The Nationals Already Have Another Playoff Letdown

The Nationals are far from the only team to have experienced recent playoff disappointment. Some teams don’t even make the playoffs at all! So you can’t really say the Nationals are necessarily unique. Teams run up against obstacles. A lot of those teams can’t get past. That being said, over the past number of seasons, few teams have looked better than the Nationals, and few teams have wound up more disappointing. A Nationals fan might get the sense that a championship will simply never be in the cards, and that familiar feeling is coming back with gusto, with Wilson Ramos having been diagnosed with a torn ACL.

The truest pain here belongs to Ramos. Most immediately, he is the one literally hurting. But he’s also the one who can’t play anymore, and he’s the one who was looking ahead to free agency after having a big bounceback season. Ramos’ short-term future has been blown up in the blink of an eye, and he might wonder whether he’ll even be able to catch anymore down the line. This is somebody’s life, somebody’s career. That is, and is always, the most important thing.

Secondarily, but of fan interest, is the effect on the team. And that’s the only thing we’re really equipped to write about. So, acknowledging that the real story is Ramos himself, I’d like to set that aside for a moment and talk about the postseason. The Nationals find themselves in trouble at the worst possible time.

The postseason concludes with a World Series, and the World Series is a series, after which one team gets to celebrate. It’s the celebration every fan of every team yearns for, but if you allow yourself to overthink it, you do get to wonder what’s being celebrated. In theory, the winner is the best team. In practice, that can be argued.

Perhaps it’s the best team at the time. What about the preceding six and a half months? The postseason devalues the regular season, and as we all understand, the baseball itself is different between the two tournaments. The postseason is built upon small-sample series. It rewards the team that gets suddenly hottest. And the rosters are just different, with the usage patterns being different. Depth is less of a necessity in the playoffs. And there’s the matter of health. Leaving aside everything else, the playoffs might select for the hottest team, and they might select for the healthiest team.

The Nationals are going to make the playoffs. In the first round, they’re going to face the Dodgers. The Dodgers are good — every team in the playoffs is good. The Nationals, now, won’t have Wilson Ramos, who’s been one of their best players. They’re unlikely to have Stephen Strasburg, who’s been one of their best pitchers. They haven’t been able to play Daniel Murphy in a while, and he’s been one of their best players. Bryce Harper right now seems like one giant Band-Aid, and he’s been one of their best players. There’s still plenty of talent left, of course, but there’s no replacing a star player.

It’s almost an amusing contrast. The Dodgers might’ve been the most banged-up team in baseball all summer. And they will be without some of their players. But, critically, Clayton Kershaw recently became playably healthy. The same could be said of Rich Hill. Now the Dodgers will get to go into the postseason with two of the most effective starters in the game, and they’re going to combine for the easy majority of starts. The Dodgers got their critical health at the right time. The Nationals are experiencing critical injuries at the wrong time.

Very obviously, it should be said the Nationals don’t have a monopoly on inconvenient injuries. Any Mets fan would tell you they’ve had it worse, and they might even be right. That pitching staff is in tatters. So is Cleveland’s — Carlos Carrasco is out, and Danny Salazar is seemingly out, and now even Corey Kluber is having an MRI on his lower body. To say nothing of Michael Brantley, a team MVP who was barely ever able to play. Other teams have injuries of their own, albeit not quite of the same collective magnitude. There are playoff and potential-playoff teams who’ve been suffering.

The Nationals are getting my attention here because Ramos’ injury just happened. It is a massive blow to the roster, with the playoffs beginning in a week. Every team knows every offseason that it needs to assemble sufficient depth. Some teams do end up deeper than others, and that’s a credit to how the rosters are built. But I don’t think you can shrug off an injury like this. A team can’t really prepare for losing a Wilson Ramos, not realistically. You just can’t convince many starting-caliber players to hang out on the bench just in case. Depth is handy, even necessary, but reserves aren’t stars.

None of this is anything new. At least, not the generalities. All that’s new are the specific names of the injured, but players have been getting injured forever. The playoffs have always proceeded anyway, and a championship has never once felt less satisfying because an opponent was missing some player or two. Every team has to overcome some kind of adversity, and I don’t think the average fan wants to overthink a title. It just is; it’s the whole goal. You don’t stare a gift trophy in the mouth.

It’s just, every so often, it is worth wondering about the significance of October. No one wants it to go away. The drama is unmatched. I’ve just become decreasingly clear on the meaning. The rosters are different. The baseball is different. The sample sizes are different. And some teams are healthier than others, even if they weren’t for the months leading up. Looking ahead, the Nationals are going to be somewhat penalized in the playoffs for having lost Wilson Ramos in the season’s last week. From the perspective that the World Series doesn’t crown the best team in baseball, it doesn’t matter. Even though I can’t help but love it, I’m just having trouble identifying what the World Series does.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Roger McDowell Hot Foot
6 years ago

“the significance of October.[…] From the perspective that the World Series doesn’t crown the best team in baseball, it doesn’t matter. Even though I can’t help but love it, I’m just having trouble identifying what the World Series does”

Is this really a complicated or meaningful question, somehow? If so it’s escaping me, and I say that as someone who’s really trying to give it a charitable reading. Okay, we all agree because this is FanGraphs, the World Series doesn’t identify the “best team in baseball.” Why would it need to? The World Series identifies who won the World Series, i.e. who won into, and then won, the final round of an exciting tournament played by a group of the better teams in baseball. It’s not a leading indicator of some other phenomenon, with some other deep meaning remaining to be uncovered. We are all, as fans, perfectly well allowed to treat it with either disdain or deep investment — and myself I go back and forth regularly, it’s certainly pretty fun when my team’s involved even though I have gone so far as to think of myself as just a “regular-season baseball fan” the rest of the time — but there’s no other deep question here that I can see. Just a matter of a personal decision how much to get into it, on whatever personal hedonic, aesthetic, etc. grounds one wants.

6 years ago
Reply to  Jeff Sullivan

This discussion seems less about the significance of the WS Championship, and more about the relative Insignificance of the divisional titles. Wild cards assist in making these titles less of an accomplishment in my opinion. But, essentially each division winner is the “best team.” October baseball is not necessarily about “best,” but rather a clash of the titans. An event to see which team can rise to the new challenge put forth by short rest, tough competition, and a slim margin for error. The team that wins is the team that can adapt to the new game, and still take on all comers. It’s a Battle of Champions for supreme bragging rights. The teams in the tournament are (or would ideally be in my mind,) all champions already.

Roger McDowell Hot Foot
6 years ago
Reply to  minisidd

It seems like if anything maybe the closest to a consensus position here is that we ought to accord a little more significance — not in the sense of deep meaning, but rather cultural prominence and respect — to the regular-season league champions. You could think of it as returning a little closer to the way things were before the LCS era, when the World Series was a title bout between the truly “best” (or at least the largest-sample-size best) team from one league and the best team from the other.

I think in that sense a team like this year’s Cubs probably deserves some kind of title that comes with a sense of accomplishment and respect, which doesn’t really happen now unless they succeed in the playoffs. Even if the playoffs don’t break their way, say they get knocked out before the NLCS and the NL “champion” is a team with 87 wins instead of them, the team that wins the league in regular-season play should maybe be thought of as a winner too, rather than (as currently) almost treated as an asterisk-like also-ran that gets dragged out on trivia nights.

6 years ago
Reply to  Jeff Sullivan

Yup, you’re WAY over-thinking it 🙂 I think of it like chess — to beat a *good* player, you have to be able to beat (or at least stay even) with him in the opening, the middle game and then the end game. To win the WS, your team has to have enough talent AND depth to survive the long grind, and then be able to match up well enough with their opponents in the short-sprint of the post-season.

And, several GOOD teams will fall short; but they were still good – and not winning the WS doesn’t mean the season was a waste for them – it means someone else found a way to win when they didn’t at the end – or “outrageous fortune” stepped in and caused something unexpected to happen – which is fun in its own way. Enjoy it 🙂

6 years ago

The whole “the playoffs dont matter” argument is weak, in my opinion.

First off all, regular season records are hardly a perfect way of measuring team success. Schedules are not consistent and some teams face more difficulty than others. How is that fair?

And on top of that, why are we disregarding the team that earns a playoff bid, then adds 11 more wins while playing only the best teams in the league? Maybe we should add playoff victories to regular season win totals. I would imagine that the extra 11 wins will more often than not give the World Series champion one of the best, if not the best, records in the league.

The World Series (and the playoffs in general) are fine. There is no perfect way to determine which team is the best. Not even a 162 game regular can do that. Just enjoy the post season. It is exciting as hell and more often than not crowns a worthy champion.