The Opposite of Runs
August 7, 2005

It was kids' day at RFK on Sunday.  Kids brought out the line-up cards, they did the pre-game on both radio and TV, they announced the batters as they came to the plate during the first two innings... even before the game a kid ran to each position on the field and was introduced by the PA announcer before the National's players took the field at their positions.  Maybe Frank Robinson should have just left the kids on the field, because with the line-up he used today they couldn't have done much worse.  Carlos Baerga batting clean-up?  I'm not making this up.  I did some research, although it was by no means comprehensive, and I couldn't find a single instance in Baerga's career - even when he was good - that he ever batted clean-up.  Maybe Frank lost a bet.  Or maybe it was Truth or Dare day in the National's dugout and Frank got tired of telling it like it is and decided to take the dare instead.  In any case, the line-up also featured Tony Blanco and Matt Cepicky, which meant than in each of the last three times one of the National's corner outfielders had come to the plate, they had struck out.  Ryan Church, today's centerfielder, might have made it a threesome, but he had grounded out in one of his four at bats the night before.  In the other three, however, he did strike out.

Maybe Frank was tired of losing one-run games and wanted to make sure that his team lost by much more today.  Just as an update, after last night's loss, the Nationals have lost 13 straight one-run games.  The old major league record was 11.  The Nationals are the only team in history to win 10 consecutive one-run games and also lose 10 consecutive one-run games in the same season.  I'm not sure any other team has even come close.  And they are still on pace to come close, perhaps even break the record for most one-run games in a season. 

I have a theory as to why the Nats are involved in so many close games.  It stems from the fact that RFK is one of the toughest parks to homer in, not just this year but in history.  While the sample is still small relatively speaking, the park has depressed home run production by 38% over neutral parks this year.  One has to go back to the Astrodome when it first opened in the mid-60s to find a park this tough.  But Houston brought in it's fences in later years so one has to go back more than 50 years to ballparks like Forbes Field and Braves Field - no, not in Atlanta, or even Milwaukee... back when the Braves played in Boston (!) - to find a park that depressed home run production over it's lifespan as much as the National's home field.  Maybe with the ball carrying a little better in recent days, homers won't continue to be so rare.  But up to this point plenty of balls that would have been home runs in just about any other park have either fallen for doubles or outs.  Not to state the obvious, but this robs offenses of at least two extra bases, meaning runners who would automatically have scored in another park can still end up stranded.  Hitting home runs is the quickest way to have a big inning but if that is taken away by the ballpark, then each team generally needs to put together several hits to generate a big inning.  Without the big inning, it's harder to create large leads which means the scores are closer and therefore susceptible to becoming one run games because managers can employ one-run strategies more often.  In essence, it makes "small ball" an acceptable form of offensive philosophy.  Each team will still score 2-4 runs per contest due to the other events that happen regularly in a game - walks, singles, errors, etc. - so the overall run scoring will be somewhat depressed (as evidenced by RFK's 0.845 park factor for runs) but the number of blowouts will be quite rare thus creating a high degree of likelihood for one-run games.  I don't have any data to support this other than observing 40 or so games first-hand.  Maybe someone else knows for sure one way or the other. 

Whatever the case, the point may be moot as the ball is definitely carrying much better than it did even last month.  If you recall, a while back I wrote about the fate of flyballs that travelled above the second deck: they simply died and fell harmlessly before the warning track.  When the Diamondbacks played in the opening series against the Nats, Troy Glaus hit bombs in each of the three games and all he had to show for them were three very high and long outs.  Had he hit the same balls this week, he would have three Sportscenter highlights.  How do I know?  Because after no visiting team had hit more than 2 homers in any game this year, the Dodgers banged 4 out on Tuesday.  Before the Dodgers (ranked 8th in the NL in homers, 10th on the road)) and Padres (12th in the NL, 5th on the road) arrived, National's pitching had allowed just 25 homers at home all year.  But in the past six games they have given up 8 homers including an upper deck shot by - are you ready for this? - Eric Young.  When Eric Young can put one in the luxury boxes but Troy Glaus can't get to the warning track, you have to know that something pretty significant has changed.  Anyway... 

Some managers prefer to weave in their bench players into the line-up, giving the regulars an occasional break but still leaving the regular line-up largely in tact.  Not Frank Robinson.  When he wants to concede a game, he makes it rather obvious.  Especially since opposing the Nats today was Padre ace and defending ERA champ Jake Peavy.  Against that line-up I really thought I was going to be witness to something special today.  And I almost did.  In the sixth inning, Peavy struck out Cristian Guzman on three pitches (boy, did I ever get it wrong on that guy this pre-season).  Then he struck out Nick Johnson on three pitches.  I thought just maybe... because the next batter was Baerga.  I don't know how often it's happened in the history of baseball, but a pitcher striking out the side on 9 pitches doesn't happen that often.  My guess is that happens about as often as a no-hitter.  Sure enough, Peavy got strike one, then strike two.  One pitch away from a small bit of history... so of course, he hits Baerga with the next pitch.  Ugh.  So I had to settle for Peavy's second shut-out this season, a 10-strikeout masterpiece.  OK, so there are worse ways to spend a Sunday.