Not Even Babe Ruth Would Help
June 11, 2009

Before the season, I honestly thought this year's Nationals would be the first in a neverending run of playoff-competing Washington teams.  Their offense was going to be one of the best in the National League, their infield defense was going to be very good and all that was required for them to compete for the division was a solid year from the pitching staff.  And next year it was going to get even better because the same guys who selected Ryan Zimmerman, Justin Upton, Chad Cordero and a bunch of other quality young players over the last 10 years was going to be picking from a pitching rich draft that included probably the best young pitcher since Dwight Gooden. 

Well, so much for that dream.  The Nats did take Stephen Strasburg first overall, but honestly, how smart do you have to be to take him?  He was head, shoulders, waist and knees better than any other amateur available.  There are those who have suggested that the Nats would have been better off taking Dustin Ackley because a) he had a very good year and b) hitters have been more reliable commodities from the draft.  But Ackely's closest comparable is probably Darin Erstad and Strasburg's closest comparable is Roger Clemens.  Which guy would you rather have?  And just because Ackley put up great numbers this year is no guarantee that he'll be a really good major leaguer.  In fact, here is a list of guys just off the top of my head who posted similar or better numbers in college in the last 10 years who failed to live up to the hype:

Khalil Greene - .470/.577/.877, 1st round
Chris Burke - .435/.562/.815, 1st round
John-Ford Griffin - .450/.555/.797, 1st round
Ken Harvey - .478/.584/.862, 5th round
Sawyer Carroll - .419/.536/.782, 3rd round
Kellen Kulbacki - .464/.616/.943, 1st round
Ryan Garko - .402/.502/.703, 3rd round
Michael Aubrey - .420/.534/.733, 1st round

I'm sure there are plenty more.  So there's no guarantee that Ackley will even become the next Darin Erstad.  There's no guarantee that he'll even end up a better major league hitter from this draft  than other collegiate standouts like Richard Poythress or Kent Matthes.  So the Nats clearly made the right choice taking Strasburg and the fact that there is any debate only proves that there are some extremely silly people out there. 

Where I think the Nationals whiffed was in their subsequent picks.  They had the #10 pick overall and instead of choosing high-upside high school pitchers like Tyler Matzek or Shelby Miller or a really solid college starter like Kyle Gibson, they went with a college reliever, Drew Storen from Stanford.  I don't have a problem with taking a reliever or a guy from Stanford, but I have my doubts this one is worth such a high draft choice.  The Nats have cited that they love his aggressive demeanor, that he's unafraid to throw strikes and that they think he has what it takes to be the team's closer.  What they fail to mention is that he throws some bad strikes, has a tendency to elevate his pitches and thus gives up homers at an alarming rate for a closer: 6 this year in just over 40 innings pitched.  This in a down year for power in the Pac-10.  Yeah, this is just what this team needs: a closer who gives up a lot of home runs.  Pardon me for saying so, but I believe the team already has one of those, thanks.

They took Cal second baseman Jeff Kobernus next, whom they likened to a young Jeff Kent.  I haven't seen him play but based just strictly on the numbers they produced this year, I'd say that LSU second baseman Ryan Schimpf was much more of a Jeff Kent clone than Kobernus and he was still available.  And just playing devil's advocate here, Jeff Kent was never known for his glove.  The Nats don't have a problem scoring runs; their problem is keeping them off the board.  Wouldn't it have been better to take a guy who they were sure was going to be a standout glove at his position instead of a guy who only might have enough glove to stay in the infield?

Is it me or did the Nats only have one scout?  I mean, their first three picks all came from California and two of them from the Bay Area.  It's not like there wasn't any talent anywhere else in the country. 

Their next pick was also questionable: Georgia Bulldog pitcher Trevor Holder.  I'm sure they liked the velocity on his fastball, although to be honest it's not game changing like Strasburg's.  What I don't think they looked at is the fact that he's given up 35 homers over the last two years in just over 190 innings.  That's a lot of bombs for this level of competition, especially for a 22-year old. 

There were plenty of premium talents in this draft and it appears that after Strasburg, the Nats decided they were going to pick as many guys they were sure they could sign relatively cheaply, rather than picking the best talent available.  For a franchise that has very little in the way of top tier pitching in the minors and in a draft heavy with plenty of high upside pitching talent, that was a huge mistake.

But today's column is not about the draft.  This is about the primary reason why the Nationals are on pace to finish with the worst record in the history of baseball.  As of last night's loss they are on pace to lose 119 games.  There were a lot of people who predicted the Nats wouldn't be good this year and a lot of them suggested they'd lose 100 games.  No one thought they'd be this bad and every one of them that thought they'd be woeful completely ignored the fact that the Nationals were injured so much last year and that the team finished last season as the youngest in the majors.  Had they considered those two aspects, I'm sure they probably would have had a somewhat higher esteem for this team.

The reason this team is so awful can be summed up in two words: Manny Acta. 

There's no question that Ryan Zimmerman and Nick Johnson are two of the better glovemen at their respective positions.  Anderson Hernandez has flashed good leather in the past, as has Cristian Guzman although I would call their defense above major league average.  The outfield is not particularly adept, but neither Willie Harris and Elijah Dukes are terrible and in fact are probably at least average.  So why are the Nationals the worst team in the majors at turning balls in play into outs?  Even their good glovemen are making lots of misplays.  Maybe it's because Acta has the team taking infield practice before every game, which is like having an NBA team take free throw practice before very game.  Unless the players are really focused on sharpening their skills every practice, rather than improving the defense, that kind of daily mindless repetition will likely to lead to lazy habits at the pro level.  That's one reason why most major league teams don't do this.  Anyone watching Guzman and Anderson this year will see that is exactly what is happening.   And it certainly doesn't help that their manager puts them in ridiculous situations, like bringing the infield in with the bases loaded and a slow runner at the plate when a double play will get the team out of the inning, which Manny has done, in extra innings no less. 

The bullpen has been atrocious.  I'm not suggesting that any of these guys were destined for the Hall of Fame before they arrived in Washington, but some of these guys have terrific stuff and almost all of them have enjoyed a fairly good measure of success at one stop or another.  The problem is that Acta isn't using them the way they were most successful.  For example, Kip Wells had a career ERA in the low-mid 3's as a reliever and was most successful as a long man, averaging almost 3 innings per outing in his best year.  This year his ERA is over 6 and he's being used barely one inning per outing.  Joe Beimel's best season came last year in LA where he was used only about 2/3 of an inning per outing, suggesting that he's a lefty specialist who can get righties out when he has to.  This year he's pitching almost an inning per outing and until a week or so ago, he was pitching more than an inning per outing. 

Jesus Colome has the reputation as a "start the inning" kind of guy, given how his game slows down with men on base.  So how many games has Manny started the inning with him?  Four out of eight and I'm not sure I would count the first time as Manny took him out of the game after facing only two batters.  That was another thing that Acta did with far too great a frequency - take relievers out after facing only one or two batters.  He's getting better about letting his pitchers get out of their own jams and thus building confidence, but he still has the itchy trigger finger and has relievers warming up every inning after the third. 

Speaking of Colome, if one eliminates the "blown saves" from his ledger that aren't actually blown saves - lost leads that came in the 6th and 7th innings -  he's actually 6 out of 7 in save opportunities for his career.  And given that many of those "blown saves" came while he was pitching for a woeful Tampa team that not only rarely had big leads but also boasted a terrible defense, it's not entirely surprising pitchers from those staffs accumulated a high number of blown leads.  But what's more intriguing about Colome is that while pitching for Syracuse this year as their closer, all the earned runs he surrendered came in non-save situations.  When a save was on the line, Jesus Colome was not only money, but darn close to prefect. 

Yet Manny keeps looking for a closer, having tried Hanrahan (twice), Kip Wells, Joe Beimel (a soft-tossing lefty as the closer? That should have been the Nats' biggest clue that Manny might not know what he's doing), and now the adventure that is Mike MacDougal.  Even the team is getting into the blind man act by drafting a college closer.  And while they would like to think that they just drafted the next Chad Cordero, the Chief never had problems in college with giving up home runs.  In fact, he was very stingy in that respect, so the Nats do not have the next Cordero with Storen.  The guy they should be going with is Colome and they should have tried him a month ago when he was brought up so they would not have had to waste a pick looking for a closer.

The Nats offense is still pretty good, despite all the losing.  Despite playing fewer games than anyone else because of all the rain-outs, they are fourth in the NL in total bases.  They are third in team on base, and 3rd in team slugging behind only the Phillies and Rockies, who both play in much more hitter friendly parks.  Yet they are 8th in runs scored.  Why?  Maybe the fact that they are second to last in stolen base percentage is a clue.  This team is awful at running the bases, costing themselves numerous runs and run scoring opportunities every game.  That, my friends, is not about team speed; that is solely about coaching, failing to recognize when to take extra bases and when to play it safe.  They run into more outs than any team I have ever seen.

In the history of baseball, only one team, the 1930 Phillies, has scored more runs than the Nationals are scoring on average, yet lost 100 games.  That's nearly 2400 teams.  Only 8 have scored as proficiently and lost more than 90.  This team is on pace to lose 119 games. 

This team plays with no passion and they take the field every night expecting to lose.  They make dumb mistakes night after night, mistakes that they should have gotten past in little league.  The pitchers are never comfortable because the starters never know when they are going to be yanked and the relievers have no idea when they are going to pitch or for how long and they certainly aren't being asked to pitch in situations where they have succeeded in the past.   All of this is a reflection of their manager.

It will not matter if Stephen Strasburg signs and becomes the second coming of Walter Johnson.  It will not matter if the Nats end up with the first pick in next year's draft and are able to take Bryce Harper and he becomes the next Josh Gibson.  It will not matter if Derek Norris continues his mashing - if you live in the DC area you really need to go to a Hagerstown game and check this guy out - and becomes the next Jimmie Foxx.   It will not matter because as long as Manny Acta is this team's manager, they will never be a winning team. 

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