Baseball Prospectus | Playoff Prospectus: The Washington Magicians

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October 12, 2017

The Washington Magicians

by Rob Mains

T.A. Waters, in his 1988 The Encyclopedia of Magic and Magicians, writes: “Misdirection is the cornerstone of nearly all successful magic; without it, even the most skilled Sleight of Hand or mechanical device is unlikely to create an illusion of real magic.”

Skilled magicians use misdirection to trick our minds into accepting the wrong image or action, leading us to draw false conclusions. To killjoys, this trickery is something to be solved. To the rest of us, the misdirection makes magic enjoyable. The point being: The Washington Nationals are magicians.

For those of you who saw the news that Tuesday’s game had been called due to rain and foolishly decided to turn your attention to work or family or sleep or something like that, let me get you up to speed on the ensuing 20 hours or so. The postponement was viewed as a break for the Nationals, who would be able to start Stephen Strasburg on normal rest instead of Tuesday’s scheduled starter, Tanner Roark.

But then:




Because:




Which drew the kind of responses you’d expect:




But it got better.







So the Nationals pulled a massive misdirection. They told us Strasburg wouldn’t start. Because he’d pitched that day. But he hadn’t! Well, then it was because he was sick. Baker noted that “this is the time of the year for mold in Chicago,” which is actually true:

So, former players, what do you think of Strasburg?

  • Mark Teixeira: “Strasburg saying that he’s under the weather, he’s got mold poisoning or something and he can’t go in a playoff game when your team is on the brink of elimination … I played with John Smotz. His arm was literally hanging off at the end of the 2007 season1, and he was asking to be thrown out there.”
  • David Ross: “[The] no. 1 starter says ‘I’ve got the sniffles and I can’t go?’ Like, what? That tells me a lot about him … If I’m his teammate and I walk into the clubhouse the next day, I can’t make eye contact with this dude.”
  • Wade Boggs: “Really can’t take the ball in an elimination game because of a runny nose sad. Not in my fox hole! [sic]

And the Nats continued to misdirect. General manager Mike Rizzo told the press that Strasburg was dealing with “fever, chills, and acute sinusitis” but had switched to a different antibiotic and took intravenous fluids, woke up Wednesday morning feeling better, and advised pitching coach Mike Maddux that he was good to go.




See what the Nationals did there? They had everyone looking at sick Stephen Strasburg. Mold-afflicted, febrile, chilled, acute sinusitis-suffering Stephen Strasburg. And we couldn’t help ourselves! There we were, staring at the Stephen Strasburg who didn’t pitch in the 2012 postseason because of innings limits. The Stephen Strasburg who’s qualified for the ERA title only three times in his eight years in the majors. And yes, the Stephen Strasburg who signed a $175 million contract last year. And while our eyes were all trained over there, who should appear but the good Stephen Strasburg, the healthy one, the one who over his last eight starts (seven in the regular season, one in the postseason) had a 7-1 record, a 65/10 K/BB ratio in 54 2/3 innings, and a 0.49 ERA. That Stephen Strasburg. It was magic!

But that wasn’t all. Not only did the Nationals make a healthy Strasburg appear, they changed him. We, and the Cubs, had our eyes trained on the Strasburg who all season threw 52 percent fastballs, 23 percent curveballs, and 19 percent changeups. Instead, they got the Strasburg who threw his devastating changeup—one of the best in the game—30 percent of the time. He threw the 32 changeups to the Cubs in Game 4, all but nine for strikes, all swinging, and they whiffed on 47 percent of their swings. He got one of his 12 strikeouts on a fastball, three on his curve, and every one of the last eight on his changeup. Here are his last three, the three batters he faced in the seventh inning:

One:


Two:


Three:


Along the way, Strasburg did another misdirection. One of the key themes of this postseason, as Matthew Trueblood wrote on Tuesday, is the increased awareness of the times-through-the-order penalty. Postseason pitchers are being pulled before they can face the order a third, or in some cases a second, time. So while the Nationals’ magicians had us looking at the parade of Cubs facing Strasburg a second or third time, Strasburg spit at our puny TTtO penalty:

  • First time through the order: Nine batters faced, one hit, one walk, three strikeouts: .472 OPS allowed
  • Second time through the order: Nine batters faced, two hits, five strikeouts: .444 OPS allowed
  • Third time through the order: Seven batters faced, one walk, four strikeouts: .143 OPS allowed.

And the focus on Strasburg and his supposed illness? Another misdirection, because it took our concentration away from the Cubs’ starter, Jake Arrieta, whose balky hamstring had limited him to 10 1/3 innings since the end of August. He allowed only an unearned run and two hits over four innings of work, but he wasn’t sharp. He threw 90 pitches, only 53 of them for strikes, as he walked five and struck out two.

But the magicians from Washington were saving their best trick, their most masterful misdirection, for later in the game. In the top of the eighth inning, they were still leading just 1-0. Strasburg had thrown his 106th and final pitch. Jon Lester had come on in relief for Arrietta, and was masterful, retiring the first 10 batters he faced. He walked Ryan Zimmerman, but then this happened:


A JON LESTER PICKOFF! Everyone stopped what they were doing, riveted at the sight of the guy who won’t throw to first base picking off a runner in a key postseason situation. Two outs, nobody on, and a JON LESTER PICKOFF! Momentum seemed to be shifting, as we all looked at replays of the unlikeliest of events.

And as our attention was diverted, staring at the pickoff, the Nationals went to work. Daniel Murphy walked. Carl Edwards was brought in, and he walked Anthony Rendon and Matt Wieters to load the bases. After a ball to no. 9 hitter Michael Taylor, Wade Davis replaced Edwards.

Taylor’s presence in the lineup was the result of yet another Nationals misdirection. He’d hit .229/.282/.358 as the Nationals’ center fielder in 2015, a .240 TAv, and when he followed that with a .243 TAv in 2016, highly-touted shortstop prospect Trea Turner was called up to displace him in center field. In December, Washington traded prospects Dane Dunning, Lucas Giolito, and Reynaldo Lopez to the White Sox for Adam Eaton, sending Taylor to the bench. The misdirection was so effective that after Eaton tore his ACL in April, we didn’t notice when Taylor returned to center field. And we certainly didn’t notice when Taylor hit .271/.320/.486 with 19 home runs and 4.0 WARP, fourth on the team, trailing only Rendon, Murphy, and Bryce Harper.

So what a masterful misdirection it was, when the player who wasn’t supposed to be able to hit, and wasn’t even supposed to be the starting center fielder, came to the plate against a reliever who last gave up a grand slam in July 2013, when our attention was still drawn to Lester’s pickoff.


The Nationals have never won a postseason series. They’ll have a chance to see if their magic can break the spell tonight in Washington.

***


1Literally?


Rob Mains is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @Cran_Boy

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12 October 2017 | 12:00 am

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