This has to be the year.

I’m not going to write about how Washington beat the Nats in the home opener yesterday. I already went ballistic about that on twitter.

So, instead, I’m going to write about why you should be “all-in” (God, I hate that expression) on the 2014 Nats. No, it’s not because my projection has them winning 96 games.

Rather, it’s because of this article in the Post. In it, Adam Kilgore talks to Nats principal owner Mark Lerner. What Uncle Mark says  about the Nats payroll going forward is not very encouraging:

“We’re beyond topped out,” Lerner said. “Our payroll has skyrocketed to like $140 million. It’s in the papers. I don’t think we can go much further with the revenue streams that we have.”

* * * *

“We take it one at a time,” Lerner said. “We’ll look at it after the season as far as what we can do. We went into this thing, it’s a business. We’ve got to run it smartly. We’re not going to do something where we’re losing tens of millions of dollars a year. Anybody can understand that. We’re going to be smart.”

 

First of all, the Nats payroll is not “like, 140 million.” According to Baseball Reference, in 2014, the Nats have committed $135.8 million in guaranteed salary in 2014. That’s a lot of money, but it’s not 140 million. The difference of $ 4.2 million could have gotten you another Nate McLouth, say. Or one year of Hyun-Jin Ryu as a left handed starting pitcher. So it’s not chump change.

But things start getting hairy, fast. Let’s look at the young core and see where the trouble might come from:

  • The Nats bought out Ian Desmond’s remaining arbitration years this offseason in a two-year, $17.5 million dollar deal. That means, barring an extension at the end of 2015, Ian Desmond will hit the open market in 2016.
  • Likewise, the Nats bought out Jordan Zimmermann’s arbitration years. He’s under contract for 2014 and 2015, for a total of $24 million. Barring an extension, he will also become a free agent in 2016.
  • The Nats have opted instead to go year-to-year with Stephen Strasburg. In 2014, he’s owed $3.975 million. He would remain arbitration-eligible until 2017, at which point he, too, will become a free agent.
  • Drew Storen is also year-to-year, and still arbitration-eligible after this year. He’s making $3.45 million this year. He will become a free agent in 2017.
  • Bryce Harper’s free agent days are a long way away. In 2014, he’ll make $0.9 million. (That’s right, less than one million dollars) He’s under contract through 2015, after which he’d be eligible for arbitration. He won’t become a free agent until 2018, by my count.

What’s it going to take to keep all of these guys around? I don’t know. But we can make a few guesses.

Desmond is the second-best shortstop in the National League, behind the Rockies’ Troy Tulowitzki and ahead of the Braves Andrelton Simmons. Both of those guys are under long-term contracts, so it’s worth looking at them. In 2011, the Rockies gave Tulo a 10-year, $157.75 million dollar contract. The Braves just extended Andrelton Simmons for 7 years at $58 million, heavily back-loaded. It’s not unreasonable to think that Desmond would demand Tulo-type money on the free agent market. So, 10 years, $160 to $170 million. Call it $16.5 million a year for 10 years. That bill comes due in 2016.

Jordan Zimmermann is likely going to hit the open market. What’s he worth? It’s harder to find comparables for pitchers. But recent research over at Beyond the Box Score tells us that a Win Above Replacement is worth about $7 million a year these days. Jordan Zimmermann is a pretty good pitcher. He’s worth about 3 wins above replacement a year. Fine. That’s $21 million a year right there. That bill also comes due in 2016. We can do the same for Storen. He’s worth about a third of a WAR every year. So call it $2 million a year, coming due in 2016, too.

Same deal with Strasburg. He’s worth anywhere between 3 and 4 WAR a year. Say we believe the hype. Fine. That’s anywhere between $21 and $28 million a year, starting in 2017.

And Harper? His West Coast analog, Mike Trout, just signed a 6-year $144.5 million extension with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in Orange County California. The new contract takes effect in 2015, comes with full no-trade protection, and works out to an average annual value of $24 million a year. Harper’s going to want that kind of money, and if the Nats won’t give it to him, the Yankees probably will (thus fulfilling Harper’s lifelong dream of wearing Yankee pinstripes) .

So the young core that, all together, costs the Nats $22.3 million in 2014 will cost something on the order of $88.5 million a year, collectively, in 2018.

Seen in the context of Lerner’s “payroll limit” talk, here’s what it means for you, Nats town: if you like these nats–that is, if you like these players and enjoy seeing them on the field together, enjoy them while you can. There is no way–none–that the current ownership group is going to tolerate a payroll spike of that magnitude.

Remember, the Lerners acquired the Nationals franchise from MLB for $450 million in 2006. I’m not aware of any details as to the club’s finances, but it’s pretty safe to assume that the acquisition was heavily debt-financed. It’s a sound business practice to take on considerable debt to buy a business, then transfer the debt to the business. So the Nationals, as an organization, probably have a lot of debt service to pay every year. That acts as a brake on profits and investment in the business (in this case, players).

This is to say nothing about the continued swindle that is the MASN deal, that sees Nats TV dollars shipped to Baltimore. Of course, it’s also speculated that the Lerners (or the Nats, it’s not clear) are getting kickbacks to prevent them from pursuing the MASN matter more vigorously.

So look out onto that field and dream big, Nats town. Dream hard. Dream as if your very ability to dream depended on it. Because soon, this team that Rizzo built, that we all came to see? It will be gone. As Denard Span so famously said on Twitter just before Opening day: it’s our time.

 

Blind Spot

I’ve been busy working my day job, as it were, and haven’t really been able to write anything here. I haven’t felt like I have had much to add to the general postseason hangover for Nats fans.

I have, however, been watching the World Series. I’m starved for baseball–any baseball–and this particular Series gives me the opportunity to root unabashedly for the Pete Kozma to lose. That’s good.

Unfortunately, it also obliges me to listen to the mindless blather of Joe Buck and Tim McCarver on Fox–easily the worst baseball broadcast most fans will see in any given year. Buck’s stilted cadences (more suited to the NFL than baseball) and McCarver’s senile witterings annoy the hell out of me, a baseball addict. I imagine they would drive casual non-fans (for whom the World Series is the only Series) away from the game forever. And that’s before the shameless commercial hucksterism, product-placement, awkwardly forced jingoism, and the endless in-game sideline reports!

About those sideline reports: They’re recorded between innings, but broadcast while the game is actually in progress. They disconnect the viewing public from what is actually happening in favor of what someone thinks about what just happened, which seems wrong. Besides, there is nothing that the booth can ask a manager between innings that cannot be better asked (and answered) after the game.

Not content with invading the dugout, the Fox broadcast also “floods the zone” with not one but two dedicated “sideline reporters:” the beautiful Erin Andrews and the reliably dapper Ken Rosenthal.

And yet, with all of this reporting power, they still manage to miss opportunities to bring genuine insight into the game.

One moment in particular bothers me. In the bottom of the 7th inning of Game 3, with the score tied at 2, a runner on first, and nobody out, Red Sox reliever Craig Breslow delivered a pitch that just barely grazed Carlos Beltran’s elbow guard. Beltran made some minimal effort to avoid the ball, but he showed his elbow to the umpire, who awarded him first base. Beltran, the hit batsman, made his way to first base, where he was greeted by Red Sox first baseman (!) David Ortiz. As Junichi Tazawa trotted in from the bullpen in relief of Breslow, The Fox cameras caught Beltran and Ortiz in the middle of an animated discussion. There was much gesticulation.

It did not escape my notice:

Indeed, Fox had a parabolic microphone operator nearby, just up the first-base foul line, who could have aimed his microphone at first base. The lively discussion continued, but Tim McCarver and Joe Buck paid it no mind. It’s not like on-field microphones never pick up interesting conversations between players, you know?

Then it occurred to me that Beltran (from Puerto Rico) and Ortiz (from the Dominican Republic) might not have been speaking English. So, even if the parabolic mic had been able to record their conversation, nobody in the Fox broadcast could have possibly been able to understand it or comment upon it.

Think about that for a minute. In 2013, there were  1,408 Major League baseball players. 327 of them were born in Spanish-speaking nations or territories (Colombia, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Puerto Rico, Venezuela). That’s 23% of the population–just under one in four major leaguers.

Of those 327 Major Leaguers born in Spanish-speaking countries, I count 7 on the World Series rosters.

And yet Fox Sports did not have at its disposal one reporter, sideline or otherwise, that might have shed some light on exactly what Ortiz and Beltran were so animatedly discussing at first base. Not one. Ken Rosenthal, fine baseball reporter that he is, doesn’t speak Spanish. Erin Andrews doesn’t speak Spanish either–hell, I’m surprised she can even feign interest in baseball, given her NCAA football roots. Joe Buck can’t speak Spanish. And Tim McCarver? McCarver can barely speak English.

The absence of a bilingual reporter, to me, amounts to a kind of journalistic malpractice. Fox had every opportunity to improve and enrich its coverage with a bilingual sideline reporter– It could have borrowed from its Spanish-language affiliate, Fox Deportes. By failing to do so, they passed up at least one potentially fascinating story in a tremendously fascinating World Series.

And it’s not like the capacity doesn’t exist. James Wagner of the Washington Post is bilingual, and his knowledge of Spanish has tremendously enriched the Post’s coverage of the Nationals, allowing him to speak to players like Wilson Ramos or Rafael Soriano in a language they can understand.

The linguistic blind spot manifests itself in other ways, too. The Cardinals and the Red Sox are playing in the World Series–but for every other organization in the Major Leagues, it is time to turn to off-season player development. Yes: winter ball. But players on MLB 40-man rosters cannot participate in the Caribbean Winter Leagues without a Winter League Agreement.  The Winter Agreement for this season was not finalized until October 12, one day after Opening Day in Venezuela. This was, in effect, a lockout that prevented MLB players from reporting to their Winter League teams–a story totally ignored by the English-language baseball press.

Baseball is certainly America’s Pastime. But if your organization’s mission is to bring the Pastime to America and make them understand it, you do your readers/viewers/listeners a great disservice if you don’t speak all of its languages.

This Shit Is Over

Head for the exits, Nats town. This shit is over.

I can’t offer you any analysis, or even any comfort. The Braves just swept the Nats, kicking them down the stairs and the standings. The Nats are fifteen and a half games behind the Braves.

As of tonight, CoolStandings.Com’s monte carlo simulations [What's that? here's a wiki entry]  have pretty much spelled the end of the Nats playoff chances: The Nats have a less than one-tenth of one percent  chance of winning the division, and a 1.9 percent chance of getting into the wild-card play-in.

This shit is over.

Yet, I’m probably going to keep coming to the park. I love baseball too much to stay away. The worst part of this is that I’ve got four weeks of utterly meaningless baseball to endure until September call-ups–a chance to look at a few minor-leaguers I never got a chance to see this year.

I’m still going to root for the Nats, same as I always do. But I can’t expect them to do the impossible. Right now, I am hoping that they finish a game above .500. That’s all.

I’m sorry, Nats Town.

I try very hard not to blog out of emotion. There’s a lot of feeling out there–mostly on sports talk radio–and not enough thinking. If you follow me on twitter, you know that I’m pretty emotional when I watch Nats games. Lately, most of those emotions are bad. 

So I want to apologize, Nats town. I’m sorry. As winter thawed to spring, I projected the Nats for an unbelievable 98 wins and the division crown. As I write this, the Nats are 48-52, in third place behind Philadelphia, and eight games back from the division-leading Braves.

I don’t think they’re going to catch up.

When I projected the Nats to win all those games, I assumed two things: the starting lineup would be healthy, and everybody was going to perform in line with their four-year trailing averages.

By this time, my model would have expected the Nats to have scored some 448 runs. They have scored only 367 to date. The disappointments are all across the board.

Let’s look at the differences:

According to my pre-season model, Jayson Werth should have 63 wRC by now. He has accumulated only 44–a difference of 19 runs over 100 games. Given his tremendous performance since his return from the disabled list, we can safely assume that his time away accounts for the difference in runs.

Injury also robbed the Nats of nearly a month of Bryce Harper’s services. By now, according to my model, he should have accounted for 59 wRC. He has accumulated only 42: a difference of 17 runs.

More perplexing is the offensive decline of Denard Span. According to my model, he should have accounted for 54 wRC by now; he only has 40, a difference of 14 runs. Every time I see him, he seems to ground out sharply to second base–a gut feeling reinforced by the fact that his BABIP (batting average on balls in play) stands at .300, down from his career BABIP of .315. Perhaps he was due for a regression in BABIP eventually? I don’t know.

The single biggest offensive failure of the Nats in the first 100 games of the 2013 season was their stubborn insistence on Danny Espinosa. We now know that Espinosa was suffering through a number of injuries that sapped him of power–his ISO (Isolated power) numbers dropped from a career .165 to .114 this year. The power outage, coupled with his high strikeout rate (28.1% this year, slightly up from his career K% of 27.1%), rendered him an offensive black hole and an automatic “out” for opposing pitchers. Had Espinosa been at least as healthy as he was in 2011 and 2012, my model expected him to have accumulated 42 wRC by now. He accumulated 4. That’s a difference of 38 runs.

Put another way: if Danny Espinosa had been as I expected him to be this year, and if the Nats had allowed exactly as many runs as they have to this point (392 runs), the Nats would be five wins better.

Put yet one more way: Danny Espinosa was so bad compared to how I projected him that the shortfall that he created in my projections is greater than the shortfall created by the injuries to Harper and Werth combined.

Espinosa’s offensive failings, we can say, helped put the Nats in a very deep hole–one that they might not manage to climb out of. Every team struggles. Nobody in the NL East seems to be winning as I write this. And yet, the Nats have fallen into third place because of their lousy start.

This wasn’t Rick Eckstein’s fault, or Davey Johnson’s, or, really Danny Espinosa’s fault. This was General Manager Mike Rizzo’s fault. His “scout’s eye” might have told him something was wrong with Espinosa. The power outage was, in hindsight, evident from the beginning and showed no sign of abating. He knew that Espinosa had at least two injuries that were likely causing his offensive struggles. And yet, for months, Rizzo did nothing, despite the fact that Espinosa had a minor-league option left.

Instead, we kept telling ourselves that it was early, that things were going to come around. For some things did come around–notably Jayson Werth and Wilson Ramos (the latter of which, I should add, is 10 wRC better than my model had him at this point of the year, despite having played a fraction of the time due to an extended DL stint). But for Espinosa, it never did.

I wish I could offer some hope. I wish I could tell you that, no, the Nats offense had every chance of breaking out. I can’t. This is what we’ve got to look forward to.

I’m sorry, everybody. I’m really, really sorry.

A quick thought on Independence Day

As you celebrate Independence Day, think of this.

Yasiel Puig. Yu Darvish. Yoenis Cespedes. Hisashi Iwakuma. 

Just a few of the international free agents the Nats did not (or could not) sign. Perhaps with a market-rate TV rights deal in place, they could have done so. But, because of the MASN deal, the Nats don’t even get close to half of their TV revenue–the bulk goes to the Orioles.

 

The Illusion of Control

Image

Image courtesy Nationals101

I had scarcely posted my latest projection on Twitter when I got hit by a barrage of tweets asking me to adjust the relief pitching innings.

That led to another discussion as to whether I had too many innings in total. The revised model has a total of 1475.2 IP for the whole Nats staff. That’s a lot of innings.

But I’ve decided to freeze my projections at 98 wins, and 1475.2 innings, because, at this point, I feel like I’m tinkering at the edges.

The hard thing about doing this, I find, is that as I keep running the model, something else comes up that I think I can control for. Pretty soon, I’m drowning in complications.

The whole exercise reminds me of a flyer I saw once in the Old Building of the London School of Economics. The flyer was promoting a special lecture that was to be given on “The Illusion of Control in the Social Sciences,” and it had an illustration of a man, hunched over, buried in charts, graphs, data tables, volumes of historical statistics, adding-machine-tape, etc. The point was that we can model and predict, and in doing so, we may fall prey to the notion that we can actually control the universe we’re trying to observe. Of course, that’s not entirely true.

Schadenfraude ist die schönste Freude

In the dark, cold, pre-dawn of the morning after Black Friday, I consoled myself by musing on the vagaries of chance:

But every so often, just enough randomness comes along. Maybe the ball doesn’t leave your hand clearly. Maybe the ball strikes a pebble. Maybe it’s cold, or maybe it’s too hot, or maybe it rained too much or not at all. Something you didn’t expect will change the path of that ball. You should have gotten it; you didn’t.

Even as I meditated on the randomness of baseball, St. Louis players and fans were already reading too much into the events of Game Five:

After the Cardinals’ epic collapse in Game Seven of the NLCS, it was suddenly the turn of the Team of Destiny to meditate on the vagaries of chance, and consider that perhaps they were, after all, as much Fortune’s victims as her favorites.

Or not.

Epilogue

Sometime after midnight, as the delirious twelfth of October gave way to the dismal thirteenth, with the bases loaded, with two out, with two strikes, a pitch left Drew Storen’s hand. Unfeeling robotic eyes would record it for posterity as a sinker, traveling at 94 miles an hour. Elsewhere in Nationals Park, perhaps forty-five thousand pairs of eyes watched it intently. The air throbbed with their shouting, as if they believed they could clear a path for it safely through the strike zone and into the waiting mitt of Kurt Suzuki.

The Cardinals Daniel Descalso swung his bat. Somewhere in front of the plate, the bat struck the ball, which now rebounded to shortstop Ian Desmond. It skipped on the infield dirt and struck his glove.

Forty-five thousand pairs of eyes already saw the end: Desmond would knock this baseball down, flip it to a waiting Danny Espinosa, and send those forty-five thousand watchers into ecstasy.

But in that instant, the visions diverged. Instead, on the field, the baseball uselessly off Desmond’s glove–too sharply to be fielded properly–and into the outfield. Two runs scored. The Nationals’ advantage vanished.

If you’re reading this, the odds are pretty good that your eyes, like those of many of the forty-five thousand watchers at this game, began to fill with tears at that instant. I can offer you no consolation. I wish I had some to offer myself.

I can only offer this thought: Every ball that leaves a pitcher’s hand–as that pitch left Storen’s–is little more than a roll of the dice. Innumerable, unimaginable things have to happen to that baseball. It has to leave the pitcher’s hand cleanly. It must travel the distance to the plate, through an ocean of air (and sometimes other things) . Once it reaches its destination, it has to hit something. If that something is a player’s bat, it strikes that bat in a particular way, spinning in yet another direction. To come to rest in a fielder’s mitt, it may bounce one or more times.

Every step along the way introduces a little bit of randomness; a little roll of the dice.

We don’t live our lives as hostages to Fortune, though. The pitcher has a good idea, roughly, of where his pitch will end up; a fielder, observing the ball, will have as good an idea of where to field it, and so forth. These ideas are not innate; they are learned by practice and observation–by seeing the patterns in a thousand thousand repetitions of the phenomenon.

But every so often, just enough randomness comes along. Maybe the ball doesn’t leave your hand clearly. Maybe the ball strikes a pebble. Maybe it’s cold, or maybe it’s too hot, or maybe it rained too much or not at all. Something you didn’t expect will change the path of that ball. You should have gotten it; you didn’t.

These variations are measurable and unique. Each little quirk is like one voice, telling a story. Over time–over a pitch sequence, an inning, a ball game, a series, a season, a career– the changes seem smaller and smaller, until each individual voice fades into the loud background hum of forty-five thousand people finding their seats, buying a hot dog, filling out a score card, and milling about before a ballgame.

That pitch, this game, this series: all of them together tell a certain story about the 2012 Nationals, and it isn’t a pretty one to hear. But looking back on a 2012 season that saw the Nationals amass 98 wins–best in all baseball–and play brilliant baseball almost every night? All of those moments together, telling their stories sound like a crowd in thunderous, rapturous applause.

So before you get down on the Nats for losing this series, step back. If you get far enough away, you will hear the crack of the bat, the roar of the crowd, the howling of an umpire calling a third strike. You will hear the fireworks going bang zoom, and Charlie Slowes telling you about it; of F.P. Santangelo informing you of the death of a no-hitter; of the stranger in the next row cheering.

In all of that wall of sound, there will be a small, sad voice, describing the flight of that wayward pitch from Drew Storen’s hand.

Which would you rather hear?

No Analysis

No analysis today, just emotion.

I watched the Nats clinch the first post-season playoff berth in DC since 1933. I am so amped right now I don’t know what to do or how to feel or what to say.

“Remember where you are,” Charlie Slowes always says, “so you remember where you were.” I was in Section 316, Row C, Seat 12. I had taken my time getting up to my seat. Uncharacteristically, I did not keep score. 

It was a beautiful, cool night. Again, my thoughts turned to October, and whether I might need some new cool-weather gear.

As the outs ticked away, I remember doing the math in my head. Clippard had appeared twice on Wednesday; Garcia had pitched the 7th, Mattheus the 8th.

It was going to have to be Drew Storen.

Drew Storen, whose Nats park debut I watched–who, when he was announced into the game, caused me to bolt from the hot-dog line and back to my seat to see what the new kid had to offer.

Storen struck out the side. He struck out Matt Kemp. A Dodger fan somewhere in the lower bowl took issue with this, caused a fight, and was escorted off, yelling and pointing to the last. He struck out Adrian Gonzalez. 

He faced Hanley Ramirez and baffled him so completely that, on any other night, I would have laughed with joy.

But tonight, the fireworks went BANG ZOOM behind me, and all at once, thirty thousand people at Nats park were roaring. It was as if at that moment, we had finally given ourselves permission to feel joy–not just happiness or giddiness, but genuine joy. 

“What’s the big deal?” I hear a recorded Davey Johnson ask, as I get to my car and drive home. There are bigger things now to hope for. The Nationals are no longer just scrappy, or surprising, or lucky.

They’re good. And they’re on their way.

Tomorrow is another day. I’ll have to go to work, but I’ll be looking forward to tomorrow night just a bit more. This baseball season is already so much better than I could have predicted–and there’s still more of it to come.

My face still hurts from smiling.

Go Nats.

First in War, First in Peace, Last in the Hearts of Flagship Radio Station Programming Directors

Your Washington Nationals are the best team in baseball. They have the best record in the major leagues. They are playing thrilling baseball to ever-growing crowds. They have brought a pennant race to DC for the first time since Franklin Roosevelt was President.

So, how does their Flagship radio station promote them? Well…

Which prompted Charlie Slowes, the voice of the Nationals, to remind the Flagship:

It’s enough to make Jim Vance furious. In fact, this sort of thing did make Jim Vance furious a few weeks back, but apparently, nobody at WJFK was listening.

The Nationals are playing playoff-quality baseball, while the Flagship is talkin’ ’bout practice. Not a game. Practice.

Now, I’m a huge Redskins fan, and I’ll probably have a television tuned in to see what the Redskins are working on. But you better believe I’m going to have the radio turned on and turned up so I can hear Charlie and Dave call a real, live Nats game.

Heck, if anything this sort of phenomenon is a huge opportunity for WJFK. They should be reminding DC sports fans that, while their eyes may be on the Redskins, WJFK can keep their minds and their ears on the Nationals’ phenomenal 2012 season.

But instead, they’re talkin’ ’bout practice. Not a Nats game. Practice.