Stephen Walker: Enjoying the journey without knowing the destination

The statheads are trying to ruin my delight in the Nationals’ 2012 season, including Sunday’s comeback win over the Milwaukee Brewers, the club’s 24th so far.

I’m trying hard not to let them.

Now, I love baseball research and statistical analysis. The Society for American Baseball Research, SABR for short, has changed how fans, managers and front office personnel interpret, evaluate, and even enjoy teams and players.

What’s driving me crazy are recent analyses of the Nationals’ chances of making the playoffs. As a Nats fan, these predictions bother me. As an analyst, they raise my blood pressure because they use a flawed premise and, when examined, make no sense.

From my standpoint as a fan, I want to enjoy the metamorphosis of the Nationals from baseball’s worst team to one of its best. I want to revel in a team that has already won 61 games when, just three years ago, the club won 59 all season long. I want to savor watching Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper learn to become two of the game’s best; appreciate Ross Detwiler, Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa growing into their vast talent; delight in rookies Tyler Moore and Stephen Lombardozzi becoming key pieces on a winning team; and relish Jordan Zimmermann developing into one of baseball’s best starting pitchers.

What I don’t want to do is obsess over what every game, trade and injury means for the Nationals’ playoff chances, especially during the slumps and losing streaks that every team experiences. The dog days of July and August are only half over. It is far too early to think of the postseason with so many games, developments and stories yet to come.

From the perch of an analyst, I abhor metrics like average playoff probabilities. They lack context and lump together multiple years of dissimilar data. For starters, baseball statistics are dependent on a specific league and season. Some years, competitive balance across a league means relatively fewer wins will get a team to the postseason. In the 2012 National League, though, extremely weak teams in Houston, Colorado, San Diego and Chicago are causing an abnormally wide spread between the best and worst teams.

As of July 30, the Astros (35-68) had the NL’s worst record. The Nationals and Cincinnati Reds (both 61-40) are tied for the top spot. Houston’s winning percentage of .340 is .264 lower than Washington and Cincinnati’s .604. That’s a 26 percent spread. For context, the American League spread from best (New York Yankees, 60-41, .594) to worst Kansas City (41-60, .406) is 188 points or only 18 percent. It is probably going to take a lot more wins to reach the playoffs in the NL than it will in the AL, especially for the two wild card teams. Those predictions about the Nationals do not account for the NL’s imbalance this season.

Also, these prognostications treat all teams equally, without regard to their make-up, experience or competition. No distinction is made between teams reaching the playoffs for the first time compared to longtime, virtually unchallenged powerhouses of the past such as the 1995-present Yankees and Boston Red Sox, the 1991-2005 Atlanta Braves and the 2006-11 Philadelphia Phillies.

This matters. Teams that have been to the postseason before have pennant race experience to complement their talent. Having been there before guarantees nothing - teams must still win the games - but it certainly helps. With few exceptions (Jayson Werth, Mark DeRosa, Adam LaRoche, Edwin Jackson, manager Davey Johnson), pennant fever is new territory for most of the Nationals - and their fans.

Ultimately, for five teams, the odds of making the playoffs will be 100 percent. For the other 11 NL clubs, 0 percent. It’s binary, not relative. You’re either in or out. Last season, Atlanta’s 99 percent chance became zero and St. Louis’ 1 percent probability became 100 percent because the Braves collapsed in September’s crucible while the Cardinals thrived.

No matter how big the headline screams, no matter how loud the pundit shouts, I intend to ignore them. The Nationals’ regular season has 61 games to go (that’s 38 percent of a 162-game season for you number crunchers reading this). Their destination remains unclear. Wherever it leads, I want to disregard the numbers and simply enjoy the ride.

Stephen Walker blogs about the Nationals at District on Deck and is the author of “A Whole New Ballgame: The 1969 Washington Senators” (Pocol Press, 2009). His work appears here as part of’s effort to welcome guest bloggers to our little corner of the Internet. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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