I went to a baseball game in Oakland last night. This wouldn’t have any bearing on this article if not for this: I drove to the game, and in that 30-minute drive to the stadium, the Washington Nationals went from clawing their way back into some sort of contention in the NL East by beating the Mets to looking up October beachfront condo rentals. When I got in the car, there was the prospect of an interesting September division race. When I got out of the car, poof — that was all but gone. One inning, three pitchers, six walks, and six runs after the start of the top of the seventh, the score of the game was tied at 7-7, and all it took was a home run off the bat of Kirk Nieuwenhuis in the eighth to finally sink the Nationals.
If you follow either or both of these teams, yesterday’s seventh inning was an encapsulation of how the season has unfolded. The Mets have been one of the best stories in baseball; the Nats have been 2015’s poster child for the biggest gap between performance and preseason expectations. One of the most alluring things about baseball is how large season trends can play out in the microcosm of a single inning, and so the seventh inning saw a shift in win expectancy inline with the arc of the Nationals’ season, from spring training to today:
At one point, with two out and one on in the top of the seventh, the Nationals had a 99.2% expectation of winning the game. And, while late 7-1 leads are blown in games many times during the course of an entire baseball season, when they happen in this sort of context and with this kind of futility, it’s our responsibility to break them down.
Usually these leads are blown by an offense going on a tear, stringing big hit after big hit together; the difference in this game — and probably the thought that is most painful to Nationals fans today — is that this collapse was almost entirely self-inflicted. There was one big hit, yes, but this was the type of slow-motion train wreck that wakes you up in a cold sweat ten years from now yelling the name of Matt Williams into a dark void.
First, a few numbers: the Mets sent 13 hitters to the plate in the seventh. Nationals pitchers threw 54 pitches, of which just 23 were strikes. Felipe Rivero, the hard-throwing lefty brought in to face Juan Uribe and Curtis Granderson, threw 10 pitches before getting the hook; only two of those pitches resulted in strikes. The PITCHf/x plot of the inning looks like somebody took a shotgun to the strike zone:
If there is a complaint to be had from the Nationals perspective, it’s that the strike zone was a little tight. A few of those low pitches get called strikes, and who knows, we aren’t here having this conversation. But that’s nitpicking, and that’s also glossing over the fact that Blake Treinen, Felipe Rivero, and Drew Storen walked six batters in an inning they began with a six-run lead. Whatever way you want to slice it, that’s going to be considered a cardinal sin.
Much of the talk following the game last night was about Storen in particular, as he added to some already painful memories of meltdowns in big games. That got me wondering — what happens to Storen in high-leverage situations?
First, a primer on leverage, from our glossary page on the subject:
An average (or neutral) LI is 1. High leverage is 2.0 and above, and low leverage is below 0.85. 10% of all real game situations have a LI greater than 2, while 60% have a LI less than 1. You can use this table of Leverage Indexes to familiarize yourself. Leverage Index is conditional on Win Expectancy and because that changes with the run environment, LI will be a little different from year to year. Average will always be 1 and the cut points are the same, but the specific events and situations will change a bit.
Now let’s take a look at how Storen has performed in those different situations:
We have a pretty large sample size for these three categories — over 400 batters for each, in fact — so we can be confident we’re moving away from some of the noise. And, whether you believe clutch is real or not, the numbers tell us that Storen in particular has had trouble with his control in high-leverage situations during his career. With a fairly steady career walk rate around 7%, we can see that his control has become poor in big spots in the past; he didn’t do much to quash that narrative in his performance last night.
The ramifications for the NL East are obvious from this series. The Nationals experienced just over a 16-point drop in their playoff odds due to the past two losses, leaving them at under 10%; the Mets gratefully accepted that difference, vaulting to over 90% odds with the two wins. The graph of the playoff odds for the first two games of the series is dramatic, to put it simply:
The Nationals could still make the playoffs. The Mets could collapse over the next few weeks, even though they play one of the easiest schedules in the National League for the remainder of the season. Washington could pull itself up from these two losses, win the final game of the series, and go on a tear.
But that probably won’t happen. There was a destructive aspect to last night’s game for the Nationals — it felt like a back-breaker, from the fan base, to the announcing team, to the body language of the players. It’s hard to point to one game out of 162 as the moment the playoffs slipped away, but the fact remains: because of this series, the Nationals have a much higher mountain to climb. Matt Williams is probably a dead man walking, and this team will look a lot different next season given the number of players hitting free agency at the end of the year.
We should give credit to the Mets for not giving last night’s game up: their at-bats showed just how far this offense has come since the beginning of the year (they ranked 27th in first-half wOBA and currently are 2nd in second-half wOBA). As we can see from the strike-zone plot, they didn’t chase pitches outside of the zone during the seventh inning, letting the Nationals’ relief staff pitch the Mets back into the game.
However, the story is this: staked with a six-run lead, three separate Nationals pitchers simply couldn’t get the ball across the plate, precipitating a bewildering and incredible meltdown. Somehow that seemed to sum up the season in Washington. In a year that started with so much promise, it most likely has all but ended fittingly, with Matt Williams walking back and forth between the mound and the dugout, a few batters too late and bereft of working options.
Owen Watson writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @ohwatson.