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.

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.

One Pitch

Filed under: Games,Players — Tags: , , , , — Wigi @ 7:47 pm May 1, 2009

There were two outs in the top of the first inning. Jordan Zimmerman had made quick work of the first two batters, and now faced Albert Pujols. Zimmermann fell behind 3-1. He released the pitch, and a moment later, the baseball was rattling around blue seats just below the MASN “Nats Extra” studio in left field.

Now I know that a lot of my impression of what was going on in the game has to do with what the commentators are saying. But I swear, the impression I got from that pitch was Jordan Zimmermann’s way of introducing himself to Pujols.

“Hey, I’m Jordan Zimmermann… I’m not afraid of you.”

“Hey, I’m Albert Pujols.”

Last night’s game was different from a lot of the Nats games this season, because the Nats just plain got beat. The better team won.

And you know, I can live with that. As rocky as the start was for Zimmermann, he had his moments, too. Chico Harlan quotes Manny Acta in his late Nationals Journal post about how the metric by which one should judge this start for Zimmermann is how he reacted to the adversity.

I think he did fine.

The Cardinals are leading the National League for a reason. The Nats are in last place for a reason. Last night’s game is about the outcome you’d expect.

Other notes:

  • Ryan Zimmerman extends his hitting streak to 20 games.
  • Three baserunning gaffes in four games for Elijah Dukes. I am concerned.

Boxed Scores

Filed under: Organization — Tags: , , , — Wigi @ 4:45 pm February 24, 2009

A quick perusal of today’s Nationals Journal and The Washington Post (and here) point out that the Nationals have painted themselves into a corner at a rather bad time. It is Spring Training, the Nats have some moves they need to make, the roster is filled with unanswered questions, and a cloud hangs over the General Manager.

The Nats have a problem.

There are the obvious ones. Smileygate (I hate the ‘gate’ suffix, but it just sounds so funny in this case) is the obvious one, but my issue is actually much larger. In fact, if you think about it, Smileygate isn’t all that big a deal if you look at it by itself – the Nats investment in real dollars is comparatively small, there is about zero chance that the organization did anything wrong, and the worst case scenario is that Bowden (not the organization) pocketed some of Smiley’s bonus – again, highly unlikely. Some would argue that the Nats reputation was already trashed, and this doesn’t really make things any worse than they already were.

But here is the problem – Whatever one might think the solution is, the Nats are paralyzed. For the moment, they can neither fire Bowden nor endorse him. They put themselves in that situation, in my opinion, because they made the choice to put off ‘good’ and instead accept ‘good enough’.

When you’re an entrepreneur, ‘good enough’ is usually good enough. You go to Costco to get your cups for your espresso stand. But once you get a little bigger, or more successful, you might want your logo on the cups. On the other hand, when you’re at the elite level of your industry, the things that separate the top from the bottom become a bit more esoteric. Logos on your cups are a given. Logos on the napkins, too. You now start to worry about other things – the things that differentiate your business from all others. The things that makes people choose you over your competition, and things that make you out-compete your competition.

When Major League Baseball awarded the Nats to Washington, and then selected the Lerners as the owners, we (Washington fans, and the Lerners) received an eviscerated franchise, burnt to the ground by the league. MLB was essentially saying, here is your ticket to play in our league. It is up to you to make of it what you will. In a New York Times piece written on opening day, 2006, Murray Chass writes about the impact of adding Stan Kasten to the Lerner’s ownership group – and speculates that by doing so, the Lerners guarantee success. I think that was a very astute observation then, and it is still true today. The thought was that Kasten added a level of gravitas to the ownership group that made them credible within the world of Major League Baseball. But as Kasten has said all along, the process of making a success of the Nationals is a long term project, especially given the state of the organization at the time they took over… and nobody should expect instant results – hence, the birth of “The Plan”.

The Lerners and Kasten inherited Bowden from the days of MLB’s stewardship, which was the definition of ‘good enough’, though just barely. At the All Star break in 2006, the Lerners should have replaced Bowden – not because he had done a bad job… in fact, I would argue that he did an amazing job with nothing at all. The Nats were the Stone Soup of baseball in 2005 and 2006. The reason that the Nats should have replaced Bowden is because it would have signaled an end to the ‘good enough’ era, and the beginning of the ’good’ era.

Today they are suffering from that legacy. The Nationals ownership has had numerous logical opportunities to replace Bowden, but did not. The argument that one would make to replace Frank Robinson with Manny Acta would be the same one you would use to replace Bowden – it is time for a new direction, time for a new philosophy, time for a new tradition of excellence. Instead, the Nationals took a pragmatic approach to the operation of their front office – and let’s be clear here, there was a certain logic to keeping Bowden. If your team is going to be bad, no matter what… and cobbling together a Major League roster is going to be the modus operandi for a year or two, why not keep the person who has done it both the best and the longest – Bowden? But this brand of pragmatism comes at a cost – the reputation of the organization… and not because Bowden had done a bad job, but rather, because his retention signaled that the Nats weren’t prepared to commit to the level of excellence that was expected of an elite organization… the kind of organization that the Nationals aspire to be. By not replacing Bowden as a part of a new era for the team, they squandered a good potion of the reputation that they brought to the table.

So here we are, at Spring Training, 2009. I think it is clear that ‘good enough’ isn’t good enough anymore. You can argue, as Boswell did today, that Bowden has done at least an average job. But as Chico Harlan reports, the organization is now looking for that excuse to cut their ties with Bowden.

The thing is, the Nats don’t need an excuse, and they never did. It was always the right thing to do, and I suspect that they knew it. It is just that now, they can’t do it ethically without convicting Bowden in the court of public opinion – and if my gut is right, Bowden is guilty of nothing more than being duped by those intent on defrauding the Nats for a million or so dollars. So the excuse they’re waiting for is really the excuse they need so that they don’t have to be accountable for their own poor choices.

The mistake was that the organization made a commitment to mediocrity, with the idea that mediocrity was all the Nats could muster for a few years, no matter what. The right course of action might have been to embrace excellence, put the proper front office together that you want for a long time, and be dissatisfied with that mediocrity. It might have been frustrating and painful, as viewed from within the organization. But from out here, in the world of the fans, we probably wouldn’t have noticed a difference. There would have been a unity of purpose, and the Nats could have spent those two years cultivating their reputation within baseball. Would it have made a difference? Who knows. But the fans, and the pundits, and I think perhaps the baseball world world would feel a lot more at ease with where the Nats are now.

Unfortunately for the Nats, getting rid of Bowden does not in and of itself solve the problem. The Nats could get rid of Bowden, and still settle for another mediocre solution. The problem is understanding the difference between the pragmatic course, where you operate the team in one way (rebuilding) until you’re ready to operate the team in another way (contending), and the course of excellence, where you assemble the organization that will build and maintain excellence from the first day, and settle for nothing less.

When I first started this blog, I posted a page and another page about my professional and academic training, and how that colors how I view the Nats. One of the things that I bring up in those pages is the idea of a “Clear and Elevating Goal.”

There is nothing clear or elevating in mediocrity.

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.