bloops are being gloved by second basemen. Broken-bat dribblers are rolling foul. Ramos is thrown out at the plate on a double that would have scored a barcalounger.

Rizzo had worked hard in the offseason to IMPROVE the Nationals offense, not detract from it. But perhaps that’s the point. He made a lot of moves for a team that won 98 games last year. At one point during the Braves series, an informal count showed that 40 percent of the 25-man roster from last year had been turned over. Rizzo traded for Denard Span, the Minnesota Twins center fielder, so the team would have a leadoff hitter. It seemed like a sensible move. Span is a terrific outfielder, he had a lifetime .350 on-base percentage, he would allow Bryce Harper to move to a corner outfield spot where he might fit better.

Logical. So logical. But baseball isn’t always logical, and it has gone wrong. Span has had his worse season by far, posting a dreadful .312 on-base percentage and he’s scored just 47 runs in 107 games.

They traded away Mike Morse, who was known as the Beast, because he was seen as an unnecessary piece after the Span deal. Morse has not had a good year either in Seattle, but he was popular locally and seemed popular in the clubhouse as well.  Harper does not seem to have adjusted well to either corner outfield spot, and he has smashed into the wall, which set back his entire season.

See, you can’t just add and subtract in this game. It all works in three dimensions. In the seventh inning, with the score tied, Scott Hairston led off with a double. Coming up, three of the players the Nationals were building the season around: Jayson Werth, Bryce Harper and Ian Desmond.

Werth struck out swinging.

Harper lined out to right.

Desmond’s grounder died in front of the plate where Atlanta catcher Brian McCann scooped it up and threw him out at the end of the inning. Once again: The crowd groans. They know.

If this was 2012, the Nationals might have brought in their young and hugely-popular reliever Drew Storen to pitch the eighth. But Storen has been so lost this year, the Nationals sent him down to the minors. Nobody knows exactly why Storen has struggled so much -- not even Storen himself. Some say it’s mechanics. Some say he’s hurt and won’t talk about it. Some say it involves leftover mental issues from his last postseason game, when he tried to protect the Nationals 9-7 lead in the ninth in the decisive game of the National League Division Series against St. Louis. He gave up a double to Carlos Beltran, then walked Yadier Molina, walked David Freese, gave up a single and then another single -- four runs in a rush -- and the Nationals lost.

But there could be something else too. Rizzo, in the offseason, looked to improve a bullpen that had been pretty dominant all season. He signed closer Rafael Soriano for big money. Soriano is a proven closer who had pitched well under the intense pressure of being Mariano Rivera’s replacement in New York.

Logical. So logical. But it shuffled everything. Soriano has been pretty good -- he’s had a few setbacks here and there, but he also went seven weeks where he allowed just two runs total. But his arrival (and the under-the-radar departures of Sean Burnett and Tom Gorzelanny) has meant new roles for everyone -- and only Tyler Clippard, last year’s closer, has pitched as well as last year.

So it is Clippard who comes into the game in the eighth inning with the score tied. Clippard has been very good this year. First batter he faces, though, Justin Upton, crushes a home run to left field. The Nationals lose the game 3-2. It is the Braves 11th win in a row. And their lead swells to 13 ½ games.

“We hit balls on the nose pretty much better than we’ve been doing,” Davey Johnson said. “And … nada.”

* * *

The second game of the series was summed up by one inning. Early in the game, Bryce Harper mashed a long home run to center field off Braves starter Julio Teheran, and he then walked a bit too slowly afterward and he flipped the bat. Harper has built a reputation as an edgy player, so maybe the Braves were watching him a bit more closely than they might Ryan Zimmerman or someone else.

Teheran plunked Harper in the upper thigh in the fifth inning. Much has been written and said about that. At that moment, the Braves led 2-1. And the crowd went crazy. This was the moment -- everyone could sense it. The benches cleared, the bullpen pitchers raced on the field, but the most important point was that the Nationals had runners on first and second, one out, with Zimmerman and Werth coming up.

One more time, maybe, the most hopeful fans whispered to themselves: Here’s where it all turns around.

Zimmerman then hit a long fly ball to center field, one of those teasing fly balls that fans KNOW will die on the warning track, but hope anyway for something like a gust of wind. The ball died on the warning track. Werth -- who less than three years ago signed a $126 million contract that will go for another four years -- came up looking first pitch fastball, swung instead at a breaking ball, and popped it up harmlessly to shortstop.

The Braves hold on to win 2-1. It is their 12th win in a row. The Braves lead moves to 14 ½ games.

* * *

The final game of the series was pretty simple: The Nationals and Braves were tied 3-3 going into the eighth. And the Nationals bullpen fell apart. Ryan Mattheus, who had been so good in 2012, gave up a double and a walk. Ian Krol, a 22-year-old who came over in the Mike Morse trade, gave up a single, double and walk in succession. The Braves lead was 6-3. The Nationals loaded the bases in the ninth, and Wilson Ramos gave the ball a ride, but it was caught, and the game was over.

The Braves win their 13th in a row. The Nationals trail by 15 ½ games.

And that’s where they are -- closing in on a dreadfully disappointing and lost season for the Washington Nationals. They’ve had injuries. They’ve had bad breaks. But the bottom line seems to be that no key player on the team, with the exception Jayson Werth, has been as good in 2013 as in 2012, Rizzo picked up one-time ace Dan Haren, another logical move that has been closer to a catastrophe -- Haren is 6-11 with a 5.14 ERA.

Harper, after a crazy hot start, has been hitting .226/.329/.414 since April 28 and has not looked the same since returning from his collision with the wall.

Ryan Zimmerman, once the best defensive third baseman in baseball, is having severe throwing issues. Nobody’s entirely sure if it’s physical (he had surgery on his right shoulder) or mental (he seems to be thinking before throwing) but he looks awkward throwing and has committed 17 errors.

Shortstop Ian Desmond, who seemed ready to break out as a star in 2013, has more or less stayed at the same level. Second baseman Danny Espinosa, who flashed speed and power as a 25-year-old, struggled with injuries and strikeouts and hit .158 for 44 games.

Jayson Werth is hitting like crazy, but he has missed a bunch of games with a variety of injuries -- not atypical for a 34-year-old outfielder.

And it all just totals a team that is six games under .500 and entirely out of things.

* * *

Before the season began, I wrote a story about how good they looked. Reading over that now, it’s clear: They had no idea this was coming. One of my favorite exchanges of spring training was when Davey Johnson talked about how he would MUCH rather go into a season with high expectations than with no expectations at all. He explained that high expectations mean the team has talent and skill and should be good. It’s always better that way, Davey said.

Now, a few months later, Davey Johnson looks around his team. He says they have talent. He says they have skill. He believes they should be good. And they’re not. The math should add up. But baseball math is a lot tougher to do.

Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports. Follow him on twitter @JPosnanski



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