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

All of the Pieces

You have to admit, watching the “Battle of the Beltways” has been entertaining so far.

In the last two games, we’ve seen great Nationals pitching and at least crisp, and occasionally spectacular defense:

Justin Maxwell snares fly in the first inning. (Image courtesy of MASN and the Washington Nationals. Used with permission)

Justin Maxwell robs the Orioles Adam Jones of a home run in the first inning. (Image courtesy of MASN and the Washington Nationals. Used with permission)

What we haven’t seen is the Nationals hitting the ball.

The reason for that has to do with the Disabled List. When you remove Jesus Flores and Elijah Dukes from the lineup, there’s actually a way to pitch around the Nats. Adam Dunn has struggled since Dukes has been out, and the Nationals miss Jesus Flores both behind the plate as well as when he’s at bat. And while Anderson Hernandez doesn’t make the lineup any more formidable by himself, his speed, and the presense of Cristian Guzman two hitters later in the lineup helps to insure he gets some pitches to hit.

In my last post I spoke about the need for the Nationals to be accountable for their level of play. The next day, Manny Acta held a team meeting, and since that time, the Nats seem to have been transformed – at least when it comes to pitching and defense. It hasn’t been lost on at least some of the national media: Tim Kurkjian wrote a piece last week about the bright future for the Nats. If the Nationals can play average defense and get average pitching from their bullpen, if the all-rookie (almost) rotation can continue to go six or seven innings every game… and if the Nats – and given history, this is a big if – can keep their starting eight on the field and off the Disabled List, we’re going to see real baseball break out on Half Street.

But in this respect, the Nationals are fragile. As well as the team has played since the end of the Pittsburgh series, they’ve barely been able to put up runs, even against a team as weak as the Orioles. Once you’re into the bench, things get dicey. The bench is acceptable, and perhaps above average, as a bench goes. But when the Nats bench is starting every day, the lineup just isn’t as imposing as it could be.

And as spectacular a catch as Justin Maxwell made today, he isn’t the hitter that Dukes is.

The sample size is small – three games – but since Manny’s team meeting, the Nationals seem to have their head screwed on more or less straight. Once we get all of the pieces back, we might actually see what the Nationals are capable of.

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.

Spring Returns to Washington

Filed under: Background,Fan Experience — Tags: , , , , , — Wigi @ 6:28 pm April 12, 2009

Sometimes I wonder if all the traveling is worth it.

I make two trips a year to Washington. I come in April for the opening homestand, and again in September, for the last one. I’ve done that for five straight years. In addition, last year I ran down the road to Seattle to see the Nats play at Safeco.

In all, I catch about ten Nats games a year in person. If you ignore the thirty-three year break between the Senators and the Nats, I’ve been to every opening day since 1971.

Two years ago I didn’t see them win… Not once, in nine games. On the other hand, last year they only lost twice out of the nine games I saw in person (including opening day at Nationals Park, and the next day at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia).

Things aren’t looking so hot for the home nine this year, either. It matters to me if they win or lose. But it matters more to me that I be a part of it.

As cities go, Washington is a bit strange, in that there are so few people who are from ‘here’ – and I can say ‘here’ because I am ‘here’ for Opening Day. So many of us are from somewhere else. For those of us who were born here, there is an awareness of place that very few people share. Baseball was a part of that place for me as a child, and after the Senators left in 1971, I have to admit, the Orioles did help to fill some of that gap for me. But for a lot of people, baseball is not enough in itself. Baseball is wonderful, but it must also be about the place… our home. As wonderful as it was to watch the Orioles in the 70′s and 80′s, Baltimore is where you went to watch the O’s, and you came home to Washington. That long commute down I-95 after a night game served to remind me – the hundreds of times that I made that trip – that I had to leave home to watch baseball.

When the Nationals moved to Washington in 2005, it was a restoration of that piece of Washingtonian life that had been missing since my childhood. Even though I lived 4000 miles away, I was drawn to the reality that I could once again watch baseball in my hometown. I’ve been a part of it ever since.

My hometown has a baseball team again. Tomorrow, something wonderful happens. It is a sure sign that summer is about to be here… a summer we went without for thirty-three years.

Does it matter if they win or lose? Absolutely.

But not as much as it does to be a part of it.

It is definitely worth it.

Be a part of it.

Purity of Heart

Filed under: Organization,Personnel,Players — Tags: , , , , , , — Wigi @ 1:34 pm December 22, 2008

The withdrawal of the Angels from the Mark Teixeira sweepstakes adds some important philosophical clarity to the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ in baseball.

There are really only two players left – The Red Sox and the Nationals.  Maybe the Orioles, but maybe not… they probably don’t have the money or the stomach to be at this table.

To me, Teixeira’s choice comes down to being a cog in a corporate juggernaut, or the cornerstone of an up-and-coming franchise. About the choice between buying success and building success. About the choice between being a hired gun and a hometown hero.

It is about good and evil.

OK, not really about good and evil… but the old adage of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” just doesn’t hold with the Red Sox. It is possible to hate the Yankees AND the Red Sox. They’re both on the evil side of the ‘Evil Empire’ continuum. They’re more alike than different.

The stakes are vastly higher for the Nationals than for the Red Sox. Signing Teixeira doesn’t transform the Sox the way it does the Nationals. Collin Balester, Willie Harris and Ryan Zimmerman have all weighed in on the pursuit of Teixeira, and all three agree that it changes the entire focus of the team. It at very least starts the clock for respectability, which until now was just a vague notion of some goal in the future.

It also transforms the Nationals in the eyes of the league, and the public in general. Numerous articles and blogs have been written about the perception of the Nats now that they’re serious players in the pursuit of Teixeira. The disciples of “The Plan” (myself included) have either seen through this misperception – or kidded ourselves into believing that the Nats austerity was part of a larger view – but my opinion is in the minority. For the doubters, here is the proof… but for at least some of the doubters, being in the game is not the same as winning. For them, anything short of a contract would be as if nothing happened at all.

There’s also this: Mark Whicker’s piece in the Orange County Register about the departure of Teixeira from Anaheim. Between the lines in this piece is the argument that there is a lot of pressure in being the “Final Piece” of the puzzle – the very thing Stan Kasten suggested that the pursuit of a major free agent would be for the Nats. Clearly, Teixeira isn’t the final piece for the Nats, but in fact, he’s something more. He’s a necessary piece. He answers questions on the field, but he also answers questions about the Nats future, and for the cynics among us, he answers a huge marketing question, too. Teixeira will not draw fans to the park like Soriano did, but the acquisition of Teixeira will draw fans because the fan base will finally believe that “The Plan” is a viable path to perennial success.

I don’t envy the Lerners. They probably see the acquisition of Teixeira to be as much about  a referendum on their commitment to excellence as improving the on-the-field product.

I like the Nats’ world view a lot better than Boston. Sure I am biased. But it doesn’t matter. Failure isn’t an option.

Use the force, Ted.

Phillies: The New Cowboys?

I live far away from Washington now, and so I am sure it happens to me a lot more often than it would in DC. I’ll be walking down the street, and I’ll see that dreaded blue star. Perhaps on someone’s hat, perhaps on a bumper sticker. Every once in a while, on a stadium jacket. My thoughts immediately turn to Tom Landry and Roger Staubach. Clint Longley sneaks in there occasionally, too… and the hackles stand up. A visceral dislike for the Cowboys is one of the hallmark traits of a Washingtonian.

But rivalry requires reciprocity, and the Redskins haven’t held up their part of the bargain as of late. Other teams in other sports have drawn their share of ire from Washington fans – back in the early 1980′s, when the Capitals experienced their first surge into respectability, the Flyers were always the most hated team to come to the Capital Centre.

Last night, we may have witnessed the beginning of the Nats first real rivalry.

The building blocks have been falling into place for a while – The famous 11 PM start to a rain-delayed Nats-Phillies game, ending in a Nats win back in 2006. John Lannan hitting Chase Utley and breaking his hand last year. Kyle Kendrick’s chin music to Ryan Zimmerman, followed the next at bat by a home run – These are just a few examples.

But things changed last night. It isn’t often that one gets to see a straight steal of home (whether successful or not). But it wasn’t just that Utley tried to steal home, but rather, that he turned himself into a human projectile, and endangered both himself and Jesus Flores in the process. The collision resulted in a very scary and probably season-ending injury to Flores, and taken in the context of the apparently-escalating tensions between the two teams, perhaps there was more at stake than just scoring a run.

Chico Harlan reported in Nationals Journal about the clubhouse reaction to the play at the plate with Utley and Jesus Flores. I found the comments to be rather tame. In Chico’s online chat today, I asked him about whether there was more to the comments than meets the eye, to which he said, maybe, and maybe not.

I think there’s bad blood. The kind that transcends seasons. The kind that makes almost-meaningless games a lot more meaningful. The Clint Longley kind of bad blood.

Interleague play and Beltway Series don’t make for a rivalry, especially between two second-tier teams. The Washington-Baltimore rivalry was a lot more intense in 1971 than it is in 2008, and until the Nats plays the Orioles in October, it is going to stay that way. A late-night loss in front of 200 fans, the loss of a star player to a broken hand on an HBP, a 23 year-old third basemen getting knocked down one inning and going yard the next AB and a straight steal of home that looked more like breaking up the wedge on a kickoff than a stolen base attempt – those may be the birth of a rivalry, because the players feel it… not just the fans.

Of course, I didn’t need any help disliking the Phillies anyway.

Holding a Grudge

Do you remember where you were on the evening of September 30, 1971?

If you do, then you know exactly why today is an important day in Washington baseball history.

I remember where I was on that night – I was in my room, with my transistor radio, listening to the last Senators game ever. I was ten years old. They left town. I’ve never forgiven them.

“They” were so embarrassed by the shabby and thoughtless way they treated me and the thousands of other Senators fans that they left behind, that they had to change their name. Now they’re known as the Texas Rangers. And they’re coming to Washington tonight, after 37 years, pretending like nothing happened.

Bastards.

What’s wrong with them? Do they think that ten year old kids just forget about being left to fend for themselves to complete their discovery of baseball?

At some point when I was in my early 20′s, and I was mobile enough to make rather frequent trips to Memorial Stadium to watch the Orioles, I realized that the Senators moving to Texas had made a huge difference in my life. When I was a kid, I remember carrying my transistor radio around while my mother was grocery shopping, listening to spring training games on the radio, and at the same time wishing that the thermometer would inch up to 50 degrees. I didn’t go anywhere in the summer without my baseball glove, and there was a certain rhythm and routine to my day, that always ended in a baseball game, or a game of catch. Televised games were a rarity back then, but my childhood schedule revolved around those televised games, and of course, I would listen on the radio whenever I could.

When I was a kid, trips to RFK Stadium were relatively rare – perhaps two or three a season. I remember my first game as if it were yesterday, and I remember being in awe of the incredible green that was the inside of RFK Stadium. I remember watching sitting in the mezzanine with my mom and dad and two brothers on a Sunday afternoon against the Yankees. I remember the last opening day, where the Senators shut out the Oakland A’s, 8-0.

That night in late September, as the Senators took the lead against the Yankees, I was thrilled. I remember thinking that perhaps something would change, and the Senators would stay after all. I remember Frank Howard hitting that home run, and listening to the crowd roar on the radio. I remember the chaos as the fans twice stormed onto the field. I remember the Senators led 7-5, but the official final score was a 9-0 loss by forfeit.

There was no spring in 1972. Add to that, the renaissance of the Redskins and the tenure of George Allen, and the transformation of a baseball fan into a football fan had begun. I no longer carried my baseball glove with me in the summers. I think I went to a baseball game at Memorial Stadium that next year, for “Safety Patrol Day”, but I can’t even remember who played, or any of the details of the game. As great as the Orioles were then they weren’t ‘my’ team, and they weren’t going to take the place of the Senators in my heart. And I tried to find love for the Rangers, but there was something definitely wrong with trying to love someone/something that had abandoned you.

It wasn’t like my love for baseball died, but I have often wondered how my life would have been different if baseball had been a bigger part of my youth – or at least, the part after 1971. Instead of getting dusty and dirty at the diamond, I hung out at the swimming pool. Who knows what other forms of juvenile delinquency might have been avoided if we’d only had a local baseball team?

When the Expos moved to Washington at the end of 2004, I was caught by surprise at how strongly I reacted to the news. And while most of my family still lives in the Washington Area, I live in Alaska, and lead a decidedly un-east-coast existence. But I have made room in my life, and in my heart for the Nationals, and I follow them as closely as I might if I lived in Silver Spring, rather than Anchorage. Heck, it’s only June, and I’ve already seen them in person six times this season (I am 6-0 in games I’ve attended this year… are you paying attention, Stan?).

So tonight, I am faced with the homecoming 37 years in the making – the night that the Senators return to Washington. Admittedly, these are not the same Senators that left in 1971; ownership has changed hands at least a couple times. I couldn’t be bothered by the exact details. What matters is, it is them. They are the ones that abandoned me, and abandoned Washington.

We might not have realized it, but we suffered those 33 seasons without baseball. A whole generation of Washingtonians never got to know what Washington Baseball was all about. Girl at work (June 19, 2008 at 4:30 PM) had it exactly right. Bad baseball is better than no baseball, and thirty-three years of being told that black-and-orange was more than good enough for us… was simply not good enough. And while there are a lot of people who feel anger and animosity towards Peter Angelos for preventing the relocation of baseball to Washington for so long, it is time we remembered how we got to that situation in the first place.

I wish I could be there.

I would boo. I would root against them as hard as I could. I would bring signs to the game. I would think of caustic things to say. I would hope that 30,000 of my fellow fans will feel the same way, but was I said above, Washington is a generation removed from the Senators, and for some, memory is mercifully short.

I hope we kick their ass,  9-0 in each game. I hope they beg to get out of town on Sunday. Seeing them again in Washington in six years will be too soon.

Don’t let the door hit you in the ass when you leave.