The winning streak that ended on Sunday was the Nationals’ longest since 2009, and is tied for the second longest since their return to Washington. As I said on Sunday, streaks are difficult things, and they take you out of the big picture, and you start to live for the microcosm of the streak and not for the reality of the season. I pulled a lot of the numbers for the streak, and for the season as a whole, and the conclusions are pretty interesting.
First, let’s get the big picture stuff out of the way.
During their 8-game winning streak, the Nats batted .276 as a team, combined for 43 runs (5.4 runs per game) and hit 12 homers (1.5 per game). The pitching staff gave up just 18 runs in that same stretch, and struck out 52 (6.5 per game) during that same 8 games. For a team that was hitting just .201 prior to the streak, and were scoring less than 4 runs per game, this was the sort of breakout performance that you look for from a struggling team.
One of the problems that manager Jim Riggleman spoke about as the Nationals started their road trip was that they were hitting the ball a lot, but they were hitting them right at people. While Leo Durocher might yell at the club to “hit ‘em where they ain’t,” statistics can give us a good guide about balls in play. A statistic called BAbip, or Batting Average on Balls in Play, and it can give you a good guide about the effectiveness of both pitchers and the defense behind them, as well as the contact that hitters are making and its locational effectiveness. Confused? Sure, I understand. But think of it this way: Of all the balls in play, be they hits or outs, how many are hits? That tells you how the defense is doing, it tells you about where the balls are getting hit.
So how’d the Nats do in this stretch? Well, better, but not by enough to make it a statistical aberration. Against the pitching of SD, STL and BAL, they hit .282 BAbip and that’s just 9 points better than the rest of their season. Where it gets a lot more interesting is seeing what the defense behind the Nationals pitching did. The whole season, the Nationals’ opponents have a .283 BAbip, but once you get into the streak, the Nats’ opponents are down to just .257 on balls in play. Their best defense in two or three season came amid the winning streak, with a 130.2 innings played without an error. Of course, we’re also looking at a small sample size, and there’s a danger of getting lost in advanced sabermetrics when the sample size, in comparison to the last few decades of precision statistics gathering, and the records of 120 years of baseball, are quite minuscule.
Statistics are tools, and they’re valuable sometimes. They can point out flukes and trends, they can show you useful things, and they can show you when something’s working for a bit, before it stops again. The Nationals’ strength in this run was their pitching, not just their hitting. The Nats scored more runs than usual, yes, but they were giving up far fewer than average, and the difference there has been in the defense behind them.
As it is, tonight’s game has been a return to the Nationals of old, with few hits, and some very human pitching from Livan Hernandez in front of some very human defense. The stats average out, and the streak is smoothed into the Bell Curve. That’s the way of these things.