Nationals Review

Friday, May 27, 2005

Around the web:

Baseball Prospectus Triple Play hits the Nationals today. Among the interesting points: the extreme park effects of RFK so far. I figured it was depressing home runs, but didn't think it was depressing all six factors of offense (R, H, 2B, 3B, HR, BB). Perhaps the oddest one is walks, with a .632 park factor. Is it something with RFK's batting eye? Small sample size warnings abound here, as the Nats' anemic offense probably has something to do with these figures.

Also, Matt at Mets Geek looks at the NL East in VORP, EqA, and Win Shares. A good analysis all around.

Bulls win! Bulls win!

I finally took my first trip to Durham Bulls Athletic Park to see the Bulls take on Pawtucket tonight in a AAA International League match-up. Here are some random observations from the wacky world of minor league baseball:

--It’s a beautiful stadium modeled after Camden Yards and its ilk, with a “Blue Monster” wall in left and a grassy lawn in center looking out on the meager Durham skyline. It’s also about the only sector of downtown Durham that isn’t an eyesore—yet more proof that the pastoral oasis of a baseball stadium really can outshine urban decrepitude (or the crumbling red brick remains of the Tobacco empire).

--AAA baseball is fun to watch because each team always has a handful of recognizable players who made their brief mark in the big leagues and then disappeared into obscurity. Durham is particularly rich in that department due to parent organization Tampa Bay’s continuous obsession with collecting washed-up veterans (to give the Devil Fishies that extra spark) who inevitably end up sucking their way back to the minors (Durham has only three players younger than 26). Familiar faces included Reggie Taylor, from whom I tried repeatedly and unsuccessfully to coax a baseball in-between innings, Joe Beimel, Tim Laker, and Eric Munson, who for some reason is toiling in obscurity while Travis Lee dinks the occasional single in a Tampa uniform. Pawtucket featured Dave Berg, perennially suffering exile Roberto Petagine, and former-Brave farmhand George Lombard, who apparently is alive and well.

--Cla Meredith, who logged 2.1 forgettable innings with Boston earlier this year, entered the game in the eighth inning with the bases loaded and his team up by one run. He left with his team down two after three walks, two of them with the bases full. Meredith has a funky side-arm delivery which we won’t be seeing back in Boston any time soon.

--B.J. Upton is still only 20 years old. For most of the game, he provided the only offense Durham could muster. He sparked the three-run rally in the eighth with a base-hit. He also provided the highlight of the game with a first-inning homerun, thereby setting off the mechanical bull perched above the left field scoreboard which snorts smoke and glares flashing red eyes after each Durham homer. He finished 2-3 with a walk and a stolen base. He clearly outclassed the older, more experienced competition. Does anyone really think Julio Lugo is a good enough reason to keep this guy in the minors?

--John Olerud played what proved to be his last game with Pawtucket, as he was immediately called up by the Red Sox after the game to join the team in time for the Yankees series, where he should give the ineffective Kevin Millar a much-needed reprieve. It was nice to see such an accomplished major-leaguer in a AAA game. Olerud, in typical patient fashion, walked and scored in three at-bats.

--Thanks to Upton’s heroics and Meredith’s utter wildness, the Bulls won 6-4—and I got to see the big bull smoke and seethe his red-eyed fury one last time. And, frankly, is there any sound in sports more intimidating than the furious grunting of a charging bull?

Thursday, May 26, 2005

The Nats Shake-Up

On the first six games of a road trip where the Nats should reasonably have gone 3-3, they stumble to a 1-5 record -- most recently a sweep at the hands of the woeful Cincinnati Reds. Some now think the sky-is-falling for the Nats, and Trader Jim has mandated a shake-up. But let's put things a bit into perspective, as we enter a tougher stretch against St. Louis, Atlanta and Florida:

-- There's been a shake-up for the better with the Nats' pitching staff. Claudio "I" Vargas started three of the six games in the series, and got shelled in every one of them. Not one of Frank's finer moments, but he's now been designated for assignment. Replacing his roster spot is TJ Tucker, just off the DL. Innings from just-recalled Sunny-Woo Kim and Toma Ohka are bound to help. Also in the mix is now CJ Nitkowski, a former Bowden draftee and long-time-ago top prospect (with Cincy and Detroit) who has been lights-out for the Pirates' AAA team and was just cut by them. Zach Day was sent down, and based on his recent performances, that can only be a good move.

The bad news is that Jon Rauch is likely out for most of the season, yet another injury in the Expos/Nats' second straight season of health woes. Still, this is an improved pitching staff. We've already had good luck with Gary Majewski and Hector Carrasco, who started out at AAA. Let's hope Trader Jim goes 3-3 with Nitkowski.

-- Jeffrey Hammonds is no longer on the team, injuring himself to the 15-day-DL in the Toronto series. Brendan Harris should be a decent improvement off the bench. Wil Cordero is also coming back relatively soon. Tyrel Godwin is also here, but will likely be sent down May 31 when John Patterson is eligible to come off the DL.

-- Cristian Guzman blows, but he's not 450-OPS bad. No one on this team has been hitting lately, and that's bound to change. One hot streak by Wilkerson or Guillen, and -- bam -- we'll forget about this hitting funk.

-- The Braves aren't that good, as Lior's been documenting lately. The Nats have a winning record (3-2) against them this season and their offense is abysmal. Furcal, Jordan, and Mondesi all have sub-.300 on-base percentages -- among the worst in the league at their respective positions. Adam LaRoche and Johnny Estrada haven't improved on his 2004 season and the only above-average hitter in their lineup is oft-injured Chipper Jones. They've had injuries to their pitching staff too, with top starters Hampton and Thomson out for the foreseeable future. Mazzone is indeed a genius, but as we know, injuries can eventually catch up to you.

I'm predicting a 5-4 stretch against the NL's best. Matt Morris (4-0, 3.50 ERA) versus Tony Armas (1-2, 5.49 ERA) tomorrow night, 8:10 p.m.

UPDATE: CJ Nitkowski has a website! Check out CJ's favorite restaurants (wonder what he'll rate the top DC eats?) And kids, check out CJ's autograph tips! I think Nitkowski's a fine short-term solution. Anyone who only has allowed six hits in 22 innings is worth a shot. (Yes, he walked nine during that period as well, not a great sign.) Maybe he'll be to the Nats in 2005 what David Newhan was to the Orioles last year.

A Rising Star and a Falling Legend

Kyle Davies had another nice start for Atlanta. The kid looks like the real deal. He throws a low-to-mid 90’s fastball which is a bit straight but he spots it well, which, as Leo Mazzone will tell you, is the key to good pitching. He also packs a wicked change-up—a surprisingly mature pitch for a 21-year-old—which he used to embarrass Mike Piazza in the fourth inning with two men on base and to pick apart the heart of the Red Sox lineup last week in his major league debut. So far, so good: 2 starts, 10.1 innings, 12 K’s, no runs, 2 wins. If he can learn to keep his pitch count down, Davies should be a solid number two starter in a couple of years. More importantly and unfortunately for the rest of the NL East, he helps the Braves gimp along until Mike Hampton returns to the rotation.

Piazza, by the way, looked horrible the entire series. He fouled back several clearly hittable balls left up in the strike zone, and had some funny-looking swings on outside breaking stuff. As if that wasn’t embarrassing enough, Marcus Giles lit him up for three stolen bases—and we’re not exactly talking about Ichiro on the base paths here.

It saddens me to write this, but Piazza is no longer the type of hitter who inspires fear in opposing pitchers, nor will he likely ever be again. His OPS has steadily declined for the past five years. It’s a shame, because in his prime Piazza hit the ball harder than anyone in baseball. He was fun to watch. He’s still a first-ballot hall-of-famer, but at 36 I don’t see him turning it around. The Mets would do well to see if any AL teams are interested in a DH.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Free the Richmond Three!

It's been a long time since I've posted here, but I needed an opportunity to vent and couldn't hold it in any longer. My blogs from the perspective of a Braves fan should provide loyal Nats fans and readers with plenty of optimism--if the Nats are paying attention, they better take this opportunity to gain some games on Atlanta before Schuerholz screws his head on straight again. Here goes:

When will John Schuerholz finally admit he was wrong and do something about the Braves’ horrendous outfield situation? When the Braves GM signed has-been free agents Raul Mondesi and Brian Jordan to twin bargain-basement one-year contracts, no one seriously thought they would be able to replace the offense of J.D. Drew and the surprisingly productive Charles Thomas/Eli Marrero combo. But at least, so said conventional wisdom, these two formerly decent players would give the Braves a cheap, temporary patch in the outfield until better players were ready to take their place.

Problem is, the Atlanta corner outfielders have been downright horrid. Jordan, whose decrepit knees, despite his constant reassurance to the contrary, have bereft him of his former athleticism, has labored to hit a paltry .234/.282./.314. Mondesi at least has contributed a smidgen of power, but his .217/.273/.370 is not going to cut it if the Braves want to win another division title. Fourth outfielder Ryan Langerhans has also provided some pop, but aside from a torrid stretch aided by a two-homer day at Coors Field, has been unimpressive in his rookie season with an OPS of .675. And it’s not like Jordan and Mondesi are contributing much defensively or on the basepaths, were both are just shells of their former selves. When will the Braves realize that Andruw Jones and two humanoid mammals in uniform does not an outfield make?

This travesty would be embarrassing if it wasn’t for the presence of several viable in-house solutions. But the Braves’ refusal to let younger, better players get the chance to contribute is downright flabbergasting. In AAA Richmond, uber-prospect Andy Marte is hitting a solid .288/.388/.497. Marte is just starting to get hot these past few weeks, and already looks to have solved his strike-zone issues, drawing 25 walks against 30 strikeouts in 153 at-bats—a rare improvement for a player so young. The guy has blasted his way through every level of the minors against older competition and, if there is any justice in this world, should be in at Atlanta uniform no later than July. Yet the Braves' stubborn management refuses to move Marte from third-base, where he remains stuck in the depth-chart behind Chipper Jones, who isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Schuerholz has repeatedly said that things will work out in their due order, as if some stroke of providence will convince Jones to return to the outfield or turn Marte into a shortstop. It ain’t going to happen, and every day Marte plays the infield instead of learning a new position in one of the outfield corners is time lost on his inevitable surge to the majors. Even Jeff Francoeur, who should be starting in right field on opening day 2006 and for years to come, is hitting a respectable .285/.326/.492 for a 21-year-old in AA.

If Schuerholz wants to protect Francoeur, which is understandable, and Marte, which is inexplicable (he doesn’t really have anything left to learn in the minors), then there are several other viable options. Bill McCarthy is a non-prospect at 25, but he’s hit wherever he’s played and owns a respectable .301/.365/.473 at Richmond, which easily projects as superior to the paltry bat-work of Mondesi and Jordan. But the most obvious immediate solution would be Kelly Johnson, a late-developer who at 23 still has some upside and is hitting a .299/.429/.558 (an OPS which would currently place him fifth among MLB outfielders). I’m not saying that Johnson is the second-coming of Bobby Abreu, but David Dellucci with more speed seems a fair comparison. What is this guy still doing still languishing in AAA? The tyranny of veteran sinecures in Atlanta must end—cut the dead-weight and free the Richmond three!

Monday, May 23, 2005

"The Art of Poop"

...yes, that's a headline for the WashingtonPost.com's unreadable blogger/columnist Jabari Asim's latest bit of "commentary." I kid you not.

Stealing the Reds

Dateline: Cincinnati.

The Nationals arrive in the Queen City of the West prepped to face some of the worst pitchers in baseball and the last-place Cincinnati Reds. Yet they arrived banged up, and the Reds have just made some interesting -- if not curious -- roster moves. Roster moves that, given Jim Bowden's connection to the city, could potentially help out our Nats. Over the last two days, GM Dan O'Brien, designated for assignment two players that were expected to be key contributors to the Reds in 2005.

D'Angelo Jimenez is one of those players. He's been one of the most inconsistent players in baseball ever since his injury as a young Yankees prospect back in the late-1990s. I'm a big fan of Jimenez: in fact, I lost an infamous baseball bet with Nationals Review co-blogger Phil that he would have a higher OPS than Alfonso Soriano in 2002. That year, he hit a craptastic 330/347 (OBP/SLG) and was dumped by the San Diego Padres. In due time, however, he got his career turned around. Last season, he hit 364/394 with Cincy after posting a 349/415 mark in 2003. Not too shabby, especially with his solid defense. But just when it looked like he had gotten his career turned around, he decides to revert to old form and was hitting 229/319/295 before his release.

I agree with Chris that he'd be a sound pickup, especially given Guzman's struggles. He's still walking, he's not going to slug below .300 and according to BP's newfangled defensive stats, he has a slick glove and can play across the infield. (He even pitched once!) Surely, he's a better fit than Carlos Baerga -- if only for the defense.

Then there's Danny Graves. Graves of the 10+ ERA in May. Graves, the only MLB player to be born in Vietnam (Saigon). This is also the Graves who pitched to the tune of a 3.95 ERA last season, with only 77 hits and 13 walks in 69 innings. His season to date has been out of character. Normally, he's had pinpoint control; this season, he's been all over the place. But he's only pitched 18 innings. Maybe Randy St. Clair can pull a Loaiza out of his hat and bring out the old Graves. The Nats could use another bullpen arm, and he's been a starter in the past as well. (Not that we need another mediocre starting pitcher.)

Given that the Nats need hitting more than pitching, I'd suggest bringing D'Angelo to Washington. He might be just what the doctor ordered -- as a utility infielder.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Nats hanging in there

An important road trip is coming up for the Nationals. Only 1/2 game out of first, the Nats now travel for 3 in Toronto, 3 in Cincinnati, and 3 in St. Louis. Coming away with a record over .500 on this trip would be huge going into a tough 7-game homestand with the other major contenders in the East in the first week of June. One major stat helping the Nats is that their pitchers have only given up 21 homeruns, including only 8 at RFK. Without crunching the numbers, it seems like RFK is a pitcher's park. As The Hardball Times' Studes points out, its early park factor is 91 (with 100 being average, anything below favoring pitchers). However, again, just guessing, it seems like RFK is also increasing triples.

One thing the Nats are doing well is hitting in the leadoff spot. As Baseball Crank points out, Brad Wilkerson is crushing his NL competition in the 1-hole.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Woops! Our Bad...

Normally I don't get involved in the bash the mainstream media chorus of the blogosphere but there's really no reasonable explanation for this:

Newsweek magazine has apologized for errors in a story alleging that interrogators at the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay desecrated the Quran, saying it would re-examine the accusations, which sparked outrage and deadly protests in Afghanistan.

Fifteen people died and scores were injured in violence between protesters and security forces, prompting U.S. promises to investigate the allegations.

"We regret that we got any part of our story wrong, and extend our sympathies to victims of the violence and to the U.S. soldiers caught in its midst," Newsweek Editor Mark Whitaker wrote in a note to readers.


So because of the mainstream media's utter incompetence at tracing a story, fifteen people are dead and Newsweek can only muster a lame apology.

Byrd Watching

Let's give Trader Jim some credit here. The trade shipping off Endy Chavez. whose trade value has plummeted to near-nil since spring training, has netted the Nats Marlon Byrd.

Byrd could be considered the anti-Endy. He hit 303/366/418 at age 25 with the Phillies, as their starting center fielder. He slumped the next season in a little over 300 at-bats, but his minor league numbers give a strong indication that his 2004 was the fluky season.

At age 23 in AA, he hit 316/383/555, with 32 steals and 28 home runs. At age 24 in AAA, he hit 292/367/476 with 15 steals and 15 homers. When he got exiled back to AAA last season, he struggled a bit -- but only in 152 at-bats.

Endy had some decent minor-league seasons, but most of his ability was concentrated in his high batting average. Once pitchers learned to pitch him, he struggled -- and clealy hasn't shown much potential for improvement. Byrd, meanwhile, showed considerable secondary skills -- walks and power -- in the minors, and even has toolsy skills, like speed and defense. Byrd even outhit Terrmel Sledge at age 24 in AA; Sledge's breakout season came at age 25 in Harrisburg.

So, anyway you look at it, the trade is a steal for the Nats. With Church or Byrd, the Nats will have a legitimate pinch-hitter off the bench. And now they have a legitimate center-fielder to man the spacious RFK outfield.

Congrats, Trader Jim.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Bizarro Nats

When the Nats play to win, like they did in Sunday's 13-inning loss to the Giants, umpire Charlie Reliford bizarrely allows Omar Vizquel to score on what should have been a ground-rule double and the Nats lose, 4-3. Last night, the Nats played to lose -- with D-Backs in scoring position in seemingly every inning -- and somehow they end up victorious with a 4-3 win. And now they're calling up Vargas. (No, not that Vargas.) Bizarro Nats, indeed.

They're now assured a winning record on a West Coast road trip even when our resident seer predicted four wins at best, before the recent rash of injuries. Even Barry thinks there's some Nats magic, perhaps like the "Why Not?" Frank Robinson variety of 1989.

The good news: the pitching should be getting better -- and deeper -- with Armas and Vargas coming up today. I've always thought it's better to have solid depth in a rotation than having two or three dominant starters with little insurance in the bullpen or the minors. Look at the recent incarnations of the New York Yankees: in '04, they were able to spot-start Contreras, Orlando Hernandez, Halsey and Sturtze when the rotation needed an extra arm. (Oh yeah, and Loiaza too.) This year, they've had to start Taiwanese porn star Chien-Mien Wang and anti-Bush activist/actor Sean Henn, both of whom have predictably gotten shelled.

With the activations, the Nats have nine legit starting pitchers on the staff -- a depth that not many teams can boast. I almost forgot about Claudio Vargas at season's beginning, but he's put up solid minor league numbers and, if he can throw the ball over the plate, could provide some welcome bullpen relief. Despite the D-Backs' announcers' proclamations last night, Armas isn't likely to be a Cy Young candidate. But 150 innings of 4.20 ERA ball would be a welcome relief. His return cements Day's status in the bullpen and gives the Nats lefty-less pen full of starters who can throw lots of innings.

Still, the team's bench strength at season's beginning is now looking like a significant weakness. With Sledge likely out for the season, Ryan Church will be starting -- and the way he's been playing, that's a good thing. But this also means Jeffrey Hammonds will be starting against lefties and that Tony Blanco is our fifth outfielder with the demotion of JJ Davis. There's not a single guy on the bench that I'd want pinch-hitting in a clutch situation. Baerga -- ick. Blanco -- yuck. Gary Bennett -- no thanks. I'd like to think Trader Jim has an ace up his sleeve, but the Nats may be carrying a pitiful bench for much of the season.

Basil declared the Nats' need for an all-purpose utilityman yesterday; he liked Ryan Freel in Cincy. The Nats could use David Newhan, who's currently rotting on the bench up I-95 in Baltimore. Not sure if the O's would unload him, but he'd fill a crucial need on this side of the Parkway. Another player that might become available is LA's Jason Repko, who would likely be demoted after the Dodgers get Jayson Werth off the DL. But it would be nice to see Trader Jim make one of his famous AAAA-type trades to get us a warm bat that can actually hit a longball in a pinch.

Armas versus Shawn Estes, of 2003 HACKING MASS fame tonight at 9:40. He's pitching like Bizarro Estes this year, though, with a 3.86 ERA. We'll see which Estes shows up.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Some Interesting Facts and Figures From Around the League

In case you weren't paying attention, the White Sox are 21-7. They also set a recent major league record by leading at some point in all 28 of their games.

Brad Radke has walked only one batter through 50 innings.

Moneyball???:
Mark Mulder
: 4-1 with a 2.93 ERA.
Tim Hudson: 3-1 with a 2.18 ERA.
Barry Zito: 1-4 with a 5.84 ERA.

Pass Some of That Lucre Over Here

Wow.

U.S. Internet advertising surged 33 percent in 2004 to a record $9.6 billion, surpassing levels seen during the early Web boom, and will grow at a similar rate in 2005, according to data released on Thursday.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Picture of the Day

Coming to a Nats concession stand near you?


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UPDATE: Whoa! Related story here.


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The Attendance Wars

The Nationals are currently drawing 30,951 fans a game. There two sides to this coin. The first is that the Nationals should be happy with this result -- it puts them in the upper half of Major League Teams, as this graphic demonstrates:


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Nationals President Tony Tavares also mentions some key factors as well:

"If you look at attendance in April, typically, these are your softer months," Tavares said, "because kids aren't out of school yet, the weather hasn't warmed up yet, you've still got NBA basketball going -- and frankly, it's the first time in many years with the Wizards being highly competitive. I'm not making excuses. I'm just telling you I'm very pleased with our attendance."

The other side of the coin is that the Nationals are a "new" team in the District and thus should be expected to be drawing an above average total. Ultimately, I expect the Nationals to be drawing roughly 30,000 fans throughout the season due to this novelty effect. Economists have estimated this novelty effect on attendance to last from as little as 3 years and as much as 10 years.

Using a difference-in-means approach, Quick and Fort found a novelty effect on attendance to Major League Baseball (MLB) teams to be significant after five years. Others have found the novelty effect in professional baseball at three years (Kahane and Schmanske, 1997), four years (Coffin, 1996), seven years (Quinn et al., 2003) and ten years (Coates and Humphries, 1999 and 2001).


The Nationals are fortunate in that as their novelty effect starts wearing off, they will be moving from RFK into a brand new stadium, which could possibly reinvigorate the team's novelty effect on attendance. If so, expect the Nationals to draw roughly 30,000 fans for a long time to come.

New York Times and Education

I am generally not surprised when I read a completely ridiculous statement on the editorial pages of the NY Times. The Letters to the Editor tend to reflect this ridiculousness. However, in response to Bill Gates' appeal to improve high school education standards, this specific letter struck me as particularly absurd:

I am aware of the deficiencies of many of our schools. But to make preparation for the labor market the chief goal of our schools is an antidemocratic idea. It is an important goal but must be placed alongside that of preparing our children for intelligent and responsible participation in our democracy.

Narrowing down their education to a limited, technical slice of our rich cultural heritage may possibly serve market forces but does not bode well for the future of our society.

Yes, you read that correctly. Educating children for the purpose of preparing them for future employment is an "antidemocratic idea". One wonders what this reader thinks the purpose of schooling is. To learn show tunes? To learn the latest innovations of miming? To give kids something to do while their parents are at work?

JOSH adds: While the readership of the New YorkTimes definitely tilts to the left, and the letters to the editor reflect it, I don't know if this is an example of bias at all. I think the writer is probably misguided; there shouldn't be a disconnect between getting a solid liberal-arts (non-market) secondary education with getting a good job and being prepared for college or the workforce.

But Bill Gates himself leans to the left politically, and there has historically been a tension between schools providing technical education and trying to get as many kids in "college-prep" classes. I think the writer misses the point; from reading Gates, I don't think he advocates tracking kids to technical-level courses. I think they probably share the same educational values, and both (I would hope) would want to improve standards in the public schools.

Speaking of the New York Times, their sports page covers the latest Bronx shakeup -- and we're not talking about the public school system here. The 11-15 Yanks are moving Tony Womack to left field (!), Matsui to center field, and playing rookie Robinson Cano at second base. Bernie's awful center field defense is replaced by Womack's to-be shaky defense in left and Matsui's untested D in center. And Robinson Cano? He's a middling prospect, who posted a 316/403 line at age 21 in AAA. Not awful, but it's a sign the Yankees are in trouble this season.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Nats miss a shot at the sweep.

Lots of things to comment on, but I'll make one point now which I expect Chris to also hit later.

Why was Luis Ayala pitching in the top of the ninth instead of Chad Cordero?