Tuesday, July 10, 2007

One Half Down, One To Go

So did I miss anything? Seems like it went about as well as I had predicted.

One of the refrains that I've sighed many a time has been with how this team has rebounded just when you were about to count them out. Since that 8-game losing streak back in May, which feels like about 3 years ago, every time the team sputters and looks like it's running out of gas, it does something like win 2/3 from one of the better teams in the league. I was there on Sunday to watch them pound the Brewers, which is only the third of fourth win I've seen in person this year -- Thanks, Stan!

The net result is that we feel much better about this team than it's really playing. This sorta feels like a .500 team, doesn't it? Which, I spose, in fairness it is since that magical May 9th date.

But the truth is that you can't just wipe away those first 34 games. They count just as much as the last 50 or so. This team isn't a .500 team, but it's not a .264 team like it played for the first 5 weeks either. The truth is pretty darn close to how they've played over their last 34 games -- coincidentally a day or two after John "Maharishi" Patterson and Brian "Jack Lalame" Schneider turned into food nazis. They're 14-20 since, a reasonable .411 clip, which is a 66-win team.

Nats Record: 36-52, tied for next-to-last in baseball, just 1.5 games ahead of Tampa Bay. The best thing for "The PLAN!", if not for Uncle Teddy's panda-skin wallet, is for a full-on tanking and the #1 pick in next year's draft. They're on pace for 96 losses.

Runs Scored: 326, last in all of baseball. Park factor, blah blah blah. Certainly that's a factor, but this team is THIRTY runs out of next-to last place, and nearly FORTY runs behind the next worst NL team, the Giants. To put that in perspective, the Giants are closer to 7th place in the NL than the Nats are to the Giants.

As a team, they have an 87 OPS+ (meaning they're 13% below average). This is the worst team total since the 111-loss 2004 AZ Diamondbacks. It's not historically bad, just merely in that second tier of mediocrity.

Runs Allowed: 434, 11th in the National League. This, certainly, has been a pleasant surprise. But pleasant surprise does not mean it's good. If I hit my hand with a hammer, it's a pleasant surprise that my finger isn't broken. That doesn't mean the ensuing welt is fun, or that I'm going to start nailing myself in the nuts for the hell of it.

Expected Record: 60-102. The team is actually outperforming their expected record based on the runs they've scored and allowed. It could just be random variation -- crap happens! -- or that the front half of the bullpen has been solid, nailing down the few leads we've had, while letting mopup scrubs take beatings in games we're trailing.

What's Good?
1) Manny Acta! I've had a few quibbles with some of his lineup decisions, especially early in the season, but there's no doubt that he's handling the biggest portion of the manager's job with flying colors. He's setting a positive example and isn't letting the players get down on themselves, constantly teaching and keeping the team from getting down and falling in on themselves.

In that respect, he's the complete opposite of Frank Robinson, who seemed to be overly negative to a large number of his players and who had the appearance of alternating dictatorial clubhouse policy with a complete laissez-faire attitude, letting some of the moribund slugs run the clubhouse, splitting it into factions.

During the managerial search, I didn't really have an opinion on any of the rumored candidates because there's so much us outsiders can't really know. We can have senses of established managers, but the inexperienced guys there were bringing in were complete mysteries. The one exception to that was that I was intrigued by Acta based on some smart statheady things he had said with regard to strategy -- when to bunt, steal, etc. He's lived up to those for the most part, but it's worth noting that what's made him so terrific hasn't been his eschewing of the bunt, but the unquantifiable clubhouse stuff. There really are many things numbers can't tell us.

2) Dmitri Young! What more can you say about what he's done on the field? And while the off-field stuff makes for an easy story (especially ones that are written well), it's what he does between the lines that has been so valuable for the Nats.

So much so that there's a growing consensus among some of the fans that the Nats should hold on to him. Bah. The case against that is here.

I'm glad he was able to turn his life around, and I'm glad he's enjoying things and that his teammates love him. I just still have a hard time rooting for the guy, even if I sometimes find myself cheering for the things he does.

3) Jason Bergman! I still find it amusing that the season's must surprising pitching discovery would've been buried in Columbus were it not for Jason Simontacchi's groin. He was way down on the depth chart, and only a rash of injuries late in spring training kept him north. The Nationals certainly didn't know what he had.

His story seems to me as one that's as compelling as Young's. Here was a guy who can throw the ball a million miles per hour, and who has an ok track record in the minors who's just stunk up the park in the majors. And after his first start, where he walked 6 and K'd just 1, he was THIS close to losing any chance.

Then something clicked. I'm still not sure what it is. And I'm not sure that Bergmann himself even knows what it is, even if he says he slightly altered his grip on his pitches. But it happened, and it wouldn't have happened -- we can suppose -- if Simontacchi hadn't strained his groin. Bergmann needed to be in DC, with St. Claire over his shoulder and with Bowden barking in front of him. Right place. Right time. And he has a future. Take any individual piece of that away, and he's likely back in NJ teaching bored children how to dissect frogs.

He had ONE chance. And he survived.

(at least til the next arm injury!)

4) Lots of other things! The emergence of Matt Chico (look what he's done over his last 12 starts); Cristian Guzman's De Niro impersonation; the way Ronnie Belliard's jubblies bounce when he runs; Jesus Colome (no joke required), etc

What's Bad?
1) Where are the outfielders? At one point this season, Ryan Church was a valuable outfielder. Now, he's a LFer with a 104 OPS+, and he's surrounded by Nook Logan, Ryan Langerhans -- who's actually been quite good in his time with the Nats -- and one of the season's biggest disappointments, Austin Kearns. By OPS+, Chris Snelling, who batted .204, has been our second most effective outfielder.



2) Felipe Lopez. Overall, he's been terrible, both in the field and at the plate. But he's heated up over the last month, and his performance since then, has actually been acceptable. His homer on Sunday was one of the most surprising I've seen for two reasons: 1) it went to the opposite field and 2) it was a flyball. Either of those individually are enough to kill most homers at RFK. Combined, they're certain death. Somehow, it still went out.

3) Brian Schneider. Someone's already created the Rule for Catchers' Defense -- ie: the less they hit, the greater their defensive rep, regardless of any evidence in support. Schneider's defensive rep is certainly legitimate, so we need the Catchers' Analysis Corollary -- which, I spose, could also apply to Nook Logan, so back to the drawing board later. That is, the more an announcer had to describe what makes a player great, the less great that actual player is. Schneider's a hardnosed player who certainly plays terrific defense and deserves some of the credit for the success of the pitching staff, but to hear the MASN guys tell it, Johnny Bench has to look over his shoulder.

Count the number of times that a lunging flare barely over the shortstop's head into the opposite field is called a "great piece of hitting." He's a regular Tony Gwynn.

But in reality, he's in Brad Ausmus territory -- a solid defensive catcher with raves of his defense that turn into a hagiography because there's nothing positive you can say about their bat.

4) Lots of other things. John Patterson's ouchies; The pitchers' complete inability to hit or bunt; Ryan Zimmerman's batting eye and steady defense; the bench, Wo, the bench; Jason Simontacchi, Mike Bacsik and a bunch of the other B-team pitchers.

Halfly Awards

MVP: Dmitri Young -- not much doubt, eh?
CY Young: Matt Chico -- 180 innings of 4.30 ball? I'll take it!
LVP: The Cincinnati Kids -- Bring Back Bray!!!
Joe Horgan Award: Levale Speigner -- you had blocked out his memory, hadn't you?

What's Ahead?
More losses, natch!

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