Every year, once a World Series winner is crowned, the question resurfaces: what conclusions should we draw from the latest champion’s path to the top?
When the Kansas City Royals won it all, we marvelled at their contact rate. Then the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros won, proving that tanking works in baseball, too. In the coming days, a narrative will most likely form around the Washington Nationals.
Fair enough. There are legitimate conclusions to be drawn here, such as the value of aces in October and the importance of simply making the playoffs. But our need to find digestible explanations can also cause us to grasp for patterns that don’t necessarily exist.
With that in mind, these are the conclusions not to draw from a highly entertaining 2019 World Series.
The bullpen doesn’t matter
The Nationals have an objectively thin bullpen, one that posted the worst ERA in baseball this year (5.66). Despite that, they still managed to win the World Series. This much is undeniable.
At the same time, this formula doesn’t look repeatable in the least. Few teams can rely on three starters as dominant as Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin. And even if you did have an elite rotation, your margin for error would be extremely thin without more options in the bullpen.
That didn’t stop the Nationals, who got just enough from Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson, and they’ll soon have World Series rings to show for it. But the next team to try this probably won’t be as successful. More often than not, you need a deep bullpen to win it all. In that sense, the Nationals were the exception, not the rule.
(Even in Washington, you have to imagine relievers rank high on the off-season shopping list for general manager Mike Rizzo once he deals with Strasburg’s potential opt-out and Anthony Rendon’s pending free agency.)
Nationals won it all because they shut down Strasburg in 2012
The Nationals might now feel vindicated for their once-controversial decision to shut Strasburg down instead of pitching him in the 2012 playoffs. They had their reasons for watching his workload carefully so soon after Tommy John surgery, and seven years later he’s the World Series MVP.
Yet, what worked in Washington wouldn’t necessarily work elsewhere. Let’s say the San Diego Padres and Oakland Athletics are in similar positions next year with MacKenzie Gore and Jesus Luzardo, respectively. Those clubs should watch their pitchers’ workloads carefully, monitoring their fatigue levels with the latest technology all year long and into the playoffs. But as long as the pitchers hold up physically, their teams can use them responsibly without shutting them down completely.
After all, there’s no guarantee that a shutdown will prevent future injuries and few pitchers will age nearly as well as Strasburg, who’s arguably as good as he’s ever been at age 31.
Age trumps youth
At a time when baseball’s stars seem to be trending younger and younger, the Nationals have the oldest team in the majors by average age. Read into that at your own risk, though.
There’s no denying the numbers. At age 32, Daniel Hudson posted a 1.44 regular-season ERA then closed out game after game in the playoffs. At age 33, Asdrubal Cabrera was released by the Texas Rangers before signing with Washington and posting a .969 OPS. At age 35, and in his 15th big-league season, Ryan Zimmerman hit two playoff home runs. At age 36, Kurt Suzuki hit 17 home runs while Howie Kendrick posted a .966 OPS in the regular season before hitting two franchise-changing homers in the playoffs. And at age 42, Fernando Rodney struck out 9.5 batters per nine innings.
What an incredible collection of performances from players who were largely overlooked or discarded as recently as a few months ago. Each of those players deserves so much credit, and so does the Washington front office. Without all that 30-plus talent, this championship doesn’t happen.
But as compelling as those stories are, would you bank on them as a formula for success? Viewed dispassionately, they seem more remarkable than repeatable.