Wasn’t the Nationals’ change in managers supposed to solve the problem?
Davey Johnson was too laid-back, so here came the intense Matt Williams, ready to snap the team to attention.
The Nats would be disciplined. The Nats would pay attention to detail. The Nats would fulfill their potential.
Well, the Nats still don’t appear to have caught on – and the problem goes beyond Bryce "Nothing But Hustle" Harper.
The team’s results actually have been better of late, with the Nats going 3-2 in games started by the Marlins’ Jose Fernandez and Cardinals’ Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha, Lance Lynn and Shelby Miller.
But as recently as Thursday night, following an 8-0 series-opening loss to the Cardinals, Williams held a team meeting, according to a source. He told the players their performance had been sloppy. He also told them to run balls out, noting that a few had veered off on lineouts before touching first base.
Thus, Harper’s removal from Saturday’s game for failing to run out a groundball could not have come as a surprise to anyone in the clubhouse, including Harper himself.
At times, Harper still acts like he is 21, still comes off as self-absorbed. His latest indiscretion might have helped cost the Nats a game – his position in the batting order later came up in a pivotal spot – but Williams made the right decision, and if Harper is smart, he will learn from it.
Now what about the rest of the club?
The Nationals, at 11-9, are just 2½ games behind the Braves in the NL East. Their record, though, is a bit deceptive. They are a combined 8-1 against the Mets and Marlins, but only 1-5 against the Braves.
It’s early, and injuries to right-hander Doug Fister, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and catcher Wilson Ramos haven’t helped. The Nats’ overall talent is still imposing – yes, perhaps more imposing than the Braves’. But the same was true last season, and the Braves won the division by 10 games.
So in the wake of Nats general manager Mike Rizzo saying he thinks his team is better than the Braves, it’s fair to ask whether the Nats will ever be as good as they say they are.
Their defense is everything that you thought it wouldn’t be under Williams — careless, maddening, putrid.
With 22 errors – nine by shortstop Ian Desmond – the Nats have the most in the National League. And advanced metrics portray them in equally unflattering terms.
The Nats entered Monday tied for next-to-last in the NL in defensive runs saved. They’re also next-to-last in defensive efficiency, the rate at which balls in play are converted into outs.
I picked the Nationals to go to the World Series, and I’m standing by it. But it would be nice to see them finally play the part, no?
THEY’RE NOT THE DATA-BACKS
In a revealing yet damning interview, Diamondbacks managing general partner Ken Kendrick told the Arizona Republic’s Dan Bickley that the team under GM Kevin Towers has fallen behind in baseball’s information revolution.
"I think we know we don’t have the balance I still think is the right way to go, and I think we need to recognize (that)," Kendrick said. "To this point, there are only a few teams that are starting to do exotic (defensive) shifts, which is an element of a much bigger picture of (baseball analytics) …
"We aren’t doing that because I don’t think we have studied the data at a level they’ve studied it. Now how valuable is it? I guess we’ll see. You’d like to have the information, make a judgment on how valuable it is, and either use it or not use it. We don’t have the level of information in that category that (other teams) have. I think we need to do a better job in that area."
Kendrick noted that the team’s previous GM, Josh Byrnes, made greater use of data than Towers, who took over on Sept. 22, 2010. But while Kendrick said, "I always hoped for, with each, more balance," he had to know what he was getting in Towers, who has a deep background in scouting. A guy with the nickname "The Gunslinger" is not likely to be a darling of the sabermetric crowd.
Kendrick’s comments read almost like a repudiation of the D-Backs’ recent emphasis on character, an emphasis that helped lead to trades of outfielders Justin Upton and Adam Eaton. But Kendrick, too, is to blame, for allowing the pendulum to swing too far the other way.
The book "Moneyball" was published in 2003. Byrnes was his GM from Oct. 29, 2005, to July 2, 2010. By the time the D-Backs hired Towers, most teams already were deep into advanced statistical analysis.
Any conversation about the Mets starts with the fact that their $89 million payroll on Opening Day was the ninth lowest in the majors, below even the Padres’.
A bullpen, though, can be built on the cheap, not that anyone would know it from watching the Mets under GM Sandy Alderson.
In Alderson’s first three seasons, the Mets’ bullpen ranked next-to-last, 11th and 12th in the NL in baserunners per nine innings. This season they rank 12th – and this after producing eight scoreless innings Sunday.
Granted, the loss of right-hander Bobby Parnell to Tommy John surgery was a huge blow, but Parnell already was coming off surgery on a herniated disk in his neck in December. The team needed better protection than veterans such as Jose Valverde and Kyle Farnsworth.
How do you build a bullpen? The Athletics have done it mostly through trades, the Royals mostly through the draft, the Giants mostly through minor-league free agents (closer Sergio Romo was a 28th-round pick and lefty Javier Lopez arrived in a deadline steal in 2010).
The Mets hit on lefty Scott Rice and righty Carlos Torres as minor-league free agents, though Rice is off to a slow start this season. Some of their younger pitchers could – repeat, could – develop into quality relievers.
Still, Alderson has had some significant misses — Frank Francisco (two years, $12 million), D.J. Carrasco (two years, $2.4 million), Ramon Ramirez (acquired with outfielder Andres Torres for outfielder Angel Pagan), Brandon Lyon (released midway through a one-year, $750,000 deal).
Can’t blame payroll restrictions for all that.
STILL SHORT AT SHORT
Think maybe the Tigers should just sign free-agent shortstop Stephen Drew?
Alex Gonzalez cost the team $1.1 million for nine games before getting released Sunday – and the Tigers gave up a major-league asset, infielder Steve Lombardozzi, to get him.
When I asked GM Dave Dombrowski about Drew last week, he replied, "I’m sure people will focus on that, but we’re going to look internally at our situation first and foremost."
The next man up for the Tigers is Danny Worth, who will share shortstop with Andrew Romine. If that combination doesn’t work, the Tigers could turn to Hernan Perez at Triple-A or Eugenio Suarez at Double-A.
Suarez is a major-league quality defender, but he’s only 22 and probably not ready. Perez, 23, has played more second base than short in the past year, but he signed as a shortstop and is now reacclimating to the position.
The problem for the Tigers is that Drew likely will want a multiyear deal if he waits until after the draft to sign — and teams might prefer him for more than one year as well so they can avoid going back into the market next offseason.
A multiyear deal probably would not work for the Tigers, who expect Jose Iglesias to return from fractures in both of his shins next season. A trade for a younger shortstop such as the Diamondbacks’ Didi Gregorius would be problematic for the same reason.
Defensive shifts are all the rage, and Angels manager Mike Scioscia made some fascinating points as he delved into the topic in his meeting with the FOX broadcasters Saturday.
Scioscia said that the Angels actually shade more than shift and noted that teams must consider game situations, not simply whether a left-handed hitter grounds to the right side in 85 percent of his at-bats.
With two outs and runners in scoring position, for example, Scioscia said it might not be wise to shift on a veteran hitter who is savvy enough to go the other way.
Also, Scioscia said that teams should not be slaves to the numbers.
"Infielders have to have the freedom to read bad swings, adjust to that, adjust to pitches," Scioscia said. "Internally, we feel the shading aspect is critical. We’re doing a better job shading than we ever have. But I don’t think you will ever replace the instincts an infielder has to have to move on a pitch and cover the ground he needs to cover."
Something else that many of us fail to recognize: All of this takes extra preparation, beyond merely analyzing the data.
Scioscia said the Angels spent extra time this spring working on cutoffs and relays when their infield was shifted. Third baseman David Freese also practiced turning double plays at second; he occasionally moves to the right side of the infield for certain left-handed hitters.
"If it’s going to be part of what you’re about, you have to prepare guys as best you can," Scioscia said. "People look at defending groundballs, that’s it. Infielders have to defend bases, too."
The Reds’ Billy Hamilton took an ugly swing against the Cubs’ Jeff Samardzija on Friday, and the overreaction on Twitter — even among some writers – was typical.
The truth is that Hamilton, 23, actually is showing offensive improvement, as pointed out over the weekend by John Fay of the Cincinnati Enquirer.
Hamilton opened the season by going 0 for 12 with six strikeouts and one walk in games started by the Cardinals’ Wainwright, Wacha and Lynn.
Since then, he’s 13 for 52 with nine strikeouts and two walks — a .250 batting average. Is it good enough? Of course not. But the Reds wisely are giving Hamilton time to figure it out. If his swings occasionally look ugly, so be it.
AROUND THE HORN
• Same old Mariners? The team is 4-12 after a promising three-game sweep of the Angels to open the season, and began the week 12th in the AL in runs per game.
Check out some of these on-base/slugging percentages (OPS): Robinson Cano .680, Brad Miller .575, Kyle Seager .512. Justin Smoak’s OPS since the first three games is even worse.
• Angels GM Jerry Dipoto says of left-hander C.J. Wilson, "People get caught up in expectations that there should be something more."
That happens when a pitcher signs a five-year, $77.5 million free-agent contract, but Wilson actually has given the Angels a decent return in his two-plus seasons.
Only three other active left-handers – Clayton Kershaw, CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee – have produced four or more consecutive seasons of 200-plus innings, 12-plus wins, 170-plus strikeouts and sub-4.00 ERAs.
Yes, I’m cherry-picking the numbers, but Wilson is more consistent than most perceive.
• Tigers right fielder Torii Hunter, who turns 39 on July 18, maintains that he could play two or three more seasons before adding "it’s whether I want to or not."
Hunter, though, doesn’t sound like he’s anywhere close to retiring.
"I’m a man. A man is supposed to work," he said. "This is the only thing I know, the only thing I’m supposed to do."
• One exec notes that the trend toward signing young players long-term is partly due to the lack of overall talent in the game; teams need to keep the few quality players they do have.
Case in point, according to the exec: North Carolina State’s Trea Turner might be the only college shortstop in the top 250 picks.
• Even without Mariano Rivera, the Yankees maintain one edge in their bullpen: manager Joe Girardi.
One rival AL exec says, "He’s the best I’ve seen at managing a bullpen."
Girardi, the exec says, puts his relievers in positions to succeed and makes sure that if they warm up, they enter games.
• OK, a scout probably was exaggerating when he predicted that Aaron Barrett or Blake Treinen could be closing for the Nationals by the end of the season.
Still, the two rookie right-handers have made impressive contributions thus far, combining for 13 strikeouts and four walks in four innings.
Barrett, 26, was the Nationals’ ninth-round pick in 2010. Treinen, 25, arrived in the three-team trade that sent Mike Morse to Seattle in Jan. 2010.