October baseball is different, but not in the way most think. This isn't about the added pressure, how much brighter the spotlight is, or how some players can dig deep and find a special clutch ability they lacked all regular season. This isn't about the age old clichés. As The Boss will tell you on the commercials, October is the land of hope and dreams, but it is also the land of small sample sizes.
There are a few weaknesses with the Nationals that can be exploited. First off, they strikeout a lot: 1,325 times, to be exact. While in some situations a strikeout is just another out, there are situations where they can be costly. The Nats have faced 333 opportunities to drive in a runner from third with less than two outs and have scored that run 46 percent of the time. The league average is 51 percent. If they had been at the league average, the Nationals would have scored 17 additional runs in 2012. That might not sound like much, but in the post-season the Nats poor situational hitting and high strikeout rate could be costly.
The other main weakness of the Nationals is holding runners. The Nationals were second-worst in baseball with an 83% percent success rate against when it came to stolen bases. Nationals pitchers never helped the catchers out much and runners were able to take bases seemingly at will. The Nationals rank in the middle of the pack by the raw numbers with 94 steals of second allowed and 17 steals of third yielded, but that is because their pitchers were good enough to not allow many baserunners in the first place. Both of these issues are minor in a 162-game season, but in the land of small sample sizes, molehills can transform to mountains and even the best teams can face an early exit.
The Nationals finished up the 2012 season with 98 wins and the best record in baseball. In the past 10 seasons, the team with the best record in baseball has won the World Series twice, made it into the World Series four times and made it to the League Championship Series seven times. The reason that the best team doesn't win out in most seasons is that the playoffs are different.
In the regular season, a team with a good back of the rotation has an advantage. But in the postseason, those pitchers will hardly be seen, if they make the playoff roster at all. The other difference that pertains to the rotation is that for the first time since the All-Star break, it is able to be set. Take, for example, the Nats' series against the Orioles that they lost this season. In both series, the Orioles had their No. 1 and 2 starters going, while in both series the Nationals had their No. 4 and 5. That won't happen in the postseason. One will line up against one, except for the Nationals.
Taking nothing away from Gio Gonzalez, who is a heavy favorite in the Cy Young Award race, the Nationals are going to play the postseason without their No. 1. Shutting down Stephen Strasburg was the right decision, and it doesn't lower the Nationals' chances by much, but it does lower them. Without Strasburg, if Gonzalez or Jordan Zimmermann have a bad start, it makes it that much easier for a series to be lost. Ross Detwiler and Edwin Jackson have struggled at times against the better lineups, and needing one of them to step up in an elimination game is a risk.
Nothing was guaranteed with Strasburg, but it was less likely that Strasburg, Gonzalez and Zimmermann were all going to have bad days. All starters have bad outings, and during the regular season they can be chalked up as just that. The pitcher is removed in the early innings, a mop-up man is brought in and the team moves on to play another day. In the postseason, one bad outing can cost a team a game which can cost them a series. Winning three of five or four of seven is something the Nationals have done all season long, but they have also suffered stretches where they have lost three of five or four of seven.
For 162 days, there is always a tomorrow in baseball, but the Nationals are past that now. If any of their weaknesses get exposed at the wrong time, or they face a hitter that has decided to go on an October tear, then their postseason could end earlier than expected. These things can be overcome or countered. The Nats' lineup is full of players that can get hot at anytime and carry a team. Any one of Jayson Werth, Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmermann, Adam LaRoche, Michael Morse, Ian Desmond, or Danny Espinosa could be the man in October. Every one of them has the ability, and every one of them has had a month-long head-turning hot streak in their careers.
October isn't decided by who played best for 162 games. It is decided by who the hottest team is for the month of October. And as Jerome would say, "It all starts, right now."
David Huzzard blogs about the Nationals for Citizens of Natstown, and offers his viewpoints as part of MASNsports.com's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our little corner of cyberspace. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.