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

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.

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.

Step Back a Moment

Filed under: Games,Players — Tags: , , — Wigi @ 5:16 am April 19, 2009

It would be really easy to spread a lot of the blame for yesterday’s loss on Joel Hanrahan. His teammates didn’t. Chico Harlan reports in Nationals Journal from last night:

Two of the vets I spoke with after this game were both able to talk for three or so minutes without once casting blame on Hanrahan. In fact, Ryan Zimmerman and Adam Dunn found every way to find blame with their own effort — despite the fact that the lineup scored six runs in the first two innings against Josh Johnson, the erstwhile NL ERA leader. Said Zim: “When we get ahead 6-0, 5-0, we need to kind of step on their throat rather than saying, OK, we’re ahead, blah-blah-blah and just kind of try and coast. It’s not like we’re trying to do that, but we need that killer instinct, I guess.”

And while we can’t know for sure, if Nick Johnson doesn’t drop the popup that allowed a run to score, the game ends 6-5. Add to that the throwing errors and that the Nats had no offense after the second inning, and you quickly see that blaming Hanrahan for the loss is a bit like blaming the firemen for letting your house burn down when you’ve been deep-frying frozen turkeys in your garage.

It is tempting to go along thinking that everything is fine when you’re playing with a lead. That Hanrahan had to pitch at all yesterday given how the first two innings went should tell you that logic chain has a number of rusty links.