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

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.

The Pictures Say it All

Filed under: Games — Tags: , , , , , — Wigi @ 9:44 pm April 16, 2009

One couldn’t ask for a better night at Nationals Park than this past evening. I wandered around with my camera and took some action shots from the game. When I got home, I was surprised to find that Tom Boswell had written a post on Nationals Journal that is in some respects complementary to my posting yesterday.

So I’ve given the liks to Boz’s NJ posting, and below are some pics I took at the game.

As for the Magic 8-Ball, the murky blue liquid seems to be clearing a bit. I bet we have an answer by Sunday.

Here are some pictures:

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.

Fan’s Guide to Watching The Washington Nationals (revised 6/19/2008)

It isn’t just about the expectation of wins (and losses). It is now, and has always been, about building for the future. The problem is, from where the fans sit, it isn’t entirely clear that the Nats are really building.

In fact, thirty seconds of thought will indicate that they are; one only has to look at the minors to see that the pipeline is at least partially stocked with something other than cobwebs. Moreover, the Nationals minor league system has the best combined record in baseball. Admittedly, minor league baseball may not be all about winning, but if nobody is out there trying to win as their primary goal, but rather to foster the growth of young talent, one could reasonably make the argument that won-loss record is at least a partial indicator of success.

But little of that is consoling after watching the Nats flail in Minneapolis. Even when they’re winning, there is something a bit unsettling about the team. I feel very fortunate to have seen the Nats in Seattle, where they caught a team that was struggling as badly as they are. It was fun to watch, but I never got the sense that I was watching a juggernaut, even when sweeping the Mariners in Safeco. So there’s something very ‘MSG’ about our Nats diet as of late. An hour after a win, we’re hungry again.

So this is what I suggest: Stop watching the Nats with the expectation of a particular outcome, which is to say, that the Nats are going to win. Instead, look at the individual moving parts, and lets watch how they grow and develop. And with that in mind, here is my list of things to watch for the rest of this season:

  • Watch for a lack of personnel changes at the top: Don’t expect Bowden to be fired before the end of the season. If you ignore the won-loss record this year, and simply look at the acquisition of personnel, Bowden has done a pretty good job as GM. The Nats have drafted and traded for prospects rather well, and in doing so, provided the foundation for a winning club, if not this year, in a year or two. What Bowden hasn’t done well this year is manage the 25-man roster. Admittedly, the roster problems are even more severe than usual, with all the injuries, but there has been a lot of playing with a short bench. I predict that Bowden will be fired at the end of the season, and it will signal an important organizational change for the Nats. It will signal the transition from the ‘acquiring the pieces’ phase to the ‘putting the pieces together’ phase. Bowden has some important shortcomings that, in my opinion, make him unsuited for the latter task. If I am wrong, and Bowden is fired before the end of the season, it will almost certainly be because other MLB teams are trying to court Mike Rizzo into GM positions, and the only way the Nats can keep Rizzo without crippling Bowden in the trade market is to fire Bowden and make Rizzo the GM.
  • Watch the Nats designate Wily Mo Pena. I wouldn’t be surprised if that happened today or tomorrow. If you’re Bowden, and you still love him, send him down (he’ll clear waivers) and let him get his 300 AB in Columbus, and then bring him back in September… maybe. Who would you bring up instead? Well, there are all sorts of choices. Pick one.
  • Watch the development of Elijah Dukes and Lastings Milledge. It is hard to really appreciate the growth that they’ve experienced thus far, when it rains in our hearts every day, but give Bowden credit on these two acquisitions. Milledge is already as good as Church would have been on this team, and Schneider would be spare parts, with the emergence of Jesus Flores. Dukes has some growing up to do yet, but at least in public, he’s been a good citizen, and he’s flashing the leather and getting good ABs.
  • Watch the team develop some synergy as the injured veterans clear the DL. When healthy, we have a middle-of-the-pack roster, that without the clutch bats of Zim and Nick Johnson, and the steadying presence of Austin Kearns, is exposed and easily pitched around. Clearing the DL will go a long way towards creating more sunny days in our hearts.
  • Watch the development of our starting pitchers. Shawn Hill sure struggled today, but looking back at recent pitching performances, for the most part, the scores and the won-loss record belie the fact that the Nats have pretty good starters. Lannan is going to be spectacular, Bergmann has his flashes of brilliance, Redding and Perez have both been more than serviceable, and when Hill is on, he’s amazing. But all of them have been hung out to dry by their offenses, and while one might say that what happens at the plate is not related to what happens on the mound, the question is, how long can a pitcher pitch with no margin of error? When our bats give the starters a lead, the pitchers will be dazzling… and none of that addresses the talented arms in the minors waiting to come up.

I am disappointed that the Nats are not on the road to 85 wins this year. Before I started blogging, I was Professor Emeritus in the “Glass Half Full Department”, and as you can see, I revert to my roots. But that being said, I think we will soon see the end of the Bowden era, and for no other reason than it will shake up the clubhouse a bit, a change in the coaching staff, particularly with regard to Lenny Harris. But there are other lessons to be learned this season and chemistry to build, so don’t expect too much change before October. Making changes now sends the message of panic and instability, neither of which is what the Nats need.

The medicine tastes awful, doesn’t it?