2017 Nationals: Excellence is a process

Photo by Jeffery Salter

When a club captures four division titles in six years, it is not lucky. Yes, luck is involved day-to-day, but that big-picture result is profound. It can only happen as the result of intentional, structured, programmatic choices; a deep personal and financial commitment to a process. This machinery takes a long time to build and must be fine-tuned and constantly re-evaluated. Process is an abstraction–it’s paperwork and moving names around on a draft-board. And it’s also completely intimate, personal and idiosyncratic. In 2017 the Nationals have seen processes flourish at both macro and micro levels and it has been extraordinary–and frankly deeply inspiring–for this fan to observe.

Stephen Strasburg–in the midst of one of the more incredible stretches of his fantastic career–came to mind almost immediately as I sat down to write this. I thought about “Stras” in one of his more recent outings–a complete game dismantling of our rival Marlins, who were blast-furnace-hot at the time, and who fielded as explosive a lineup as exists in the National League. The meat of the order: speedster Dee Gordon, the home run-crushing Giancarlo Stanton, the all-star Yelich, the masher and RBI machine Marcell Ozuna, and then the hyper-athletic J.T. Realmuto, have a habit of obliterating baseballs. They essentially alternate lefty and righty and do it all: they run, they hit for contact, they hit for power, they draw walks, they work counts–take your pick.

On this day, Stras had simply carved through them like a fork through perfectly cooked short ribs; the flesh just flaking apart, not even bothering to mount resistance. Of those five monster bats, only Realmuto managed to get anything accomplished, going three for four on the day, including a nobody-on, nobody-out triple–which Stras then dismissed, striking out the next two batters, walking the number eight hitter and getting the pitcher, Adam Conley, to lob a gentle pop-up into shallow left. Stras battered them with fastballs and ghosted them with change-ups and had ball-darts leaving his right hand and then evaporating before their very eyes.

In his post-game comments, he was asked whether he had a complete game on his mind after the first inning, and the answer was, basically: “this game is too hard, I just pitch until they take the ball out of my hand.” After another eight inning, 10-strikeout gem, a week or two later, he offered up this nugget:

“I just trust my stuff and give it what I’ve got and go to sleep well that night.”

These are fairly innocuous quotes when one first reads them; it sounds like Stras-being-Stras, like more of his media reticence or Mojave-dry-witted humor or even silence-by-cliché. But I thought about his quotes some more and what I heard was not some technical discussion of pitch X-versus-Y, but really, a reliance on Process: repeatable actions that allow him the freedom to pitch brilliantly. Literally, he describes a beginning (“take the ball”) a middle (“throw it until”) and an end (“they take the ball out of my hand”) and which point he goes and does his probably ridiculous workouts that would either kill me or break me in half, studies hours of video, confers with Mike “Mad Dog” Maddux, and then repeats for as many fifth days as possible.

I heard Stras describe something in three words that is the ultimate power–“trust your stuff”—and I thought about how easy it is to say and yet how difficult it must be to execute. When one’s “stuff” is missing the zone inexplicably or one’s own body can’t hold up for reasons that nobody can answer–how easy can it be to trust anything? And yet here we are, with a guy who has decidedly propelled himself into the Cy Young discussion.

As big as the Nats’ Big Names are–and they are colossal, and we are not where we are without Max and Bryce and Tony–I have been thinking a lot about how Gio reinvented himself. How Matt Albers found a way to emerge as an elite setup guy. How A.J. Cole and Edwin Jackson have found room and given us many quality innings. And I have really been considering the trifecta of Michael A. Taylor, Brian Goodwin and Wilmer Difo, in no particular order.

Taylor, Goodwin and Difo–these guys remind me about how little I know about how professional baseball players “decant.” I do not use the word “decant” lightly. I love wine (if you are one of the unfortunate victims of my twitter, you know this.) There is something about the unpredictability about how a grape ages–those that aren’t scorched in sunlight or drowned in rain, the grapes that survive–become a juice that is at first raw, harsh and primal–and then, over time, develop into a full, complex and complete drink. And in watching Taylor, Goodwin and Difo—this is precisely what has happened.

Their track record was either limited or poor heading into this season. I’d seen Michael A. turn in consistently poor at-bats and look lost in the field. And now, we have an elite defensive centerfielder, with power and speed that plays on the field–he regularly changes games in one or two areas. If he’s not the most dangerous eight-hole hitter in the game I’m not sure who is. Same with Goodwin and Difo. Goodwin carried our outfield for weeks, with his power and glove. Difo had a miserable opening to the season. He was demoted and called-up to step in when our de facto sparkplug Trea Turner went down with a broken wrist. It would have been enough if Difo had simply treaded water; but no, he played spectacular defense and tore up pitching with barrages of singles and occasional power and generally became Sparkplug Guy No. 2 on offense–he contributed considerable positive WAR in his own style.

These guys have become complex players–players with depth and impact. It has hardly happened overnight, and no, amazingly enough, none of them are flawless—too many strikeouts, some odd “baseball IQ moments”—but this is the year they stopped being “maybes” and emerged as serious, multi-tool Critical Parts to a team that expects to win. I absolutely did not predict this and I have loved every single example of my wrongness, and I can only reflect upon and admire how they did the work they needed to do–refining swings, studying more tape, allowing themselves to receive coaching–how they found their way into a process, and shaped their own careers, in the context of whatever chances the Organization thought they had earned.

Ted Lerner with Dusty Baker – Photo by NavyYardNats for TalkNats

At a fundamental level, from the Lerner family, through Rizzo and Dusty Baker through all the coaches—everyone involved with this giant organism created a tone, a setting, a club-wide Discipline the likes of which I have never really seen before in any sport team that I follow. In 2015, when everything went wrong, that system was clearly not ready to produce grand cru grapes just yet. Injuries cropped up and nobody filled the gaps; the office politics sounded terrible; everything went sour, the juice seemingly turned to vinegar overnight. Maybe the entire project was still too young, almost ahead of itself somehow. Great vineyards are hundreds of years old and our “vineyard” isn’t even two decades into its maturation. This year, though, it is clear that our “vineyard,” top to bottom, looks like a serious piece of work–we are a first-growth baseball club, if you will. And I believe it is entirely possible that we’re just beginning to scratch the surface of how powerful the Nationals organization can be.

Photo by Marlene Koenig for TalkNats

It’s Victor Robles, who plays with dangerous and thrilling abandon. It’s BGoody and Difo and Taylor, who needed time and patience to emerge as the plus-WAR players they are. It’s the savage and controlled intensity of Max and the silent-assassinness of Stras. It’s Bryce, who hits .330 while honing his swing and mechanics. It’s how Daniel Murphy has been open to a complete overhaul of his offensive game. It’s Zim and J-Dub continuing to believe they’ve got “it,” and doing the hidden work to produce results showing how right they are. It’s the money people trying to figure out what to allocate where–how to spend smartly. It’s the scouts who toil in the middle of nowhere for no acknowledgment, studying pitch sequences and variations in arm slots and defensive range and player makeup and filing reports two people read and end up paying off in a single game-changing at-bat two months later. The entire structure of this club, top to bottom, is a lesson.

The ‘17 Nats team is an easy, uncomplicated group to root for. They play with joy and pride and continue to display a rarified combination of God-given genetics and hard-earned craftsmanship. It’s been a real joy to have seen it from start to today. I refuse to allow myself to write “from start to finish”–because we’re not done yet. We’re too deep and too talented and too full of hard-earned experience. No–I refuse to allow past disappointments or “fear” of future results to temper or cynically shade my view of this exquisite team.

Photo by Marlene Koenig for TalkNats


On a personal note.

I am at present an aspiring novelist. I don’t have any credits or serious professional success to my name. I have a manuscript in front of me that is driving me completely crazy for a host of reasons. I have many good things in my life that I am deeply grateful for but there’s also a lot going wrong. My therapist and I talk a lot about process.
What is my process. And largely, up until recently, the process was a complete disaster. When it didn’t consist of active rebellion against having a process, it didn’t exist at all. There was no “trust my stuff.” There was no “write till they take the computer away.” Nothing intuitive or free or fun or flowing or any of the components that our guys talk about when they talk about how they play the game.
There was just flailing. And that is not professional, and it can’t sustain a life or a career. Process, process, process, my therapist said, we have got to find something–and in my thinking, it has become increasingly clear to me that the folks who I can draw inspiration from, process-wise, are here in front of me, daily.
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