The Washington Nationals are the 2019 Worlds Series champions.
This was about as even as a series could get. Whenever there’s a deciding Game Seven, it’s basically a coin flip. After 1,584 innings of regular season and playoff baseball, the Nationals’ season wasn’t resolved until the final nine— and really the final three.
When a series— or even just a game— is so close, we tend to find one thing the winner did well, then declare that to be their key to victory. Pundits, analysts, and “first time, long time” radio show callers will all tell you the ONE REASON why the Nationals were better than the Astros. They’re all wrong.
The Nationals didn’t win just because Howie Kendrick threw his barrel at an a 0-1 pitch down and away, just barely thwapping it off the foul pole screen. The ball traveled only 336 feet, and with an xBA of .420, it’s an out more often than not.
Four or five feet to the right and it’s just a foul ball— strike two— but think about what four or five feet means at the point of contact. If Kendrick angles his bat a millimeter to the left, it’s a fly out. A millimeter to the right and it’s a foul ball. He just so happened to swing at exactly the right time to send a ball exactly that far to exactly the one place where it would count as a home run.
Howie Kendrick's home run was worth 34.7 percentage points of World Series win probability. The Nationals' odds increased from 29.5% to 64.2%.— Devan Fink (@DevanFink) October 31, 2019
Not only was it the most important hit of the postseason thus far, but it's more than three times as important as the next closest hit.
The Nationals didn’t win just because they had the best player on the field. Even though Alex Bregman surpassed Anthony Rendon in WARP (8.6-6.3) and is more likely to win a regular season MVP award, Rendon was the better star in this series. Bregman batted .207/.258/.517 with -0.04 WPA, while Rendon slashed .276/.344/.586 with 0.20 WPA. Does this mean Rendon is the superior player? No, but over the infinitesimal sample of seven games he outplayed his third base counterpart. Call it a hot streak, batted ball luck, “the clutch gene,” or a random sample. It happened the way it happened.
Besides, neither were as remarkable as Juan Soto, who led players on both teams in OPS (1.178), home runs (3, tied with Bregman), and WPA (0.42). In the regular season, his 4.9 WARP was excellent, but nowhere near Bregman’s and Rendon’s. In fact he was “only” the fourth best player in the World Series by this metric— George Springer surpassed him with 5.4. Sometimes baseball just works out that way. The best payer can actually be the fourth best player, or the tenth best, or the 25th best.
The Nationals didn’t win just because of Astros manager A.J. Hinch’s pitching usage, which Joe Buck questioned ad nauseam. Through the first six innings, Zack Greinke was nigh unhittable. He surrendered just one single and one walk. He induced six tappers that he fielded himself, including a double play that wiped out one of the two baserunners.
In the seventh inning, he allowed a groundout, a homer to Rendon, and a walk to Soto before Hinch pulled him in a 2-1 game. He had thrown just 80 pitches, but after facing 22 batters, was well into the third trip through the lineup. Will Harris, author of a superb 71 DRA-, threw his second pitch down and away to Howie Kendrick— an excellent location really— but he connected in just the right way to give the Nationals a 3-2 lead. A few innings and few more crooked numbers later, the Nationals were victorious.
Should Hinch have left Greinke in the game? Should he have used Gerrit Cole instead? With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to answer “yes” to either of those questions. Hinch lifted a pitcher he perceived to be tiring in a one-run game with only 2 2⁄3 innings to go in the season. He brought in the guy who had been his best middle reliever all year. This was a substantial part of the formula that won 107 regular season games, plus ten more in the playoffs. It just didn’t work out this time.
The Nationals didn’t win just because they had Max Scherzer on the mound. Frankly, he wasn’t very good. Eight of his 26 batters faced connected with an exit velocity of 95 mph or higher. He induced only 11 swinging strikes on 102 pitches— 10.8 percent— well below his regular season swinging strike rate of 16.3 percent.
With two on and two out in the second inning, George Springer smashed a 105.2 mph line drive to left. It had a .690 xBA, but Juan Soto caught it. With two on and two out again in the third inning, Yordan Álvarez crushed a 389 foot fly ball to center field. It had a .680 xBA, but Víctor Robles tracked it down. If both of these fall in for doubles, as was their most likely outcome, the Astros probably win the World Series. Alas, they did not.
The Nationals didn’t win just because of World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg’s brilliance in Games Two and Six. The Nationals didn’t win just because of questionable umpiring decisions and weird fluctuations in the baseball itself. The Nationals didn’t win just because of karma related to Brandon Taubman and Roberto Osuna, if you believe in such things.
No, the Nationals won the World Series because of ALL of these. When a series is this tight, decided this late, any slight change in happenstance can swing the entire outcome. If Kendrick swung a little earlier or later, if the Astros got the big hit in the second inning (or third, or fourth), if Strasburg only lasted seven innings the night before instead of 8 1⁄3, if the Nationals traded Rendon to the Yankees back in May when they were 19-31, the outcome is completely different.
That’s not to say the Nationals were simply lucky. The circumstances in which they found themselves were of their own making. After all, Kendrick did hit that Will Harris pitch just right, and that made all the difference between runners-up and world champions.
Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. Tweets @depstein1983.