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

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.

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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.

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.