Monday, April 14, 2008

Roundtable #6: Two weeks for Three wins for Four...


The year started so perfectly, didn't it? Zimmerman's HR winning that first game in Nationals Park to a sold out crowd. The Nats in Philly winning a slugfest showing off the new offense and then a pitchers duel. Man, forget .500! Start printing those playoff tickets!

Now the Nats are 3-7, which if they were a hockey team would still probably give them an inside track for a playoff spot, but as a baseball team is a bad start and only one game better than last years debacle that was April.

Since you are two of the most omniscient guys out there...what happened? Reality setting in? Nats getting unlucky? Just normal baseball streakiness? Global Warming? Someone broke the Seventh Seal? What?


I think some of it is bad luck and some of it is pitching (those overlap, I know). As far as bad luck goes, the Nats have been losing close games for the most part. After ten games they have a RS/RA differential of 9 (44 runs scored, 53 runs allowed). Last Wednesday's 10-4 loss to Florida was the only blowout loss they've had; all others came by three runs or less. Of course, a loss is a loss, and seven straight is enough to sap the will of just about anyone, but it's at least encouraging to see that they are not getting totally outclassed. I've seen lots of deep fly balls stop just short of home runs in the cold April air, particularly off Zimmerman's bat. If those balls carry a few more feet the Nats are 5-5 or better.

As far as pitching goes, I remain frustrated that Odalis Perez was the team's only new starting pitching pickup in the offseason. The staff that got torn asunder last year is all back for another year, and while the improved offense figures to score more runs, you can't win if the other team is scoring more. What's telling about the pitching staff is the details of their outings. We've seen a few games now where the starter will take a scoreless or one-run game into the 5th or 6th only to get annihilated by the opposing team. Bergmann's Wednesday night performance comes to mind, as does Perez's performance on Thursday. You can only do the come-from-behind thing so many times. This team is simply not going to be very good until some of the young arms in the minors are ready or until the team invests in some better starting pitching. Both of those seem two years off at best.


I could spend three paragraphs discussing the way a "streak" is perceived as opposed to gradually poor play, but whatever. We're all here to talk about the Seventh Seal, anyway.
The (current) seven-game losing streak makes it appear that all has gone to pot, but generally speaking, if you improve the luck by 10% and tweak the team's quality/crispness of play by another 10%, then you have some different results. As Brandon points out, the Nats have played a number of close games, up and down, topsy-turvy type affairs. This is a bit different than the absymal start to last season, when it took ten games to stake a single in-game lead (as opposed to that walkoff in game three). At any rate, the luck will even out, at least somewhat, over the course of the season.

But there are certainly some ugly aspects. Several of the hitters appear to have little idea of an effective approach at the plate so far. Although there have been a few solid performances (and one sterling one by Tim Redding), the starters don't inspire much confidence. The bullpen has a few reliable members but doesn't seem completely in sync yet. The defensive and fundamental aspects have had their poor moments. Wait and see; this is a bad stretch, but I don't think this is going to be a really bad team.


So basically the Nats are just ugly at the plate, on the mound, in relief, and occasionally in the field? Thank god, I thought this was serious...

I think you captured the feeling, Basil. To me, it's almost like even though you know the Nats shouldn't be 3-7, it feels like they deserve to be. You hoped the hitting would be good. It isn't, it's average. You hoped the pitching would be average. It isn't, it's bad. They might be playing ok overall, but they are still disappointing what were probably slightly lofty expectations. Expectations that were only bouyed by HOW they got the 3 wins. Opening Night was an emotional roller coaster, followed by a blowout, then an pitching duel. The Nats seemed able to win any type of game. You looked toward a sweep in Philly and 6 games against winnable teams with an eye toward 8-2.

Then they go and lose 7 straight.

Despite the plate approach issues with some of the Nats (Guzman, Milledge, Zimmerman), I think the offense is in just a minor slump. I checked the team BABIP and it stands at .259. That's .025 or .03 lower than expected. That should improve, and with it the offense will score more runs. Not too many more (the Nats had a couple of error-helped games in there) but more. Zimmerman especially has a BABIP of .184! He's ready for a hot streak. (unless of course he just has a knack for putting the ball weakly into play). On the flip-side, no one is getting lucky like Zimm is getting unlucky. Nick and Milledge may go down in average but probably not that much, and Nick can hurt you in 4 different ways. (Balls #1-#4). No, I like the offense to shake things up as expected.

Now can that overcome the pitching?


What scares me is this: the pitching is probably, as we speak, the best it's going to be all season. Guys are relatively fresh and injury free (save Shawn Hill and Chad Cordero) and no one is to the point yet where we could be concerned about being overworked. The starters are keeping the pressure off the bullpen by lasting into the 5th or 6th inning, even as they are coughing up runs a few at a time.

So what is going to happen down the stretch when the inevitable injuries strike? It's only going to get worse. I don't think Shawn Hill's return helps the team much (he seems to me to be headed out of baseball on the John Patterson Injury Express) and Cordero was anything but lights out last year.

Add the less-cavernous dimensions of Nats park (as compared with RFK) and it could get pretty grim. I just don't see the offense compensating for this. The team still lacks a true power hitter and isn't much of a stolen base threat, so the runs are going to come in dribs and drabs.

This still feels a lot like last year's team to me.


I think with a team like the Nats, we treat the pitching depth like waves. (I forget if Needham copied the metaphor from me, or I from him, or Harper from either of us, or if we all got confused and Stan Kasten stuck the waves in the brisket.)

Anyway, we have some crappy vets, some unestablished guys, some injury risks . . . we'll have 60-80-100% turnover in the rotation at some point. The "exciting" part is that our next wave will not consist of the Simontacchis or Bowies or Bacsiks of the world. Okay, clear out a lesser light like O'Connor, who admittedly isn't really a prospect, and we've got Ballester, Clippard, Mock -- guys who are actually somewhat interesting, one or two of whom conceivably could contribute down the road. That does constitute improvement. Maybe not immediate improvement, but it is a better position to be in.

The next step is to build an actual damn rotation!

As for the offensive points: Zimmerman seems a slow starter. He was slow in April '06 (despite a good number of RBI), he was slow in April '07, and he's been a slow starter this April (despite a couple of well-timed homers!). I think Kearns will hit; he's no star, but he'll be solid over the course of the season. I'm not a big Wily Mo fan, but things will change to some degree when he returns. I don't buy the "run per game better" line about his presence any more than I bought the "Nook saved a run per game" (or whatever it was) line about Nookster's defense at the end of '06, but the Pena's presence in the lineup is a bit more formidable than Felipe's in left field. (Which is a whole 'nother topic!)


You're both right! The pitching is the best it's going to be this year AND it's only going to get more interesting, (and I believe you got his chocolate in your peanut but...nah, it'll never work).

The first interesting thing is only days away as Hill is coming back and Chico is going down in his...uh oh Chico just pitched a gem. (Update: Nats lose! Nats lose! 3-0. May they never face Tim Hudson again) Here's a question for you. Who goes down? It can't be Chico now can it? It's got to be Bergmann right? Or better yet can they move him to the pen and DL Rauch?


Yes, Chico pitched very well last night, and Hudson pitched even better. Kind of goes back to what I was saying about bad luck...on most nights a pitcher going 8 innings and only giving up one run is good enough to get you the win...except when your offense only has three hits.

If I'm Manny Acta I send down Jesus Flores. Johnny Estrada is back from the DL and there is no good reason to have three catchers on the active roster except for pinch-hitting purposes. Flores looked absolutely horrible at the plate yesterday, swinging at everything. Zimmerman was taking some terrible hacks, and now he's 0 for his last 16 or so, ending the game flailing away on a pitch low and outside. Hudson is good, but the Nats seemed generally reluctant to swing the bat confidently at the 60+ strikes he threw over the course of 90+ pitches.



Along those lines, Don Sutton said something last night during the brief window I was actually watching: It's not that the Nats have the "wrong guys," it's that they've had an unlucky run of guys coming up for "wrong at-bats." Part of that seems to me to be a B.S. dump; he's sort of soft-pedaling that there some guys really scuffling so far. But part of it seems to ring true, at least anecdotally. They need a fly ball, and they have a guy up with groundball tendencies. They need contact, and they have a free swinger. They need extra-base power, and they have a slap-hitter. I think there is something to the impression that luck is conspiring to ensure a hitter in a big moment is ill-suited to the specific situation. Or at least it seems that way.

But yeah . . . against Hudson. He'll eat 'em up, drink their milkshake, and all that.


As I sit here watching Gavin Floyd go for a no-hitter (point!) ...

Flores is the obvious choice, and I understand why it has to be done contractually, but I can't be behind that. Paul LoDuca brings nothing to the team and should be the one that's gone. I'll stand by this comment all year. The fact that Flores looked awful against Tim Hudson, well why was he playing against Tim Hudson anyway? Start the rookie right-handed catcher vs one of the best righties in the league? This season should have been Flores facing all lefties and the occasional righty, and Estrada up against the tough righties, for example Tim Hudson. This kind of felt like a set-up.

Man, Lannan can't pitch in the rain can he...Smoltz is pitching...can they come back?

Answer to my own question... no they can't.

The hammer has begun to come down. Wily Mo is back, as is Cordero, while Bergmann and Flores get the boot. Of course I'm unhappy with the Flores move, but whatever. We knew that was coming. Bergmann's too soon. I don't see the point of cutting a starter when bringing back a reliever. If Hill were on his way back then sure, but for Cordero? Of course that is the Nats' way; cut early, move fast, find the hot hand. Works well when dealing with late 20-year old / early 30-year old guys that are what they are, but they can't keep this philosophy going for developing pitchers.


I wonder about the organization's support of Bergmann or its view of him as a developing pitcher. Bowden was again critical of Bergmann during the radio pregame, saying he fell apart completely against Florida and then pitched like crap in a no-pressure situation against the Braves. Bergmann has sort of a reputation as a thoughtful guy, but I wonder if the front office views him differently.

As for the Wily Mo thing, I don't want to overstate this, but his return makes the team whole --- or at least a little more whole than it was with FLop/Harris in left.


I don't like this organizations treatment of players, although really it might just be Jimbo's treatment of players. It seems so amateur for the GM (who, by they way, shouldn't be speaking out in the papers anyway) talking bad about the players that HE put on this team. But he's done this before and I'm sure he'll do it again. Don't you sometimes wonder what a Katsen + Non-egomaniacal GM could do with the Nats? God, I hate that self-serving attention whore.

It's nice to have Wily Mo back because the Nats lost their LF AND their back-up to the LF (Dukes), both players coming into the year fans were excited to see. Willie Harris? Even Mama Harris wasn't getting up for that. "Come see Milledge, Dukes, & Pena!" became "Come see Milledge...and pay no attention to those other two guys that are sometimes out there in left!". Having Harris, who probably would have under a dozen starts in the OF given perfect circumstances, and Lopez, who would have zero, out there, it was like the Nats had Bizarro LF.

Speaking of overstating things... let's get to the last big story of the opening weeks, the attendance. This weekend the numbers were respectable I guess. 28,051, 32,532, 29,151. Just under a 30K average. The weather wasn't great but that still seems low for the first weekend series in the new park versus a division rival of some import (re: not Florida). Is this a real problem or are we making too much of this, the worst problem to every hit a major league team in the long history of organized baseball?


I'm glad we're getting around to the attendance thing; it's something I've been thinking about a lot over the past week. It sort of makes me nervous. Seems like I've heard tales of other new ballparks selling out pretty consistently right after their openers. Camden Yards, of course, was sold out for ages after it first opened. However, here are my thoughts as to why attendance at Nats park is still less:

1. The team is still catching up from having virtually no marketing or TV coverage until the 2007 season, and then sort of bad marketing thereafter. Remember all the ads last year that essentially said: "this team is going to suck, but hey! new park next year!" My impression is that people in the greater DC area are still getting warmed up to the team. Exurbanites are probably spooked by all the press about the lack of parking and even closer-in people are unfamiliar with the neighborhood that the stadium is in.

2. Competing sports events. I got on the Metro to go to yesterday's game and the train was about 50-50 packed with Caps and Nats fans. There is a non-trivial sum of people who would rather go see a playoff team (Caps) than a team that started the season 4-8 (Nats). Once the Caps' season ends, a portion of those people will head to Nats games.

3. School is still in session. That virtually eliminates the attendance of families at weeknight games.

4. The weather has been up and down. Most of the games at Nats park have been downright freezing. Warmer weather will put people in the mood for baseball.

5. Last, but not least- new-stadium saturation. Nats park is one of the last of this current generation of "new" ballparks that more or less began with Camden Yards in the early '90s. Camden was groundbreaking at the time, completely shattering the mold of the astroturf concrete bowl that was so prevalent at the time. New ballparks have opened virtually every year since to the point where all the gee-whiz, cool amenities at Nats park are the norm, and fans expect them. Washington fans have been attending sporting events at new parks for the past 10 years at FedEx and Verizon Center and Camden...Nats park brings the baseball experience up to par with that of the other sports in town, but it's not completely earth-shattering.

Still, one huge difference that I've noticed right away is the greatly diminished presence and influence of out-of-town fans. When the Braves came to RFK you could easily see and hear large contingents of Braves fans cheering like mad. At Nats park the crowd is overwhelmingly made up of spirited Nats fans, and the Braves fans are sort of sprinkled here and there. We'll see if this continues to be the case when the Phillies, Mets and Cubs come to town (or the Red Sox in 2009) but for now it's nice that the place truly feels like a home park.


All are good points but only a couple matter in trying to reason why DC is different. . Numbers 3 and 4 are something that all new parks (save the July-opening Safeco) have to face. Number 2 is also going to have an effect on some of the new parks... Detroit, Dallas, anywhere with a decent hockey or basketball team. So it comes down to points #1 and #5.

Number 5 is an interesting case. I can see the reasoning behind it - while the park is an event for baseball fans in the district, for casual fans it's no longer a must-see draw. They've been to Camden and Citizens Bank and maybe one or two others. The newest IMAX theatre is still just another IMAX theatre, even if it's closer to your house. However...and this is the kicker for me. I hadn't heard this phrase used en masse until this year. That to me doesn't scream "reasoning" it's screams "excuse". Camden was over 15 years ago. There were about a dozen new parks up by 2002. If Phillies fans and Padres fans and Cards fans weren't tired of new parks, why are Nats fans?

So for me it comes down a lot to #1. The Nats shot themselves in the foot by not marketing the team well last year. They wanted to hide a crappy team from public embarrasment and instead hid what amounted to a minor feel good story, losing some good will and putting the Nats at a point of fan interest well below where a team in it's 4th year in town should be.

But in reality it's everything. Crappy team and slow to come around fanbase are number 1 and number 2 on the list, but everything else you mention Brandon matters. This is the perfect storm of fan attendance problems, if you assume that people actually do care (unlike in Miami or TB)


It's a good list that Brandon's put together. I can see how the Caps' run is a matter of some inconvenient timing for the Nats. And I agree that, among the factors on the list, the first and the last are the biggest.

Ultimately, though, the majority of it comes down to winning. It's what both drives and rebuts these factors. If you win, then fans will come. This isn't a winning team or even one that has built up an expectation of being one (see #1), and this isn't 1992, when an amazing new ballpark was a wondrous thing (see #5). Furthermore -- and I think this is important -- by being without a ballclub of its own for more than three decades, the ability to set up the old ballpark/"field of dreams" dichotomy was never there. You can't say there was an "historic final season at RFK," and you can't really say (outside of the diehards) that the opening of Nationals Park was a community-wide eagerly awaited event. The way I see it is that it was the product of a business deal, and not much more.

With all that in mind, is attendance really that horrible? It may be poor so far, but in any event, as Kasten said, they'll get the attendance they deserve.


All good points and I just thought of one more: the area around the ballpark is currently devoid of all other attractions. As it stands right now, the stadium is the only draw to the area- the rest of the surrounding parcels are all under construction, meaning there is no reason for casual people to want to spend time in the area other than to hit the baseball game- which is great if you like baseball, but there is no Verizon Center-esque area to really draw people down there. Of course, that will change in a few years' time, maybe even by next's important to keep in mind that the whole Nats park experience, as we'll come to know it 10 years from now, is still somewhat incomplete.


Absolutely. That shouldn't go unnoted. It was very important for all involved to get the ballpark open to start this season, but the effect is that the Nats sort of beat (almost) everyone else there. Gotta live with that, for as long as it's a factor.