Of Margins and Little Things


FP Santangelo had an interesting take the other night during the telecast.  He was relaying a conversation with Joe Madden from earlier in the year.  “It isn’t about winning this game.  It’s about doing everything right.  When the game is over you look up and if you’ve done everything right you’ve probably won the game.”   This is classic “Process vs. Results” which is a mantra of many coaches and instructors in all variety of sports.  The mantra is, “Focus on the process, which you control, and the results will come.”

If you think about baseball the results are separated by tiny, almost miniscule margins.  A baseball season is 162 games.  The math works out to 27 weeks of 6 games per week.  A team wins the division by a single game won it by only 0.617%.  A team that wins the division by 8 games was only 5% better than the second place team over the course of the season.  A football team that wins a division by a single game wins it by 6.25%.  Baseball’s margins fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.  Consider a horse race.   American Pharaoh won the Belmont Stakes by 5.5 lengths which was a good, healthy lead.  That’s 44’ over the course of a mile and a half, which is nearly an identical margin to a baseball team winning the division by a single game.  Many a Belmont was won by a half-length (0.006%).   Still, baseball is a game played on a razor’s edge.  Last year 48 Nats games (30%) were one-run affairs.  Little things mean a lot because there’s no margin to waste.

All of the above brings us to this week in Colorado where little things not, “…done right” have been on full display by both teams.  In the first two games it didn’t change a W into an L.  But, by this point some of the little things not being done correctly constitute real worry beads.  Forget the errors for a moment.  Errors happen in the commission of an act.  The Shortstop goes to pick a ball and misses.  The First baseman goes to pick a ball and misses.  Over the course of the year the metrics will tell that story.  But, when Bryce Harper tried to nail the base runner at first Ramos stood at home and failed to back up the bag.  The throw went wide and Ramos should have been in position to make the play.  But, he wasn’t.  That’s a sin of omission. It gave the Colorado player a free 90’.  If you look at the “Total Bases Allowed Per Team” chart you’ll see that St. Louis leads with 11.9 per game.  The Nats are in 11th position at 13.2 per game.  If they could eliminate just one of these “free-base” moments per game they’d be in second position.  A one-base-per-game improvement represents a 7.5% improvement.  In a game where the difference between going to the playoffs and staying home can be dictated by a margin nearly ten times smaller, this is a big deal.

Every player has an assignment on every play.  Some are more obvious than others.  Pitchers that don’t lay down a bunt, runners that don’t advance when they should, and players failing to back up a base are all examples of the little things that separate teams.  How good are the Nats at these things?  With no metrics it’s left to the eyeballs.  The picture painted so far this year looks to be less than optimal.  Too many bunts have not been laid down well.  Too many free bases have been given away.  There will never be a better time to turn that around than right now.  And, maybe that has begun.  Max backed up third last night when Bryce decided to “Go Howitzer” as the Rockies’ player went on a fly from 2nd to 3rd.   Max’s hustle saved a free base.  They later earned it.  But, at least it wasn’t given.

Where the Nats land in the standings will likely be dictated by just how well they handle the little things.  Because when it comes to baseball, a game of skinny margins, little things matter a lot.

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