If you’ve ever watched more than a half-hour of NHRA Top-Fuel drag racing you have probably seen a microcosm of the Nationals’ early 2018 season. A “Top-Fuel” Dragster is a piston-powered land rocket with somewhere near 9000 horsepower just waiting to be unleashed. When the driver mashes the pedal to the floor, three things can happen. As the late football coach from Texas, Darrell Royal, used to say about a forward pass, “…and two of them are bad.” The 36” tires could grab and propel the car down the track — or they could be given too much power for the traction provided by the track in which case they just spin basically going nowhere. Finally, the tires could receive insufficient power. When that happens all hell breaks loose as the car goes into a convoluted, uncoordinated spasm. Drivers call it, “Shaking the tires.”
If you’ve never seen it, but you’ve watched most of the Nationals’ games this year, it won’t take much imagination to complete the vision. Underpowered. It isn’t always the dragster that produces the most horsepower that wins. What counts is getting the right torque to the tires for the conditions at hand. The baseball equivalent is commonly referred to as, “Taking advantage of opportunities.” When it comes to this a few stats tell the tale in bold characters. The Nats are the second-worst team in baseball at leaving runners on base in scoring position at 4.24 per game. That is almost exactly one higher than last season. The next opponent, Arizona, is the best at 2.65 per game. Washington is 24th out of 30 teams in Batting Average for Balls in Play (BABIP). Finally, the statistic many rely on to gauge team performance independent of luck is Run Differential. This morning, the day after a 15-run explosion, the number is finally positive at +3. Yesterday morning it was -10. Last year’s number was +150, the fifth-best in baseball. At nearly +1 run per game in 2017, this team is over 20 runs behind schedule.
The pitching isn’t all that hot either as a group. Specifically, the bullpen pitching has been inefficient. For the first five innings, the Nationals are in a 3-way tie for 5th best in baseball. The Starters are getting it done for the first five innings led by Max Scherzer. Much like the, “Tale of Two Cities” the last four innings represent the, “…worst of times” and luckily the Nats have been perfect in 9th inning saves (6-for-6). The Nats are ranked 23rd in the last 4 innings, surrounded by teams not expected to produce much more than trade deadline drama. The sixth inning is a new form of the Black Hole that has sufficient gravity to capture light…and most of the chance of winning. Washington is 28th out of 30 teams in allowing runs during the 6th inning and that has to improve.
Tire Shake is an ugly thing. What makes it worse is that the competitor doesn’t have to lay down a good run to win.
One of the great rituals in Drag Racing happens during the eliminations on Sundays. As the car is readying to launch the Owner, Crew Chief, and pit crew line up behind it. They stand there as if to say, “This is ours. We are accountable.” Each run represents amazing amounts of preparation in the forms of labor and cash. The stakeholders stand there with stoic faces knowing full well there is an equal and opposite crew in the next lane sharing the identical hopes, fears, and pride. It’s a thrill to watch the machine scream down the track as the “Win Light” comes on. But, it’s a punch in the gut to watch the tires shake and shimmy as little Pride and Joy does a mechanized break dance. The acrid smoke and Nitromethane exhaust only add choking insult to injury.
Great drivers, if they are lucky, can recover from Tire Shake by “feathering the throttle.” It isn’t anything fancy. It’s just a quick up-and-down with the throttle pedal. They just have to hope that the other guy hasn’t had a good trip off the line. In a race that lasts 4-seconds the margin for error is miniscule. Baseball is a 27-week marathon. It’s almost exactly a week-per-mile equivalent. The margin for error is immensely larger. That’s consoling in late April. But, it isn’t comforting. Runners that win marathons run good miles throughout. The Nats have run three lousy ones. Now would be an excellent time to feather the throttle.