Saturday, April 23, 2005

Their M.O. is that they're good

The division has lots of good starters, Saint Barry writes, and last night was an object lesson

And Mark Zuckerman of the WaTimes agrees, presenting a fairly probing question:

In their defense, the Nationals have been shut down by some of the National League's best arms. Glavine, who surrendered two hits in seven innings last night, was only the latest starter to dominate
Washington, joining the likes of Dontrelle Willis, Josh Beckett, Mike Hampton and John Smoltz. So is the Nationals' offense really that deficient, or has it simply been a victim of superb work by opposing pitchers?

How about some of Column A, and some of Column B? Usually, an explanation containing the word "simply" will be simply deficient.

But, when you think about it, the Nats can't do too much about the starters they face in their divisional contests (though they do get to avoid Pedro Martinez this time around), so Zuckerman's question is---from a certain perspective, at least---somewhat as irrelevant as it is probing.

How does an offense get better, more potent, more efficient, etc.?

1) It can incorporate new players.

Thanks to District of Baseball for a link to an article (registration required) that the Nats are looking at acquiring Austin Kearns from the Reds. Bugmenot is not helping me at the moment, and I do not feel like registering, but DoB Jeff does note that Ken Griffey, Jr. thinks the Reds making that trade would be a mistake. (No word on what Dan O'Brien thinks, though.) I'm guessing that any Kearns/Wily Mo Pena/other Red trade would involve Zach Day, who is a Cincy native and is currently "Up" in his up/down/up/down/up/down cycle. Better trade him quick!

2) It can mix in different combinations of "existing" players.

I'm thinking that neither Kearns nor Pena will be a Nat, and I haven't heard many rumors involving other teams. Consequently, I consider it likely that we'll have to make do with what we've got. What can Frank Robinson do?

He can juggle the lineup, and he's already started doing that, benching Ryan Church in favor of the seemingly more potent Terrmel Sledge. It has also been advocated by several bloggers that Robinson cut down the playing time of one-month free agent bust Cristian Guzman and assign more playing time for utility infielder Jamey Carroll, a scrappy guy with a better batting eye.

He can also juggle the batting order and match-ups. The obvious quick-fix is to lock Guzman into the seventh or eighth spot, never to return to the second hole; that's a popular solution---and one any reasonable person would advocate (and has advocated)---but then again, it's not likely to add that many more runs to the mix. Robinson can also forget about platooning in left field, entrenching Sledge there as the regular and bypassing J.J. Davis; however, I haven't really researched whether that decision would net a positive. And so forth.

Largely, these fixes are superficial. They may help situationally, though. For instance, as noted by Capitol Punishment Chris, it's extremely frustrating to see Brad Wilkerson start something good, only to see Guzman amble up to the plate with directions to lay down a pointless bunt.

3) It can initiate new and different approaches.

Simply put, the Nats give away too many outs---especially recently. But there's that word, "simply," again. What does that mean?

* Early-game complacency. According to Robinson after last night's frustrating 3-1 loss to Tom Glavine and the Mets:

"We don't seem to come to compete until about the sixth or seventh inning of ballgames," Nationals Manager Frank Robinson said. "And that's no matter who's out there on the mound. The way we approached Glavine tonight, we weren't going to do anything to him."

This is the down-side of those thrilling rallies against Arizona last week: the offense accomplished very little until the later innings. A guy like Russ Ortiz will rack up a significant pitch count just by virtue of being Russ Ortiz; the bullpen will follow, and Arizona's didn't look too great (especially when Bob Melvin falls asleep and leaves Randy Choate to wither and die. When you face Tom Glavine, though, you've got to do your part. Before you know it, Glavine could be up 1-0 in the sixth inning and not even have broken a sweat. All of a sudden, the "middle reliever" and "loogy" links in the starter-middle reliever-loogy-set up man-closer chain have been broken.

Just look at what the Mets did to Esteban Loaiza last night: 68 pitches through three innings, 98 through four, 118 and down after five. (Fortunately, the bullpen was effective.)

* Playing into the pitcher's hands. Again, according to Robinson:

"Say it any way you want to say it," Robinson said. "It comes down to, in baseball terminology, we're not having good at-bats, for one reason or another. We're swinging at pitchers' pitches. We're not swinging at our pitch. We don't work the count. A pitcher gets in a rhythm, we just do nothing to disrupt that rhythm."

As Endy Chavez demonstrated, it's exceedingly difficult to disassociate the hackster from the hack. I'm not going to dump on Guzman too much, considering he accounted for the team's only run last night, but he was an accessory in the murder of an eighth inning rally:

The Nationals threatened only once more, putting men on second and third with no outs in the eighth. But Mets reliever Roberto Hernandez got Guzman to ground out meekly to the catcher, struck out Jose Vidro and induced an inning-ending pop out from Jose Guillen."Second and third, and we didn't move anybody [up]?" Robinson said in disgust. "That's hard to take."

Yes, it sure is, Frank.

---If only this were 1988.

In a way, I kind of enjoy these (generally) low-scoring games; they remind me of an era of baseball from the recent past. It's kind of fun to watch a game and not see it mired in a poorly -pitched 6-5 "duel" when the teams go to the bullpen in the sixth inning.

Then again, if only the rest of the league complied with the Nats' style of play and my sensibility toward nostalgia.

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