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

Assuming Facts Not In Evidence: Bowden is Incompetent

Intro … Bowden is Incompetent… Aaron Crow SidebarLerners are cheap

There seem to be a lot of people who are unhappy with Jim Bowden. Interestingly, very few of them happen to be the principals of the Washington Nationals.

Bowden didn’t sign Aaron Crow. Bowden signed Lo Duca and Estrada, and ended up stuck with their contracts, rather than starting Flores with the Nats. Bowden traded for Kearns and Lopez. Bowden traded for Wily Mo Pena. I could go on (and on). Suffice to say, Bowden’s list of sins is long.

Unless, of course, these are not sins at all.

Fans have no problem spotting poor performances on the field. Every fan has his or her favorites, and his or her list of players that need to be playing somewhere else. Watching a team like the Nationals is particularly painful when, for most people, the second list is considerably longer than the first. But having a list of players you would rather see somewhere else… or perhaps, a list of players that you would prefer were never here in the first place, should not be misconstrued as a referendum on the tenure of a general manager, whether he be Jim Bowden or anyone else.

Acquiring Major League players is not an exact science. In fact, it is not a science at all, but rather, an art. Billy Beane and other proponents of the Moneyball mindset would like you to believe that player acquisition can more or less be distilled down to an equation. But in reality, it can’t. Every GM has a philosophy about how the game should be played and which players best embody the skills needed to play the game that way. Implementing that philosophy takes all that into account, plus the specific conditions at the time – the team’s budget, the availability of players and prospects in your system to trade, the current state of the season (or offseason), etc.

The problem with fans evaluating the performance of a general manager is that fans have almost no information (in real time) about any of this… and for that matter, any idea what the GM does day to day. Fans do not have access to scouting information. Fans do not have information about injuries. Fans do not follow the GM around, listen to his phone calls, sit in on meetings, talk to managers and coaches, etc. Most importantly, GMs are not accountable to the fans, and so the fan’s standard of competence isn’t even relevant.

When fans do get insight into the workings of the organization and the job of the general manager, much of it comes in the form of formal statements or presentations created for fan consumption – such as a radio interview or a fan event with a Q and A session. It is great when those things happen, but it is fair to say that whatever comes of those statements and presentations is canned content for the fans, and that there really isn’t anything of substance said… and certainly that is true with the Nationals.

Even if one looks at the comments that Bowden made regarding the status of Chad Cordero’s 2009 contract, no reasonable person would be surprised by the fact that Cordero would be non-tendered, given the circumstances. What bothered people most is how it was done, and I thought that it was rather boorish to have it play out the way it did. Even so, those are style points, and for the most part, they don’t affect how the GM does his job.

Here is what we do know about the Nats and Bowden: Bowden arrived with the Nats at a time where the ownership had a conflict of interest with the rest of the league. By the time that conflict of interest was resolved and the Lerners were sold the team, the minor league system was bereft of talent. The team, under the stewardship of the Lerners and the tenure of Kasten, implemented a plan to rebuild the team through the revitalization of the farm system, much as Kasten did in Atlanta with the Braves (The Plan). This involved good scouting, strong drafts, trading performing veteran players for prospects, developing your own talent within the system, and the judicious signing of free agents – low budget at first, and then big names when it came to the last piece or pieces of a championship team.

What part of that plan hasn’t Bowden done? In fact, he’s done it all, just as promised.

But what about Aaron Crow? How is letting your number one draft pick walk part of “The Plan?”

Good question. The answer is, none of us know – and can’t know, because teams (and agents and players) just don’t share this kind of information. My guess is that Crow never intended to sign with the Nats, either because he disliked the idea of playing here, or he was hiding something – an injury, perhaps - that affected his ability to play. By orchestrating the failed negotiation, he retains his draft value in the future… and who better to make the patsy of a failed negotiation than someone whose reputation has been called into question, such as Bowden? That gambit doesn’t work with another GM.

The problem is not whether Bowden is competent, or whether he is a good judge of baseball talent, or a good GM. For most fans, the real issue comes down to not liking Bowden, and at the same time, not liking the team they’re watching. Sure, fans can point to particular transactions and say that the Nats should have done this, and not done that… Or that, and maybe they should have done this, too. The fan substitutes his or her amateur 20-20 hindsight for the judgement of the GM, and the fan always comes out smelling like roses, as he or she sits in their $40 seats watching the latest four-pitch walk or two base error, or GIDP. The bottom line is, no fan is qualified to evaluate the performance of the general manager. Fans have no meaningful idea what is being asked of Bowden and whether he is or isn’t doing what it… and none of us are qualified to be general managers or team presidents… Otherwise we would be GMs or team presidents.

As an outside observer, I believe Bowden has been given a specific mandate, and he appears to have done exactly what has been asked of him. Does that mean he is beyond criticism? Absolutely not! I have my own reasons to be unsure of Bowden and of his future with the Nats. But none of my questions have much to do with who was traded for whom, or who we drafted. I don’t believe that the Nats are anywhere except exactly where we were told they would be at the end of this season. Sure, their record this year is worse by quite a bit, and it was one of the more painful seasons to watch. But the Nationals are fundamentally a much better organization in almost any meaningful way (except won-loss record) than they were at the end of last year. All of the facts are entirely consistent with the implementation of “The Plan.” The problem is, most of the fans can’t stand it.

There may be good reasons to get rid of Jim Bowden. I haven’t heard anyone articulate them yet.

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?

Luck, Disguised As Skill

Filed under: Fan Experience,Games,Personnel,Players — Tags: , , , , , — Wigi @ 10:35 am June 14, 2008

I wore my red last night, the same Nats pullover that I wore for the exhibition game against the Orioles, opening night against the Braves, and the next game against the Phillies in Philadelphia. I really think it made a difference, because there wasn’t much from the Nats performance last night that would lead you to believe that there was something about them that was substantively different than on any previous game.

After a six-run second, I imagined two possible outcomes: one where Shawn Hill took command of the game, and stifled the home team, finally cruising to a lopsided something-to-one score, and the second where the Nats would slowly desanguinate themselves, and finally bleed out at the end of the game.

Lastings Milledge pops up at second after a successful steal in the second inning.

Lastings Milledge steals second in the second inning of last night’s game

The second scenario was much closer to reality, and were it not for an emergency transfusion by Jon Rauch in the ninth, my fantasy would have become a nightmare-come-true.

The second inning was spectacular – lots of disciplined strokes, and the resulting runs. But the key to the Nats success in the second is found in the box score, for as soon as R. A. Dickey left, so did the Nats mojo, suggesting that the explosion was more about poor pitching than good hitting.

Hill was good enough, but were it not for the good fortune of the second inning, it would have been just another disappointing outing for him. There was a noticeable lack of ground ball outs, something one would hope to see with Hill on the mound.

After the second, the Nats hitters reverted to old forms, with Milledge, Dukes and Pena all swinging for the fences at every at bat, hoping to tack on an insurance run. However, I believe this was actually a counterproductive strategy. Bullpens tend to be more fragile when they are pitching with runners on base, and the Mariners (with the help of Nats batters) were effective at keeping the basepaths empty.

The good news is, the Nats nicked the Mariners bullpen last night, and with J. J. Putz on the DL, a return to (or perhaps more correctly, a new visit to) a disciplined approach at the plate could lead to a victory tonight.

The Mariners are eerily like the Nats. Kick ‘em while they’re down

(by the way, I have pictures from the game, but I need to get them from my camera to the computer… I’ll work on that later and post them to this entry)

Notes From The Third Base Line

Filed under: Background,Fan Experience,Games,Players — Tags: , , , — Wigi @ 5:34 pm June 13, 2008

Just a couple notes, posted from my phone…

Wily Mo Pena can, apparently, still hit. He hit a BP fastball out of the park here at Safeco. In a game, probably, thats a grounder to short.

There are a few other Nats fans in attendance. We all look shell-shocked.

Safeco is a spectacular place to watch a game. The park reminds me a bit of Citizens Bank Park and Nationals Park, but with an imposing roof hanging over right field. I have great seats tonight, but I will sample the upper reaches of the park tomorrow and Sunday.

No lines at the concession stands…

More later…

Malaise

Watching the Nats is like tending a campfire on a rainy weekend. You feel miserable, and desperately want things to get going, so you can warm up and be comfortable. You poke and prod, add kindling and wood, huff and puff, and every once in a while, you get a flash and some heat and light, but mostly what you get is a smelly, smouldering pile of ashes.

Flashes:

  • Elijah Dukes – He’s a kid. A kid with man-sized problems. But a kid that works hard, loves the game, and has shown improvement over the season – but most importantly, improvement that has come from learning and hard work, and a bit of luck. His discipline at the plate is getting better, he’s getting on base, and with his move to the second spot in the order, he’s getting pitches to hit. Despite two base running gaffes today, he is mostly competent on the basepaths, and is going to get better with experience. Unfortunately, he cost the Nats at least one run, and perhaps more today, but that’s not going to rain on my parade – there were plenty of other players that had opportunities to perform, but didn’t. Throw in the personal redemption angle, and he’s quickly becoming my favorite player… an important, if not fragile distinction.
  • Lastings Milledge – Like Dukes, he has steadily improved through the season, apparently through hard work and observation. I have seen a number of people from the “Glass Half Full Department” comment online that they believe that when he fully matures, he might be a twenty to thirty home run a year hitter. We can hope. I think there’s some noticeable improvement in his defense, and the SABRmetricians among you can tell me if his fielding and range are indeed getting better. Is he a center fielder? We can hope. There are still plenty of unanswered questions about Milledge, but for the unconvinced among you, I have these two words: Nook Logan.
  • Cristian Guzman – The only player on the team to blaze out of the gate, Guzman’s performance is showing that last year’s short but sweet performance wasn’t a fluke. The horse racing analogy is apt with Guzman, because if you look at past performance, you wonder which of the last four years is the real Guzzie. A shoulder injury and poor eyesight make for a convincing argument that 2008 is the norm and 2005 is the anomaly. The Planetarians as a whole would almost certainly feel differently if one or both of those had not happened or were addressed earlier. He’ll make Bowden’s (or whomever the GM is) job more difficult come November. Were I the GM, with no credible prospects in the pipeline, I’d be wanting an extension now.
  • Jesus Flores – There’s not much to say, except that Flores is the catcher of the future, and the future is now. He hits, his defense is good (but could be better), he calls a great game, and the pitchers love him.
  • Starting Pitching – The Nats have, for the most part, gotten more than they bargained for from their starters. Putting Perez on the DL isn’t so painful, given that you can have him back for his next start, and you have a number of credible replacement parts. Thank goodness for good drafts and smart veteran signings.

Ashes:

  • Felipe Lopez – The poster child for malaise. If he did nothing else other than hustle on every play, he could hit the same and field the same, and I would feel a lot better about him being out there. But he doesn’t, and I don’t. And if he did hustle on every play, he would hit better and he would field better. Were it not for all the injuries…
  • Wily Mo Pena – Man, I really want him to get ahold of just one ball… just one. But he’s a liability at the plate, and a liability in left field.
  • Paul Lo Duca – The “Glass Half Full Department” thinks that his clubhouse experience on winning teams could be a valuable asset. But anyone that enjoys tinkering with chemistry knows that sometimes when you mix things together, you get pretty colors, and other times you get maiming explosions. Add to that deteriorating skills both at the plate and behind the plate, and it becomes clear that the only person that is threatened by Lo Duca’s presence on the roster is Don Sutton.

What I want to know is, why is it raining in the first place? This team is more talented than last year’s team, by quite a bit. One can point to injuries, but the Nats have always had them, and this year is not that much worse than others.

My biggest concern for the season is that the Nats are learning how to lose, rather than building character and learning how to win. Getting some players back from the DL will make a huge difference. I like Belliard, but he’s no Zim. I miss Nick. A .250 hitting Austin Kearns is a huge upgrade over Pena. But until they’re back, the team is broken… both in a physical sense, and from where I sit, in their heads.

What Does The End of a Slump Look Like?

I know what we think it looks like – going on some incredible tear, winning seven of eleven or something like that, then playing a game or two above .500 for an extended period. Which, strangely, is exactly what the Nats have done since they returned home from their mid-April roadtrip (the sticklers among you can count the getaway-day road win against the Braves on April 22 – I did…).

So, if the Nats aren’t in a slump anymore, why do our collective heads hurt?  A lot of us are snippy and short – we have trouble taking positives from a Nats loss, and not much satisfaction from a win. You’d think we were all trying to wean ourselves from caffeine at the same time.

I think I have some answers. At least, answers why this isn’t as much fun as we think it should be… not answers about how to fix the Nats. Try these on for size:

  • We expect more. The 2007 Nats played .500 ball from mid-May on. The expectation last year was very low (whispers of 120 losses emanated from papers and blogs), and the Nats exceeded those expectations by, um, thirty-something games. I think all of us expected at least a continuation of .500 ball this year, and maybe something a bit more than that. When the Nats won their first three, our higher expectations were crystalized, and when the Nats lost 15 of the next 17, we became the Gumpy Gus that we are now. Tom Boswell points out that the Nats are actually two games over .500 since the slide. Still not very satisfying, is it?
  • They don’t look healthy. I don’t mean injured (though that is certainly an issue, and a topic of a future blog posting). By that I mean, the Nats Juggernaught is not firing on all cylinders. There’s nothing new to add to the continuing discussion about Nats hitting, though there are some signs of hope. Zim’s average is out of the panic zone, Elijah Dukes seems to be showing some discipline, if not contact, and The Weapon got his first homer over the weekend. On the plus side, there are a few Nats that are tearing it up… but the guys that are hitting – Guzman, Flores and Boone – all have good, personal reasons to excel, whether it is the walk year of their contract, a disdain for minor league travel arrangements, or to prove that they’re not washed up. The guys that should be producing, simply because they are professionals who are paid to play at the elite level of the sport, are mostly not doing that, or doing so only tepidly. The starting pitching is certainly a bright spot, though as good as Redding was on Sunday, just imagine how much better it would have been with just one-third more inning from him? The Nats remind me of when I go to work with a cold. Things, get done, but it isn’t my best effort.
  • I don’t get the move – and by that, I mean, personnel management. The Nats are again struggling with (perhaps) an inordinate number of injuries. I’ve come to expect that from the Nats, though I wish it were different. But the resulting roster moves aren’t always the obvious choice (like bringing a pitcher up to replace a pitcher, outfielder for outfielder, etc). The result has left the bench a bit short at times, but I think it is best that we leave the managing to the manager. The reason it is a problem for the fans is that the fans struggle to make sense of the decision-making process that goes into the move, and so there’s some cognitive dissonance about why things happen the way they do. It doesn’t instill confidence in the fans – not that the fans matter when it comes to personnel – and so they get restless. And when they’re already hung over from “Irrational Exuberance,” to borrow a term from Alan Greenspan, they get snippy.

The “Glass Half Full Department” reports that if our hitting just reverts to the mean, and we keep the starting pitching at its current level, there’s still plenty of upside – and all of it without a trade or firing.

The ”Glass Half Empty Department” reports that there are reasons that our hitters aren’t hitting, and that reverting to the mean works for starting pitchers, too. [By the way, the "Glass Half Empty Department" recently got a grant for marketing and promotion. It seems they have spent it well.]

I think a lot of us hoped that the end of the Nats slump would be like a rainbow after a heavy shower. Instead it is turning out to be more of a dense fog, lifing very slowly. It might take an extended spell of good weather before we reailize it isn’t raining anymore.