Tuesday, May 31, 2005

This time, it's legit


Okay, so yesterday's win was a bit tainted. Or, as my Braves-fan boss exclaimed today, "What was that?!" And, if you're boss is displeased, you act with appropriate . . . uh, empathy.

Well, Braves Nation, in the interest of sporting fairness worldwide, yes, I bleed for you . . . but, guess what?---today, no excuses. Or, as the aptly-dubbed Rocket Bill Ladson wrote not even 10 minutes after the conclusion of tonight's game:

The Nationals came back from a 3-0 deficit to defeat the Braves, 5-4, in front of 29,512 fans at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium on Tuesday night. The Nationals have won three consecutive games and now find themselves only 1 ½ games behind the Braves and Marlins in the National League East.

Not bad, eh? We've also even in the "win column" with the Marlins, not that such a bit of trivia means anything.

In short order, here are my impressions:

Positives---

---> John Patterson seemed like he was on a leash, but aside from a rough first inning, was rather effective indeed. Just what the Nats' quack doctors ordered, eh?
---> Nick Johnson is a demigod.
---> Thanks for being on your own pitch count, Mike Hampton!

Negatives---

---> Cristian Guzman transcends mere evaluation.
---> C.J. Nitkowski is not only pointless, but is extremely harmful to the health of the club.
---> Chad Cordero got the save (and finished with what Harry Caray used to admiringly call a Randy Myers "flourish") but clearly looked---rather, sounded, of course---tired. Rocket Bill's mini-gamer didn't accurately detail Cordero's tenuous grasp on the lead:

Closer Chad Cordero picked up his 13th save of the season, though he allowed a solo homer to Julio Franco in the ninth to cut the winning margin to one run.

It was more like homer-single-single, before Cordero induced a near double-play ball and then struck out Brayayayan Pena and Scooty Furcal.

All in all, though, a good win; I always feel better when this team is comfortably above break-even.

_______________________________

Yesterday, the Nats defeated a rather intiguing pitching prospect, Kyle Davies, and the estimable Baseball Savant tracked his performance. Well, that description doesn't do David's exhaustive work any kind of justice. Let's just say he broke it down scientifically. I definitely commend this entry to your reading enjoyment and edification.

How could something so wrong feel so right?



Yes, yes; I know. It wasn't a foul ball. Shhhhhhh . . .

Monday, May 30, 2005

50 games played, 50 observations made


1. Middling, or worse: 25-25, 8th (out of 16---all comparisons in NL) in ERA, 14th in runs scored.
2. But middling's good: I predicted 75-87, and right now Nats are on pace for . . . hold on while I plug in the calculations . . . 81-81. Not too bad, folks.
3. Lack of (non-Nick Johnson) selectivity bemoaned: Nats 10th in "Isolated Patience" (OBP - BA) at .065.
4. Put 'em in play: Only Rockies have struck out fewer batters than Nats (259).
5. But we'll give the free pass: Nats 11th in walks allowed with 174. (Poor Colorado: fewest Ks, most BBs.)
6. Surprise, surprise! Nats 2nd in sacrifices, with 25. (Only Arizona has more.)
7. Sheer excitement! Nats lead league in sacrifice flies, with 19.
8. Ugh: Nats' 52% stolen base success rate worst in NL.
9. Bring us the head of Lance Cormier! Nats second in hit-by-pitches.
10. Thanks, RFK! Only anemic Astros average more AB-per-HR than Nats (43.4).
11. Geriatric, but not SF-geriatic: Nats tied for second in GIDP (41), but Giants No. 1 with syringe, er, bullet there.
12. See it/hit it, see No. 3: Nats tied for 12th in pitches-per-plate appearance.
13. Saber-bait: Nats 15th in runs created-per-27 outs.
14. Thanks, RFK! (part deux): Nats 2nd in fewest homers allowed. (Four of top five are NL East teams.)
15. Blow this! Nats' 3 blown saves tied for 2nd fewest.
16. Schneider, the super: Nats 2nd in lowest opposition caught stealing percentage (47%).
17. DIPS (measuring) stick: Nats 8th in DIPS ERA, at 4.25.
18. Efficient or easily-tired? Nats 9th in pitcher-per-start (94.5).
19. What platoon advantage? Lefties Wilkerson (.212), Schneider (.223) struggle vs. righty pitching.
20. What platoon advantage? (part deux): Righty slugger Jose Guillen (.228) struggles vs. lefty pitching.
21. Well, who cares? Situational splits like those based on fairly small samples, not necessarily meaningful.
22. Byrd watching: Endy replacement batting .357, with one double in 28 ABs.
23. Nats' offense as a 550 AB regular: .259/.324/.397, 13 HR, 63 RBI, 65 R, 30 2B, 3 3B, 3 SB.
24. Perspective: Above numbers near-dead ringer for average NL catcher in '04: .258/.323/.386, 14 HR, 71 RBI, 61 R, 31 2B, 1 3B, 2 SB.
25. Bring back Juan Rivera! Nats averaging 3.88 runs-per-game right now; last year's punchless Expos actually averaged more (3.92).
26. Rally capped: Nats 3rd in batting average, 7th inning onward (.276).
27. Table definitely not set: Nats last (by a lot) in runs, 1st-through-6th innings.
28. Just load 'em up: Nats 3rd in batting average, 2nd in runs scored in bases loaded opportunities.
29. Get it done before that second out, fellas! Last 15th in BA with two outs and runner(s) in scoring position.
30. Yikes: Nats' hurlers have 20.08 ERA in the above scenario---and that's not too bad, relative to league.
31. An even .300: The average (110-for-367) Cristian Guzman would have to post, given his current pace, to match career average of .266.
32. The answer is 91. Q: What is Nick Johnson's team-leading RBI pace?
33. The answer is 91: Q: What is Nick Johnson's team-leading BB pace?
34. League-leading ¡LIVAN! Given ace's Montreal support, who would have guessed he'd be tied (with Dontrelle) for NL lead in wins?
35. Better than Bonds? Broken wing Eischen's OPS = 2.000. Beware of sample size (1), of course!
36. Bat him sixth! ¡LIVAN!'s .644 OPS better than those of Guzman, Schneider, Carroll.
37. Maybe he isn't an everyday player? Carroll down to .263/.330/.305---.247/.333/.273(!) in May.
38. Adjusted ERA: Remove "contributions" of Toasty Osuna and Two Dollar Horgan, and team ERA drops from 4.23 to 3.78.
39. 2,573,613: Nats' projected attendance.
40. 748,550: Expos' '04 attendance. (Drew 1M+ in '03---San Juan new team smell?---but was as low as 642K in '01.)
41. What DC effect? O's averaging 29,446, worst ever in OPACY, but not by much (30,303 in '03).
42. Rating Charlie & Dave: Using my XM-enabled subjective criteria, Nats' radio guys rank 3rd in NL East, below Florida and New York, but above Philly (not enough Kalas) and Atlanta (sheer boredom).
43. Working hard for his $350K: Luis Ayala 2nd in appearances, tops in relief innings.
44. Top five worst games of season, in chronological order: 1) 4/8 at FLA (9-0); 2) 4/11 at ATL (11-2); 3) 4/23 at NYM (10-5); 4) 5/17 vs. MIL (8-2, the "Obermuller game"); 5) 5/25 at CIN (12-3).
45. Best game of the year: 4/12 at ATL (4-3, the "Kolb game").
46. Tough luck, Stevie: Loaiza on pace for 3 wins, despite 3.61 ERA.
47. ¡LIVAN! and pray for rain: Beside Hernandez, no pitcher on pace for 10 wins.
48. Rather, just screw the fifth starter: Despite Hernandez, Loiaza, and Patterson (2.98), Nats are 11th in starters' ERA (4.23).
49. But at least they're consistent: Nats have 4.22 bullpen ERA (8th).
50. 50-game MVP? Either Johnson or &#161LIVAN!

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Facts & Joe Morgan: Mutually exclusive


During tonight's Red Sox-Yankees game (again, again! more, more! never, never enough!), the ESPN people ran a graphic that illustrated how effective Boston's offense is. I can't remember the details, but it listed the Red Sox as something like (among AL teams):

---> 1st in batting average;
---> 3rd in slugging percentage;
---> 2nd in runs scored; and definitely,
---> 1st in on-base percentage.

Upon seeing the graphic, Joe Morgan appeared strangely surprised to learn that the Sox were first in OBP; he said (paraphrasing), "That's interesting, because it hasn't really been Boston's game." Morgan then repeated a theme from earlier about how the Red Sox have become quite adept at hammering good pitching.

I'd like to know the planet Morgan calls home. Sure, the Red Sox are leading the league in OBP; that's not a new thing, you know. Here, let's spell it out, thanks to the wonder of BaseballReference.com:

Year . . . . . . Boston OBP . . . . Rank
2004 . . . . . . .360 . . . . . . . . . . . 1st
2003 . . . . . . .360 . . . . . . . . . . . 1st

Hell, even if Morgan doesn't have time to do the two or three clicks required for laymen like us to perform such extensive analysis, doesn't he know that the Red Sox hired Bill Freakin' James? This isn't news; that was a year-and-a-half ago, for crying out loud.

Morgan himself points out that the Red Sox are a bunch of big, lumbering sluggers. Doesn't he know that there's a pretty decent correlation between "wait for your home run pitch" with "drawing walks"?

It goes even farther than that, actually. Not even ten minutes after expressing surprise that the Red Sox are this ultra-patient team, Morgan pointed out that Johnny Damon is different than many of the Boston hitters in that he is . . . guess what . . . a free swinger. Morgan's own analysis isn't even internally consistent. I wonder how Jon Miller retains his sanity.

Anyway, I don't want to turn this into a subpar impersonation of Aaron Gleeman. As a matter of fact, even considering Morgan's faults (and there are many, of course), I sort of like the guy as a color commentator. I guess it's because, above all, he's fairly personable; he and Miller make a pretty good team.

On the other hand, Morgan's biggest problem is that he's essentially unaccountable---at least among points like these. On minor things, like games of semantics and logical puzzlers, Miller banters with Morgan. But, concerning the domain of analysis, Morgan is pretty much untouchable. And that's never a good thing.

The only option left

From Rocket Bill's notes on the regional Pravda website:

The Nationals decided not to wait until they return to Washington, D.C., to work with shortstop Cristian Guzman, who is in a 5-for-49 slump. At around 1:30 on Saturday afternoon, manager Frank Robinson was spotted giving the switch-hitting Guzman advice near the batting cage at Busch Stadium. Robinson had Guzman work strictly from the left side of the plate. Robinson has noticed that Guzman has too much body movement, which is causing him to hit too many weak ground balls. Robinson instructed Guzman to keep the top half of his body back and just use his hands. "It's starting to come. On Friday, I liked his first at-bat [when Guzman singled]. After that, it kind of got away from him a little bit," Robinson said. "We are trying to get to the point where it becomes natural to him, and he doesn't have to think about it. I think he will be all right."

As I write this (4:30 Sunday afternoon), Guzman is 0-for-3 with three strikeouts in today's game, so there's our progress, eh?

Ladson also noted that Robinson's been devoting some one-on-ones to Tyrell "Big Slugger" Godwin and Brian "Vulnerable to the Inside Pitch" Schneider.

Finding out true love isn't blind


Back in April, Vinny Castilla was red-hot---especially during those first, wonderful games at RFK Stadium---and he was regarded as . . . well, if not a national hero, then certainly a Nationals hero. Those with insight, erudition, and affinity for veggie dogs were even calling for moratoriums of Castilla-related criticism. Heck, it wasn't just those types; even I was caught up in the moment.

Well, at least there was good reason. In April, Castilla hit a marvelous .347/.395/.613.
And, even as this entry "goes to press," Castilla is sitting at a solid .284/.359/.457. If you had asked me . . . if you had asked anyone who blogs the Nats . . . if you had asked St. Barry if the Nats should take a .359 on-base percentage, then the answer would have been a resounding, "Yes, gladly." (If you had asked Frank Robinson, he might have responded, "What's that? I only know what my gut tells me." But I digress.)

Still, some signs of decay are quite present now (reflected in a .230/.330/.322 month of May), and for the first time, Vinny's receiving some biting criticism. From Mark Zuckerman's WashTimes gamer:


When you only give yourself one legitimate chance to score in a nine-inning game, you better make the most of that opportunity. You certainly better not
ground into an inning-ending double play on the first pitch you see. Which
explains why Washington Nationals manager Frank Robinson was so livid after
veteran third baseman Vinny Castilla did just that in the sixth inning of a 3-1
loss to the St. Louis Cardinals last night at Busch Stadium. "Sometimes you
have to work the count," Robinson said, emphasizing each of the last three
words. "Just don't go up there and swing at the first pitch."

At least Robinson's consistent about selectivity. (See Endy Chavez for more.) Then again, patience has actually been one of Castilla's strengths so far this season; even his dismal May has been salvaged, to some extent at least, by a good walk rate.

During the offseason, I averred that, if Jim Bowden really wanted a veteran free agent third baseman, he should have signed Joe Randa instead. I predicated this analysis on two points:

1) All things equal, Randa and Castilla are of comparable quality; and,
2) Randa could have been (and was) had for a one-year contract rather than the two-year deal Castilla signed.

This second point operated on the assumption---no doubt unfounded---that the Nats would consider Brendan Harris for a regular position down the road. That assumption, if not foreclosed, still remains to be seen, of course.

The first point pretty much still holds, I think, Castilla's hot April notwithstanding. Randa is currently hitting .280/.361/.435. Absent Castilla's preternatural knack for doubles during the first month, their slugging figures would be almost precisely on par. (Of course, Randa also has the benefit of a good home hitter's park, while Castilla certainly doesn't.)

Furthermore, even if my assumption (hope?) concerning Harris was incorrect, I still blanche a bit at the length of Castilla's contract. It's not ridiculously long, of course, but I still fear a second season of a regular role for Castilla; by that time, he'll be turning 39, and I get the feeling that, if Castilla's late career will be marked by a Ponce de Leon season, I don't think next year will represent it. In addition, if the Nats try to flip Castilla to a contender for a prospect next season, they'll have to deal with RFK Stadium's offensive-dampening effects; Castilla's numbers will likely appear lower than they would have had he played in a neutral park.

At any rate, don't misunderstand: Castilla's certainly not a reason to go all irrational in white hatred. (And what am I, the author of the "Rueckel Report"---which has had "bad May" as a theme---criticizing a player's performance in May.) He's been good, on balance---and if you're into veteran leaders, Castilla probably has what you want.

Just don't let him hit during a bases loaded rally, I guess.

So which is it, Frank?

From St. Barry's WaPo gamer the other day:

"When we're going good, it's not the manager; it's the players," he said. "And when you're going bad, it's not the manager; it's the players. All I can do is make out a lineup, and hopefully go out and perform. We're not performing, right now, at any level."

Robinson, in Rich Hummel's "Five Questions" in yesterday's St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

"But you don't let the players run the ballclub. If you're going to be the manager, you're the bad guy. You're the authority. You make the decisions whether a guy stays in the game or doesn't. You pinch-hit for players. Of course, they don't think you should. But what you
have to try to do is make the majority of the players on the team happy over the course of the season."


Friday, May 27, 2005

The bigger they are, the harder they tear


But, if you're Jon Rauch, hopefully not that hard:


[Team physician Bruce] Thomas said if the tear is small and doctors are able to repair it easily, Rauch could return by the end of the season. "I've seen that," Thomas said. "But I've also seen plenty of times where it's bad enough that he would have to aim to be ready by next spring."

I guess this would be as good a time as any to cite the work of the unlicensed good doctor of basebology, Will Carroll:


But if pitchers with torn labrums were horses, they'd be destroyed. Of the 36 major-league hurlers diagnosed with labrum tears in the last five years, only midlevel reliever Rocky Biddle has returned to his previous level. Think about that when your favorite pitcher comes down with labrum trouble . . .

Considering Carroll wrote this before Biddle's flammable '04 with Montreal/San Juan, I'd reckon the Biddle reference is even more haunting now.

Carnage! Mayhem! Li'l Kim!

Wipe them out---all of them

Yesterday brought the most startling roster shuffle since the Duke Boys were replaced by their cousins (?), named Coy and Vance (?), so that Bo and Luke could join the stock car circuit or demand for more money from Warner Bros. Or whatever. Anyway, Chris has provided us with an elongated skinny on the day that was. Let us be thankful.

In his entry, Chris expresses befudwilderment (my word) or exasperation that Claudio Vargas was designated for assignment. I can't say I blame Chris, but just so we get the context, here you go:

This makes absolutely no sense to me. Obviously I don't want the guy
starting. And I'm not sure I even want the guy relieving.Being DFA'd means the team frees up his roster spot while he's in a state of limbo. The team can trade him, or let him go via waivers. If he clears waivers, he can continue to play for the team in the minors.In this case, though, they're giving up on him completely. If they had wanted to send him to the minors, he still has option years. They could send him down with zero risk of losing him. Doing it this way means they're either releasing him, or trading him.The only other possible reason that they would do it this way is to clear a spot off the 40-man roster.
But, why do it in a way to risk losing a player?

And, yes, I did copy-and-paste all of that just to make my post here seem more substantial.

Anyway, I generally posted my crackpot thoughts in the comments section of Chris's entry linked above, but I guess I'll repeat the gist of it here: I have this feeling, not based on any evidence (in fact, contrary to some recent examples---see, e.g., Cust, Jimenez), that designating a guy for assignment somehow makes the guy a more alluring trade prospect to other teams. The simple reason is that the other teams (unless you're, say, the Texas Rangers, and you're just plain in butt-need of pitching) wouldn't look at a guy like Vargas unless there existed a reason to---which is exactly what a DFA move creates. It is like the player has to be lowered to a quivering mass of jello---in a sense, at least---to be seen as marginally attractive by another team. Otherwise, the other team wouldn't even have reason to look at the guy.

Of course, the hole in that theory (other than counterexamples) is that the guy could just end up being released, anyway.

But, assuming a trade is initiated within the "DFA period" (and the reason my thoughts came to fore over Vargas is that it does happen), it's like a sop to the original team: a problem player is removed, and a little something is brought back.

Of course, the hole there, as applied here, is that it's fairly widely known that other general managers pretty much hate Jim Bowden. (Except maybe Ed Wade; how else to explain the Endy-for-Byrd trade as a favor to the Nats?)


Thursday, May 26, 2005

Frobby v. Pythag

This time, it's personal!

Nats Blogster Dexys_Midnight posted a rumination today on what it means to root for a team managed by Frank Robinson. (It's turning into a rather memorable experience, isn't it?) Allow me to excerpt an intriguing passage:

My main problem with Frank Robinson is that he far too frequently chooses wrongly on those things upon which reasonable minds should not differ. And that is going to cost a team a few games a season (maybe 5 give or take--I am not citing a stat here, just guessing. Add up 5 games a season and you get pretty close to Frank's woeful career managerial record).

This is an interesting thought. I suppose there is a way, historically at least, to frame Robinson's managerial record beyond "mere" wins and losses---or at least reframe it in a context which might serve to isolate at least some of his navigational skills.

Well, I'll hesitate to go that far, actually; neverthless, a look at the Pythagorean records of the teams that he's managed might prove somewhat illuminating.

Here's a run-down of his full seasons as a manager. I could use Retrosheet for the partial seasons, but you guessed it: that would take way too long. Well, here we go:

Year . . . . . . . W/L . . . . . . . +/- PYTHAG
1975 . . . . . . . 79-80 . . . . . . . (-1)
1976 . . . . . . . 81-78 . . . . . . . (+1.5)
1977---FIRED MID-SEASON
1981 . . . . . . . 56-55 . . . . . . . (-1)*
1982 . . . . . . . 87-75 . . . . . . . (+8)
1983 . . . . . . . 79-83 . . . . . . . (-1)
1984 ---FIRED MID-SEASON
1988 . . . . . . . 54-101 . . . . . . (~+1)**
1989 . . . . . . . 87-75 . . . . . . . (+4)
1990 . . . . . . . 76-85 . . . . . . . (-1)
1991---FIRED MID-SEASON
2002 . . . . . . . 83-79 . . . . . . . (0)
2003 . . . . . . . 83-79 . . . . . . . (+3)
2004 . . . . . . . 67-95 . . . . . . . (0)

* Strike season
** Okay, I fudged a bit here. Cal Ripken, Sr. was fired six games in (way to give it the old college try, guys!), and Robinson managed the rest of the season. The final record was 54-107, and the Pythagorean record was 55-106. Since we're only talking six games here, I merely assigned a 2-4 record, almost precisely the O's winning percentage for the season, to Robinson's season, giving him a plus-one. Yeah, that's sloppy; so sue me. ;-)

That comes out to + 14.5 wins above the expected record. (This season, Robinson's crew is three games above the expected pace, though I'd say a 47-game sample is a pretty dicey sample on which to make any conclusions. See yesterday's 12-3 loss for why.)

Sure, 14.5 games looks pretty nice, but let's add three rather significant caveats:

1) Pythagorean record is not a measure of managerial effectiveness; it is merely a measure, and discrepancies from actual records on the field can (and have been) chalked up to other factors, most often sheer, dumb luck.

2) To place those 14.5 games in context, we're talking about 11 seasons in the "study." That figures to just over a win per season gained.

3) Over half of Robinson's gains were made in one season, 1982, and + 8 is a pretty significant variation. If that's reflective of luck, then evaluations based on Robinson's Pythagorean record are even more tenuous.

There's also the consideration, I should add, that managers are not static beings. I don't have his play-by-play data handy, so I can't really tell you whether he was a bunting fool in, say, 1977. Leagues are also not static entities; certainly, it makes more sense (at least in theory) to bunt in a low-offense era than it does now.

Playing the Pete Gillen card


Pete Gillen coached the Virginia Cavaliers for seven seasons, and during his stay in Charlottesville exhibited an uncanny proclivity for dishing out blame to targets other than his big, sweaty forehead. Eventually, this practice caught up with him, when the writers and boosters realized that a quotable Northerner who can't win big ballgames is just a quotable Northerner.

For awhile, though, Gillen was a smooth operator of the blame game; until a victory in the 2004 play-in game, the ratio of critical deflections-to-ACC tourney wins was infinite---literally.

Frank Robinson, on the other hand, always struck me as a no-nonsense, take-the-responsibility kind of guy. I don't care about you, and I don't care what you think of me. A few weeks ago, I compared him to Doug Wilder in this respect, and if you're familiar with Wilder's crabiness, you'll understand it's not an insult.

Maybe it's not true, though. As pointed out by other members of the Nats blogosphere, Robinson has begun to play the Gillen card.

St. Barry recorded Robinson's sentiments thusly:


"When we're going good, it's not the manager; it's the players," he said. "And when you're going bad, it's not the manager; it's the players. All I can do is make out a lineup, and hopefully go out and perform. We're not performing, right now, at any level."

Uh oh.

As Svrluga seemed to angle, it's one thing if John McGraw-dressed-as-Copernicus fills out the lineup; when the manager is acting a bit odd, though, that's another story.

In his Guide to Baseball Managers, Bill James wrote that, essentially, the one indispensable quality of a good manager is the ability to command his players' respect; "everything else is negotiable." Maybe that's truly insightful, and maybe it's an easy generalization; maybe it's not even true. And maybe that is precisely what Robinson aims to do here, by placing the blame squarely on his players' shoulders.

This rhetorical tactic bears close scrutiny, though. The Nats are in the midst of a disheartening stage of the season. Overall, they're ahead of where we realistically pegged them at this stage, yes, but is that really relevant now? They could have been playing over their heads, sure, and the injuries might really spank them soon. Well, I'm done with foreseeing potential "Waterloo" scenarios, anyway.

Nevertheless, if Robinson deflects too much blame, it could get ugly. He got a free pass for two months, but if St. Barry's article is any indication, Robinson is in an EZPass lane without the tag.

Beyond Powell

Nats provide more than just talk on diversity

Aside from shoddy recent play, the hot Nats story of the moment is the news that Colin Powell has signed on with Team Malek-Zients and, as such, is somewhere between a potential and a likely future part-owner of the Washington Nationals. Powell was quick to address one implication resulting from his interest:

"In Washington, we have the opportunity to reinvigorate this city and bring baseball back to a generation of youth who have lost their connection to our nation's pastime," Powell said in a statement yesterday. "I'm encouraged by baseball's efforts to diversify its ranks and its reach, and the Washington Baseball Club shares that commitment to making this team accessible to every Washingtonian."

Here, Powell is not-too-subtly addressing the perception (backed up by statistical evidence) that African-Americans are "tuning out" the National Pastime, as has widely been reported. See, e.g., St. Barry and some other guy in the Post a couple of months ago.

It is worth noting, however, that the Nats already employ African-American members of the community in some heavy-hitting, influential positions. And, as Carla Peay of BlackAthlete.net points out, they're ladies, to boot:

Chartese Berry is the Nationals Vice President of Communications, and is responsible for community relations initiatives, media relations, and public affairs. Carleen Martin, the Nationals Director of Marketing and Promotions, oversees outside marketing and in-stadium entertainment. It would not be an overstatement to say that Berry and Martin control the image, the access, and the entire presentation of the Washington Nationals. From the fans to the media, the imprint that this baseball team makes is in the hands of these two young African American women.

The article provides a fascinating read, by the way. Both Berry (NFLPA) and Martin (NBA) have previously been employed in connection with major professional sports leagues. Both sound young, energetic, and committed to making the Nats attractive to all sectors of the region---and, of course, to the region as a whole.

I just hope they're not the ones behind "Let Yourself Go!"

Rueckel Report, May 26

Seth Joyner Special Edition



You remember Seth Joyner, right? He was a linebacker for the Iggles back in the 90s, a pretty good one indeed. However, I remember reading a magazine article that argued persuasively that Joyner was under-appreciated for a long time, but by the time that he received popular appreciation, he was actually overrated, because the quality of his play had slipped.

I don't know if the contention was firmly true, but this is a fairly common phenomenon in sports, I think: a guy toils in obscurity, then he's finally recognized and lauded for his past work, when all the while he's not quite the player he was when he toiled in obscurity. That's kind of how baseball free agency works, come to think of it.

Anyway, Corey Masisak of the Washington Times is one step away from "St. Barry status" in my eyes now, owing entirely to an article published on Sunday about the Harrisburg bullpen that contained, in large part, a combination glowing review/fascinating backstory of our favorite Nats prospect. (Thanks to District of Basebal Jeff and commenter extraordinaire Brian Oliver for the heads-up.)

Masisak provides us with the unlikely story of how Baby Ruckles became a professional relief pitcher; in essence, it's the story of a light-hitting college shortstop who didn't realize he possessed a deadly curveball:

One day during his sophomore season, however, he was messing around in the bullpen, and his situation changed. His roommate, Tommy John III, was rehabbing an injury, and Rueckel would toe the rubber when John was resting. "I was bringing back my glory days from high school," Rueckel joked. "I was just throwing to the catcher, and I got a little tap on the shoulder from Tommy John [Jr., his roommate's father and Paladins pitching coach]. He said, 'Throw that curveball again.' Then he said, 'OK, throw a fastball.' I knew where it was going, or at least it looked like I did, and it kind of snowballed from there."

So, as we suspected, Rueckel's two main hooks into pro ball were John the Older (literally, seeing as Tommy John I would be the "oldest," right?) and his curveball, which Masisak notes (as I did before) Baseball America evaluates as the best in the organization. Masisak also cites Rueckel's outstanding strikeout-to-walk ratio, which even during recent struggles (see below), remains excellent.

Of course, we're getting to the Seth Joyner part. Or, in the words of the organization's director of player development, Adam Wogan (quoted in the Masisak article):

"[The Harrisburg bullpen] really started out just lights out," Wogan said. "They've shown recently that they're human, but they are doing a great job."

Rueckel is no exception on any account.

Back during the high-flyin', propaganda-flingin' days of April, Rueckel was pretty much impervious---and that's no mouth-breathing hyperbole by me, either. May has been more difficult, as I noted in recent entries. During the last 10 days or so, the struggles have largely continued; Rueckel picked up a win in an excellent appearance, but he also suffered two defeats, including his worst outing of the season:

---> May 16: 1 IP, 1 H, 1 R (earned), 1 BB, 2 SO (charged with the loss in a 5-4 Harrisburg defeat).
---> May 17: 2 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 1 SO (credited with the win in a 6-4 Harrisburg victory).
---> May 22: 2.1 IP, 4 H, 4 R, 3 ER, 1 BB, 0 SO (charged with blown save and loss in a 6-5 Harrisburg defeat).

This last one, Rueckel's worst outing of the season, was in a way a tough-luck outing. He pitched the seventh and eighth innings without allowing a run but, as the game-wrap on minorleaguebaseball.com relates, things fell apart in the ninth:

Senators reliever Danny Rueckel (1-4) entered his third inning of relief in the ninth with a 5-2 lead, but gave up a lead-off single to Eric Duncan and walked Dee Brown. Duncan scored when Harrisburg second baseman Victor Mercedes misplayed a double-play grounder from Andy Cannizaro. The Thunder took advantage of Mercedes' miscue, as Yobal Duenas drove in a run on a RBI groundout and Kevin Thompson tied the game at 5-5 with a single to center field.

Rueckel was relieved, and the new pitcher allowed an inherited runner to score, ending the game. Had Mercedes not goofed on the grounder, it might have been long over.

Aw, while I'm playing the apologist, I'll throw out another bone: take a look at the season stats and tell me that the topic of Defense Independent Pitching Statistics doesn't come to mind.

SEASON-TO-DATE: 16 G, 22.2 IP, 25 H, 14 R, 10 ER, 0 HR, 5 BB, 23 SO; 1-4, 3.97 ERA, 3 SV.

----------------------------------------
As I've tried---probably unsuccessfully---to remember, Danny Rueckel isn't the only guy on the Harrisburg roster. The team is still pretty bad, but a couple of non-Rueckels have distinguished themselves lately. One is starting pitcher Rich Rundles, who is quietly churning out a mini-¡LIVAN! season: 4-3, 3.26 ERA, while averaging about 6.2 IP per start. (Don't get your hopes up, though; Rundles is also averaging about 4.5 strikeouts per nine innings pitched.) The other is hacking man Dee Haynes, who in 53 at-bats hasn't walked but is also hitting .377/.389/.698 with three homers and an astounding 19 ribbies over his first 12 games. (I suppose he's been hit by a pitch, thus explaining his "Isolated Patience" differential.)


Wednesday, May 25, 2005

An Endy by any other name

Call up a bench player? What a concept!

"Rocket Bill" Ladson provides the skinny:

In need of a position player, the Nationals placed right-hander John Patterson on the 15-day disabled list on Wednesday, retroactive to May 16, with spasms in his lower back. [ . . . ] The Nationals have not announced who will replace Patterson on the roster, but it is believed that outfielder Tyrell Godwin will join the team on Friday. [ . . . ] As for Godwin, he is expected to provide speed off the bench. He was arguably the best hitter in the Nationals' farm system. Godwin, a Rule 5 Draft pick, was hitting .333 with two home runs and 12 RBIs. In a perfect world, however, the team would like to keep Godwin in the Minor Leagues to learn his craft. But the Nationals are desperate for a position player. They have been short of such a player for more than a week and are carrying 12 pitchers. The team needed an extra position player on Tuesday against the Reds, but manager Frank Robinson
allowed right-handers Livan Hernandez and Gary Majewski to hit for themselves even though a pinch-hitter was called for both times. "I don't like to put pitchers in that situation," Robinson said. "I don't feel good putting that team in that situation, but we know that it's a possibility every time we go into each game and we live with it."


We've gone through this before, but to recap: Godwin is a 25- (almost 26-) year old slappin' swifty acquired via the Rule V draft (and subsequently retained by trade) from the Blue Jays. He was valedictorian of his high school class and could have played football at North Carolina, but chose not to---or eventually chose not to, or . . . I can't quite remember now. Judging by his age, the latter is more likely, come to think of it.

Godwin's minor league career through 2004 resembles a crude Mason-Dixon Line:

---> A-Ball: Hey, not bad! (.293/.375/.381)
---> Double-A: Pass. (.264/.326/.370)

Those numbers are derived from nearly identical samples, both consisting of over 600 at-bats.

This year, as Rocket Bill indicates, Godwin has been hot to trot, posting a .333/.394/.428 batting line. True to Rocket Bill's word, maybe Godwin is progressively learning his craft. Then again, maybe he's just had a hot 180 at-bats.

St. Barry mentioned Godwin today in a WaPo chat and, while corroborating that Godwin was getting the call-up, was quite dismissive of the player. Well, maybe Svrluga was being realistic. Twice Godwin's name came up; the first time it was in the context of an almost exclusive pinch runner, and the same time St. Barry noted that Godwin brings cleats but not a bat.

Throughout spring training and into the early season, "Tyrell Godwin" has been the word association partner of "Endy Chavez." I'm sure I could dredge up a story from late March or early April that essentially said, "The Nationals are tired of Endy Chavez and they have a similar player, Tyrell Godwin, ready to surpass Chavez on the depth chart." I'm sure I could link to such a story, but what would be the point? We all know such stories were fairly commonplace.

Chavez is long gone, of course, and there's little reason to reference him much anymore. I do believe, though---however misguided the belief may be---that I'd rather have Tyrell Godwin than Endy Chavez. The reason isn't because Godwin's the superior player; in fact, I'd reckon that Chavez is the better player now and probably will be for the balance of their careers.

Instead, the reason is (something resembling) that Godwin is actually the inferior player; consequently, he's likely aware of his limitations and realistic about his opportunities. Endy, by comparison, appeared used to life as an everyday player; when informed that he wasn't---Harper of OMG might caution me that I should insert "initially," and if he did, he'd probably he right---Endy brooded.

Essentially, it struck me that Endy had an inflated opinion of himself---perhaps justified, in that he was granted about 1,000 at-bats in 2003-04. It scared the daylights out of me that Frank Robinson would content himself---again---with a player of Endy's mediocre offensive capabilities. This might have been an irrational fear; it turned out to be unfounded, at any rate. But it was my fear nonetheless, and Tyrell Godwin doesn't invoke one iota of that fear now.

Not because Godwin's better; rather, although I don't know Godwin from Adam, I suspect he knows he's not better and won't insinuate himself into the team's long-term plans.

Of course, I could remind myself right about now that I'm talking about a fifth outfielder/pinch-runner, and Godwin himself is a rather pointless player in such a role. Well, yeah. But when your team's players are dropping like flies, I guess you've got to do something.

And, unlike Endy, Godwin won't mistake a renter for a buyer---as the saying goes.


--------------

Warning: This is going to border on harsh or mean or confrontational. Despite the blog's tabloid-invoking name, that's not really my style here, unless your name is Peter Angelos or Bob DuPuy. But I'll break from form for a second.

Those two probably not being in attendance here, I'll direct my ire toward the sizable and/or vocal (but certainly shrill) portion of Nats Nation that appears disposed to petty whining. You know who you are. Well, you might disagree with my assessment, but I know who you are, and that's really all that matters to me.

I've got to level with you: I hate the whining. Whine away all you want, of course; that's your right. But, really, you guys suck.

Whatever am I talking about? Why, the Post, of course! The drill is familiar:

---> "Waah, the Post covers the Orioles too much."
---> "Waah, the Post covers the Orioles too much and consequently doesn't cover the Nats enough."
---> "Waah, the Post shouldn't cover the Orioles at all."
---> "Waah, the Post should boycott the Orioles, or something."
---> "Waah, the Post is in the pocket of the Pratt Street Anus."

In lieu of calling these jihadists simpletons, Post sports editor Emilio Garcia-Ruiz Gonzalez Torres Smith Nakatomi Guerrero Rajstanjani penned a Sunday column explaining why his little old operation still bothers with the zerOes or the Boo Birds or whatever lame nickname tickles today's middle school fancy. It's concise, respectful, conciliatory, reasonable, and to the point:

In recent Post reader surveys, the Orioles ranked below only the Redskins in fan interest among the most loyal followers of the sports section. [ . . . ] When the Nationals arrived, the folks who run the newspaper asked what we should do with the Orioles. The answer seemed obvious: Keep those readers who have enjoyed our Orioles coverage happy by continuing to
cover that team and add the resources necessary to give a new team, the Nationals, the coverage it deserved.

We added reporters and doubled the space we allocate for major league baseball, a boon for readers who enjoy the sport. We set up separate American and National League pages and committed to covering a two-team market the way newspapers in Southern California, New York, Chicago and the Bay Area do.

The editors agreed that the Nationals would be the bigger story; the historical significance of a team returning to Washington clearly would outweigh anything the Orioles did. But we were also determined to remember those readers to whom the Orioles were so important for so many years and continue to cover them as well as possible.

Several points here:

1) The guy says the O's coverage still tests well in his circulation area.
2) We all know the circulation area stretches rather far northward.
3) The O's are a logical fit to base an "American League" entry in an expanded NL/AL baseball section---which seems reasonable since surely there are lots of Yankees and Red Sox fans in the area.
4) Any claim that the coverage is "50/50" is a misrepresentation.
5) I'll add that it's exceedingly obvious that the O's coverage doesn't reduce a milimeter of the Nats' coverage. The Washington Nine would be covered the same way and the same amount even if the O's were to disappear.
6) Like I even need to add this one: MORE BASEBALL = GOOD THING.

Maybe I do need to add the last one, because some people apparently still don't get it. That's okay; that's their right.

I would say that a person of that sensibility is silly and stupid and spiteful, an Angelos in sheep's clothing. But that would be unnecessarily strident.

I'll just say it's whiny. Because, lo and behold, it is.


Disclaimer: I don't mean to categorize every person who bemoans the Post's allocation (or, rather, increase) of resources in such a negative light. Indeed, many such people are reasonable and level-headed on the subject. Just so I make that clear . .

"Because of Hurricane Ivan . . . "


So I returned late last night from an enjoyable respite overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. (Many thanks to the personable folks at the Phoenix VI complex in Orange Beach, AL; for all you do, this Red Stripe's for you.)

But you know what? It would have been far more enjoyable had not Hurricane Ivan passed through last September. At least, that's my suspicion, for "Because of Hurricane Ivan . . . " turned into a rather oft-repeated refrain, I must say.

---> "Hey, let's go to the Back Porch!" (That's a tavern-on-the-water friends had enjoyed last year.) Nope. Because of Hurricane Ivan . . .

---> "Hey, let's go jet-skiing!" Negative, ghostrider. Because of Hurricane Ivan . . .

---> "Hey, let's use the Phoenix VI work-out room!" Sorry. Because of Hurricane Ivan . . .

---> "Hey, the water sure looks murky!" Yuck. Because of Hurricane Ivan . . . (big boats were busy dredging up these big pipes that extended about 50 yards off the shore; a guy in a hard-hat said they had been damaged).

Anyway, I got to thinking that maybe the excuse works for Frank Robinson, too. "Geez-a-lou, Frank sure manages like he's a
doddering idiot!" Why? Because of Hurricane Ivan . . .

It even serves as a soothing mantra for us, the Nats fans, the vicarious victims of this doddering idiocy:

---> "Frank
bunts far too often and in odd situations . . . because of Hurricane Ivan."

---> "Frank
may have been able to hit pitchers, but he sure can't manage them . . . because of Hurricane Ivan."

---> "Frank
has an irrational obsession for Carlos Baerga and regards Ryan Church like I regard sushi . . . because of Hurricane Ivan."

---> "Frank overuses Luis Ayala . . . because of Hurricane Ivan."


---> "And Frank is old and cranky and, yes, largely unaccountable . . .

Yes indeed . . . Because of Hurricane Ivan."

Friday, May 20, 2005

Any landing is a good landing

Well, I'm off---headed for a restful stay in Gulf Shores, AL, at the luxurious . . . come to think of it, I have no idea where I'm staying, since I didn't make the arrangements. But I have every confidence that it'll have all the amenities: alarm clock, working toilet, chamber maids who can discern between a "tuck" and a "no-tuck."

Anyway, I will return to the town Johnny Grubb built on late Tuesday night. Maybe I'll get a post in on Wednesday, maybe not. Whenever I come back to blogging, though, it will be with a vengeance. Same blogger, new attitude!

You want a preview? Well, don't mind if I do:

SHOCKING! RIPPED FROM THE HEADLINES! FRANK ROBINSON CAUGHT EMERGING FROM LATE NIGHT STRATEGY SESSION WITH BUSTER OLNEY!

Until then, ponder the majesty that is Gulf Shores:

Something magic happens when you visit the Alabama Gulf Coast. The moment you arrive, the world starts to fade away. Maybe it's the sound of waves gently lapping the shore or the smell of coconut oil. Perhaps it's our white sand beach and sparkling emerald water. Suddenly building sandcastles moves to the top of your "to-do" list. You remember just how much fun your spouse is. You find yourself laughing at your son's "knock-knock" joke, even though you've heard it a zillion times. You linger over a succulent, fresh seafood dinner where nobody rushes to get away from the table.

Move over, Nags Head!

Oh, and if you have a minute, check out the BeachCam. I'm the one who'll be waving!

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Inquirer Book Review: The Juice

The Juice: The Real Story of Baseball's Drug Problems, by Will Carroll (Ivan R. Dee, 247 pp. with index; $24.95)


There is a chapter in Will Carroll's new book that is, for lack of a more appropriate description, liquid dynamite. I use the description because, for all I know, Liquid Dynamite is the name of one of those supplement shakes you or your buddy take. They all have bizarre, exaggerated names like Critical Mass and White Lightning. Personally, I like the name Liquid Dynamite.

This particular chapter fits the description---or at least the "dynamite" part. In the chapter, Carroll describes his meeting with a certain "Dr. X" at a small, Midwestern airport. Understand that, as Carroll tells it, this was no chance encounter; quite the contrary indeed, as Carroll's narrative reads like an abridged version of an obfuscation course run in a John Grisham novel (I am surprised that Carroll did not buy an airline ticket with cash under the name "Sam Fortune"), crossed with the meet quick between Jim Garrison and "Mr. X" in JFK.

The chapter weaves its way quasi-conspiratorily through the email contact by "Dr. X" (via a server stronghold no doubt designed, in the movie adaption of course, by a guy named Laslo), through the good doctor's elaborate instructions, through some short-notice cancellations (no doubt owing to perceived security breaches), and finally, to the meeting with a completely indistinguishable man. While reading the chapter, I imagined one of the Sandpeople sitting in a wheelchair.

Why all the precautions?

"Dr. X" may (or may not, Carroll leaves open) be the creator of THG---better known these days as "the clear."

Wow.

The Juice might be worth the price of admission, so to speak, based on that one chapter alone. It is certainly riveting. And enthralling. And infuriating. And, most of all, chilling. Carroll ends the chapter by confessing that, as he drove away from the airport upon the end of his (sole) encounter with "Dr. X," he looked in his rear-view mirror. Trust me, as the reader: when Carroll describes this paranoia, I really want to buy it. "Profile: The Creator" is one hell of a chapter.

It is also designated as Chapter Twelve. In other words, one of the best chapters of non-fiction (I think?) you'll read all year (trust me on that one) is buried in the middle-back of the book.

And so we arrive at the problem with The Juice: it overreaches. Frankly, it suffers from an identity crisis.

Is it a history of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs)? Is it reference guide for non-chemists? Is it a primer for those who are interested in the steroids controversy currently facing Major League Baseball? Or is it an insider's account?

The subtitle of the book ("The Real Story of Baseball's Drug Problems") makes me believe that the last of the choices hits closest to the mark; interestingly, it adopts the subtitle of John Helyar's Lords of the Realm ("The Real History of Baseball"). Helyar's book, which comprehensively tracks the relationship between MLB owners and players (at least up until its publication date), markets itself in such a manner, I would discern, because it is the product of literally hundreds of sources by whom Helyar was granted trust.

Carroll's book, by comparison, provides no such assurance. This leads to the second problem: I'm not sure I believe Carroll when he discusses his fascinating encounter with "Dr. X," or at least not fully.

Early in the book, Carroll profiles a professional baseball, "John Albertson," who used several PEDs, most notably Deca and Dianabol, early in this decade. "Albertson" experienced some brief moments of glory---including a late-season big league call-up and subsequent bloop single, purportedly off of Roger Clemens---but was mainly miserable while on the juice. He suffered injuries---some nagging and some worse---and, by the time Carroll interviewed him, was trying to make his way back up the hardball ladder.

The "Albertson" chapter is incredibly rich with detail. Carroll provides dates and baseball "character traits" (singles hitter in a power hitter position) and certain other clues, but it's all bunk. Just for kicks, I searched for a player who met all or even most of the details on Retrosheet; I even searched over a two-season period, because Carroll's timeline (probably intentionally) contains an inconsistency. Obviously, I wouldn't have mentioned the name even if I found it, but unless I am missing something, there's no such player.

Now, Carroll mentions in his Introduction that he changed certain "nonmaterial facts." Ethically, that is fair enough, I supppose. Obviously, he has to protect those people who spoke to him on a condition of anonymity---including "Albertson," if indeed that is one person, rather than a composite of several. I just wonder why Carroll made "Albertson's" story so detail-specific in the first place (an easier way to throw people off track would be to describe his on-field history rather vaguely, right?).

More importantly, I wonder whether his definition of "nonmaterial facts" would mesh with his reader's (including mine). It's a rather big leap of faith the reader must take here, and I am not certain that Carroll has established his worthiness on that front.*

Later on, Carroll revisits this type of profile with two other people, the aforementioned "Dr. X" and, before the good doctor, a short high school kid named "Wes." Now, "Wes's" story is rather excruciating; he's a formerly 5'8" teenager who regularly administers himself a form of Human Growth Hormone so that he can hit the hallowed Six-Feet Mark. (Carroll portrays this "mark" literally; poor "Wes" has a pencil-mark-on-the-doorframe chart that marks his progress, like he's a young boy or something.) What is excruciating is that "Wes's" parents not only know of his usage, not only approve of it, not only sent him to a doctor for it, but sent him to a doctor who willingly prescribes it. Sure, HGH will make you taller, Carroll writes; that's why it was created, in fact, to give "little people" a chance to grow enough to enjoy the comforts of modern society.

Why does "Wes" use it? So that scouts will look at him as a pitching prospect. "Wes" met one once, and the scout's line will probably be the lasting quote of The Juice: "Call me if you hit six-two."

But, I wonder, did the scout really say this? Did the encounter actually occur? If it occurred, did the scout dismiss "Wes" because he was too short or, rather, because "Wes" wasn't a particularly good pitcher. (Curiously, this is an implied characterization of "Wes's" pitching skill by Carroll and through certain statements by "Wes.") That, in a nutshell, is the problem with changing "nonmaterial facts."

By the time we hit the "Dr. X" chapter, I am fairly dubious. (Then again, maybe a dubious posture would be inevitable in that chapter, considering the otherwise fanciful cloak-and-dagger narrative.)

Well, on what other basis can be evaluate the book? Rightly, it is a primer for a baseball fan who is a layman on "chemical issues"---like me. Here, a couple of ineffective diversions aside (specifically, chapters dealing with the legal issues stemming from the BALCO investigation and a search by contributor Jay Jaffe for indicators of whether 'roids have spiked offensive and home run totals), the book overwhelmingly succeeds. While Carroll is not the most elegant writer and there is at least one horrendous editing error, the book is a breezy 250-page read that, if nothing else, is a handy reference on this current hot-button topic. In particular, the explanations provided by Carroll and his contributors (including his pop, a professor of some stripe) concerning the various types of PEDs (of which "steroids" are but one type) are incredibly helpful.

I learned something from the book, and I was entertained at times---on one occasion, extremely so. It is hard to ask for much more.

Still, like I say above, I wish the book did not overreach. I was fascinated by his thesis, repeated now and again (and in print and electronic interviews), that amphetamines are the real biggies out there right now. Accordingly, I wish the amphetamine discussion(s) had been longer, perhaps at the expense of a somewhat pointless discussion of Barry Bonds's legal future.

But if you want to know what "Oral Turinabol" is, look no further.


* At the risk of being flippant and/or mean, I'll note that Carroll's credibility is not universally considered inviolate.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Bigger than Endy

Harper at Oleanders & Morning Glories has posted an artfully-composed analysis of the Endy Chavez trade. I'm not sure that Harper introduces any new elements in his post; for instance, certainly others have noted that Endy demonstrated tangible improvement in his plate patience despite Frank Robinson's insistence otherwise, and still others have made the fundamental observation that Endy is ill-suited to be a regular lead-off man, anyway.

Neverthless, the manner in which Harper constructs his argument is compelling. It's a defense of Chavez in a sense, but then it isn't; his point is beyond Endy Chavez, and that is why it struck me. His central point is as broad as it is somber:

No, what bums me out is what this makes me think of management. In Endy, I see a player who was given an impossible task by his organization, who was punished not only when he failed at it, but also when he showed progress in it. I see how the outfield, 5th starter, and bench situations are being handled and I really doubt that this is the type of organization that can develop younger players. It seems that you need to excel immediately (like John Patterson did) or else you’re relegated to platooning, the bullpen, or worse the minors, being blamed by the coaching staff and GM all the way for “not stepping up”. I am really looking forward to a owner for this team, not only to get more money behind this franchise, but to really take a look at this franchise to see if the guys in charge are the ones that are really best for the future of the Nationals.

Like I said above, this is a compelling argument. One facet of Chavez's depature that must people noticed, I would surmise, is that the criticisms (as disseminated via the media) became much more vague and abstract. Pull up Barry Svrluga's recent chats, for instance; the most often oft-employed phrase is "he isn't [wasn't] getting it." What does this mean, precisely?

In essence, Harper argues forcefully that not only was the Nats' stated reason for Chavez's departure a pretext---as applied solely to Chavez---but that the behavior of management in arranging his banishment portends a more foreboding message. It's a strong argument, and it gives me substantial pause.

Ultimately, though, I can't agree---at least not fully. I see the Chavez trade as a positive step for this organization, independent of what the Nats received in return. Over a two-year period, Chavez amassed nearly big league 1,000 at-bats for the organization. During those two years, the team finished 12th (with Vladimir Guerrero) and 15th, respectively, in runs scored among National League teams.

By the time the 2004-05 offseason rolled along, Chavez was an established major league regular. He was mainly an ineffective regular, offensively at least, but at the same time he demonstrated certain traits of a regular center fielder, especially in '04: a) he hit for average, and b) he stole bases. These things, by comparison, Nick Johnson did not do last year.

One persistent theme of the offseason was a perceived struggle between three guys (Chavez, Johnson, and Terrmel Sledge) for two spots in the batting order. The magical dry erase board reflected this choice the organization faced; in fact, according to the board, Chavez was a regular and Sledge was a sub.

The team could have gone this way. It could have thrown Chavez and Cristian Guzman in the top two spots, as recommended and rumored by some during the offseason. Leaving Chavez in the regular lineup would have just been the same old thing for the organization---in effect, a step back for the Washington Nationals.

Instead, for whatever reason---and maybe patience was a pretext---Jim Bowden and Frank Robinson didn't leave well enough alone. That, to my thinking, was the big choice. And once that choice was made, to my thinking, what became of Chavez became secondary.

Playing the odds


Speaking of obsessions, one just can't avoid it. I tried to---I told Gill Alexander I would---but I can't. Harper at Oleanders and Morning Glories sort of touched on the subject today, too. It's unavoidable, it's inevitable, and it's relevant.

With approximately 24% of the season complete, the Washington Nationals are in the playoff hunt. Seriously.

"So Basil," you might ask, "what are the odds they make it?"

"I don't know," I'd reply. "Not good, but you never know?"

"No no, what are the odds?" you would then insist.

Well, if you insist . . .

I should disclaim three critical things here, before I begin. If I don't, then I'll look like a fool---well, more so:

1) I have no real idea how "odds" work; consequently, I'm just going to make some numbers up.

2) I'm conceding division titles to St. Louis and Atlanta.

3) As a result of No. 2, teams in the NL West, at least in theory, face better odds of making the postseason, since they would in effect be battling for one surefire slot and another potential opening (the Wild Card berth).

Yeah, No. 2 is sort of lazy, especially in the Nats' division. The Braves, after all, are only 23-16; are only 1.5 games ahead with about 120 games to go; are going to be without a starter, John "No P" Thomson for awhile; and are even riding a two-game skid at present. Whatever; they'll win. Why? Because they always win. Consider it the Jamey Carroll Converse.

So here are the rest of the teams (listed by team/record/odds/recap):

---> Los Angeles (22-17), 5-to-2: The Dodgers are a safe pick, insofar as they're reasonably talented, have two potential postseason spots available, are getting Gagne back, and have some Vicarious Beane Props to propel them onward until they flame out in the playoffs.

---> San Diego (24-16), 4-to-1: They're a hot team (yeah, I know: not necessarily relevant in August or September), are getting contributions from guys who didn't do much last year, are apparently lights-out at home, and have some Direct Beane Predecessor Props to propel them ownward.

---> Florida (20-16), 9-to-2: Pitching, plus Jack McKeon Managerial Levitra = most likely non-West team to make it under the conditions above.

---> San Francisco (18-20), 7-to-1: Sure, no Bonds right now. But if he comes back healthy and full of piss'n'vinegar, watch out. Plus, Brian Sabean is one of those Lonnie Smith-types who improbably always seems to smell the playoffs. (No word on whether Sabean had a drug problem or lacks coordination, though.) I'd take this flier, honestly.

---> Washington (21-18), 10-to-1: A bit controversial to put the Nats ahead of the Mets---though not in some circles, of course---but whatever. Yeah, the Mets are more likely to spend. The Mets are more likely to implode, though. I don't see the Nats going on too many extended losing steaks; our Upside-Down Capital Lettered ace won't abide that, after all.

---> New York (21-19), 12-to-1: Many people, including me, remarked that this team looked like your classic entry of "Overpriced Waste" on the Mets' calendar-by-decade. Maybe yes; maybe no. I wouldn't count on them too much, though.

---> Arizona (23-17), 14-to-1: Looking good so far, but they cry out "Early fluke!" to me. The D-Bucks bounced back well after the Nats beat 'em up and stole their lunch money the first time, though.

---> Chicago (17-20), 15-to-1: I'm tempted to put them much higher on the list, because Pitching Wins Championships(tm), but you know how it is . . . They could be this year's '04 Astros, though. Speaking of which . . .

---> Houston (15-23), 20-to-1: Yeah, I know: fool me once, fool me twice---plus, they're beat up. But, by this point, we're not looking at likelihood, but degree of unlikelihood. Just for kicks, check out the road record.

---> Philadelphia (18-22), 22-to-1: The Phils should probably be higher, but I completely forgot about them. That should probably clue us in on their fate, right? Plus, if Endy Chavez is on a playoff roster, then I'm a hamster.

---> Milwaukee (19-19), 30-to-1: The Brew Crew's got a .500 record and sits in second in the NL Central. No love? I guess not. Then again, if Wes Obermuller can ring together 20 more starts like last night . . . yeah, that's right: no love.

---> Pittsburgh (17-20), 40-to-1: I don't know, just call them "The Brewers, only not as good." What's going on with Oliver Perez? Has Lloyd McClendon stolen any more bases? Is Randall Simon back, or is that Daryl Ward that looks like him? Inquiring minds do want to know.

---> Cincinnati (14-25), 60-to-1: Pass.

---> Colorado (11-25), 1,890,970,000-to-1: Apparently locked in a gripping "Stink it up on the road" competition with Houston; the 'Stros are "up" by a half-game. Take this pick, please. If you win, you could be sufficiently funded to execute my old college roommate's plan of a) buying Boeing or McDonnell Douglas, b) buying Hawaii, then c) using it as a staging area for attacks on the continental US. Really, that was his plan. He was joking, though (I think?), and 1994 was before 2001, I do believe. Nevertheless, the plan is so brilliant!



Obsessions



So I read this story in the local paper today. In the event the link doesn't work, let me summarize: Keith, this 35 year-old guy, loves Star Wars. Strike that; I, among many others, love Star Wars. This guy Keith, however, is obsessed with it. He admits the obsession. He dresses up in stormtrooper armor. He makes appearances at benefits and functions and conventions in the costume. He is a member of the "501st Legion"; his trooper ID is TK1210. He has appeared in a Star Wars fan film.

His ex-wife, a "Trekkie," absconded with his life-sized Yoda doll and sold it on E-Bay.

The writer, Peter Humes, presents the guy's story in rather a tongue-in-cheek fashion, even if it's a front page/above-the-fold story. (And it is; it's part of a series of Star Wars articles the T-D is running this week in anticipation of Revenge of the Sith.) And, by the end of the article, we learn that Keith has realized that most people would consider him crazy; perhaps that's why he's toned it down a bit by now. For instance, he's not dressing up when he sees ROTS.

Yeah, the guy has an apparent history of extreme obsession, but I wonder: does that make him crazy? (I don't mean clinically crazy; I guess I mean "commonly crazy.") Phrased another way, is his obsession that bizarre? Does it deserve ridicule---or inevitable strawman attacks, like "Go back to playing Dungeons & Dragons in your parents' basement, you acne-scarred weirdo!"?

Sure, it's strange, but is it the subject of the obsession or its manifestations that makes it so strange? Does the distinction matter?

Some years back, I knew a person who spent many of his weekends as a Civil War reenactor. He'd travel the backroads of the Mid-Atlantic region (i.e., "Peter Angelos Country") and fake a fatal gunshot wound or an amputation or scurvy, or whatever the hell those guys do. He loved it; he was obsessed with it. People considered it sort of strange, but nothing like this guy Keith's situation---which is strange in itself, considering both obsessions involve "suiting up" (and both suits are battle costumes).

Similarly, I knew a guy who would dress up as Thomas Jefferson and deliver some of Jefferson's more famous lines at various engagements.

I've never been to a SABR convention, but I've heard that it's fairly routine for people to attend wearing old timey replica uniforms and such.

Are those people weird, too?

"Yeah," one could argue, "but at least their obsession relates to historical interests. At least they're dressing up as real people, or composites of real people, as opposed to bit characters tangentially related to a hokey space opera."

Sure. But then we get to my ex-girlfriend's best friend, who became so obsessed with the musical (rock opera?) Rent that she attended 83 or 112 or some exponential number of times; eh, the number's so big, what does it matter? And whatever figure I do recall is from about 1998 or '99---I just stopped asking after that, or else she lost count. She traveled with the production, doing back-stage managing or providing the former Doogie Howser, MD with a fresh water bottle. Or something.

That's not strange? It wasn't considered as such, at least as far as I recall. I don't know if the people I knew were just being curteous, but the most common response I heard was "Cool." Yet, her obsession was with a fictional storyline, too.

And what about actors? I was friends in college with Kerry Washington. She's a pretty big actress now. Is she considered a weirdo for getting paid to be "in-character"? Hardly. To take it one step further, the biggest weirdos of the profession---the method actors---are revered.

The bottom line is---tell me if I'm missing something here or making too large a leap---in order to live fulfilling, creative lives, we all have our obsessions. In fact, most of us likely have more than one.

You know what got me thinking about this (other than the article about the stormtrooper freak)? Blogging is sort of like an obsession or an addiction, too. I didn't get around to doing an entry yesterday; the one I did the day before was rather insubstantial, even. (And, yes, today's first one is equally so.) And, I realized this morning over breakfast, I missed blogging. One day away, and I miss it? As Alan Arkin's character, Dr. Oatman, observed in Grosse Point Blank, "Yeah, that's a bit . . . obsessive."

Viewed objectively, the obsession must be silly and pointless. None of us gets paid for doing this, for one. If I miss a day, life goes on for everyone else. Nevertheless, it's a part of my life precisely because of these factors. Simply put, I update this blog (among other reasons, but this one's sufficient) because I find a measure of enjoyment in doing so. It's a factor---one factor out of many, many factors; a factor nevertheless, though---that rounds out my life, that shapes me as an individual.

It's little different than a guy who pretends to bite on a bullet; or a man who wears a powdered wig while reading from the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom; or a chick who really, really likes a musical so much that she'll plan her life around it; or a lady who gets paid good money to represent some other guy's interpretation of how Ray Charles' wife would act.

Or, I might add, it's little different from a guy who wears stormtrooper armor.


Monday, May 16, 2005

Here's to old friends and patient hitters


I've got pretty much nothing of substance today, so I thought I'd tell the story of an old friend. We go way back---to middle school, actually---and I haven't seen him since then.

Well, maybe I did see him, just the other day. I think I did, actually---though I can't be sure. The glimpse was too brief. I'd like to think I did, though.

This friend was among a small group in junior high with whom I was very tight. We had a lot of the same classes, played ball together, hung out at each other's houses; I had a "best friend" (he still is, actually), and then this guy and a few others were like an extension of that.

His mother had a very . . . hmmmn, unique-looking car. It was a yellow Volvo wagon, possibly of late-70s vintage, except the yellow wasn't really yellow. It was sort of mustard, but not really. I can't describe the color exactly---only that, once you see it, you never forget it.

This particular friend and I lived only a few miles apart, but we went to different high schools---rival high schools. I don't think that rivalry drifted our group of friends apart so much as did that strange combination of malaise and progress that motivates people that age. I guess friendships are neither created nor destroyed; you just move on.

And so, I honestly can't recall seeing this particular friend since junior high, though I suppose it is possible. If so, it was probably by chance.

Recently, I returned a book to the local library. As I pulled into the parking space, I saw the car. It had to be the car, because anyone who painted an automobile that color would be summarily executed after the first try.

The car was parked a few spots away. I figured it was my friend's mother or . . . somebody, but not my friend. I vaguely recalled that he was off in Maine or Russia or Djoubouti, or somewhere I'm not.

I walked toward the front entrance, and about ten feet to the side of me approached this guy. He had the familiar, confident lope with which my friend used to walk; it wasn't an arrogant swagger, but merely the strolling motion of someone---even as a clumsy 13 year-old---who was in charge. I took a quick look at this face, and he did with me as well, and nothing really registered. It was too quick even to do a "guy's nod."

For a second, I thought about the encounter: Is it him? Is it a relative of his? Is it someone who just kind of looks like him? I ran a crude "age progression" through my head, like the guy was on the back of a milk carton and the best we could do is age him by computer. It seemed to check out, at least in my mind.

And then the ultimate test hit me---where was he headed?

I turned quickly, just in time to see the car door shut; it was the door to that old, mustard-colored Volvo. The guy started the ignition, and there was nothing I could do to stop him. He was moving straight out of the space, toward an exit in the back of the lot.

Maybe I should have acted more quickly, but that was beside the point.

The point is, I saw someone who was familiar to me, who brought back fond memories, who momentarily made me happy just to see him.

This is the point at which I reveal my great lie. No, I didn't just make all that up; instead, I lied about not having anything Nats-related. I do, sort of.

In a way, Nick Johnson is that old friend. He hasn't been seen in awhile, but now he's back. Just to see ol' Nick has to make us happy.


Johnson's body of work is a roadside poster touting the sabermetric cult maxim "OBP is life." Throw in some decent power, and that's a pretty fine player.

Of course, up until this spring, the only Johnson this organization knew was, uh, rather impotent: .251/.359/.398 in an injury-riddled 2003. During the offseason, some fans of our relocated Nats were actually advocating a trade of Johnson to free up room for Endy Chavez. Really, I swear.

But you had to figure that the Old Friend Nick Johnson was somewhere, waiting to reemerge in our lives. And, like the ugly Volvo, all the signs are indicating "Yes." He's at .323/.432/.523 currently---and .373/.458/.627 in May.

Let's just hope, unlike my old friend, Nick's reemergence is not fleeting.


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