How Did Nationals and Dodgers Get Knocked Out?

So far it’s been an exciting and interesting postseason. I have to say, though, I’m surprised that both the Nationals and Dodgers are sitting home, as they seemed to me to be the best two teams in the NL — on paper.

Maybe there are advanced stats that disagree with my thought that Los Angeles and Washington were the cream of the National League. But gee whiz, the Dodgers appeared to fit in with their Hollywood digs — a star-studded cast. Even the often unpredictable and occasionally disinterested Hanley Ramirez stepped up his game when the postseason began (maybe he was reminded he was playing for a big winter payday?), and, Matt Kemp was once again Matt Kemp in the final weeks of the season (1.047 OPS in September), and Carl Crawford was perhaps the best he’s ever been heading into the playoffs (.473 OBP and 1.187 OPS in September!). With those three surrounded by the likes of Yasiel Puig, Adrian Gonzalez, Juan Uribe, and Dee Gordon, and led on the mound by Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, the NLDS should’ve been a slam-dunk.

What the heck happened?

Similarly, how in the world did the Nats lose to the Wild Card Giants? Again, when you look at the two clubs on paper, it seemed like no contest — the Nats should’ve swept. The usually pitching-rich Giants were not looking marvelous, other than Madison Bumgarner. Then former Met Yusmeiro Petit comes out of nowhere and Brandon Crawford turns into the 1969 postseason version of Al Weis and next thing you know, the Nats are sent home for the winter.

I look at both the Dodgers and the Nationals and think, “what could they have done, who could they have added to better prepare for the NLDS?” I’m at a loss. MAYBE the Dodgers could have added another bullpen arm, so that Kershaw and Greinke didn’t have to feel like they needed to go 8 innings every time out? What could Washington have improved going into the postseason? I can’t think of one position player, bench player, or pitcher I would’ve switched out from that team. For pete’s sake, Ryan Zimmerman was relegated to pinch-hitting and he wasn’t missed!

But to me, that’s what makes baseball so beautiful — you never know what’s going to happen on any given day. If there’s a stud on the mound, a college team can beat a MLB club. In a short series, a lesser team can get hot and take games from champions. A team full of sluggers can be hoodwinked by a team that scraps and executes. The littlest things can turn into the biggest things. David can beat Goliath. No matter how many stats are analyzed, they can’t necessarily predict what will happen over the course of a week — weathermen are more reliable.

Along the same lines, for the first time in many years, I’m watching the playoff games played by the teams in the Adulterated League. Why? The Orioles. A team of no-names that ran away with the AL East and swept the previous class of the AL, the Detroit Tigers. And they did this despite losing star catcher Matt Wieters early in the season and star infielder Manny Machado halfway through. And despite big free-agent signing Ubaldo Jimenez being a complete bust. And they keep rolling without slugger Chris Davis. How did the Orioles do it? Smoke and mirrors?

No. They execute. They’re fundamentally sound. Everyone “buys in” to the goal. Manager Buck Showalter instituted a winning program in 2010. There wasn’t a “rebuilding.” There wasn’t any talk about payroll flexibility nor fiscal responsibility. There wasn’t an expectation of losing seasons while they got their s*it together. There wasn’t any yakkety-yak about building from within nor over-hype of prospects to placate the fan base. Rather, Buck Showalter joined Baltimore and changed the focus of the organization. It was not unlike Vince Lombardi’s influence on the Green Bay Packers way back when — winning was the goal, and winning isn’t an outcome, it’s a process, it’s a habit. Yes, the Orioles had one rough year in 2011 while making the conversion from whatever was happening before to winning. Now, though, they’re a juggernaut, despite a cast of characters that changes every year, every month, and every week. Parts are interchangeable because everyone knows the goal, knows what they need to do, and are put into situations in which they can succeed. Pitchers make pitches, fielders execute, batters put the ball in play. It’s baseball at its simplest, much like we witnessed in Atlanta during the Bobby Cox years.

I’m sure someone will want to point out one stat or another that explains why the Orioles are so good this year. Maybe it has something to do with Nelson Cruz being a beast. I’m not terribly interested in paper-based arguments, mainly because I believe that the on-paper, measurable, individual results may not have just “happened,” but because those individuals were put into optimal situations, were properly motivated, and well-handled (these are all things that successful business managers do). How did Yusmeiro Petit come out of nowhere? Were the Orioles really “lucky” to have received great performances from Steven Pearce, Cruz, and, most recently, Delmon Young? Why do so many has-beens rekindle their careers when they put on pinstripes? I sincerely believe it has something to do with the environment, the attitude, and the process. I have to believe that, otherwise baseball becomes a soulless, black and white form of entertainment.

OK, I’ve gone off someplace far away from Flushing — my apologies.

What’s your thought on what’s happening thus far in the postseason? Are you enjoying it?

Sound off in the comments.

Joe Janish began MetsToday in 2005 to provide the unique perspective of a high-level player and coach -- he earned NCAA D-1 All-American honors as a catcher and coached several players who went on to play pro ball. As a result his posts often include mechanical evaluations, scout-like analysis, and opinions that go beyond the numbers. Follow Joe's baseball tips on Twitter at @onbaseball and at the On Baseball Google Plus page.
  1. James Preller October 9, 2014 at 12:50 pm
    Joe, you do a great job. And that final point about “on paper” really resonates with me. They are human beings, not Strat-O-Matic cards.

    I’ve got a different angle on the unpredictability of the short series as it relates to the Mets. Sandy Alderson’s goal is not excellence, it’s not at all about “being the best,” it’s about squeaking into the playoffs. Because if you are in it, you can win it. The best doesn’t always — or even often — prevail in today’s expanded playoff format. The Mets are interested in beating the Nationals; they just want to win 88 games and get in the tournament.

    That is, Fred Wilpon’s dream of “meaningful games in September.” The new battle cry: “One and done in 2015!”

    I don’t know, maybe that’s right in a cynical kind of way. But I certainly am more inspired when teams and individuals strive to become the best. I wish they would at least aspire to win the division. But as a bean counter might point out, it doesn’t pay like it used to.

    • Joe Janish October 9, 2014 at 5:06 pm
      Thanks James. Good point on squeaking in. This is essentially the strategy that Bud Selig has been trying to sell to every MLB club, right? Water-down the talent via expansion, add more interleague play so that there isn’t as much exposure to one another (and therefore, more chance for fluke things happening, like crappy teams beating much better teams on bad days), and then at the end of the season you have a big round-robin tournament / NHL-style playoff system where the team that gets hot, and not necessarily the best team, wins the whole sha-bang. That’s what sells tickets through October and keeps MLB relevant. This is what’s “good for baseball.” Whatevs.

      It sounds like I’m with you — to me, baseball was always about the season-long grind of fewer teams playing each other more often, and that way you find out for sure who really is the best. But, I’m an old-school curmudgeon, not a marketing guy.

    • argonbunnies October 9, 2014 at 8:51 pm
      Anything can happen in a short series, but if you win the wild card, you then need some luck or whatever just to GET to the short series. The wild card game just feels like game 163 to me — merely getting there, you haven’t won anything yet. We need to win the division.

      My takeaway from the random nature of the postseason is that, once you’re past the wild card, simply getting in is the key, BUT that your championship odds are roughly 1 in 8 regardless, so if you actually want a RING, you should probably make the playoffs every year for 8 years.

      If I were given the choice after 2009 to take the Phillies or the Cardinals, I’d take the Cardinals every time. Winning 90 every year is better than winning 100 and then two years later being under .500.

      • James Preller October 10, 2014 at 11:37 am
        You know, game 163 is really a “play-in” game, not truly “the playoffs.”

        But again, the marketing guys are trying to sell something to the public, so the fudge the cold, hard facts.

        I wonder how they feel in Pittsburgh right now, and Oakland.

  2. Dave October 9, 2014 at 1:30 pm
    How did the Orioles build that kind of depth? From 2001 on they drafted 4th, 7th, 8th, 13th, 9th, 5th, 4th, 5th, 3rd, 4th, 4th, and (finally) 22nd. That’s 10 top 10 picks in 11 years to stockpile talent. Seems to me they went on a long, massive rebuild and when the talent was finally in place they hired Buck Showalter to instill a “winning attitude” and spent heavily on the free agent market.
    • Joe Janish October 9, 2014 at 5:00 pm
      Dave, I’m not sure I agree. You want to go back 14 years? I’m looking at the Orioles’ current 25-man playoff roster and I’m not seeing anyone from 2001. The first player that pops up is Nick Markakis from 2003. No one from the 2004 draft. The great Nolan Reimold was a second-rounder in 2005. Zach Britton was a third-rounder in 2006. Matt Wieters, who hasn’t played since early May, was #5 overall in 2007, and they picked Jake Arrietta in the fifth round of that same draft. Brian Matusz was #4 overall, which, in hindsight, seems like a bust, considering he’s developed into a so-so middle reliever. Caleb Joseph was a seventh-rounder from that same draft. NOT ONE player from their 2009 draft (when they drafted 5th overall again) has made it to the big leagues. 2010’s only MLBer is Manny Machado, who was third overall.

      That said, I’m not seeing it through the same lens — I don’t see any massive, decade-long rebuild. Those high picks weren’t the main reason the O’s are where they are today — again, my opinion.

      Even if you want to make the argument that all those high draft order picks were an advantage because they used those players for trades, I’m not sure it holds water, either. The two #1 picks they had in 2001 were never-MLBer Chris Smith and the legendary Mike Fontenot, who was part of a package sent to the Cubs for Sammy Sosa in 2005; Sosa left via free agency. They nabbed Jim Johnson in the fifth round of that draft and eventually turned him into Jemile Weeks, who played in 3 games for Baltimore before being sent to Boston for Kelly Johnson. Their 2002 #1 pick and fourth overall was Adam Loewen, a complete bust who they eventually released. Their other big pick from that draft was John Maine in the sixth round, who turned into Kris Benson. Again, 2003 was Markakis and no argument there, the only other relevant MLBer from that draft was Chris Ray, who was eventually traded for Kevin Millwood, who left the next year via free agency. Their 8th overall pick in 2004 was Wade Townsend, who didn’t sign; that entire draft was a complete loss for them. In 2005 they had two first-round picks, Brandon Snyder at 13th overall and Garret Olson 48th. Olson was a bust and was traded for Felix Pie. Snyder was a bust and sold to Texas. In 2006 their #9 overall pick was Billy Rowell, yet another bust. Their other first-rounder at #32 was Pedro Beato, who was lost to the Mets via Rule 5. I can’t argue with Wieters and Arrieta in 2007. I’ll admit they did pretty well with their 2008 draft; in addition to getting Matusz and Joseph, they also turned Xavier Avery into Mike Morse, who left via free agency, and L.J. Hoes was part of the package for Bud Norris. 2009, again, a complete loss. 2010, nothing other than Machado. 2011, we’ll see what happens with Dylan Bundy, and 2012 netted #4 overall pick Kevin Gausman, who is so far looking decent.

      Looking at their history, I really don’t see how they used those high picks to any kind of advantage in building their current club.

      As for the spending money on free agency, I don’t see much there, either. As mentioned in the post, Jimenez was an utter failure — as big as the Mets’ failure wiht Ollie Perez. Nelson Cruz was the exact opposite, but they gave him only one year and $8M. Wei-Yin Chen was signed out of Taiwan for three years, $11.4M. Andrew Miller was a one-year, $1.9M deal. Ryan Webb, 2 years at $2.45M. Where is the spending “heavily” that I’m not seeing?

  3. DaveSchneck October 9, 2014 at 6:19 pm
    As far as the Dodgers go it is simple, in the best of 5 series they sent out the Cy Young/MVP in two games, staked him to multi-run late game leads, and he failed to get it done twice. That falls on one player.

    Regarding the Nats, I think they have the best top to bottom 25 in the bigs, and the rotation is elite. Again, they were bested by a team that just go enough when they needed to…that’s baseball and the beauty of it.

    I agree with James above in that this Met target to be a playoff contender for a one game coin flip is not adequate. Yes, they need to get to that level first, but the goal is to build a team that can win the division and that is geared to have a very good chance in a short series. From that point, anything can happen as we have seen. But, if the goal is to aim for the wild card, that is lame.

    • Joe Janish October 10, 2014 at 10:06 am
      Kershaw shat the bed in his first start, but can you really put all the responsibility on him for losing game 4? The Dodgers scored only two runs, and he was pitching on short rest. I get that he is the best pitcher on the planet this year, and there’s less scoring in the postseason, but you can’t expect a guy who has averaged 7 innings a start all year on 4 days’ rest to suddenly be nearly perfect through 8 innings on 3 days’ rest against a playoff team. Also, how the heck do the Dodgers lose to John Lackey? Again, the beauty of baseball.
  4. norme October 9, 2014 at 7:01 pm
    Joe, this might be the best piece I can remember from you. Your love of the game really shines through.
    I think one of the keys to the O’s success is that Buck finally found an owner who would allow him to see his work through to fruition. Perhaps age has smoothed out a few of Showalter’s rough edges which may have bothered some of the veterans on his other teams.
    For all those who argue that a manager doesn’t play that big a roll in a team’s success or failure, the leadership of guys like Showalter and Cox are evidence
    that good managers can make a difference.
    • Joe Janish October 10, 2014 at 3:36 pm
      Thanks Norme, it’s appreciated!

      Agreed – if managers don’t make a difference, then why are they hired — or fired, for that matter?

      I absolutely believe there are both ineffectual and effective managers — in every industry. As long as baseball continues to be played by people, there will be people who can influence the way they play and how well they play. Maybe it’s not measurable, and maybe it’s not so drastic to be noticeable, but in a Major League sport, where there’s very little difference in talent level between the majority of the athletes participating, I have to think that any tiny edge coming from the manager can be enough to result in a few more wins. And it’s not necessarily about X’s and O’s / in-game management — it has more to do with managing personalities, health, and preparation.

  5. argonbunnies October 9, 2014 at 9:13 pm
    I love my stats and analytics, and I think “some teams know how to win” rhetoric is usually nonsense, but when it comes to October, I’m a believer. The late ’90s Yankees knew how to win. The post-‘roids Giants and Cardinals know how to win. They all have the same secret — they’ve been there and done that and they don’t freak out. October success breeds more October success.

    When David Ortiz gave his rally speech with the Sox down 3-1 to the Indians in 2007, do you know what he said? “This jersey says Red Sox. That means you’re a bad motherf***er.” Coming from a guy with a ring, that meant something. Beckett pitched a great game, and the offense was carried by Manny, one of the least frantic postseason performers I’ve ever seen. He just stayed the same awesome hitter he always was, while the Indians all started gripping the bat too tight or trying to do too much.

    Does the 2012 Cardinals’ ridiculous elimination game comeback against the Nats happen without 2011 Game 6? Does Matt Adams hit Kershaw’s hanging curve without that history? Most lefties facing a dominator like Kershaw in that spot would just be trying to battle and make contact. But no, Adams was ready to see the ball and hit it, just like any regular season game. Because he’s a Cardinal, and the Cardinals know they’re going to win playoff baseball games.

    Jeremy Affeldt isn’t a better pitcher than Pedro Baez. But Affeldt is a Giant, and the Giants know they’re going to get opposing hitters out in close playoff games. Baez, on the other hand, is on a team desperately trying to prove itself in October, and desperation isn’t a good place to pitch from. The Nats’ hitters took or missed pitches they were ripping in September.

    That’s what I’m seeing, anyway. The other end of the spectrum is the Royals, a team of hyperactive speedsters and flamethrowers who are happy just to be here. I still have no idea how the mustered so many clutch hits against the A’s with that lineup, but they swept the Angels with defense, pitching, speed, and one red hot hitter in Hosmer.

    I honestly have no idea how the Orioles are doing it. Mad props to Buck.

    • Joe Janish October 10, 2014 at 10:37 am
      The 2014 Orioles are similar to Earl Weaver’s strategy (“pitching, defense, and the three-run homer), though they don’t necessarily have the pitching studs that Earl had — they limit baserunners, play outstanding defense, avoid mistakes, and hit homeruns. That’s a winning formula. Check out the top two fielding teams based on advanced stats — the Royals and Orioles are far and away the elite teams in MLB (,ts&rost=0&age=0&filter=&players=0). And the O’s led MLB in homers.

      I believe what’s been lost over the years — maybe because stats are so focused on offense, and so difficult/unreliable in measuring defense — is just how important the fielding piece is to winning games. The Mets are squarely in the middle of the pack on the advanced defense charts — I’m curious where they’d be if not for Juan Lagares. I’m old enough to remember seeing Rick Dempsey, Rich Dauer and Mark Belanger solidifying the “up the middle” for Baltimore — none of them could hit a lick, but they were stellar defenders (as was Doug DeCinces at 3B). They had those three holes in the lineup every day, but they also had the likes of Ken Singleton, Eddie Murray, Lee May, DeCinces, etc., putting the ball over the fence.

      Obviously, a team needs more than just defense (the next-best team after KC and Baltimore is the Reds), but executing — as we talk about here all the time, the little things — can and do have a much larger affect on the outcome of games than most people realize.

      • Dan B October 10, 2014 at 11:54 am
        As Whitey Herzog used to say about Ozzie Smith, what’s the difference if you score a run or save a run?
  6. James Preller October 10, 2014 at 11:47 am
    I think it would be very interesting — and worth writing about, Joe — is the Cards and Royal met in the Series. The two teams with the lowest HR totals in baseball!

    Meanwhile, the Mets GM seems fixated on the need for power. (Moving in the fences again seems a little loony, to me, given that Citi currently plays as an average HR field, right in the middle statistically, and the Mets are built around pitching.)

    I really think they need hitters, period.

    • Joe Janish October 10, 2014 at 3:40 pm
      I agree on both counts.

      It’s absolutely ridiculous that the Mets went through so much cost and effort to create a unique ballpark that had the potential to provide a home-team advantage, and instead of building a team for the park, management has decided to change the park to shoehorn in their outdated, PEDs-era strategy.

      I also wonder how much of the fence thing has to do with bean-counters telling management that homeruns equal more ticket sales, regardless of which team is hitting the homers.

      • argonbunnies October 11, 2014 at 8:54 pm
        I was thinking the same thing about homers and tickets. 🙁
      • argonbunnies October 11, 2014 at 9:12 pm
        Wouldn’t it be fun watching Cain, Dyson, Escobar and Gordon in Citi Field? Sadly, after having missed chances to sell high on Ike/Niese/Parnell/etc., I don’t see a way to get such players now.
    • DaveSchneck October 10, 2014 at 6:40 pm
      I also agree regarding the obsession with the HR. The Mets need better hitters, whether the hit HRs or not. My biggest disappointment with Granderson this year is that he did not adjust his game more to the mindset he had in Detriot with the big OF there. His HR total of 20 was not as worrisome as his refusal to hit to the gas more. I want 8 tough outs in the lineup, and let Duda hit the long balls.

      I am indifferent and not so opposed to the fence alteration so long as it is very modest and is limited to the right-center part of the park. I’m not sure why they made is so deep to begin with. Shea Stadium dimensions were no band box and it shouldn’t hurt the pitching much if they simple adjusted to the Shea 371 to 396. Anything shorter and I’ll be on the nay side.

      • argonbunnies October 11, 2014 at 9:10 pm
        It sounds like you want Granderson to be someone other than who he is. He came up as a K-prone flyball hitter, and he’s stayed a K-prone flyball hitter. Yeah, he pulls more than he did at 27, but I don’t think moving a few of those high flies from RF to left center is going to help much. Does anyone suddenly become a line-driving hitting tough out at age 34? Don’t hold your breath, man.

        .235 with 27 HRs is probably his ceiling, and he’ll need a few cheapies to reach that. I doubt moving the fences is good for the team, but it’s probably the best hope for Curtis.

        • Dan42 October 13, 2014 at 7:03 am
          It only make sense to make sure Curtis has a chance to prove that he wasn’t a bad deal. I don’t think that is likely to happen, more likely the move will good for opponents to offset any pitching advantage the team will be able to develop. It will also reduce outfield defensive value since former outs will clear the new fence.
      • Joe Janish October 13, 2014 at 1:49 pm
        I wonder how many less runs Juan Lagares will save with shorter fences?
        • mckeeganson October 13, 2014 at 3:02 pm
          Better trade Colon now, with shorter fences he and Gee could see those ERA’s creep towards 5.

          About the only thing you could say is that the Mets are counting on getting far more strikeouts from their starting pitching next year, with Wheeler, Degrom, Harvey, Noah and Montero all capable of striking out a batter an inning, and therefore not having to field as many balls. That is a very risky strategy however since all those guys are either injury risks or unproven as major league players.