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.

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?”

Adam Dunn Makes Crocuses Bloom

Filed under: Organization,Personnel,Players — Tags: , , , , , — Wigi @ 3:23 pm February 11, 2009

I happened to be looking out the window this morning to this view, when I heard the news:

$th Avenue in Anchorage

Sure looks like spring to me!

I was, in fact looking out my window when my RSS feed displayed the headline from “Nationals Journal”: Sources: Nats Sign Adam Dunn.

So I immediately head over to NJ, and it was like a virtual blog party. Even the curmudgeons and naysayers were happy.

I was happy.

I don’t know if Dunn is the right choice for the Nats or not. I am not a Major League GM. But the faithful feel better, and that makes a big difference.

I feel compelled to say “I told you so…” Even Boswell, in his chat today (before the announcement) was roasting the crow, in preparation for the feast. He said, “The Nats are going to look very smart __and I’mm [sic] be delighted to lash myself in the public square__ if they get Dunn at a great price. But I doubt it. I don’t se(e) them being a “first mover” but more like a “too late reactor” in this situation.”

If only I could be there for the lashing, because Bos will be laughing hysterically with every stroke.

This points out the danger of being an armchair GM. None of us have all the information. All we have is opinions. And while the faithful lost faith, the front office went about their work, first making a credible bid to Teixeira, and then acquiring Dunn. But in this web 2.0 world, our opinions carry some weight – not very much, but some. After all, I am just some guy with a blog, but hey, you’re reading this, aren’t you?

The real proof will come in August and September, when it is clear where the 2009 Nats are headed, and what the foundation looks like for 2010. But today, as our favorite team converges on Viera, more than a few of us have come to the realization that Stan Kasten and the Lerner Family and Jim Bowden have done exactly what they promised they would do. And they did it despite our whining and complaining, and not because of it. I think some of you owe them an apology – or at least, you should renew your season tickets.

Nine months of hand-wringing are over. And as the crocuses poke through the Earth in NatsTown… Let’s play ball!

Eggs in One Basket

Filed under: Organization — Tags: , , , , — Wigi @ 3:30 pm December 23, 2008

They never really had a choice.

For all of the reasons that people have quoted, including Jim Bowden’s comments in the most recent Nationals Journal posting,Mark Teixeira was the perfect free agent candidate for the Nationals. He addressed virtually every one of the Nationals major needs: he plays a position that the Nats are now desperately trying to fill, he can hit, he’s a local product. The magnitude of his contract dispels (at least partially) the notion that the Lerners are unwilling to spend money on payroll. By making a credible offer to Teixeira, the Nats have helped change the perception of the organization in the eyes of the public and the media – though I would say that there is still a long way to go there.

Only one problem – Teixeira now wears pinstripes.

And what a problem it is. The Nats really needed to sign Teixeira, but for more esoteric reasons than simply the performance of a player on the field.

Bear with me for a moment – I want to perform a mental exercise. Suppose you could wave a magic wand and make two things happen: First, you would make Nick Johnson impervious to injury, and second, make sure he performed at the level he has during his healthy times with the Nats. Would Nick Johnson be all that different from Teixeira?

Not that different. Comparable OBP. Less power. Similar average. Similar fielding. Nick Johnson isn’t Mark Teixeira. But he isn’t bad. An injury-free Nick Johnson (the logical equivalent to a calorie-free cheesecake – nice in principle, but a fantasy) would solve the Nats on-field problems for a quarter of the money. But what the magically-enhanced Nick Johnson doesn’t do is this: He doesn’t have local roots. He doesn’t have star power. He doesn’t send a message to the clubhouse that today is the day to win, not next season. He doesn’t send a message to all of Major League Baseball that the Nationals have come to play, create a baseball dynasty in Washington, compete perennially, and be a force both on the field and in the marketplace.

Teixeira does.

But nobody else does, even with a magic wand.

There is nothing in the free agent market that the Nats need the way they needed Teixeira. That’s not to say that there are not free agents out there that the Nats might pursue. But the scope of the Nats need is very different with respect to the remaining marketplace. Signing Dunn (or, heaven forbid, Manny) will be a hollow acquisition unless either can be had a fire sale prices. Both have significant flaws and pose problems for the organization in terms of making them fit. And sure, lots of people can make arguments about this player or that one, but again, which of them puts fans in the seats and makes Nationals Park a line of pride on the back of a baseball card? None of the free agents address that issue, and honestly, I believe that is the most important issue that faces the Nats – credibility.

Do you need proof? We only need to look at the pursuit of Teixeira, and how it turned out. Could the Nationals have kept a low profile, as the Yankees did and then swoop in at the last minute? Of course not. The only reason the Nats were even in the running is that they substituted cash for credibility – and apparently Teixeira left some cash on the table in order to play for the Yankees.

Need another example? Free agents don’t walk away from Redskins money, regardless of how poorly they play. And it isn’t like the Yankees tore up the AL East last year. No reputation and no track record equals the Nationals. Fix the reputation and the need for a track record goes away.

If the Nats are significant players in the remaining free agent market, it will be like sending the kids off in a toy store with $20. They’ll spend every penny and have nothing to show for it in a week. On the other hand, not making a significant expenditure will rile the portion of the fan base that has only a one-dimensional view of player personnel, where payroll is correlated with quality.

So the Nats lost in their quest to land Teixeira. But there was a lot more at stake than the obvious. Fixing the hole on the field will be relatively trivial. Fixing the hole in the baseball world will take time.

Assuming Facts Not In Evidence: Lerners Are Cheap

IntroBowden is incompetentAaron Crow Sidebar… Lerners are cheap…

Cheap is such a pejorative term, don’t you think?

And in this context, it defies definition. It all started with Ronnie Belliard’s bats, some FedEx letters and team expense reimbursements. Today it has morphed into a commentary on the Nats participation in the free agent market.

Let’s start with the small stuff first. Baseball is an old industry. Very few people work professionally in baseball, and when it comes to management, the there are probably less than 500 people in executive positions across the Major Leagues. To be qualified for one of these positions, you almost certainly come from one of three tracks: you already work in baseball in an executive capacity, you already work in another professional sport in an executive capacity, or you are being groomed internally to advance within an organization. Or, the fourth track, you could buy a baseball team.

The difference between the first three and the fourth is that people who come from the first three are steeped in the culture of the industry. There is a way that you do things in baseball. People who come from a real estate background will likely have a very different view of how one conducts business. Business people draw a distinction between the core knowledge and talents that one needs to develop real estate (or throw a curve ball) and the skills and talents you need to manage your accounts payable. To most business people payables should be the same whether they are FedEx for contracts and blueprints, or FedEx for scouting documents. I am not at all surprised that the Lerners would want to examine the way they procure items or pay expenses.

In a lot of ways, the Lerner’s acquisition of the Nationals was like a merger – of course, the industries couldn’t be more dissimilar – but in any merger, there are always going to be ruffled feathers and hurt feelings as the new parent company asserts its control over the organization. Complaints about payables is just one of the things that happens in a merger. It doesn’t mean that the Lerners are cheap. It just means that the Lerner’s way of doing business was not immediately compatible with the culture of Major League Baseball.

When you’re sitting in a quiet room, and you hear someone in the back of the room cough, it doesn’t mean that everyone there is going to get the flu. In the absense of sound, every little breath is magnified. So it is when the Natosphere waits to hear more about the thrifty ways of the Lerners, and the Nats trade veterans for league minimum players or minor leaguers. Trading veterans for prospects, signing journeymen free agents rather than stars, letting your number one draft pick walk over a difference of $500,000 - the Glass Half Empty crowd sees this as irrefutable proof that the Lerners are cheap… and by this, the critics mean, too cheap to field a respectable team.

Even Tom Boswell piled on today. And I don’t blame him, or anyone else for being upset about the outcome of this season – and there are good reasons to be concerned about the perception of the team by the fans. I am upset too. But the foundations for this year’s poor performance were laid in the offices of Major League Baseball and in Montreal (and San Juan). I don’t see how spending more money could have made the Nats any better or more entertaining to watch. Who could the Nats have signed as a free agent that would have made them better (or more entertaining)? We’ve been promised historically bad teams since 2005, and every year the Nats have overachieved – until this year. In fact, one could even make the argument that spending free agent money caused some of this year’s problems.

The Nats signed two free agent catchers – Paul Lo Duca and Johnny Estrada – with the idea that Jesus Flores needed to play every day. The thought was that he should do that on the farm, where he could become familiar with the Nats pitching prospects, and get another year of seasoning in a less stressful environment. On the surface, that sounds like a wise and conservative way to grow your catcher of the future. But when both Lo Duca and Estrada were injured, Flores was called up, followed by Will Nieves, both Flores and Nieves played their way into the top of the depth chart, leaving Estrada to be released and Lo Duca playing any available position just to get ABs. And why did Lo Duca need plate appearances? Because if the Nats were going to recoup any of his $5 million in salary through trade, he had to play, even if there were better choices – either more talented, more healthy, or just youngsters with more long-term potential. Of course, injuries to Ryan Zimmerman, Nick Johnson, Wily Mo Pena and Austin Kearns made it easy to find potential places to play Lo Duca. Add to that the 40 percent effort that Felipe Lopez gave the Nats, and the same motivations to get him playing time, and it was clear that attending a game during the Nats 2008 season was more like shopping at Big Lots than going to the ballpark.

Don’t think the fans didn’t notice. They did. And just like a 20 minute shopping excursion to Big Lots, when watching the Nats, most fans felt that it was 19 minutes too much.

And it was like that until July 31. And while things were better on August 1, it hardly mattered by then.

But that doesn’t make the Lerners cheap. If you add $10 million to your payroll, and it doesn’t generate any wins, should you spend that $10 million? Is there some other return on your investment?

I don’t know. Probably not, and it is one of those things that is unknowable. But the premise that the Nats are unwilling to spend on free agents has yet to be proven. One can point to the Aaron Crow situation and try to infer something about the Nats willingness to spend, but one could just as easily infer the Nats desire not to be railroaded into overpaying for draft choices.

Stan Kasten made the point back in 2006 that major free agent signings are the last step you take, to get the final piece of your championship team. It is hard to make the argument that the Nats are anywhere close to that point, as they teeter at the edge of a 100-loss season.

Are the Lerners cheap? I don’t know. Either do you.