Can’t We All Just Go Home?

Nationals Phillies
Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Baseball is unique among major American sports for its lengthy schedule. For six months a year, there’s a game nearly every day. Every. Dang. Day. Working for the weekend? There’s no such thing; Saturdays and Sundays are for games. Want to have a lazy one and “work from home” with a pint of Ben and Jerry’s and an eye on your emails? Yeah, uh, that’s not going to work, though you can at least wear pajamas in the dugout.

We marvel at the physical prowess of players all the time, but I’m interested in their mental fortitude. It’s hard to keep grinding day in and day out for half a year. It’s harder still when there’s no postseason carrot dangled in front of you. I’ve never personally been in a pennant race, but I imagine a chance at a hunk of metal is a great motivator. Without that powerful incentive, spending a few months with no mental breaks is beyond my ken.

Earlier this year, I observed that down-and-out teams perform worse than expected late in the season. That seems entirely reasonable. I’ve always wondered where that effect comes from, though. Every time I try to look for hitting or pitching performance relative to expectations late in the season, I find a whole lot of nothing.

That’s always made sense to me. When you step into the batter’s box to face an opposing pitcher, your mind can’t wander. The ball is coming in hot. Adrenaline alone can keep you focused. Likewise, if you’re a pitcher, I doubt it’s hard to dial in when you’re on the mound. A well-paid professional athlete is standing 60 feet from you and doing his utmost to pummel the ball you’re throwing him to kingdom come. The kinds of human beings who don’t perform at their best in that situation simply don’t become major leaguers.

Hold these two thoughts in your mind at once: players who are out of the race don’t perform worse than projected, either at the plate or on the mound, but teams that are out of the race perform worse than projected. Sounds strange, doesn’t it? I don’t exactly understand it either. Maybe my tests of individual player performance aren’t sensitive enough. Maybe I’m doing a bad job defining expected performance. Or maybe, just maybe, pitching and hitting aren’t the right places to look.

Why bring this up? I tuned into the early game of a doubleheader between the Phillies and Nationals last Friday, and I have some evidence to show you. A word of warning: if you’re a Nationals fan, you might think I’m making fun of the team. I’m definitely not. The Nationals made a ton of bad plays in this game. That doesn’t mean they’re awful, though relative to other major league teams, they’ve been pretty bad this year. Instead, think of it this way: every day that you watch a game, players are locked in on every little detail. If they weren’t, something like this game might happen.

Earlier in the week, this game wasn’t supposed to exist. The schedule called for a doubleheader on Saturday, with merely a regular night game on Friday. But Thursday night, nature intervened. Between the oncoming path of Hurricane Ian and the pressing need to get all of Philadelphia’s games in thanks to its precarious playoff position, the league scheduled a Friday day game in advance of the storm.

For the Phillies, that’s more annoyance than disaster. The sooner they could get back on the field and wash the taste of a demoralizing series against the Cubs out of their mouths, the better. For the Nats, it must have been a pain. Planning on a nice Thursday night and relaxing Friday morning? Not so fast, my friend — an early game time means an even earlier arrival at the stadium. It’s a small indignity, no doubt, but one piled atop an entire season of them.

The game got a little sloppy right away. After a fly out, a homer, and a groundout — normal occurrences, normal baseball — J.T. Realmuto laced a flare to left field for a single. Then things started to fall apart a little. On the first pitch of the subsequent plate appearance, starter Erick Fedde didn’t so much as glance at Realmuto. On the second pitch, he paid for it:

Forget what economists say; that was a free lunch for Realmuto there. Holding runners on base is unglamorous work. It won’t wind up on Pitching Ninja or Sportscenter. Plenty of pitchers try and fail to stop Realmuto from running, so it’s hard to put all of that on Fedde. He didn’t make the same mistake again, running a lackluster pickoff play at second after Alec Bohm walked. How did that work out? Whoops:

Fedde bore down and recorded an out to end the inning. He continued to focus on his main job: throwing pitches designed to get the hitter out. Riley Adams surely wanted to try to throw someone out; most days, it’s the most exciting thing a catcher gets to do. But holding good baserunners on is hard work, even if it doesn’t look like it all the time.

Want further confirmation? Stopping Realmuto is hard; he’s the first catcher in history to post a 20-steal, 20-homer season. Stopping Bryce Harper? That should be easier. But he had Fedde’s delivery down pat, too. In the third inning, he took second without a throw:

Okay, fine, maybe the Phillies were just going to be unstoppable on the basepaths this day, whatever the Nationals did. All that stealing looked so fun that Victor Robles decided to get in on the action. But, uh, don’t do it like this:

Picking your spots — learning the pitcher’s idiosyncrasies and timing so that you can leave at the exact right second — is hard work. It mostly doesn’t pay off; you can stand at first watching a pitcher for an entire inning without deciphering anything definitive enough to steal on them. Going on first move has high upside; you can skip all that trouble and get the base right away. That is, as long as the pitcher is actually going home on first move instead of throwing over.

To be fair to Robles, Bailey Falter is hard to time. His delivery is faster than it looks, particularly with runners on base. It gets worse for base stealers; Realmuto is the best in the game when it comes to controlling baserunners thanks to both a strong arm and lightning-quick release. As Lane Thomas ably demonstrated later in the inning, taking a less aggressive jump isn’t a great idea either:

Just to be clear, I’m not trying to say the Nationals weren’t giving their best effort in this game. Want to see “best effort?” Watch Robles trying to track down a Brandon Marsh line drive:

No knocking the hustle there. On the other hand, I’m not so sure about Robles’ play against the next batter. Jean Segura threaded a grounder to center, and Robles came up firing in an attempt to get Marsh at the plate. Just one problem: he had absolutely no shot at him and let Segura take second as a result:

That’s not a huge mistake, and not really one that shows up in the box score. In fact, many of Philadelphia’s extra bases in this one weren’t of huge import. Segura didn’t score this inning, despite advancing to third on a Bryson Stott infield single. Stott didn’t score, either, despite stealing second without a throw.

Despite a cavalcade of bonus bases, the Phillies couldn’t break the game open, and led only 2–0 heading into the sixth. Then, they manufactured a run the old-fashioned way: two-base error, single, run-scoring balk:

That’s a “never coming set” balk, one of the few I can actually identify. Jordan Weems didn’t argue it, and neither did the Nats. Here’s his next pitch, which should help illustrate the difference:

For what it’s worth, Weems struck out the last two batters of the inning despite a tight strike zone. When it came to pitching to the hitters in front of him, he was up to the task. “Don’t balk” isn’t foremost on anyone’s mind, short of perhaps Richard Bleier, when they’re facing Stott and Kyle Schwarber. But even if it’s not top of mind, you still can’t balk.

By the ninth, the game was off the rails. The oncoming hurricane weather was already in evidence, with rain starting to fall. The game was still going on, cold and miserable, and Thomas was chucking his glove at singles:

Naturally, the Phillies kept their foot on the gas pedal. Realmuto continued to press; after a run-scoring groundout that made it 5–1, he stole second without a throw on the next pitch:

Behind home plate, few fans remained to cover up the seatbacks, emblazoned with the name of a defunct cryptocurrency thanks to a marketing deal. There hadn’t been that many fans in the first place — the game had been scheduled for a weekday afternoon at the last minute, remember. In the bottom of the inning, Screech, the team’s mascot, made a valiant effort to fill those empty seats with some raincoat-and-umbrella hijinks, helping a fan take a selfie:

The Nats made a last gasp at a rally. The Ildemaro Vargas swing in that GIF up above produced a flared single, which gave them two runners on base with one out, and Luis García followed with a walk to load the bases.

The rally fizzled, as most do when you need to score four runs with only two outs to work with. Not a single stolen base turned into a run; the Phillies simply out-hit and out-pitched the Nationals. That’s how baseball games are won and lost, for the most part.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a game where one team more comprehensively outplayed the other on the basepaths. The Phillies stole six bases without so much as a single throw by the opposing catcher. The Nationals tried to steal twice and were out by wide margins both times. The Phillies played excellent defense; the Nationals were uneven. Heck, the Nationals even balked in a run.

If you were prone to hot takes, you could say that this was a team mailing it in, but I think this game mostly proves the opposite point. The Nationals had a poor game, no argument about that. They’ve been every bit as out of the race for months, though, without any similar slips. This is what happens if you stop doing some of the background minutiae of the game that every team is required to do every day. Every team is constantly looking for little edges, and if you don’t counter them by trying to find your own edges or mess with their ploys, it will all add up.

This is what happens to the Nationals when they have a low-effort day. This almost never happens to the Nationals. Ergo, they almost never have a low-effort day. That’s impressive; it took a hurricane-soaked game rescheduled to a weekday afternoon at the last second to see any cracks. And it’s not like they were dead to rights against Philadelphia after that; after the night game was postponed due to rain, the Nats came back the next day and won in a runaway, 14–3.

Baseball is so hard it’s almost incomprehensible. The pitchers all throw 100. The hitters all hit missiles. If that weren’t enough, you also have to remember an arcane combination of base coverages, best behavior against opposing base stealers, balk rules… the list goes on. Quite simply, it’s easy to be exposed in a major league game. The other team is full of world class athletes, every single day, and they all want to win, too. One look at what happens when things aren’t perfectly right, and it becomes clear (to me, at least) that most every player, on most every day, is handling the little things at a high level.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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Matthew Spencemember
1 year ago

Great article and great perspective about the mental focus required to play. We all hear about “the grind” and mental toughness, but this article helps to highlight what exactly that means.

As a Nats fan, though, woof! Hard to sit through those GIFs.

Petey Bienelmember
1 year ago
Reply to  Matthew Spence

did any of the ones with Victor Robles look outside his normal play? It’s part of why the Nats are where they are.

Matthew Spencemember
1 year ago
Reply to  Petey Bienel

Hey now, Robles has a positive DRS/UZR this year! Progress!