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

Depressing…

It seems the Nats are losing a lot lately (though as I write this, they’re three of their last five, and leading the Dodgers in the sixth). And I am depressed.

But not so much about the team. Yeah, I had higher hopes – really high hopes. I was the one that stole the term, “Irrational Exuberance” from Alan Greenspan. Greenspan was right, and apparently I was also right (in my wrongness). But as frustrating as it is to watch the Nats sometimes, it is nothing compared to reading the fan commentary in the blogs. As irrationally exuberant as I was in March (and especially after the Nats starting the year 3-0), the most boisterous of the blogosphere are irrationally vitriolic. Pick a target – Felipe Lopez, Paul LoDuca, Jim Bowden, The Lerners, Stan Kasten, Austin Kearns, Luis Ayala… even Ryan Zimmerman and Manny Acta – All of them have had critics crying for their firing, trade, release or public flogging.

All because the Nats are a last-place team.

Is this an unexpected result?

Lots of people hoped that the Nats would have been a lot more fun to watch. Whether that means flirting with a pennant race, or just being a .500 team, or even just a chance to see the Nats win every time you come to the ballpark – Most of us hoped for something more than we’re getting. As it turned out, what we’ve gotten is something we hadn’t considered – the historically-bad team we were promised last year – or at least, something close to it.

Back in June I wrote this, because it was clear back then that the Nats weren’t going anywhere, and the important things to watch and look for this season had little to do with the specific outcomes of games. I still believe what I wrote, especially the last line – “The medicine tastes awful, doesn’t it?” The problem is, the medicine was unnecessarily bitter.

If you’ve waded around this blog, or know me personally, you know that my academic and professional background is in organizational communication. One of the most important tenets of getting the most from your organization is to have a clear, organization-wide philosophy – and this is exactly where the Nats got themselves in trouble with their fans this year.

Once the Nationals organization realized that this year was about preparing the organization for growth and success in 2009, 2010 and beyond, each game became a marketing exercise to impress visiting scouts. We saw Paul Lo Duca play all over the field. We saw Felipe Lopez sleepwalk through a summer. Neither deserved to play, with healthier and better-performing alternatives available. But the Nats were not about putting the best team on the field every night, but rather, about getting the most from their personnel investments. When doing your best (by playing your best players) isn’t your organization’s primary goal, then your employees (and players) rarely do your best.

Fans may not have thought about this explicitly, but most knew that they weren’t seeing the best team on the field every night… and even when the best team was on the field, you always got the sense that the outcome of the game was secondary to making sure the scouts in attendance saw all of the goods that were available for trade.

The catharsis we all felt when the Nats released LoDuca and Lopez, and the hot streak that the team set out on immediately afterward, shows how quickly the change in philosophy can work. A lot of people thought it was about the addition of new, young players, but more likely, it was addition by subtraction.

I don’t blame fans for being frustrated, disgusted or even angry about this season. The Nats front office has created a lot of their own problems and left it to the fans to endure a 90 percent product. But regardless, the Nats foibles are short-term ones, that come the end of September, will be meaningless. The Nats will have made important progress towards building a perennial winner, and really, that is all we could reasonably expect from the 2008 season.

Which brings me back to the depressing, vitriolic blogosphere. Be angry. Be upset. Be frustrated. But the incessant, shrill whining about how cheap the Lerners are, or whether Bowden is a competent general manager, or even if Lenny Harris should be fired – is tiresome. I might be inclined to listen if the blogosphere were populated by billionaires, Major League GMs and hitting coaches. But mostly, the blogosphere is made up of men and women just like me – passionate about the Nationals, but for the most part, no more knowledgeable or competent at any of those positions than that guy sitting on the Metro reading the newspaper. Repeating your truth over and over doesn’t make it a universal truth.

But apparently, it makes an already bitter medicine even more bitter.

What Does The End of a Slump Look Like?

I know what we think it looks like – going on some incredible tear, winning seven of eleven or something like that, then playing a game or two above .500 for an extended period. Which, strangely, is exactly what the Nats have done since they returned home from their mid-April roadtrip (the sticklers among you can count the getaway-day road win against the Braves on April 22 – I did…).

So, if the Nats aren’t in a slump anymore, why do our collective heads hurt?  A lot of us are snippy and short – we have trouble taking positives from a Nats loss, and not much satisfaction from a win. You’d think we were all trying to wean ourselves from caffeine at the same time.

I think I have some answers. At least, answers why this isn’t as much fun as we think it should be… not answers about how to fix the Nats. Try these on for size:

  • We expect more. The 2007 Nats played .500 ball from mid-May on. The expectation last year was very low (whispers of 120 losses emanated from papers and blogs), and the Nats exceeded those expectations by, um, thirty-something games. I think all of us expected at least a continuation of .500 ball this year, and maybe something a bit more than that. When the Nats won their first three, our higher expectations were crystalized, and when the Nats lost 15 of the next 17, we became the Gumpy Gus that we are now. Tom Boswell points out that the Nats are actually two games over .500 since the slide. Still not very satisfying, is it?
  • They don’t look healthy. I don’t mean injured (though that is certainly an issue, and a topic of a future blog posting). By that I mean, the Nats Juggernaught is not firing on all cylinders. There’s nothing new to add to the continuing discussion about Nats hitting, though there are some signs of hope. Zim’s average is out of the panic zone, Elijah Dukes seems to be showing some discipline, if not contact, and The Weapon got his first homer over the weekend. On the plus side, there are a few Nats that are tearing it up… but the guys that are hitting – Guzman, Flores and Boone – all have good, personal reasons to excel, whether it is the walk year of their contract, a disdain for minor league travel arrangements, or to prove that they’re not washed up. The guys that should be producing, simply because they are professionals who are paid to play at the elite level of the sport, are mostly not doing that, or doing so only tepidly. The starting pitching is certainly a bright spot, though as good as Redding was on Sunday, just imagine how much better it would have been with just one-third more inning from him? The Nats remind me of when I go to work with a cold. Things, get done, but it isn’t my best effort.
  • I don’t get the move – and by that, I mean, personnel management. The Nats are again struggling with (perhaps) an inordinate number of injuries. I’ve come to expect that from the Nats, though I wish it were different. But the resulting roster moves aren’t always the obvious choice (like bringing a pitcher up to replace a pitcher, outfielder for outfielder, etc). The result has left the bench a bit short at times, but I think it is best that we leave the managing to the manager. The reason it is a problem for the fans is that the fans struggle to make sense of the decision-making process that goes into the move, and so there’s some cognitive dissonance about why things happen the way they do. It doesn’t instill confidence in the fans – not that the fans matter when it comes to personnel – and so they get restless. And when they’re already hung over from “Irrational Exuberance,” to borrow a term from Alan Greenspan, they get snippy.

The “Glass Half Full Department” reports that if our hitting just reverts to the mean, and we keep the starting pitching at its current level, there’s still plenty of upside – and all of it without a trade or firing.

The ”Glass Half Empty Department” reports that there are reasons that our hitters aren’t hitting, and that reverting to the mean works for starting pitchers, too. [By the way, the "Glass Half Empty Department" recently got a grant for marketing and promotion. It seems they have spent it well.]

I think a lot of us hoped that the end of the Nats slump would be like a rainbow after a heavy shower. Instead it is turning out to be more of a dense fog, lifing very slowly. It might take an extended spell of good weather before we reailize it isn’t raining anymore.