Don’t Listen To John Feinstein, Nats Fans: He’s Wrong, And He’s Bad For You

I know how you feel, Nats fans. BOY do I know.

For me, as a Boston Red Sox fan, what befell the Washington Nationals last week stirred unpleasant memories of having my own hopes dashed by the cruel bounces and turns of that little white ball, as it turned my team from sure winners to embarrassed losers faster than you could say”Bucky Dent.” Luckily, as I have explained here, my temporary abandonment of the beloved Hose did not turn me into a Nationals devotee, so I could watch the horrors of the Nats’ ninth inning, decisive game catastrophe, which occurred when they were one strike away from victory and a step closer to their first World Series in 79 years, with analytical detachment. I have consoled my heart-broken friends, and am prepared to help them through the long, hard winter, when visions of “what ifs?”will dance through their heads instead of sugarplums. John Feinstein, the acclaimed sports writer, isn’t helping, however.

As I predicted, he and many others are playing the worst and most unsportsmanlike version of hindsight bias, and blaming the Nationals’ loss on the controversial decision to shut down their young pitching phenom, Stephen Strasburg, before the end of the 2012 season to protect his arm. Feinstein writes:

“…even if you’re convinced that ending Strasburg’s season early was the right thing to do, at least consider this question: Do you honestly believe the Nationals would have wasted a 6-0 lead Friday night had Strasburg been the starting pitcher? What if the Nationals had trotted out a four-man rotation in this series of Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann (pitching at home where he’s far more effective) and Ross Detwiler and Edwin Jackson had never seen the mound? Do you really believe the Cardinals would be playing in the National League Championship Series?” This series wasn’t lost when Drew Storen let it slip away after getting within one strike of ending it. It was lost when Nationals owner Ted Lerner bought into agent Scott Boras’s line that the Nationals had to sign Jackson to help eat up some of the innings Strasburg wasn’t going to pitch.”

This is rank consequentionalism as well as a breach of sportsmanship, fairness and common sense. I agreed with Feinstein, and even quoted him approvingly, when we both wrote that the Nationals’ decision to shelve their second-best pitcher on dubious grounds was a betrayal of the team’s duty to win for their fans. The decision was made, however, and the team roster was set. That Nats roster lost because its best pitcher, 20 game winner Gio Gonzalez, and the Nationals bullpen couldn’t hold  6-0 lead (a team with a 6-0 lead will win about 90% of the time) and the team’s usually effective closer lost a two run lead in the 9th inning ( two run leads in the 9th inning will win more than 90% of the time). And Feinstein blames this on…the absence of the Nats’ number two starter?

The answer to Feinstein’s question, “Do you really believe the Cardinals would be playing in the National League Championship Series?” is “Sure. I believe that’s as likely as any other outcome, because there is no way to tell what might have happened.” Strasburg might have stunk. He might have pitched wonderfully and lost. He might have won his game, and the Nats would lose anyway. The Nats played the Cardinals with the team they chose to put on the field, and hypothesizing that a decision made in August, or worse, February, when the Nats signed free agent pitcher Edwin Jackson, cost the team its chances to advance in the play-offs in October is disrespectful of the game’s unpredictability, the resilience of the St.Louis Cardinals, and the Nationals themselves. They could and should have won without Strasburg…in fact they nearly did. They could have won by hitting better, fielding better and pitching better when it counted, just like every losing team, in every game, big or insignificant. Feinstein’s whining about one of many decisions that shaped the team that faced St. Louis is the worst kind of factual cherry-picking, and he’s cheating by doing it with 20-20 hindsight, all so he can say “I told you so.”

Don’t listen to him, Nats fans. I know you’re new to this, and you don’t want to get into bad habits. The ethical, fair, and mentally healthy way to look back on a wonderful baseball season that ends with a shocking defeat is not to look for excuses, or to drive yourself mad thinking about what might have happened if something has been a little different. Listen to me, for I’ve had a lot of practice dealing with this particular situation—in 1967, 1972, 1975, 1975, 1977, 1978, 1986, 1988, 1990, 1995, 1999, 2003, 2005, 2008, and 2009. I think I qualify as an expert.

What you do is realize what a lot of fun and excitement baseball and your team gave you for six months, be grateful, and hope that the next season is just as much fun, and that it ends a little better.  You were lucky to follow such an entertaining team, to care so much, and to be rewarded with your devotion by hours and hours of enjoyment. You should feel like you do when you walk out of a wonderful movie: thrilled, sorry it’s over, but happy and looking forward to seeing it again.

Don’t listen to John Feinstein.


Pointer: John May

Source: Washington Post

Graphic: Washington Times


Filed under Arts & Entertainment, Character, Journalism & Media, Sports

11 responses to “Don’t Listen To John Feinstein, Nats Fans: He’s Wrong, And He’s Bad For You

  1. Bill

    John Feinstein is an idiot, the closest he has ever come to anything athletic is wobbling to get the last donut out of the breakroom.

  2. John Glass

    Jack, you seemed to take a different view in your August 27th post. I think Feinstein makes some good points about problems with the Boras promoted Strasburg “Plan.” It caused them to select Edwin Jackson as an innings eater. It cost them 11 million dollars and though he doesn’t say it – the other writers do – it relegated John Lannan to AAA Syracuse for most of the season. Lannan, a lefty would have been a better postseason roster pick, in the absence of Strasburg, either as a starter, but especially coming out of the bullpen. Also, with Strasburg out of the rotation, I’m not so sure Gonzalez looks as good. Feinstein’s big beef is with the insistence of sticking to “The Plan” and not making adjustments when it looked like they could win it all.

    The conflict of interest that exists between Uber-Agent Scott Boras and the Nationals is also troubling. Boras represented 4 major Nats (Werth, Harper, Espinosa, Jackson) this year and has been telling people he built the organization. He represents himself and his clients, not the fans.

    As I watched the meltdown unfold, I was reminded of Game 6 Red Sox-Mets 1986 World Series debacle. Buckner was made the scapegoat, but he was clearly hobbled by injuries. Storen was inexplicably wasted in the 8-0 blowout, pitching the 9th inning in Game 3. He had to pitch Game 4 and in Game 5 and just didn’t have it.

    Watching the postseason play, I’m struck by key players tucked away during most of the regular season, but added late. Chris Carpenter and Andy Pettitte were ready when their teams needed them, why not Strasburg?

    With the Rangers gone and the Yankees down, this just might have been the year for the Nats. I was at Games 3 and 4 and was looking forward to attending the start of the NL League Championship Series. If Strasburg was on the postseason roster, I’m sure I would have been there. Could they have gone all the way? – alas, we’ll never know.

    • Subtle but important difference between the two posts. Before the fact, the duty of the team is to put the best team on the field. After the fact, the duty of the team is to play the best they can with the team they’ve got. It is unfair to all concerned to act as if one can re-write what happened by going back to the past. Feinstein isn’t the Terminator. Once the decision is in the past, and the results are known, there are a million ways .to claim things might have been different. Why didn’t Rizzo sign Jonathan Papelbon, and make him the closer? That might have given the Nats a victory in that last game too. At this point, both the decisions to have Storen in the pen and Strasburg on the bench are the same—DONE and committed to, like many others, in the best interest of the club as the club saw it when the decision was made. Using such decisions as decisive points now is just lazy analysis. It is what actually happened that matters now.

  3. John Glass

    If Rizzo had signed Papelbon, they would have never made it to the Playoffs! Feinstein’s position has been pretty consistent all along: in light of the team’s success, The Plan needed to be revised. Interestingly, the mood in Game 3 among Nats fans at the Ballpark to second-guess the Strasburg shutdown was pretty high. On the morning of Game 4 you could purchase a SRO seat for less than 20 bucks. I have no problems with Storen on the roster: None. (I will always remember the crazy decision to give him work in Game 3, in the 9th inning of an 8-0 blowout, as the turning point.) But I have to agree with Feinstein that once The Plan was in place 1) it was easier to accept .500 innings eater Jackson as an 11 million dollar insurance policy for Strasburg 2) easier to send Lannan to Triple A Syracuse, and 3) easier to place the highly paid (the highest of the pitchers) Jackson on the starting roster and use him in relief. The decision was motivated by an ethical slippery slope (COI when agents are calling the shots) or, if not, coerced.

    Nats fans shouldn’t despair, however. In 2007, the Phillies were bounced out of the NLDS by the Rockies and came back the next year to win it all. Some said that winning the division when they weren’t expected to caused them to lose focus. Sound familiar? In 2009, they almost repeated (but for a problem closer!). The 1983 Orioles won the WS, I’m convinced, because of the stinging loss to the Pirates in 1979, when the best team in baseball blew a 3-1 series lead. Perhaps this team – including and especially management – will learn from its mistakes sooner than later. Let’s see how Feinstein writes that story!

    • Ok, perhaps that was a bad example.
      I hate Tom Boswell, but his column, which got into the statistics, rebutted Feinstein on substance pretty decisively.

    • Ok, perhaps that was a bad example.
      I hate Tom Boswell, but his column, which got into the statistics, rebutted Feinstein on substance pretty decisively.

    • Jackson was and is a perfectly good 3rd or 4th starter, especially for the team the Nationals expected to have. And he was a bargain. Nor were his stats bad at all—his ERA was better than that of the entire Red Sox rotation, including such high-priced stars like Lester and Beckett. Blaming the loss on Jackson is just scapegoating. He’s one of those pitchers who is as likely to get blown out in the first as pitch a shutout. And sometimes those guys win Cy Young Awards when they figure it out.

  4. John Glass

    I’m not blaming the loss on Jackson, neither is Feinstein. He questions the affect of Boras on the Strasburg equation, a valid point I think. I read Tom Boswell on the Nats like I do George Will on politics & baseball – with a lot of skepticism. He’s so close to the Nats, he might as well be a publicist.

    Are the Cardinals a better team? Yes, but the better team doesn’t always win. I’m thinking of the 1960 Pirates as the paradigm case,

    An 11 million dollar contract is not a bargain. And I don’t think they got good value for the team they expected or the team as it turned out. They could have had Lannan for a lot less, and a lefty to boot. I saw Jackson pitch a few games well, but invariably he’d give up several runs in the first two innings. The Nats bailed him out repeatedly. Why put him in as a reliever? He does have playoff experience, but it came most recently with the team that picked him apart and knows him well, the Cards. Comparing his ERA favorably to the Red Sox starting rotation doesn’t raise him in my estimation.

    Boswell tries to refute the major objections and he has an answer for everything. It’s true that the outcome of the game may be a matter of inches. It happened the night before when Werth worked a 13-pitch AB for the hit of a lifetime (and a great one for this baseball fan). Bob Brenly (a former catcher), the TBS color analyst, thought that Suzuki was not framing the strike zone properly on Storen’s slider and I believe he said the same thing about Gonzalez.. He also questioned not holding Molina on at first (allowing for him, the tying run to take second base). I don’t think Boswell disposes the Strasburg question, which will always be the great What If? Especially if The Plan doesn’t work out.

  5. Nigel Declan

    Sports, with in depth statistical analysis and the lack of significant real-world implications (i.e. nations won’t fall, people won’t die, etc.) makes it an ideal venue for both forward- and backward-looking speculation. I get that you disagree with Feinstein and I agree that we can never know what would have happened if Strasburg had continued pitching, but it is a valid question as to whether having him potentially available to start or, even, to appear in relief might have changed the outcome of the series.

    You are no doubt correct that if the Nats players had performed better then they would likely have won the series, but that strikes me as a bit of a sports-analysis cop-out, an approach to baseball that seems to regard outcomes as either predetermined or completely random, rendering meaningful analysis pointless or uselss. You suggest that the appropriate analysis involves looking forward, not backward, but understanding the effect of the controversial decision on the Nationals’ season must be considered in order to determine whether or not the strategy is a potentially-effective future one (either for Strasburg or future prospects). It also provides the club some insight when dealing with future Boras clients.

    Is Feinstein right, wrong, or simply overstating the importance of the decision on the Nationals’ season? I don’t know, but I think that criticizing him for expressing an opinion that is not consistent with yours or your seemingly arbitrary philosophy of only looking forward with sports teams (which you seem to ignore when you credit Boswell) has nothing to do with “ethics” but instead with your personal preference for how to watch and think about sports. It is not unethical because Feinstein owes no ethical duty to Nationals fans – he is providing his opinion and commentary, one which you concede cannot be demonstratively shown to be false, with which fans are free to agree or disagree, all entirely ethically. You seem to be confusing ethics with a difference in approach, grounding your ethics alert on the fact that you disagree, neither you nor Feinstein can ever be proven right or wrong and that, as a result, noone can scientifically disprove your belief that your analysis is more “ethical” than Feinstein, especially given your decision not to clearly or meaningfully define the term in your post.

    • [It doesn’t help that the WordPress spellcheck doesn’t recognize the term “consequentialism” and turned it into “conventionism,” whatever THAT is. I fixed it. Sorry.]

      I don’t object to post game, post-season or post-series analysis. What is wrong with Feinstein’s piece is 1.) It’s a dishonest “I told you so” argument, using subsequent events to show he was right about the wisdom of a decision that wasn’t made with the 2012 play-offs in mind. The team accepted the consequences of not having Strasburg in the post-season by shutting him down–the game Feinstein was writing about literally didn’t change a thing. 2} The “the best team lost” argument is poor sportsmanship whenever it is used and whoever uses it, even if it might be true. By definition, the best team didn’t win: that’s what play-offs mean. It’s sour grapes, essentially, which is a bad habit to start. 3) Consequentialism is a terrible and unethical philosophy, because it justifies “the ends justify the means”. It holds that you can’t decide whether a decision was right or wrong until you find out what its results were. I agreed and agree with Feinstein regarding the decision when it was made: shutting down Strasburg was a betrayal of Nats fans and the game. It was so whether the Nats won the World Series, or got eliminated, as they did. Feinstein’s piece tacitly embraces consequentialism to use the fact that the Nats lost to retroactively “prove” that their decision was wrong. Remember, he didn’t argue that it was a mistake–he argued that it was a betrayal–unethical.

      And fire-bombing Dresden was ethical, because we won the war.

  6. Julian Hung

    I’ve been reviewing some of your baseball posts, and Feinstein’s article is even more hilarious in retrospect, given the shellacking the Cards have given to the even more dangerous Kershaw in their postseason meetups.

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