April 30, 2008

Notes from 223

Dave, Sharon, our friend Borders and I caught last night's game. Despite being windy and cold we had a great time. I'm happy to report that the $3.50 hot chocolate is worth every penny. Also the kielbasa from Senators Sausages was very good. I recommend it with mustard and sauerkraut.

Food and drink aside, the highlight of the game was the back-to-back homeruns by Zimmerman and Johnson. Hopefully last night's 3-4 performance will help get Zimm on track. Dave and I have had an ongoing discussion about whether or not our new home is a hitter's park and right now I'm winning. The statistics will probably prove that it's marginally a hitter friendly park but it's certainly a huge change from the canyons of RFK.

So far this has been a great homestand. The team has won 4 of their last five games and 10-17 sounds an awful lot better than 6-21.

April 24, 2008

Boz: Ritzy New Digs Unnerve Crapbag Team

In General I regard WaPo's sometime baseball columnist Thomas Boswell as a benign older gent sitting on a sun-dappled bench vacantly watching the buses roll by. Sit down next to him and you may ocassionally be graced with a nugget of hard-earned wisdom amid the gentle flow of pleasant babble. I usually don't subject his columns to a hard read. But for some reason I couldn't let this one go by. Feel free to fisk along at home, it's been edited to fit my attention span. (Commentary in italics.)

New Stadium, New Pressure

Nationals Park is at a slightly different elevation than RFK, so there probably is some pressure differential. Fair enough.

By Thomas Boswell Thursday, April 24, 2008; E01

Time is an artificial construct. Also, must we really have the page number in the online version of the column?

In their old digs at RFK Stadium last season, in a subterranean world of science-fiction-size rodents, insects and fungi, the Nationals often were mortified by their surroundings but seldom miserable in their baseball.

It's true, the Nats never had guests over last season, they were too embarrassed. Fans rarely visited either. And I'm resisting the temptation to make a "science-fiction-size rodent" The Princess Bride joke. Also, Paul Lo Duca = ROUS.

Bonded by obscurity and comfortable with nonexistent expectations, they focused on their sport, played to their limits and delighted some of baseball's smallest crowds. "That was one of the most fun years I've ever had in baseball," Austin Kearns said last night.

Last year Austin hit 266/355/411 good for a 103 OPS+. He earned roughly $3.5M for the effort. This year his salary escalates to $5M. If he had fun then, he must be living the dream now.

Now, their lockers are lined with mink, their shower fixtures are made of platinum and that Gatorade bucket in their dugout is filled with champagne. Not really.

Cue Uncle Teddy Lerner: You're darn right not really! It's skunk, chrome-plated lead and Korbel.

But a walk through their world would make sheiks and sultans jealous. Yet life is hard and baseball suddenly a burden for the Nats, who lost again last night to the Mets, 7-2, extending their spring debacle to 16 losses in 20 games by a humongous margin of 43 runs.

I understand the logic of run differential, but would you feel that much better if they'd lost 16 of 20 by a margin of 20 runs? I wouldn't. This ain't the NHL, point differential isn't a tie-breaker.

Quickly, crowds at the new Nationals Park are filling to the top rows, with 32,780 on hand to see the Mets in Washington's 22nd game of the season; only 21,662 showed up at RFK for the Nats' 23rd game of last season, also against the Mets.

It's easy to fill to the top rows when you fill the stadium from the top down. How're those Presidential Seats coming, Stan?

Who knew the curse of the Midas touch applied to ballparks?

Besides Midas?

The Nats are surrounded with everything money can buy.

Except major league caliber starting pitching and a middle-of-the-order impact bat. But why quibble.

But some might trade it all for the .500 record they built in their last 128 games last season. As catcher Paul Lo Duca said recently of the Nats inept start, "A squirrel could do better."

Look, quotability is the one skill Paulie LoDown has left, I get that. But what does this even mean? Also, Paul Lo Duca = ROUS.

There's still a week left in April, but the suffering 6-16 Nats already have had two team meetings. No method of self-flagellation has been neglected.

I knew the whole papal visit charade was a cover for an Opus Dei team meeting.

[Section detailing Nats losses redacted for redundancy.]

[Section detailing Nats injuries redacted to fit in the time alloted.]

But the Nats' biggest problem is a complete heart-of-the-order clutch-hitting breakdown -- often a sign of a team coping poorly with pressure.

Even more often the sign of a bad team playing badly.

Last night included a prototypical mega-slump moment. Pitcher Tim Redding, of all people, hit a 390-foot two-run double off the center field wall off Earth's best pitcher, Johan Santana, for a 2-1 fourth-inning lead. With one out in the top of the next inning, Redding walked the eighth hitter, then also walked Santana when he was just trying to lay down a sacrifice bunt and give away an out.

Should've called up Levale Speigner for the spot start. This is the only reason he's still in the organization, right?

A team without demons kicks the dirt and moves on. A team in full gag mode thinks, "Uh oh, here we go again." And there they went, soon tied, quickly behind, then so dejected as to be barely ambulatory by the late innings.

We have demons? We traded science-fiction-size rodents (Paul Lo Duca = ROUS) for Demons?! It's a brand-new building!!! Stupid, useless papal exorcism. And somebody get HOK and Clark Hunt on the horn about the warranty. Was this thing built on an alternative nightclub burial ground?

Expectations have increased around the Nats in recent months, partly from the luxury of their surroundings, but also from a growing sense of pressure that runs through the whole organization; demands for results, not just effort, have been raised. Soon, the internal demands of this franchise will be for a contender, nothing less.

Disclaimer: Pressure to perform does not apply to ticket vendors, concessionaires, advertising agency or General Manager.

"This team needs to believe it is good. You have to start every season wanting to go to the playoffs and expecting to be in contention," Lo Duca said. "You need to be cocky. We're going to have some fun this year.

Cue Jim Mora: "Playoffs? Playoffs!?!" Also note, "this year" includes off season.

Once we get over the hump, we're going to enjoy this new park.

The hump = Paul Lo Duca (= ROUS).

But we've given away four or five games already. We have nothing to lose. We should play that way. The worst thing you can do is play not to lose."

I'm no expert, but playing to lose sounds like it would be worse than playing not to lose. Just ask Shoeless Joe Jackson.

"The days pile up on top of each other." Manager Manny Acta said. "I know how hard the players are trying. I can handle it." But he worries about his young players. They are trying too hard, while his veterans sometimes seem flat.

Obvious typo. Clearly Boz meant to say the veterans sometimes seem FAT.

How can a team try to do too much, care too much for its own good, yet also seemed enervated at times. Aren't those contradictory? Third base coach Tim Tolman has pondered the problem.

So that's what he's doing over there, working on a correspondence degree in Philosophy. That actually explains quite a bit.

"Shrinks say that depression is anger turned inwards," I said.

And a doughnut with no hole is a danish.

"That sounds like us," Tolman said with a bitter chuckle. And he'd know. Last week, Tolman got a runner thrown out at home plate with the Nats six runs behind. Even the third base coach is trying too hard.

By this standard Tim Tolman has been trying too hard since April 2007.

The list of self-incriminating quotes by the Nats this month would include almost the entire roster. "I let these guys down," Jason Bergmann said before he was sent to the minors. "Boil it down, I didn't do my job," King said last night, even though he really was beaten by two squibbers and a Zimmerman throwing error.

Again, Boz is clearly misremembering. There's no way Ray King said, "Boil it down". "Deep fry it", maybe.

The Nats have nothing for which to despise themselves.

AHEM. Jim Bowden? Also, Paul Lo Duca = ROUS.

Their park is special. But so are 20 others. Crowds are getting big.

And the American obesity epidemic has what to do with this column?

Perhaps it just seems startling and new to this franchise because it's been out of the mainstream for so long, both in Montreal and RFK. Starting a season 6-16 isn't a capital offense, even in Washington.

9-12 got Wayne Krivsky cashiered. I'm just sayin...

It would be nice if the Nats simply could go back in the memories to their near-perfect attitude of '07, when defeat didn't bother them, every win was a joy and they just wanted to prove they didn't deserve the disrespect of 120-loss prediction.

Good news. They'll be getting those 120-loss predictions back any day now.

"Once our offense comes back to life, I think everything is going to roll," Acta said.

Stay the course. It's simple, it's catchy. I like it.

But when will that teamwide case of athletic depression -- a condition baseball simply calls a slump -- come to an end? In April, with plenty of time to make amends? Or after a whole season is buried neck deep? That's for the Nationals to decide.

Solution: Less clubhouse candy. More clubhouse Prozac! Warning: May cause poor K/BB ratios. Consult a sabermetrician before use.

April 22, 2008

Desperate Times, Desperate Measures?

Aside from a new GM, a legitimate leadoff hitter and a major league caliber pitching staff, what are the 2008 Washington Nationals' two greatest needs? An impact, middle-of-the-order bat and a publicity magnet to put butts in the brand new seats. Right? Do you think Frank Thomas is the answer? Nope, sorry, thanks for playing, go Build-a-Screech. The solution is painfully, and I emphasize painfully, obvious.

Barry Lamar Bonds.

Economy in the tank? Invest in Bonds.

The man sometime NTP commenter David Chalk calls the G-POPE (Greatest Player On Planet Earth, yeah I had to look it up too.) As regular readers of this here internet writin' place know, it pains me to agree with David about anything. But when you're drowning, it's kinda silly to hold out for a particular make and model of flotation device. And folks, right now the Nats are circling the drain.

Last year, at age 42, Bonds put up a .276/.480!/.565 line with 28 dingers. He makes Nick "The Walking Stick" Johnson look like Juan Pierre, combined with Wily Mo Pena-power. And unlike Wily Mo, he actually makes contact. Are you going to tell me that wouldn't look good in the heart of a Washington lineup? You don't like:
  • Guzman
  • Johnson
  • Zimmerman
  • Bonds
  • Milledge
  • Kearns
  • LoStrada
  • BelLopez

better than the in-house alternatives? Bonds does three things very well: takes walks, hits long balls and puts butts in the seats. Coincidentally, those three things have been conspicuously absent from your 2008 Nats.

Is this a perfect solution? No. Among other things, I doubt Barry is in game shape today. So there'd be a delayed payoff. Some backlash from the signing is inevitable, though I'd bet Dave's trust fund that the number of people turning in their season tickets would be dwarfed by the number of people turning out to see the improved, and much more watchable, Washington lineup. Because this is the NL, signing Bonds would inevitably cost guys like Pena and Dukes at-bats. But let's be honest, getting Wily Mo 500 ABs was a goal, not the goal. Barry's not going to play 120 games in LF. If Pena or Dukes need additional starts to stay "sharp", platoon them with Kearns, who ain't exactly setting the batters box ablaze anyhow or Milledge, who seems to be in need of a defensive sub sometimes.

It gives me no particular joy to advocate this signing. I'm in the camp of those firmly convinced that Barry Bonds knowingly used PEDs and sacrificed his legacy in pursuit of the home run record. Though hell, with Paulie LoDown on the team, who are we to go casting stones? May as well milk the last few points of OPS+ out of Bonds and make the summer a little easier to endure. After all, we know money isn't the issue!

April 16, 2008

Keep Austin Wierd

"Austin in the Middle" is one of the more unorthodox fielding drills you'll ever see.

Sure, he's in a gawdawful hitting funk. (GIDP is not a category where you want to be leading the league.) But he still walks like a man, plays a mean right field and... ummm... on balance, he's loads better than Michael Tucker, I guess. So there's that.

April 15, 2008

Attendance woes? No. Marketing Woes.

Yet again, attendance is the top of the discussion again.

WaPost has a blog article and full up article about the topic.

Here we go again.

I see a whole lot of bullshit in this spin. Lots of posters in the blog article too about all the various reasons why. I'm not going to bemoan the cheap owners, the weather, or the team itself for attendance.

You know what I'm going to point to as the number one, more important thing than everything else?


This team has the worst marketing I have seen in a while. I spend a good portion of my days thinking about marketing, and do you how crappy this marketing is?

First, let's break down the message. "Welcome Home" is the theme. Right from the beginning, I'll point out the massive flaw. This message speaks to existing fans, not to new fans. You've already got those of us who are fans hooked. We don't need to be welcomed home -- we were going to be there already, with big goofy grins on our faces.

Instead, this message needs to go out to NEW fans, and it needs to be something much more appealing than this. The team needs to speak to the experience, the enjoyment of the game you can have. Some of the (few) radio ads I have heard do go into this, but focus too much on the ballpark and not the game experience.

Now, let's talk coverage. There should be a billboard on every bus. This team should plaster the logo everywhere it can. There should be promotions in the city, ticket offers, and events with every sports bar and restaurant from here to Leesburg. The team needs to be screaming from the top of their lungs that they have a great product, they've gone all out on making it easy to get to, and that they want you there. And I'll give them that -- it's a great ball park, they have gone out of their way to make it easy to get to, and they have quality entertainment going on there.

And let me say, running ads on MASN DOES NOT COUNT. You're already interested if you're watching the game -- you're certainly not watching for the stellar coverage.

I'm not particularly pleased about the ticket prices either, but they're comparable to every other city, and those cities don't have issues. Washington does face unique problems with drawing a fan base, and I'll grant those.

Time to get inventive here, team. You don't have to spend tons of money, but you do have to hussle.

- Promos. Give us our two for one tickets, give us "be a presidential seat for a night". Put butts in seats.

- Encourage your fan base. Appeal directly to the existing fans. Have a "We won't show Clint if you break 32,000 attendance" night. Have a bring a buddy and get a hot dog night.

- Do something interesting. In this "Web 2.0" world, why is everything about marketing this team so damn dull? Why is the marketing department running boring TV ads on the channel that already shows the game and doing slogans that don't appeal to anyone, when it would be so much more interesting -- and buzz worthy -- to have one of the team members Twitter? Hell, do it for them! You want buzz? Send us comments from the clubhouse for them -- put a marketing person on it to do it for the players!

- Stop being so damn scripted. Stan, Mark... I do like you guys. I do believe in you. But you know what's a hell of a lot more interesting? When Jim Bowden was wearing leather pants. Or even better? When Mark Cuban gets vocal. Here's a guy that gets the value of marketing. If you don't think his connection to fans is valuable, you're clearly missing something. The fact that we have a "StanSpeak" translator should tell you something. And you want to know what? If you played with this... if you ran with it.. you'd generate buzz.

- Interesting, revisited. Remember that night when you had Curly W's projected on buildings? Why aren't you doing that all the time? Why don't they move around the city? Put them up in Adam's Morgan the weekend before a home stretch and promote going to the game instead of going out. Put them in Tyson's Corner (remember, Lerner Family, you own that!) and light up the mall on a Friday night and remind people to go into the city. Partner with restaurants in the suburbs and do a dinner and bus promotion, or a dinner and drinks one.

Why is it that in a 45 minute blog post, I've come up with better stuff than what you've come up with in the whole time you've been doing this?

You know what's probably the worst thing? I bet the team spent a sizable amount of money with an ad agency to do this shitty job of marketing the team. That's the worst part. I'm SURE they spent money here, and didn't get very much for it.

Stan, if you're reading this... these ideas are all yours for free. There's more where this came from. Now, imagine if you paid someone to do a really unique job for you. Now that would really be something to talk about... and go to the ballpark to see.

No Sleep Till Brooklyn Queens

Big series coming up. Think Radomski still has the keys to the visitors clubhouse at Shea?

April 13, 2008

3 - 159

Stay calm, it's a long season. This is just a bump in the road. At least they're in these games and they're still better than last...

They're being installed next to the cupholders at Nationals Park.

Nope, sorry, can't do it. We're well and truly boned. The team is getting worse as the season goes along. The starting pitching is atrocious and the hitting, if possible, is worse. I know fans as sometime prone to hyperbole and overreaction in the face of adversity (see Detroit Tigers, The) but at least the front office is maintaining a calm and levelheaded approa... oh wait, Jim Bowden is in charge. Nevermind.

So that's what that button does...

Wholesale changes are afoot. Cordero up, Bergmann down. Wily Mo back, ??? gone (please be Willie Harris, please be Willie Harris). So much for being patient with guys coming back from injury. I expect Elijah Dukes will be cleared for pinch-hitting duty by Tuesday and Shawn Hill will be your Sunday starter next week.

Meanwhile the sparkling new park plays host to a team that's deteriorating before our eyes. First it was winning close games, then losing close games, then getting good pitching but no hitting or vice versa and now the wheels are coming off. Yesterday Lastings Milledge (who's still better than Nook Logan, dammit) holds the ball in centerfield as the runner goes from 1st to 2nd on a single up the middle. That font of veteran leadership, Paulie LoDown, doesn't even attempt to block the plate as a runner scores from 3rd on a groundout to Ryan Zimmerman.

While all this is going on, fans are not showing up in record numbers. (Anecdotal evidence suggests that opposing fans love the new park, particularly the two solid rows of Braves fans behind me yesterday afternoon.) As people in the media and basement-dwelling bloggers alike begin to wonder why fans aren't showing up management gets defensive and makes panic moves like bringing Wily Mo back early from injury rehab and demoting Jason Bergmann because yeah, he's the problem with the starting pitching staff.

Panic moves inevitably produce stupid quotes like this one:

Whoever pitches best here is going to pitch here. It's a little different than before. That being said, [Bergmann] needs to step it up. He has three pitches. He has enough stuff. He just needs to execute it.

Jason Bergmann was here because he was one of our best pitchers coming out of Spring Training and he'd shown flashes of brilliance when he was healthy last season. Sure, maybe he really is best suited to long relief, but to suggest that he's a less viable option that Tyler Clippard (5.40 AAA ERA) or Collin Balester (5.06 spring ERA) is just not credible. Not that that's ever stopped JimBo before.

As for WMP, I love me some Wily Mo Power as much as the next guy, but he's not the silver bullet solution to this team's offensive problems. Unless Wily Mo can teach Austin to hit balls out of the infield, or give Lastings better pitch recognition than Helen Keller, the Nats are still going to struggle at the plate. Which will probably spark another round of panic moves, which means I'll be writing this post again in two weeks.

April 9, 2008

Happiness is a Cold Beer

Dave and I took in Monday's ball game and I discovered something important . . . well, important to me. First off, I'm a beer guy. Which is very different from a beer snob. I love all kinds of beer, dark to light, import to domestic, macro brew to micro brew. RFK had some good choices but I was really looking forward to seeing what would be available at Nationals Park. For comparison, one of my favorite things about Chase Field in Arizona is being able to get Fat Tire Ale. I had read in the Post Beer Madness chat that the Hook and Ladder brewery was the only local brewery represented but I hadn't see any available on opening night. On Monday I discovered that the Baseline Brews stand behind section 223 had Hook and Ladder Golden Ale.

This is the kind of beer I think about when I think of summer. It's a warm golden color with a slightly hoppy taste that is very easy to drink. I have to say it tasted pretty good when I was freezing my tail off along with everyone else on Monday. The only advantage offered by Monday night was my beer stayed cold for the three innings I took to drink it.

Unfortunately it's not all good news. I was a little shocked and a little mad at the $7.50 price tag. Granted this is a good beer but that's the price of a six pack, not one beer. I appreciate the Lerners trying to broaden our choices but those prices take a little fun out of finding the good stuff.

April 4, 2008

Getting to the Ballpark

I saw this and wanted to forward it on.

Take the Kegbus to the Ballpark on the weekends.

Watson and I are planning to be at the ballpark on Monday. It's one of the top 10 parks to see.

I have an appointment with the home pest people on Saturday, so no open house for me. I wonder why they cancelled the one tonight.

April 3, 2008

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Felipe?

Apparently by sticking him out in leftfield. The veteran infielder will make the first outfield start of his career this afternoon in Philadelphia, spelling Willie (Mo) Harris in left vs. crafty leftytm Jamie Moyer. All else aside, somebody had to do this, as Willie is a career 195/253/245 hitter versus left-handed pitching.

Unlike a certain SS/2B turned LF ::coughFonziecough:: FLop jumped at the opportunity, correctly identifying it as his best chance for at-bats in the short term. Even after Wily Mo and Elijah return though, adding competent corner outfielder to his resume can only help Felipe. If he's not a liability in left (and perhaps in center one day) he could transform himself from a slightly below average middle infielder to a highly valuable utilityman, a la Ryan Freel.

Flop has logged major league time at 2B, 3B and SS and even has an 80 game minor league stint at 1B. He doesn't have the defensive chops for short, or the bat to hold down a corner infield position full time. Maybe he can be a starting second baseman, though that's by no means a settled issue. What he can do, if he applies himself, is spot start across five or six positions, spelling Guzman one day, Belliard the next, subbing in as a defensive replacement for Pena and coming off the bench as a switch-hitter.

If he can develop into an adequate backup corner outfielder Lopez could replace Willie Harris as the jack-of-all-trades 25th man. And we all know Felipe has much more potential. So whether this is a desperation play, an attempt to get FLop into the lineup to showcase him for a trade, or a genuine move to find a role for Felipe on this team, it's a good idea. It's not like benching Willie Harris is going to destroy team chemistry, after all. Right?


April 1, 2008

GUZMANIA!: Renounced & Rejected

Cristian Guzman is a terrible ballplayer (and for all I know, a terrible human being). He built a reputation as an above-average offensive shortstop on a foundation of one good year slapping balls off the carpet in the Metrodome, but even with that All Star caliber performance he's a career .263 hitter who gets on base 30% of the time and has a .680 OPS. That's not just mediocre, thats almost 100 points below league average OPS for his career.

You can live with numbers like that if your shortstop is a Gold Glove defensive whiz. With over 1,000 games at SS to evaluate, it's crystal clear that Guzie is no Mark Bellanger. At best he's an average defender, but some of the newer defensive metrics suggest that Cristian has below average range and less than ideal accuracy from the hole at short.

He's got some speed, though only a 66% stolen base success rate, well below the 75% conversion rate needed to make those bases valuable. Aside from speed he's got none of the assets you look for in a traditional leadoff man, and since he's never hit more than 31 doubles or 10 homers in any season it safe to say that if he ever had any power, it ain't coming back.

What Guzman does have is one year left on the 4-year, $16M contract he inked with GM Jim Bowden moments after the free agency period began prior to the 2005 season. So eager was Trader Jim to nab the Gooz that he didn't even wait for Minnesota to decline to offer him arbitration, thereby costing the Nats a valuable high round draft pick. That $16M contract is the primary reason Cristian has a starting job today.

FelipE6 Lopez would be a better starting shortstop, because he has "potential" whereas Guzman is washed up at age 30. David Eckstein would be a better starting shortstop (Guz can never be scrappy.) Hell, even future saviors of the franchise Ian Desmond and Smiley Gonzalez would be better choices, today, to be the starting SS for the Washington Nationals. Cristian Guzman is a blight on the roster, a melanoma on the brand-spanking new clubhouse and a general affront to all that is good and decent in America and the game of baseball. He must go, and go now.