It is no secret that the Washington Nationals overcame adversity to win the the 2019 World Series. They went against the narrative that claimed their season was all but over after a 19-31 start. Going against the narrative has become a trend for the organization as evident by the way in which their team was constructed.
In an age where analytics preach about new-school ideas for roster and lineup construction, the Nationals stuck with a lot of old school methods and they reaped the benefits by winning their first-ever World Series championship.
The Nationals do employ an analytics staff of eight, Ivy-League educated workers, but they acknowledge that the analytics are not the end-all-be-all in constructing a team. This is evident by their tendency to go against some analytical norms.
“A sneaky analytical team,” said general manager Mike Rizzo of his team prior to World Series Game 3 while explaining their combination of old-school and new-school ideologies.
Rizzo explained that the team respects the occupation of scouting and the human side of the game is very important.
Rizzo’s feelings toward the human side of the game were mirrored by the players. The close-knit camaraderie of the team was well documented in 2019. Whether it was Gerardo Parra and ‘Baby Shark,’ Stephen Strasburg receiving group hugs in the dugout, or dancing after home runs, the Nationals had fun.
This all seems natural in retrospect. Teammates and friends having fun together while playing a game. However, sometimes this can be lost in the shuffle when teams play by what the numbers say. The best fit for a team from a performance standpoint, may not necessarily be the player who is the best fit from a culture standpoint.
“You can’t put a price on leadership and team chemistry,” said Ryan Zimmerman during the post-Game 7 celebration. “They want to put everything into an algorithm, they want to quantify everything. It’s the one thing you can’t put a value on.”
Winning is fun, and a good culture can be bred from success. That being said, there is a clear difference between enjoying success and having a great culture while winning. The Nationals had the latter in 2019.
The value of starting pitching has declined throughout the 2010s. Studies are showing that it is better to utilize a bullpen rather than let a starting pitcher stay in too long. Therefore, starting pitchers are exiting games quicker and more pitchers than ever before are being used per game.
The Washington Nationals have gone against that trend and doubled down on their starting pitching. Having already spent money on Max Scherzer and Strasburg, they spent more money on Patrick Corbin and brought in Anibal Sanchez on a smaller contract.
Their starting rotation was second in MLB with a 3.53 ERA. Their bullpen was a shortcoming, with the second worst ERA in MLB with a 5.68 ERA. Regardless, they had built a formidable rotation that was able to compensate, throwing 938.2 innings, second most in MLB.
In an era where the bullpen is considered a major key to success, the Nationals bolstered their rotation. Those moves paid dividends and helped them to a championship.
Constructing a lineup and the overall approach of a hitter has changed drastically in the 2010s. The Nationals, as is the trend, followed a lot of old-school ideologies in terms of hitting approaches.
One aspect in particular is the art of having a two-strike approach. The analytical narrative emphasizes scoring runs, and the fastest way to do so is via the home run. Therefore, the idea is to swing hard in an attempt to hit a home run. That includes when there are two strikes, and striking out has become more commonly accepted so long as a player creates runs and a team scores at a high level.
This has contributed to broken strike out records becoming a perennial occurrence, having been done for the 12th consecutive year in 2019. As a result, MLB also saw record home run totals for the second time in three years. The Nationals do not follow this free-swinging approach.
In the first inning of Game 2 of the World Series, Juan Soto fell to a 1-2 count against Justin Verlander. Rather than grip his bat tight and swing for the fences, Soto choked up on the bat, clearly looking to put the ball in play.
With Anthony Rendon on second base, Soto knew a single would be more than enough to drive in what would have been the third run of the inning for the Nationals. Soto did strikeout, but Verlander took notice.
“Their two-strike approach is really good,” said Verlander. “In today’s game, you don’t see it that often…that’s kind of found it’s way out of the game. It’s kind of refreshing to see a couple teams that don’t swing and miss a ton.”
Old-school ideologies state that the best hitter in a lineup should bat third with the biggest slugger batting clean-up. In front of them should be a speedy leadoff hitter, who can get on base, bunt, steal, and set the tone for the offense, and a two-hole hitter that can blend some power with an ability to get on base and bunt. This allows the two best hitters to bat early in the game with men on base and hopefully gain an early lead.
That is no longer the case in 2019. The idea is that the best hitter on the team needs to hit second. This will maximize at bats and still give said player an opportunity to drive in runs early. The Nationals followed the former rather than the latter in 2019.
Top of Lineup
Trea Turner was their leadoff hitter, and he fit the traditional idea of a leadoff hitter. He hit .298 with a .352 on-base percentage. He managed to steal 35 bases in 122 games, only being thrown out five times. This helped him score 96 runs.
Adam Eaton hit second, and he did everything a two-hitter should do from an old-school stand point. He hit 15 home runs and 25 doubles with a .365 on-base percentage. He added nine sacrifice bunts and three sacrifice flies. Eaton also stole 15 bases and scored 103 runs. Eaton was able to come up and do whatever the Nationals needed of him.
“You’re such a throw back two hitter in baseball; taking pitches, bunting, get a ball and hit it out to of the ball park,” said Harold Reynolds to Eaton on MLB Tonight after Game 7.
Middle of Lineup
Rendon hit third and Soto hit fourth. They were the Nationals two-best hitters so these lineup spots were perfect positioning for them from a traditional point of view.
Being protected by Soto hitting behind him, Rendon led the league in doubles with 44 and RBI with 126. That is in addition to a .319/.412/.598 slash line and 34 home runs. Soto also hit 34 home runs with 32 doubles, 110 RBI, and a slash line of .282/.401/.548.
Studies have shown that a player reaches the peak of his career in baseball around the age of 29. Therefore, general managers have become hesitant to sign players to big investments if they are in their 30s. Additionally, baseball is filled with young stars, signifying the continual phasing out of older players from the game.
The issue with this thought process is that every player is different and there is no telling when a player will truly enters their decline. Veteran players made a huge impact in the postseason for the Washington Nationals.
They have exciting young players of their own, such as Soto and Victor Robles, but they were the second oldest team in MLB and the oldest among all postseason qualifiers.
Howie Kendrick, 36, hit a go-ahead grand slam in the tenth inning of Game 5 of the NLDS, won NLCS MVP, and hit a go-ahead two-run-home run in the seventh inning of Game 7 of the World Series.
Kurt Suzuki, 36, hit a go-ahead home run off of Verlander in Game 2 of the World Series.
Scherzer, 35, started the Wild Card game, and allowed four earned runs in ten innings with ten strike outs in his Game 1 and Game 7 starts. On a side note, he was also named a Cy Young award finalist for the 2019 season.
Zimmerman, 35, hit several key home runs for the Nationals, including the first World Series home run in franchise history.
All of these players are considered old in baseball today. That did not stop them from providing crucial moments for the Nationals in October.
The analytics revolution has brought an unprecedented amount of information into the game of baseball. This information is a tremendous tool for organizations across the sport, but the Washington Nationals serve as a reminder that the evolving ideologies that come with them are not the only way to construct a championship baseball club.
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