A fan's observations on the Washington Nationals, from across the virtual divide.

Point With Your Thumb

Filed under: Organization,Personnel — Tags: , , — Wigi @ 12:58 pm July 14, 2009

Since the MLB Entry Draft, there hasn’t really been all that much to talk about with the Nationals. While it was notable that Manny Acta was dismissed on Sunday night, it wasn’t really a surprise. I had wondered aloud back in April whether Manny was the right person for the job – not because I thought he wasn’t a good manager, but more because I thought that he wasn’t the right man for the job at the time. I am not sure I was entirely correct in my assessment, but a number of people, including Tom Boswell have pointed out that Manny’s strengths as a person and as a manager became liabilities as the team spun its wheels in the mud.

So since not much has happened, I hadn’t been compelled to write. Until I got The Letter.

The Letter was published as an open letter to all Nationals fans.  I received it in my email, and it has been widely cited and re-posted in a number of places. When I read it, my heart sunk.

Organizational consultants are rarely concerned about the superficial meaning of such things. What organizations do is much more important and meaningful. And when it comes to the organizational language of a Major League Baseball team, firing the manager is a rather unambiguous statement of intent: things ain’t right, and this is how we plan to fix them. Boswell points out in the article linked above that the Nationals, for once, acted like a baseball team.

Until they sent The Letter.

At least, that’s what I think.

Firing a manager is usually an unambiguous statement. Sending the letter added a lot of ambiguity.

The letter talks about how the ownership is even more distraught about the season as the fans are. It talks about Nationals have developed and/or acquired all this talent – young starting pitchers, a new center fielder, a homer-swatting cleanup hitter. It talks about how the future is bright for the Nationals…

But…

However…

The Nationals make a clear, unequivocal statement about the on-the-field operation of the team by firing the manager. But they feel compelled to clarify the move with a statement. Perhaps they thought that the move might be misunderstood. But I am left suspicious. To paraphrase Queen Gertrude, in Hamlet: “The lady doth protest too much – methinks.”

The fans have cut the Nationals a lot of slack since they arrived in Washington in 2005. While the team was owned by MLB, the farm system was pillaged, with no regard to the future of the franchise. But this is hardly surprising, since a successful Expos/Nationals would be contrary to the interests of the other 29 owners. But the Lerners will have owned the team for three years on July 25th. While three years doesn’t right all the wrongs, we should see at least some impact of the new organization.

And we do. The Nationals in Washington, under MLB ownership, were 125-137 (.477). Since then, the Nationals are 185-287 (.391), and this season, they’re 26-61 (.299). The Nationals are getting worse under the stewardship of the Lerners.

If the Nationals problems were just on the field, we could look to the future and have a reasonable expectation that things are going to change. But the problems are in all aspects of the operation. The organization is sloppy and careless. Regardless of who is to blame for SmileyGate, the situation was allowed to exist within the organization. The related scandal regarding bonus skimming also happened under the Lerner’s watch.

I think the organization either doesn’t know how to win, or more likely, is focused on other things. The Nationals long and notorious string of bad luck – on the field and off – is no coincidence. The organization fosters failure and ineptitude. Organizations are a reflection of their leaders, and they do well what their leaders demand that they do. For some, that is to win the World Series. For others, it is to stumble over your own shoelaces.

When I read the letter, all I could think of was, “excuses.” It was an attempt to place blame elsewhere.

To be clear, I don’t blame Stan Kasten – the problem is above him. Stan has a proven track record in professional sports – not just in baseball. But he answers to the Lerner family, and executes the operation of the organization as he is charged to do. My question is, why would the Lerners want the product they’re giving us?

I don’t think that Manny Acta was the right manager for the Nationals. But I also don’t think that there’s anyone that really could be successful in this organization. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Manny is thanking his lucky stars that the Nats fired him.

As for The Letter, if the Nationals had to send one, I think the one they sent was the wrong one. Here’s the one they should have sent:

Dear Nationals Fans:

As the owners of the Washington Nationals, we want you to know that we are sorry and embarrassed about the play of our team. Our family has been in Washington for generations, and we are committed to excellence on the field, responsible and giving partners in the community, and stewards of what we hope will become an enduring institution in Washington, our Washington Nationals.

We believe that we have addressed the major organizational issues, and expect that our operations, led by Stan Kasten, will soon be transformed into the envy of every city in America.

We realize that when you come to the game, you hope and expect the Nationals to win. So do we. So while we struggle to find our rhythm, to reward the loyalty and patience of our fans, we have decided that whenever the Nationals lose a game at home in 2009, your ticket for that game will be honored for a $3 discount for a future 2009 home game.

Even if the motivation isn’t quite right, the Nationals would then have a stake in winning… instead of whatever it is they’re invested in now.

I don’t want to hear excuses. I want to hear accountability. It starts with Ted, with his thumb to his chest.

What Scott Boras Could Learn at a Grocery Store

Walk into almost any grocery store, and watch the shoppers… especially the families. When they get to the checkout aisle, while mom and dad are looking to the left, and unloading the groceries onto the belt, the kids are looking to the right, scouting out the candies and toys placed in convenient reach of  the children. Watch the children ask their moms and dads, “Can I get M&Ms? Pleeeaaase?”

Mom and dad are placed in an unfair, but very familiar situation: relent and get the kids what they want, or risk a loud and possibly embarrassing tantrum.

It is with that in mind that I read Dave Sheinin’s post in Nationals Journal about the drafting of Stephen Strasburg. It seems that Scott Boras is intent on retaining control of how his client appears in public. That’s an excellent strategy, and I wouldn’t expect anything less from Boras, especially when he represents  a player as highly-regarded as Strasburg. But in the process, Boras is creating a divide. A divide between player and team, and between player and the fans.

I think he’s on the verge of sending the wrong message.

I went back today and looked at the Nationals number one draft picks since they moved to Washington. If you look at that list, you notice something every interesting. Almost every one of those first round picks are players that even casual fans would recognize, because at the time they were drafted, they appeared in the media and in person, where the fans could get to see and hear from them. The players I remember most from their media tours were Ryan Zimmerman and Ross Detwiler. Both appeared on MASN and sat in the booth for a while during games… but other first rounders also came and visited Nationals Park, took questions from the media, etc. I remember thinking at the time, just how exciting it will be to see such a highly touted draft pick like Ryan Zimmerman grow and develop into a star with the Nationals. I thought the same thing about Ross Detwiler, too.

And then there’s Aaron Crow.

Of course, there was never any thought that Zimmerman or Detwiler wouldn’t sign with the Nationals. Part of that was because they stated publicly that they were excited at the prospect of playing in Washington… and it was just a matter of time and working out the details. And of course, there’s the news this morning that the Nationals other first round pick in the draft, Drew Storen has signed with the Nationals. But for Crow, who was invited to visit with the team, see the new stadium, meet the fans, wax poetic about his future in Washington – none of those things ever happened… and while it didn’t go unnoticed that Crow didn’t sign, for a lot of us, it wasn’t like we’d left a family member off the family reunion guest list. Crow’s negotiations were about the business of baseball, and not so much about the fans. You can be upset that Crow got away, but it wasn’t like Ryan Zimmerman getting away. The fans weren’t in love with Crow – they’d never met him.

And this, really, is the lesson that Boras needs to learn from the supermarket. Baseball teams pay the players salaries, but the fans are the consumers. The reason that the Nationals need to sign Stephen Strasburg is not because the Nationals need him, but because the fans want him… which is the same reason that mothers and fathers buy M&Ms for their kids. In fact, from a purely business standpoint, the Nationals don’t need him. It is only for the marketing and public relations value that Stephen Strasburg commands the price tag he does. For the kind of money Boras is talking, the Nats could sign a top-shelf free agent pitcher with a lot less risk.

So my message to Scott is this: If you want to get the best deal for your client, put him at the checkstand, right at eye level with every one of the Nationals instant-gratification-short-attention-span fans. Let Carpy and Dibble and Charlie and Dave interview him. Let him sign autographs. If you really want to be over the top, get the Nationals to have Strasburg be a guest of the team and throw out the first pitch at a Sunday afternoon game. Let Washington fall in love with Stephen Strasburg. Make it so that when the Natosphere whines and cries to mom and dad for M&Ms, there’s no real choice.

The mistake that Boras is making is that by trying to make an example of the inequities of the draft system, he risks convincing the consumers – you and me – that there is a price that is too high for a player… but the price is not a dollar price, but rather the price of the drama. The average fan wants to see Stephen Strasburg on the field. The average fan doesn’t particularly care if he signs for $15 million or $50 million. The average fan is inclined to blame the Nationals if contract negotiations fail – unless Boras calls so much attention to himself and his client that the casual fans see the absurdity in the argument that a $50 million contract in unfair – to the player!

Many fans and bloggers will correctly point out that the $500,000 difference that kept Aaron Crow from signing with the Nationals was a trivial amount, and that it shouldn’t have prevented him from signing. But suppose in that alternate-universe reality that I am so fond of, that Aaron Crow had made those public appearances at Nationals Park, been interviewed on MASN and on the radio, met the team, visited the stadium, seen Washington… given the fans a chance to fall in love with him. Do you think he wouldn’t have been signed? Do you really think that the Nationals could have let Crow walk away, while the casual fan pined for Crow in a Nats uniform? Do you think that $500,000 would have stopped the Nats?

Not a chance. Just the marketing and promotional value of those appearances would have been worth the $500,000, especially as poor as last season was.

My approach works for both parties. The Nats are desperate to show forward progress as an organization. Trotting Strasburg out at Nationals Park would be a huge win for them. And it would be a win for Strasburg, too. It serves to gloss over the monopolistic organization that is Major League Baseball and its inequities, and puts free samples of M&Ms in the hands of kids that won’t take ‘no’ for an answer when they cry for more. We want M&Ms! We want Strasburg!

A quick, fair, and probably record-breaking contract negotiation is a win for everyone. A drawn-out, acrimonious, tedious negotiation full of the minutiae of contract law and the inequities of a monopolistic system, argued on behalf of a college kid with no Major League experience that might make $500 million in salary and endorsements over the course of his career – that would be a loss for everyone.

Remember who the consumers are.

Sloopy… (er, Sloppy)

Filed under: Fan Experience,Organization — Tags: , , , — Wigi @ 2:50 pm May 26, 2009

A big part of being an organizational communication consultant is about reading between the lines. It isn’t about what people say or write, but rather, about what they do. The assumption here is that the culture of an organization will emphasize the values that are important to it, and reward people for furthering those values, and de-emphasize those actions that are not important, or even contrary to their values. By watching what an organization does (and paying less attention to what it says), you learn what the organization values.

I recently wrote a piece called The Font of Accountability, where I suggested that the quality of Nationals play on the field was indicative of the organizational culture as a whole. While I stand by my speculation, I admit there is a certain danger in it all, because a baseball team has many organizational arms, and it is the one that is on the field that is most visible. So, it might be a bit if a stretch to say that the entire organization is sloppy, just because the on-the-field team is sloppy.

So imagine my lack of surprise when I read this piece in Dan Steinberg’s D. C. Sports Bog about how the Teddy Roosevelt bobbleheads being sold in the team store are labeled ‘Teddy Rossevelt’. [sic]

Don’t get me wrong. As organizational sins go, this is almost insignificantly small – except that of all the things the Nationals marketing department has done since the Lerners took over, the Rushmores (the Racing Presidents) are probably one of the few unabashed successes. Add to that the fact that Teddy’s losing streak has become a metaphor for Nationals baseball, and you’ll see that Teddy Roosevelt has become an integral part of the Nationals brand. And unlike most of the products that are sold in the team store, which is apparel – whose manufacture and quality control  is conducted by national (or global) brands, such as Antigua, New Era or Majestic, the bobbleheads appear to be team-specific items. Presumably the Nationals stated the specifications for the product, approved the packaging copy, accepted the product (after inspection), and stocked it on the team store shelves. It is probably safe to assume that the Nats had numerous opportunities to insure the quality of the product… and in this case, the packaging. Somehow the error got through the quality checks.

Some of you will correctly point out that even Majestic makes mistakes, shipping jerseys to the Nats with the team name mis-spelled: ‘Natinals’. Very true. But, the Nats have some culpability here, too – they accepted the jerseys and sent their players on the field with them.

No process is perfect. Mistakes are made. In many organizations, the mistakes are caught and rectified. In some organizations, people fail to be accountable to their processes and the organization, and the processes fail. In some organizations, the processes just aren’t that rigorous, because there is no demand that they be.

In the case of the Nats, I am not sure what exactly is going on. But the Nationals have  reached the point where isolated instances are no longer isolated. Whether you’re talking about misspelled packaging on a product in the team store, or team jerseys, or errors or tentative pitching, or interminably long losing streaks or blowing leads in the ninth inning, or corruption in your overseas baseball academies… one or two.. or even three of these constitute isolated instances. But they don’t all happen to one organization, unless there is something about the organization that allows them to happen. What conclusion should we draw from that?

In fairness to the Nationals, my two most recent posts have suggested that at least where the on-the-field product is concerned, there seems to be considerable improvement in the areas that I have found most troubling – relief pitching and fielding. As I pointed out in my post from earlier this morning, Manny Acta’s team meeting last Thursday seems to have made some difference. Additionally, when organizations make a concerted effort to change – for example, to embrace excellence and accountability as core organizational values, change does not happen overnight. It takes weeks or months, and perhaps years. It isn’t like throwing a switch, it is like turning around a ship. There is a lot of momentum carrying the ship in one direction, and it takes time and effort to point it on the proper course. So it may be that ‘Teddy Rossevelt’ is a vestige of the old way. It may be more of the same. It is too early to tell.

It isn’t for me to tell the Nationals what their core organizational values should be. And they’re not in danger of losing me as a fan – I followed the Senators as a kid, and if I can follow them, I can certainly follow the Nats. But here is the red flag for the Nats: I am the ninety-ninth percentile fan, and there are a lot of people who are a lot less committed to the Nationals than I am, and I believe they’re losing faith in the brand. All of these little miscues, whether on the field, in the media, in the team store, isolated by themselves, are nothing. But a brand is not discrete pieces, it is the umbrella under which everything resides. You can’t look at the miscues in isolation, especially when they pop up everywhere you look. Consumers may not ask themselves explicitly what it is that the Nationals stand for. But consumers make choices, and the reputation of that brand figures in the calculus.

It is time for the Nationals to ask themselves, “What do we stand for?”

The Quiet Revolution

Before the Nationals game last Thursday against the Pirates, Manny Acta held a team meeting.

Since that time, the Nationals bullpen has an ERA of 2.30 (4 earned runs in 15 2/3 innings). Of those four earned runs, two were charged to Kip Wells, who gave them up in the twelfth inning of last Friday’s game against Baltimore. He was pitching his second inning in relief, and after a fluke base hit by pitcher Danys Baez of the Orioles, Wells gave up two doubles.  The bullpen has  struck out nine while walking eight – and if you throw out Daniel Cabrera’s performance last night, they’ve walked only five. Joel Hanrahan has two saves. Jason Bergmann, Kip Wells (despite giving up those two runs Fiday night), Ron Villone and Joe Beimel have pitched very well. Even Jesus Colome had a scoreless inning last night.

The team as a whole has had two errors, and given up no unearned runs.

That is quite a turnaround, and we would be feeling a lot better about it if the Nats were hitting the way they have been all along this season. What we’ve seen instead is a struggling offense. My theory is that the Nationals sorely miss the bats of Elijah Dukes and Jesus Flores. In the meantime, we’re left with a team that looks a bit like last year’s team -  a team that opponents can pitch around a bit, leaving our lineup without protection. The Nats are a very different team at the plate with Flores and Dukes in the lineup.

Add to it all the strong performances by callups Craig Stammen and Ross Detwiler – both of whom have pitched well as starters, and suddenly the Daniel Cabrera situation seems a bit less urgent. Cabrera didn’t make a strong case for himself last night… but at the same time, that probably means he could probably be DFA’d without risk of losing him, and perhaps some time in Syracuse would be good for him. And maybe that would be as good for him as time in Washington has been for Stammen and Detwiler.

The Nats rotation has enough depth to survive an injury or two. We’re playing better defense, and our bullpen has started to show their stuff. Later this week we should have two big bats back in the lineup.

I am not crazy enough to declare the disaster over… but there are certainly lots of reasons to be hopeful.

It may have all started in the Nats clubhouse last Thursday.

—–

On a different topic, Chico Harlan posted in Nationals Journal about the Reviewed, Debated Home Run. Here is what I commented:

This situation is the shame of instant replay.

It isn’t that the umpire made the wrong call. In my biased opinion, he did make the wrong call. But instant replay gives umpires the opportunity to make a mistake twice, under the guise of trying to get it right once.

With no instant replay, mistakes are made. With instant replay, mistakes are affirmed. And in fact, the instant replay rule detracts from the game. It isn’t as if instant replay eliminates bias – it eliminates a random event.

I don’t think it was a home run. But nobody is served by instant replay in this situation. The kind of remedy that instant replay gives you here is the same kind that technology might one day automate the calling of balls and strikes. It offers the illusion of objectivity… and it is just that, an illusion. Baseball is the most human of sports. Adding technology to the mix does not make the game better. It separates us from the game.  That the umpire made a mistake last night isn’t nearly as bad as the idea that technology only served to affirm that mistake.

I’ll take my chances with the umpires.

The Font of Accountability

About twenty years ago I worked for a company called GlobeWireless that processed marine telegrams – messages to and from ships at sea. This was done via morse code. Every message that passed through our station was matched with a confirmation receipt. Nobody went home until every message was accounted for as being delivered. If it meant staying an extra two hours to track down the loose ends, that is what you did. My bosses insisted on it, because a lot hinged on the proper delivery of these messages. Money. Sometimes, lives. Records were kept, and we could prove the delivery of every message going back many years.

Years later, when I started working in the hospitality industry, I noticed that there was a certain similarity in the process. Our guests would want certain items reserved on their behalf, and we would make those reservations. As the manager, I insisted that we get written confirmation of every reservation, and that confirmation be compared to and attached to the original request. That way we could prove that every reservation had been made for the guests. The only problem was, my boss thought that was an unnecessary step, and so she wouldn’t back me up when it came to insisting my employees follow the processes.

The reason I mention these two examples is because I wanted to point out that accountability is an organizational value that starts at the very top of an organization, and the values that are held at the top are the ones that are implemented at the bottom.

What does this have to do with baseball? Only this: Look at the product that we see on the field at Nationals Park. How accountable are the players to the outcomes? Only as accountable as their manager asks them to be… who is only as accountable as his boss asks him to be… and so on, up the chain.

This is one of the reasons that I am much more concerned about the errors that the Nationals make than I am about the bullpen. Errors are, by definition… errors. They are the plays that the defense should make, but does not. Contrast errors with skill and talent: Ronnie Belliard can play third base, and he and Ryan Zimmermancould have the same fielding percentage, and have the same number of errors. But having Belliard at third is not the same as having Zimmerman. A sharply hit ball down the third base line gets snagged by Zimmerman and is scored 5-3, while the same ball is a double with Belliard at third. And that isn’t an indictment of Belliard – it is just that Zimmerman is more talented.

Yesterday’s game is a perfect example of one where we’re ready to pile onto the bullpen (and certainly the bullpen didn’t hold up their end of the bargain), but the real damage was done earlier in the game – by errors.  Ross Detwiler lasted five innings, but his defense gave up three errors. In my Fantasy Baseball Alternate Universe, if you take those three errors away, Detwiler goes six innings instead of five, with the same number of pitches (84), and comes into the 7th inning facing the 8-9-1 batters, and a 5-2 lead! Now, I know that you can’t simply advance through the results and assume they would be the same had certain events not occurred, but you have to admit, this would certainly be a plausible outcome - without those three errors. At that point, Manny Acta could have sent Detwiler out for the seventh, warming two pitchers in the bullpen, and be one inning further down the road, with a bigger lead, and a strategic advantage. The bullpen might well have blown up in the Alternate Universe, too. But the bullpen would have been entering into the game in a very different situation… one where they had a much better chance of success, and one that a winning team designs their bullpen around.

There may not be much that the Nats can do about the bullpen, in terms of talent. In today’s Nationals Journal, Chico Harlan points out that half of the Nats bullpen has a negative VORP (for the uninitiated, there is some discussion and explanation of this statistic in the comments of that posting). That statistic is calculated on the historical outcomes, so it is hard to separate talent from performance from VORP. But on the defensive side of the equation, the performance of the pitchers and the performance of the defense are not inseparable from the talent of the pitchers and the talent of the defense. In other words, if the team is not being asked to be accountable for their outcomes when they have the ball – when four errors in a game is minimized at the expense of overworking the bullpen, and hoping the bats come and bail you out - that is an organizational problem, not a talent problem. Being the less-talented team is acceptable – disappointing, but acceptable. Being a better team that is not playing at the level they are capable of is not.

Errors, narrowly defined as a statistic, do not answer all of the questions. Errors, as a statistic, are an indication of the larger problem. The problem that makes the Nats play sloppy in all aspects of their game. The problem that causes Elijah Dukes to be picked off first four times. The problem that has bullpen pitchers taking the mound and believing that they need to be perfect, because if the defense isn’t there for them, the pitcher is the one on the way back to Syracuse (or free agency, in the case of Mike Hinckley). The problem that prevents a team from executing basic, fundamental baseball.

It isn’t about errors. It isn’t about poor baserunning. It isn’t about the bullpen or the pitching – and in fact, complaining about that distracts from the real issue. It is about being sloppy and unprofessional in every aspect of their game. The Nationals are sloppy because they are allowed to be sloppy. I am not saying they’re not trying. I am saying they’re not disciplined.

Rob Dibble has advocated that the Nationals take infield practice every day. There’s something to be said for that, though it has to be part of a larger belief – that excellence and being accountable for the outcomes is important. That has to be a core organizational belief. And it has to come from the top, Ted Lerner. If you’re still unconvinced, you only need to look up I-95 forty miles. The Orioles were the envy of every Major League team in the 70′s and 80′s. They created “The Orioles Way”, which was an organizational philosophy of excellence. Everything they did furthered that goal. Enter Peter Angelos. Witness the death of “The Orioles Way.”

It isn’t that the Nats are not talented. It is that nobody is holding the organization accountable for doing their jobs. When Ted insists that it be done, it will be done. And if it isn’t, find someone that will do it.

Period.

Don’t Be Fooled

For most of the season, Nationals fans have been rooting for exactly the scenario that they received last night: a lead in the ninth inning, and Joe Beimel in to close the game.

The result: A blown save.

Most of the Natosphere was probably asleep as the Nats fell behind, then came back and took the lead, heading into the bottom of the 8th up 7-5. Kip Wells gave up a  solo homer in the 8th, and the Nats took the field in the bottom of the 9th ahead 7-6. Beimel retired the first two batters, then allowed Emmanuel Burris a single up the middle. Burris took a lead off first, and Beimel threw away a throw-over, and Burris advanced to second. Beimel walked Edgar Renteria and then served up a hanging curve to Pablo Sandoval, who dutifully placed the ball into the left field stands. Nats lose, 9-7.

Everyone is going to want to pile on to the bullpen, and Beimel in particular after yet another blown save. But none of that matters.

It doesn’t matter because Cristian Guzman’s error in the 4th inning contributed two unearned runs to the Giants total. Two runs. Who knows how many additional pitches. Beimel’s error in the 9th didn’t make a difference in the final outcome, but Beimel would likely have pitched differently with Burris at first, rather than at second.

The bottom line is, the Nats are playing sloppy defensive baseball, and the pitching staff, and the bullpen in particular, are paying the price. That isn’t to say the pitchers are blameless. Daniel Cabrera couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn from the inside with runners on base. But the pitchers are being asked to do more than they should have to do… and the pitching staff is the Nats weakest link.

The Nats can’t continue to play sloppy defense, and hope that a top-notch offense will come to the rescue every night. The interesting thing is, the offense does seem to come to the rescue every night. But the team has to pitch, and the team has to play defense. Lately, it has been enough about half the time. Imagine how good the outcomes would be with fewer erros.

Rob Dibble posted a very interesting blog on the MASN site the other day, suggesting that the Nats could win 92 games if they won four out of every seven every week for the rest of the season. Of course, it is foolhardy to believe that this team could do that. Or is it? I argue that it is only foolhardy to believe it because this team either can’t or won’t play the disciplined baseball they should be playing.

For the first time since the Nats moved to Washington, they have a team that can hit. No lead is safe when playing the Nats. But because the Nats don’t play disciplined baseball when they have the ball, no Nationals lead is safe, either.

The Nats are making too many errors.  They’re throwing too many pitches. They’re giving away too many bases. They’re handing their opponents too many runs.

Joe Beimel blew a save tonight… A save he should have made. But don’t be fooled – it should never bave been a save situation in the first place.

Has The Ship Been Righted?

The opening game of our series with Arizona is in the books, and perhaps for the first time this season, the Nationals won with sound baseball.

In all of the previous wins, we’ve seen the extreme ways a team can win: flawless pitching, hitting barrages, improbable  comebacks – and don’t get me wrong, those wins were fun to watch and demonstrated some of the important characteristics that a team has to have.

What we hadn’t seen this year was a game where we took the lead early, held it all game, and protected a one-run lead in the ninth inning. Until last night.

This game was precisely the sort of game I’ve been waiting to see from the Nats – an unremarkable, fundamentally sound game. The reason is, almost all of baseball is comprised of games like this. You don’t often go down six runs in the first inning, and then come back to win 11-9… or get complete games from a 23 year-old starter… or hit four home runs in a game. The Nats wins this season  have been precisely this type, and while they’re fun to watch, they’re not the thing that a successful season is made of. Last night’s win was different.

Also important was the fact that the Diamondbacks are a team we should beat. They’re suffering from internal turmoil, having just let Bob Melvin go as their manager. They’re also a team of Nationals cast-offs – many of whom we’d like to see do well, and the occasional slacker-malcontent.

The Nats made giant-killers of every team in the National League East in the month of April, as they stumbled out of the gate. But just as the Nats played the rest of the division, they played each other, too… and now that we’ve bothered to look up and see where we are twenty-seven games into the season, we see that the rest of the division has been in a four-way bar fight with each other, and they haven’t put any distance between them and us. As we wake up on Saturday morning, we find the Nats six games out of first with most of the season ahead of us. The Nats are 5-5 over the last ten games, and 4-1 over the last five… and we have a runner on first with one out in the 11th inning against the Astros… and as the home team, I like our chances.

Am I suggesting that all is well with the Nats? Absolutely not! The Nats lead the majors in errors, and they continue to make plenty of miscues in the field. The bullpen is struggling, though recent moves to bring more veteran arms into the ‘pen seem to be helping… and of course it helps to have Joe Beimel back.

There’s a lot to be happy about with the Nats right now. They’re hitting a ton, their young starters are doing well (for the most part), and the bullpen seems to be settling down a little bit. They’re sure fun to watch – it is just a shame for most of you on the east coast that they are playing out here on the left coast. They make for entertaining viewing during dinner here in Alaska.

… and then there’s this: Ryan Zimmerman extends his hitting streak to twenty-six games, and probable future Nationals player Stephen Strasburg threw a no-hitter for the San Diego State Aztecs last night.

The Case For Pedro

Does Pedro Martinez have an ego?

Uh huh.

Is Pedro a Hall of Fame starter in 2009?

Nope. If he was, do you think he’d be sitting the spring out?

So why would the Nats be interested in him?

Because they need him… in the ninth inning.

Honestly, the Nats don’t really need starters. Lannan, Martis and Zimmermann are good now, and may well be great in a couple years. Olsen is better than his statistics show, and would be better still if the defense would come to his rescue a bit. Cabrera… perhaps a lost cause… but the Nats have a slew of starters that are as good (or better) either languishing in the bullpen or in the minors. Pedro would be an improvement there, but only a marginal one, I think. If you look at the cost of Pedro, versus the cost of starters already in the system, you’re probably talking like $500,000 to $1 million per additional win with Pedro in the rotation – if you could get him for $2 million.

But imagine Pedro as a closer… He’d have his mug on television every other day. Opposing batters respect him, he’s fearless, he has the poise and demeanor to be in the game when it is on the line…

… and we got nuthin.

Suppose he really did cost $5 million for the rest of the season. Would it be a bad investment, if you could get him to be a closer? I don’t think so – he and Beimel would be anchors in the bullpen. I think anyone would suspect his ability to go five or six innings, but he could probably be counted on for one… not to mention that he’s not pitching now, so even if you were going to use him as a starter, you’d need to stretch him out a bit. Why not just leave him at 25 pitches an appearance?

To sell it to Pedro, you’d have to appeal to his vanity and ego: you’ve done everything else… finish your career showing that you can do this, too… and do it as only Pedro can.

To sell it to the Nats, I would point out that the Nats have a marketing problem – their team can’t play in a close game, and they need a closer. [As an aside, I think the Nats need a closer more now than ever in their history. This team's offensive strength is going to get them and keep them in games that they've never been competitive before. If they can solve the head problems they have with their fielding, the problem that is left will be left is the bullpen. It is the only problem that needs to be solved with personnel changes.] $5 million is a lot of money, but you could take it out of the marketing budget rather than personnel. It isn’t that people will come to see Pedro, but they’ll come to see the Nats win (or be competitive). If the Nats can’t put a .480 team on the field this year, they’re going to be in terrible trouble with the fan base. They’re not entertaining to watch right now. You’re sending fans home feeling worse about the team than when they walked into the park.

Does signing Pedro fix that? I don’t know… but maybe. The Nats can’t really afford to trade away the Major League-ready players (except for an outfielder, and you know how I feel about Lastings Milledge), and there really aren’t any prospects in the system that you’d want to part with. You could sign Pedro without giving up talent.

Of course, all of this presumes that he can actually still pitch. But assuming he can, I would remind the Nats that they’ve spent $5 million on a lot less than Pedro.

(Paul LoDuca)

The upside is, Pedro could be to the bullpen what Adam Dunn is to the lineup – his presence might make the whole team better.

But then, I could be wrong.

Fantasy Baseball

I am going to take you back in time a few weeks… in an alternate universe. The date: April 18, 2009.

In this alternate universe, the Nationals played the Marlins at Nationals Park. The Nats won, 6-2. Scott Olsen went eight innings, giving up two runs and six hits. The Nats had a five-run first inning, including a grand slam by Austin Kearns. Joe Beimel came in and pitched the ninth, giving up a hit.

What is the difference between this universe and the universe that we live in? In this alternative universe, the Nats had no errors in this game, and in our “real” universe, the Nats had three.

Here’s the thing: Even in the universe where there were only two errors in the game instead of three, if the error that is missing is Nick Johnson’s dropped popup in the fifth inning, the Nats still win, 6-5, with Joel Hanrahan getting the save.

I bring this up because there are a lot of people who are only too happy to pile onto the bullpen problems as the cause for the Nationals woes. I am among the first to point out that the bullpen has not been a stellar part of the mix. But in their defense, the bullpen has been asked to come into games and pitch in situations where they never should have. And when you’re a pitcher, and you’re worried that your shortstop is going to boot a ball (or two) in a game, you start pitching for strikeouts. You start pitching not to make a mistake. You start pitching not to lose.

Which, by the way, is different than pitching to win.

I know that my example is both not statistically valid and an exaggeration. But my point is, you can’t give teams – especially National League East teams – extra outs, extra bases, extra runs, and then be upset with the bullpen about giving up a lead… if you’re not first upset with your defense about not protecting the lead you’ve built in the first place.

I suspect that the problem is not one that is solved by changing personnel, including the manager. I believe it is one where each player needs to be focused and accountable for their outcomes. That is more a leadership issue.

Errors happen, and teams win games where they make errors. In last night’s game, Anderson Hernandez made an error on the second half of a double play, throwing the ball away and allowing the batter to advance to second. But the Nats won, and while Hernandez probably should have swallowed the throw, he made the throw trying to be aggressive and get the second out. A mistake of youth. The Nats survived the inning, and the game.

If the Nats can reduce their erros, if the pitchers – both starters and the bullpen – can start to relax and trust their defense, if the whole team can start playing the way they know they can… this will be an interesting season.

If they can’t… well, my head hurts already. It will be a long, hot summer.

… and a thanks to Jeff Bergin at NationalsPride.com for the seed of this idea.

… and one other thing – the picture at the top of this page was from that game.

The Dawn of the Rizzo Era

There’s a lot to say about the Nationals fourteen games into the season. Unfortunately, a lot of it will sound like words from The Oracle (or Alan Greenspan) – truthful, but intentionally ambiguous:

What’s five minutes between friends? A good question. For Lastings Milledge, the ramifications of his tardiness were delayed, but for Elijah Dukes, he was asked to pay swiftly. Fortunately for the Nats, those events happened in the proper order; if Dukes’ punishment was followed by Milledge’s skate (in the short term), there would definitely be some problems regarding the appearance of equity. As it is, we may be seeing Rizzo assert his vision for the team… among them, that nobody is above the rules.

As much as it appeared that Dukes was giving back to the community on this Saturday morning, he was in fact, moonlighting. He was paid for his appearance at the Great Falls Little League. Benching him and fining him was the right thing to do.  Dukes has become a rather sympathetic character as of late, and it is tempting to want to cut him some slack,  but Thom Loverro urges that we not fall too deeply in love. What does this tell us about the organization? I don’t know. This is one of those cases where two points don’t make a line.

Produce or ride the bus. That would be the theme after half the bullpen traded their digs in DC for upstate New York late Sunday night. In some respects I think that the move was a little simplistic – the bullpen was put in a leaky rowboat by the poor fielding of the infield. But the beneficiaries of the move, particularly Garrett Mock and Jason Bergmann deserved to be in Washington in the first place, and in shuffle, two of Bowden’s projects, Wil Ledezma and Steven Shell, found their way out of the organization. It would have been a good move regardless of the circumstances. Timing the announcement after a third game blown in the ninth inning simply allowed Rizzo to bang his new drum a bit more loudly.

The Zims. Ryan Zimmerman has a new long-term contract. You would be hard-pressed to find an unhappy voice on this topic, except perhaps from a certain personal injury lawyer. If Bowden is the GM, this deal doesn’t happen… at least not now. While all of us fans see the wisdom of it, there’s a certain business sense to the move, too. As for the other Zim, JZim, N**2, Jordan Zimmermann, there are a lot of fans grumbling about the rain-delayed start of his Major League debut game. It is a shame that people were inconvenienced, but really, there was too much at stake to do anything other than what the Nats did. It was good for Zimmermann to get his full game in, and it was good from a public relations standpoint – at least for the vast majority of the fans who weren’t there. In a year, we’ll all remember his stellar start, and hardly a soul will remember that the actual  game didn’t start until 9:15.

More Rizzo fingerprints.

Indignant Manny. It is no coincidence that the Manny Acta we’re hearing at post-game press conferences has lost his teach, learn, roll-with-the-punches rhetoric, and replaced it with, well, Indignant Manny. After Sunday’s loss to the Marlins, I was talking with Mike Henderson of NationalsPride.com, and I mentioned to him that Manny’s original mandate has ended. Sure the Nats are a young team, but managing the Nationals is no longer about transforming a bunch of rookies into Major Leaguers. It is about learning to win. And this raises a question: Is Manny the guy to teach our team how to do that? Since the mandate has changed, so will his demeanor. Should Manny be worried about his job? No more or less than the other twenty-nine managers in Major League Baseball. But now all thirty are being asked to do the same thing: Win. Who do you suppose instigated this change? His boss, Mike Rizzo. That’s my guess, anyway.

We may be witnessing a transformation. As long and as slow as every one of those torturous Marlins games seemed, the change is actually occurring at a lightning pace. Players are being held accountable. Managers are being held accountable. The internal expectation is higher. What we’re seeing now is the demonstration of which members of the organization have more to give, and which are just spare parts.

… and this is exactly how it was always supposed to be. Stan Kasten’s plan was to build a professional organization from top to bottom. One that nurtured the growth of prospects and furthered the success of the Major League Team. Instead, what we got was a used car lot, with a segway-riding salesmen at the helm.

Will the Nats win more games this year?

Who knows. It is certainly going to be different with Mike Rizzo at the helm of the organization. One thing is for sure – almost certainly, we’ll feel better about the outcome… no matter what it is.

One last thing: Excellent game, John Lannan. You deserved to win.

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