Early Season Underachievers: Washington Nationals

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Just a note: these “underachievers” are based on what the majority of the prognosticators thought prior to the season and not what I thought. For example, I had the Phillies at 79-83 in my book (which, for the record, is now available on I-Tunes). The majority of the predictions I saw had the Phillies as contenders. I had the Nationals winning 103 games.

For a team as loaded as the Nats to have a .500 record after almost 20% of the season is unexpected. Is it something to be overly concerned about though? The answer is no.

Both Adam LaRoche and Danny Espinosa are proven players who are batting under .200. That won’t continue. The starting pitching and bullpen are deep and diverse and as the season moves along, GM Mike Rizzo will find a lefty specialist somewhere—Wesley Wright, Mike Dunn—because several will eventually become available.

That’s not to say there’s not potential for things to go wrong. They’re leading the Major Leagues in errors and manager Davey Johnson made a typical Davey Johnson managerial move when the Nats were playing the Mets two weeks ago and it neatly summed him up for better or worse. With the Mets leading 2-0 in the top of the eighth inning Mets reliever Scott Rice gave up a single to Steve Lombardozzi, walked Denard Span, and went to 3-0 and Jayson Werth. Werth was given the green light, swung at a low, outside pitch and grounded into a 6-4-3 double play. The Mets won the game.

That’s Johnson. It’s always been Johnson. It always will be Johnson. With the Mets in the 1980s, the lack of discipline, overaggressiveness and arrogance in believing that the fundamentals would be unnecessary as long as they pitched and hit home runs cost them playoff spots multiple times to teams like the Cardinals who were schooled in playing the game properly. Whitey Herzog’s hardline treatment of his players was well-known and if they didn’t do what they were supposed to do when they were supposed to do it, they didn’t play.

Is it a problem for the Nats? Yes and no. One of the reasons he’s been so successful is that the players love him and know he’s going to put the game in their hands. There wouldn’t be a debate if Werth hit the ball out of the park. It’s not the strategy that was the issue, but the execution. Werth was overanxious and swung at a bad pitch and criticizing him or Johnson won’t matter because telling Johnson what he did was wrong is only going to accomplish one thing: he’s going to do it more just to prove how smart he is and how dumb his critics are.

The Nats are too talented and deep to play in so mediocre a fashion for much longer.

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4 thoughts on “Early Season Underachievers: Washington Nationals

  1. I know you have a personal vendetta against Johnson, but what proof do you have that Werth’s ridiculous 3-0 swing was somehow Johnson’s fault? You have your most experienced vet at the plate, you trust him to make the right decision. That was entirely on Werth. Do you think a player with a 9-figure contract and 10 years of MLB service needs to be given the “take” sign in obvious situations as if he was a little leaguer?

    I love how your narrative on Johnson includes a comparison and implied inferiority versus a lesser manager like Herzog. Herzog’s career managerial W/L record is .530, with 3 playoff appearances and one WS title in 18 seasons. Johnson has led four different teams to the playoffs 6 separate times and has a career .560 W/L percentage in one fewer managerial season. Who do you think is the better manager?

    On the topic at hand (Nats early struggles): i wrote a quick post a little while back looking at their April schedule as a major source of their .500 record. More than half their April 2013 (14 of 27 games) schedule was against 2012 playoff teams. Now look at their June and July schedules: they go EIGHT straight weeks without playing a 2012 playoff team and only have 4 games out of 53 against playoff-calibre teams (that is, if you assume as I do that the 2013 playoffs are going to look an awful lot like the 2012 playoffs on the NL side). They’ve also gone up against some serious Starting Pitching Talent thus far; their 14 april losses included losses against Harvey, Cueto, Wainwright, Bailey, Shelby Miller, Cingrani, Maholm on his hot streak and Tim Hudson twice. There’s no shame in losing to any of those guys.

    Not to say the Nats don’t have some concerns: Strasburg has struggled a bit (but he’s also had awful run support; a meager 1.87 runs per game support average hence his 1-4 record with a 3.13 ERA). The defense has been awful and the team may have to be creative when it comes to dealing with Zimmerman’s deteriorating mental state with routine throws across the diamond. LaRoche’s slow start has helped contribute to a lot of their offensive woes in general. And Haren’s last outing only partly makes up for his first four stinkers.

    Basically the message is this; call me on August 1st after they run through the easy part of their schedule. If they go 20-7 in June nobody’s going to remember the fact that they went 13-14 in April.

    1. I swear Todd, I could write that the Nats are almost but noooottttt quite the best team in the history of the sport short of the 1927 Yankees and your reaction would be, “What?!? How can you say they’re not better than the 1927 Yankees?!?” and go into a 1500 word diatribe telling me that I’m wrong about something that I didn’t say.
      Where are you getting the idea that I have a vendetta against Davey? He was managing the Mets when they had their last extended run of success and were interesting. He’s a great manager. You’re only showing your ignorance when you compare Herzog to Johnson. Herzog, by all accounts including Keith Hernandez who played for both and had an extended feud with Herzog (they’re close now) said during their feud that Herzog was the best manager in baseball over his manager at the time, Johnson. Winning percentages without context for managers is a ludicrous argument. Do you think Joe Maddon is a good manager? One of baseball’s best? Well, his winning percentage is .515. Casey Stengel’s winning percentage was .508. Connie Mack’s .486. Tony LaRussa’s .536. Joe Torre’s .538 with three different teams to the playoffs, four WS wins, and six pennants. Does Johnson’s superior winning percentage make him better? Are they not historically great managers? The winning percentage doesn’t mean much when you just toss it out there to prove a nonexistent point.
      For years Mets fans wondered what it would’ve been like to have had someone like Herzog or Jim Leyland to rein in the wild boys on the 1980s team. Johnson lets his players play and veterans police the clubhouse. That’s his style and I’m not saying it’s wrong. Like the answer to an existential question, it just is. You didn’t live through the Mets’ late-season fades in 1987 and 1989 and their blown NLCS in 1988—all of which happened in large part because of the lack of discipline and attention to defense on those teams. Those were attributes the Cardinals had and won because of it.
      Where precisely did I say Werth should’ve been given the “take” sign? Oh, wait. I didn’t. Nor did I even imply it. All I said was that Werth was given the hit sign because that’s Davey’s style. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. That time, it didn’t. And I also said that if Werth takes Rice deep, we’re not having the conversation and that it wasn’t the strategy that was the problem, but the result.
      This was a piece that was designed to say, “Don’t worry about the Nats.” Your over-the-top reaction is a “Methinks he doth protest too much” reply that’s making me think you are worried.
      All that aside, you shouldn’t be. Settle down. Try decaf.

  2. By all rights, the Mets should have won the division 1985-1989; they had the horses for it. They had the best pitcher in baseball (Gooden), who should have had a Hall of Fame career, and they had great starting pitching to back him up (Darling, Cone, Fernandez), a Hall of Fame catcher (Carter), a should be Hall of Fame first baseman (Hernandez), and Darryl Strawberry.

    I think Davey Johnson is an excellent manager, but he is not the kind of manager who could have done what Whitey did with the hands that Whitey was dealt. In 1987, Whitey won 95 games with a team whose best pitcher went 11-11 (Mathews). Whitey outmanaged Davey in the head-to-head games late in 1985 and 1987 — which must rank as two of the greatest pennant runs in baseball history, with a lot of dramatic moments (Strawberry’s HR off Ken Dayley for a 1-0 win in the 11th; Cedeno’s HR off Jesse Orosco for a 1-0 win in the 10th; John Tudor pitched 10 shutout innings in both games; Terry Pendleton’s game tying HR off Roger McDowell in the 9th at Shea) …

    1. I was at the Tudor-Gooden game.
      I agree with everything apart from Hernandez’s HOF cred. If he’d played well into his late-30 or made it to the big leagues as a productive player earlier, then he’d have the numbers to get in. Now, he’s completely borderline in the basest sense.

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