Smarter Than the Average Bear
June 17, 2005

Ray Murphy wrote an excellent article over at Baseball HQ about the success of the Nationals.  If you don't have a subscription, I highly recommend getting one because Ron Shandler and crew do a marvelous job analyzing the day-to-day in both leagues, plus they offer think pieces like Murphy's "Exploiting Park Effects at RFK" every week.  I won't go into the details of the article, but suffice it to say that the Nationals are pitching much better at home than they are on the road.  Surprisingly, however, the hitters are doing roughly the same wherever they play.  Murphy's article was more focused on the fantasy ramifications than the philosophy of roster construction, so it really didn't venture into speculation about how this came about.  There are a number of people in the baseball analysis business who don't have a high opinion of GM Jim Bowden's acumen.  But while it might seem far fetched to some, the way the Nats' roster was constructed was  probably by design.

Before anyone played a single game at RFK this year, the decision had been made to configure it to the way it was when the Senators played there.  That is, it was going to have deep power alleys and play favorably to pitchers.  The reason, I assume, is because the Nationals/Expos had a number of young pitchers who demonstrated a flyball tendency and a big park, or at least one that played large, would help their confidence.  Pitchers like John Patterson, Tony Armas and Chad Cordero seemingly only lacked the ability to keep the ball in the park to take a major step forward.

The main problem with this is that if you help the pitchers, logic tells you that the hitters are going to suffer.  One only has to look at what happen to the Padre sluggers last year when the team moved to Petco Park.  Forty-homer threats Phil Nevin and Brian Giles barely made it into the 20s with the their home run totals.  And since the Nats were going to be on a pretty tight budget, they really couldn't afford to go out and grab a couple big name sluggers in an effort to offset the park effects.  What to do?

Well, park effects can be deceiving.  At RFK, for example, not all fly balls are created equal.  High fly balls (ones that travel above the pressbox level) tend to die in the swirling winds above the stadium.  When the D-backs visited RFK to open the season, Troy Glaus launched three mammoth shots that soared above the stadium and had everyone in the pressbox guessing whether or not they would travel at least 450 feet.  However, each died short of the warning track.  In fact, just about every high fly ball, no matter how impressive or threatening, seems to end up finding leather.  The balls that get out are the ones that are usually hard hit low fly balls and line-drives that rise no more than 30 or 40 feet above the ground.  Frank Howard used to hit home runs with regularity at RFK when he was with the Senators.  However, Frank Howard was an enormous human being who was so strong he hit balls out of stadiums.  If I recall correctly, he's the only player to hit balls out of both Dodger Stadium and Memorial Stadium in Baltimore.  I could be wrong on that, but the point is that a little wind could not stop a Howard bomb.  And just a little side note - the next time you visit RFK, either come well before the start or linger until after the crowd has cleared.  There are three seats in the upper deck that are painted white.  They are a little hard to see because the upper deck seating is painted yellow, but one is above left field, another is above the left field power alley and the third is above dead center.  Those seats mark where Howard hit home runs.  And hearing Washington Post columnist Thom Boswell tell it, each was hit on a line.

Anyway, back to the Nats... look at their current line-up and you'll see it's comprised of guys who tend to hit line drives and low flyballs.  Brad Wilkerson, Jose Vidro, Ryan Church, Nick Johnson, Brian Schneider all hover around 20% of their balls in play being line drives.  Coincidence?  Maybe.  But Bowden also acquired Jose Guillen, Junior Spivey and Marlon Byrd this year and each has averaged around the same 20% mark over the past two years.  Byrd dropped well below 20% last year but he proved he is most successful when he hits plenty of line drives (25%) as he did in 2003.  Guillen's success follows a similar pattern.  Besides the fact that Spivey has amazing range, can also play shortstop and the Brewers were looking to move him anyway with Rickie Weeks ready, isn't it interesting that he also hits line drives more than 20% of his balls in play?  Of the new faces, only Vinny Castilla doesn't hit a high percentage of line drives, but he was acquired as much for his defense, price and the ever elusive "veteran leadership" as his offense.  The big trade rumor making the rounds is Rockie centerfielder Preston Wilson coming to the Nationals in exchange for a pitcher.  Wilson's line drive rate?  22% each of the last two years.

So assuming Bowden did recognize this about an offense at RFK, how would he know?  How would he know to look for line drive hitters in a park where no one has played in more than 30 years?  Perhaps it's because he was the GM for a team that played in a stadium that was configured very similarly to RFK, Riverfront Stadium.  Maybe I'm giving him too much credit.  Maybe he's just really, really lucky.  Or maybe he saw how successful hitters like Sean Casey, Dmitri Young and Barry Larkin were at Riverfront and figured it would work at RFK as well.  Did team president Tony Tavares and team VP Kevin Uhlich know they needed a GM who understood what the park effects were going to be and figured Bowden's experience in Cincy made him a prime candidate?  Maybe, maybe not.  But maybe it's time to a least consider the possibility that the Nationals' front office might just know something about what they are doing.