The worst part of narrative-driven sports journalism is that it usually results in those who engage in it bending the facts to fit the narrative rather than identifying a narrative that springs logically from those facts. As an example I give you John Feinstein’s column on the Nats. Which came out today, but which you know he wrote a long time ago:
And now it can be said, with almost no doubt, that the decision to shut Stephen Strasburg down last September didn’t cost Washington one chance to win a World Series, it cost the team and the city two chances. Because if one thing is clear about the debacle that was this summer it is that it was set up by the disaster of last fall.
The evidence of this, apart from Feinstein’s assertion that it is self-evident, is not provided. He spends a lot of time on the idea that the Rafael Soriano signing was a slight to Drew Storen which in turn caused clubhouse strife. There is some truth to that, but based on how Storen pitched this year the strife was well-earned. Still, I don’t know what that has to do with Strasburg. Maybe he feels like the lack of Strasburg in Game 5 of last year’s NLDS led to the Storen breakdown. I have no idea, but there is not much else there other than talk of mojo, hubris, karma and all of that kind of nonsense linking the Strasburg shutdown decision in 2012 to the Nationals’ underperformance in 2013.
Which is understandable given that there were a whole host of things that happened in 2013 that led to the Nationals’ underperformance in 2013.
The offense took a step back this year, with many hitters who helped the team win the division in 2012 having worse years in 2013. Adam LaRoche dropped over 100 points of OPS. Danny Espinosa fell off a cliff. Denard Span represented a huge downgrade on offense from Mike Morse. Steve Lombardozzi was somehow given over 400 plate appearances, showing just how thin the Nats’ bench was (or how sub-optimally it was deployed by Davey Johnson). Bryce Harper’s overall numbers were excellent, but an insane start was responsible for much of that, followed by months in which he was hurt. It was an offense that had its moments, especially late in the season, but which fought inconsistency for most of the year.
The pitching had its rough patches as well, with Dan Haren’s first half looking like a car wreck. Ross Detwiler took a step back. Feinstein’s allegedly wronged man, Drew Storen, pinched off a 4.68 ERA. Yes, I suppose him being demoted made Tyler Clippard mad that one day, but keeping him in high-leverage situations would have led to far more anger among Nats fans. Beyond that, the Nats led the National League in ERA in 2012. They were sixth in 2013. Not terrible, but enough to explain a multi-game drop in the standings.
Even if you want to get into the karma/chemistry mumbo-jumbo to explain this season you’d be better off looking at the tone set by Davey Johnson — never particularly urgent, even when the team was spiraling — than you would at a pitcher-usage decision made over a year ago. I don’t put too much stock in that, but at least it’s something which actually affected this year’s Nats club.
Look, I wasn’t a fan of the Strasburg shutdown last year. I think it would have been nice to have him around in the NLDS and I think that Mike Rizzo’s ultimate decision to shut him down was just as much a function of Rizzo being stubborn or else feeling he had painted himself into a corner as it was based on sound injury prevention techniques. But even as a pretty persistent Rizzo critic on this point, I can’t see how on Earth one can make a straight-faced claim that the fate of the 2013 Nationals was even moderately dependent upon the Strasburg decision. Even remotely, actually.
I feel like Feinstein has been waiting for a long time to say “ah-ha!” to Rizzo about the Strasburg decision. And that he does today, regardless of the baseball facts which relate to the Nationals this year. But hey, narrative-driven analysis about curses and karma are the stuff of highly-paid columns and book deals, not baseball facts.
UPDATE: The Post’s Adam Kilgore — who covers the Nationals day-in, day-out — totally dismantles Feinstein’s column. Beautiful.