June 20, 2010


"I WANT to believe the problem is with the pitching, not the hitting. But by league rank, it's the opposite." - Chris Needham, Capitol Punishment, 6/15/10

The Washington Nationals offense is like a good-for-nothing ex-spouse, or a cheap bra. It offers no support. The boys have scored 0, 1, 3, 3 and 4 runs in the last five games (all loses), and averaged just 3.4 runs/game over the last ten. The middle of the lineup - Zimmerman, Dunn, Willingham - has been great, All-Star caliber. Ivan Rodriguez and Roger Bernadina have been fine complementary pieces. The rest of the lineup? Ah, therein lies the problem.

Well, sort of. The truth is, the Nats are underperforming even their own modest projections. Baseball Musings' Lineup Analysis tool is a blunt instrument, but it credits the Nats standard lineup (Morgan, Guzman, Zimmerman, etc...) with creating 4.79 runs/game. FJB suggests batting Zimmerman second, and that probably wouldn't hurt, but fiddling with the lineup is rearranging deck chairs. The difference between the Nats best and worst possible lineup is measured in fractions of runs per game.

Jim Riggleman's lineup may not be helping, but it isn't the main problem. The Nats are carrying four well below average hitters into every game, every day. Now, being a National League team, they're more or less stuck with a pitcher. But that still leaves the shortstop, second baseman and center fielder not pulling their weight. (Bernadina may be a below-average hitter for a right fielder, but he's above average overall.)

If you're so inclined you can write Ian Desmond's (.299 OBP, .400 SLG) bat off as the price of doing business with his spectacular glove. The same cannot be said of Cristian Guzman or, in 2010 at least, of Nyjer Morgan. Maybe the Nationals can carry one defense-first starter, but not three, particularly when two aren't really all that defensively gifted these days.

June 19, 2010

Now He's a National

Welcome to Washington, Stephen. Is it time to start the "Countdown to Free Agency"?

June 18, 2010

Hey Now, You're An All Star... Voter

Nationals fans can be forgiven for thinking that MLB All-Stars are token players chosen to round out the roster and ensure that every team has representation. That's the kind of mindset that comes from having luminaries like Dmitri Young (2007) and Cristian Guzman (2008) represent Washington, DC in the mid-summer classic. Last year, Ryan Zimmerman (winner of the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger, perhaps you've heard of him?) only made it on as a reserve. So yeah, voting for the MLB All-Star Game is not especially merit-based.

In any other town this might be a problem, but this is Washington, DC. No city in the world boasts more collective knowledge about voter manipulation, log-rolling and bloc voting. The 2010 Nationals have at least two guys who are legitimately worthy of starting for the National League All-Star team, but there's just no way Zimmerman and Josh Willingham both make the cut. It's time to unite behind Ryan and start cutting some deals. If you need some number to back that up, they're all here.

Here's the current breakdown of NL All-Star candidates, by position. The first thing you'll notice is that the RZA isn't even in the Top 5 at third base. This is frankly embarrassing and an indictment of Nationals fans. So before you finishing reading this post, before you do anything else:

GO VOTE. Vote 25 times. Don't worry, it's kosher. The All-Star Game is a Chicago-style election campaign. Vote early, vote often vote Nats.

Once that's done it should put Ryan in the Top 5. If we can't find 23,000 people in DC who think that Zimmerman is the best third baseman in the National League, it's time to pack up the tent and go home. After that it's time to start horse-trading.

First, the low-hanging fruit; fans of American League teams. They get 25 votes for the NL All-Stars just like you get 25 votes for the AL team. Promise them anything. The Yankees fan on your softball team wants to see an all-New Yawk lineup? In exchange for 25 votes for Zimm you'll hold your nose and pull the lever for Posada over Mauer. The Angels fan who's trying to mount a Kendry Morales sympathy vote? Hey, nobody backs lost causes like a Nats fan. Don't be greedy. It's tempting to try to score some votes for Willingham, Adam Dunn, maybe even Pudge Rodriguez, but stay focused. Also, trust but verify. You're going to want to see those votes.

The next step is trickier. We're talking vote-swapping with our National League rivals. The key here is swapping votes wisely. For example, I love Ian Desmond, but he's no All-Star. So here's an open offer to all the Marlins fans out there. You vote Zimmerman, I vote Hanley Ramirez and keep Jimmy Rollins out of the top spot. It's a win-win. Likewise, Dodgers fans, I can totally get behind Andre Ethier, especially if it keeps Jayson Werth out of the top three.

I think you see how the game is played. Now go forth and barter. Zimmerman 2010!

Remember to do your part: VOTE NOW.

June 15, 2010

POWer Pitching

12.1 innings, 3 earned runs, 5 walks, 22 strikeouts, 2 wins. Apparently, those numbers get you noticed. National League Player of the Week. Sports Illustrated cover boy. Topic of discussion from FanHouse to San Fran.

Oh sure, now folks want to have an opinion about the Nationals. Where were you when that batting tee attacked Junior Spivey?!

The Nationals haven't had a true power pitcher since John Patterson struck out 185 in 198 innings in 2005. (He also struck out 42 in 40.2 innings of work in an injury-shortened 2006, walking just 10. John Patterson was good. Snakebit, but good.) Not coincidentally, that's also the last season the Nats posted a non-losing record.

What Strasburg does, apart from collect buckets of Ks and make major league hitters look silly with his curveball, is give the entire pitching staff a different look. For four years hitters pretty well knew what they were getting in a 3-game series vs Washington. Three pitchers throwing between 88 and 91 and hoping to keep to ball on the ground and in the park. Sure there were minor differences between guys, maybe one was a lefty, but there was nothing to make opposing batters re-tool their entire approach to hitting. Now there is.

Hall of Fame pitcher Warren Spahn said, "Hitting is timing. Pitching is upsetting timing." In a three game set, the other team might see Strasburg's 100 MPH fastball one night, Lannan's 88 MPH slider at the knees the next, and Livan's 62 MPH Bugs Bunny curve the next afternoon. That has to mess with your timing, doesn't it?

Of course it wouldn't be DC if fans didn't look for the dark cloud in every silver lining. Post columnist Thomas Boswell, who really wanted Dustin Ackley anyway, is worried that too many strikeouts will put an unnecessary strain on Strasburg's arm. Or, in the alternative:

June 9, 2010

This Time Was Different

Years ago when I visited Yankee Stadium for the first time, I quickly realized that there was something different about that crowd. We exited the train onto the street and there was a hum and excitement that you could actually feel. It brought to mind the tension in the air just before a massive thunderstorm rolls in. At the time I chalked it up to just being at Yankee Stadium but after Steven Strasburg's debut last night I know different.

As I was walking to Rosslyn to meet Dave last night I had complete strangers walk up to me and ask if I was going to the game. People were plainly envious that I was heading to the ballpark. Then we got to the stadium and I started to feel that hum again. It wasn't quite as strong as that Yankee Stadium feeling but it was there. Then the capacity crowd gave Strasburg a standing ovation when he walked in from the bullpen and the feeling exploded like thunder. That was when it dawned on me why this was different. This game mattered.

Last night wasn't about opening a new ballpark, it wasn't about a family taking in the national pastime, and it wasn't about the guys going out for the night. Last night was about baseball. The product on the field was what mattered.

Something happened right off the bat that made it feel like something special could happen. The crowd chuckled when "Jaared" the saxophone player was introduced to play the national anthem but once he started we all stood up a little straighter. Nobody expected the soulful instrumental that followed. He got two different spontaneous cheers during his solo and that's saying something.

Then it was time to get underway. McCutcheon's liner to short made us all hold our breath but then we settled in to witness greatness. 7 strong innings, 94 pitches and 14 strikeouts. The homerun Strasburg gave up to Delwyn Young stung a little bit but in hindsight it served as a reminder that after all he is just a rookie.

And it wasn't just Strasburg that dazzled last night, Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Dunn, and Josh Willingham provided their own fireworks. This was Strasburg's night but it was a team win. It was a win on a night when, for at least one game, the team had something concrete to play for. It mattered to the 40,000 plus fans, it mattered to the people watching at home, and it mattered to the Nationals. This time it was different.

June 8, 2010

What If...

What if Stephen Strasburg doesn't take the mound, strike out the side in order on 9 pitches and ascend directly to heaven? What if he gives up a handful of hits, or (Strasburg forbid) a handful of runs in only six innings of work before sitting down for the night? What if suspect defense or spotty relief work cost him a Strasmas Day victory?

What if the stadium runs out of food and drink in the 2nd inning? You think I'm kidding, but Opening Day was a logistical nightmare, and the June 4th pre-Strasmas crowd pretty much emptied the concession stands out by the fifth inning.

What if the view of the field is obscured by people constantly coming and going from their seats while the ushers stand idly by? What if standing room only fights break out as people jockey for position to watch the first pitch?

I guess what I'm saying is, the eyes of the baseball world are on Nationals Park tonight, and if things don't go smoothly it could easily cast a long shadow over what should be one of the brightest days in DC baseball history.

I'm sure Mark Lerner and Stan Kasten are aware of the stakes, but given their history I'm much less confident that they've looked beyond the rosy glow of ticket sales. The challenges that come with accomodating what figures to be the largest crowd in Nationals Park history, many of whom may be experiencing Nationals baseball for the first time, are enormous. I believe Stephen Strasburg is up to the task. I can only hope the same is true for the rest of the organization.

June 7, 2010

Kasten: Harper in DC by 2013

Stan speaks, sans translator

On Saturday Nationals' President Stan Kasten spoke to fans (and 20-odd bloggers) before the Nats-Reds game. He covered a range of topics from the Philly Phan Invasion to Strasburg-mania. He also touched briefly on Bryce Harper.

Speaking in the abstract, because this was 24 hours before Mike Rizzo confirmed what everyone has known for months, Stan noted that Harper's path to the majors would be greatly accelerated by moving out from behind the plate. Based on his "conversations with baseball men" Kasten observed that a young catcher could take 4 or 5 years to develop.

On the other hand, an outfielder with Harper's bat and physical tools could conceivably be major league-ready in two years. So there you have it. The plan all along was to draft Harper, move him to right field and have him playing behind Strasburg and Zimmerman by 2013. Dave Cameron has some thoughts on the pros and cons of this approach here.

Stan also repeatedly mentioned that "signing quickly" would be key to Bryce Harper's development. Way to play it cool, Stan.

June 5, 2010

Matt & Nate: Coming Out of the Booth

That's right, we're sellouts. The Nats reeled us in with a "Blogger Day" and cushy seats in the mile-high press box. Also, Q&As with Drew Storen, Josh Willingham, Jim Riggleman and Stan Kasten. We'll chime in if anything interesting happens here, otherwise expect a write-up of thoughts later tonight.

8:20 pm: Mike Leake is clearly a better pitcher than Stephen Strasburg.

8:30: I feel that Luis Atilano learned the wrong lesson re: pitch counts from Livan's start last night. 80 pitches through 5 innings is not a goal.

8:45: Clippard, Storen and Capps pitched last night. Slaten, Walker, Burnett tonight? Do not want.

8:50: I'm sure it would be tremendously difficult, but can someone please teach Adam Dunn to push a bunt down the 3rd base line?

8:55: Joey Votto needs more stick'um.

9:05: Apparently the goal for the evening was to get Atilano's ERA under 4.25. Mission accomplished.

9:10: What is it about Willie Harris's slash line that makes him the automatic first pinch hitter off the bench?

9:20: If you're not part of the solution, you're Tyler Walker.

9:24: It's the Joe West show, folks.

9:28: Cheer up, Wil. Some days you're the pigeon, some years you're the statue.

9:34: Why Miguel Batista? Why not?

9:45: Zimmerman walking - Good. Dunn hitting w/ men on base? Bad. (See above re: bunting down the 3rd base line.)

9:54: No warning to Batista? Joe West is a jackass.

10:02: I have absolute confidence in the Nats' ability to come back from this. ::weeps::

June 2, 2010

A Trip Down Memory Lane

In preparation for the second coming, Barry Svrluga has a great piece about the 2005 team that rattled off a ten game win streak and eventually led the NL East at the All-Star break.

Ahhhh, memories.