It Is Time For The Nats to give the Expos Back To Canada: The Rule of Baseball Franchise History

With MLB returning to Montreal for a couple of days, I figure it might be time to re-post my feelings on the Nats relation to the team that used to play there.

Half Street Heart Attack

It has taken me a few years to come to the revelation that Washington D.C. is not located in Canada.  While I know this might seem obvious, trust me, it isn’t that easy.  The Washington Nationals franchise used to be in Montreal as a team named the Expos.  The Expos were a very interesting franchise with star caliber players that never got the notoriety they deserved due to the media age in which they played.  An Expos team with Hall of Fame quality players like Pedro Martinez, Gary Carter,  Andre Dawson and Tim Raines.  They, as recent as 15 years ago they had guys like Vlad Guerrero and Larry Walker.  All of these guys belong to Montreal and Canada, not to the long and occasionally glorious history of Washington Baseball.  This brings me to the rule I invented but should be adopted into major league sports.

The Rule of Baseball…

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The Washington Nationals should be an elite franchise but MASN is standing in the way

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It took Washington D.C. way too long to get a Major League Baseball franchise due to the twin travesties of Peter Angelos and the general presumption that baseball couldn’t succeed in D.C.

In retrospect, looking at the numbers, it was completely asinine for anyone to think baseball could not succeed here. According to the 2010 Census, the Washington D.C. metropolitan area had 5,636,232 people, the 7th largest market in the country. Since New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles each have two teams, Washington D.C. is the 4th largest market with a single team. The current largest market without a baseball team is Portland, which had 3,410,223 fewer people than Washington D.C. in the 2010 census. Put another way, the difference between Washington D.C. and Portland would be the 16th largest market in the U.S. by itself, bigger than Minneapolis, San Diego, St. Louis, and 8 other cities with an active MLB team.

Most importantly, Washington D.C. continues to grow, at estimates between 5 and 6 percent since the last census 4 years ago. The Washington area’s growth far outpaces most Northeast and Rust Belt cities including division rival Philadelphia. D.C.’s estimated population growth is 5 times the growth of the Philadelphia metropolitan area, meaning Washington will soon pass the Philly area in population, if it hasn’t already, since the D.C. area had only 330,000 fewer people in 2010. Even more importantly than that, Washington D.C. has unmatched wealth within its market. 11 of the top 21 wealthiest counties in the United States surround Washington D.C., including five of the top six and three largest.

Despite these advantages, when baseball arrived here in 2005, there were numerous factors conspiring against its success. The franchise had been stripped of most of its on-field assets, as best demonstrated by the infamous 2004 Bartolo Colon trade. Moreover, the team’s owners–the 29 teams in baseball–did not invest in the team’s roster. Bud Selig’s refusal to sell the team until 2006 meant the team’s rebuilding would have to wait until the other 29 owners were absolutely sure they could suck every possible dollar out of the Nationals’ new owner through an inflated purchase price.  Finally, Bud Selig, Peter Angelos, and MLB made sure the new owner would be saddled with an unfavorable TV contract he had no say in negotiating. These forces eventually colluded to make the Nationals baseball’s worst team in 2008 and 2009.

Time and smart management have slowly alleviated the competitive disadvantages inherited from Bud Selig’s ownership of the Nationals. The eternally bumbling Jim Bowden was finally kicked out the door, and Mike Rizzo slowly rebuilt the roster through smart trades, wise investments in the draft, and a little bit of luck. The Nationals are now one of baseball’s most talented teams.

But one inherited disadvantage has not gone away: MASN. Ted Lerner and the Nationals are still saddled with the same unfavorable TV contract written when Bud Selig was running the Nationals/Expos franchise into the ground.

The population and demographic numbers suggest the Nationals should stay on top of Major League Baseball for years to come. There’s only one thing standing in the way.

More on that later.

Big Surprise: Bryce Harper gets ejected again

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Bryce Harper got ejected from a Spring Training game today, which is just weird because nobody should be caring about the outcomes in Spring Training games. But, then again, Harper is an emotional guy and most umpires are dicks.

Anyway, watching Bryce Harper retreat to the dugout after yet another ejection made me fondly the remember the 2013 season when Bryce Harper ejections caused quite a bit of controversy.  Remember last May when umpire John Hirschbeck ejected Harper in the first inning in a game against the Pirates? Yeah, we didn’t like that.  It didn’t help that Hirschbeck threw professionalism out the window and instigated a confrontation with a player (he’s known for doing that).

And remember in July when Bryce Harper got ejected in Miami? At least that time, the umpire Hunter Wendelstadt conducted himself professionally (take note, John Hirschbeck).

Anyway, it’s not a good thing to see Harper ejected because it just gives ammunition to the anti-Harper trolls. And you can’t hit home runs when you’re watching the game from the clubhouse.

Somewhere, John Hirschbeck can’t wait for his first game against the Nationals.

Did you notice how I phrased that?

How Overrated Is Bryce Harper? Based On The Poll of MLB Players They Underrate Him

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ESPN The Magazine recently released a poll of Major League players where they listed Bryce Harper as the most overrated player in baseball.  Fine, I happen to think the guy faces way too much criticism and gets singled out by other clubs like the Braves and Phillies who apparently feel they have the responsibility to throw fastballs at his torso and then laugh about it.  By listing him as the most overrated player, ironically, they are pointing out how much they underrate him.

What to make of Bryce Harper’s second season in the majors.  Most people will say that he had an OK year.  He had good points and bad points and got hurt.  Looking at his stat totals will paint that picture.  3.8 WAR (3rd on the team, worse than last year) He hit .274 (pretty good,  but not great) 20 home runs and 58 RBI (fine, not a lot of RBI for a guy who hit 4th)  less than 500 ABs (didn’t even qualify).  Most average or casual baseball fans will stop there.  I know this because listening to sports radio in DC I heard the Harper season summary end there on the National’s flagship station (OK, it was the Junkies) Grant Paulson this week went as far as questioning if he even had an All-Star quality season last year.

One of the problems when analyzing Harper’s season is that he missed an entire month, zero at bats in June, this significantly impacting those counting type stats.  I am a big fan of wOBA and wRC+ to analyze player hitting.  I like this stat because it, like batting average is not impacted by a player like Harper missing a month of the season.  wOBA is the stat general managers use to calculate players total offensive contribution and wRC+ is a park adjusted stat that gives a % rank of how good a player is compared to the average MLB player.  Here is how Harper stacks up: Harper had a .371 wOBA and 137 wRC+.

Putting that into perspective

Harper was the 7th best hitting outfielder in baseball behind Trout, Werth, McCutchen, Choo, Holiday and Cuddyer.  That’s it.  That is the list.  You could also add CarGo and Puig, but they, like Harper didn’t have 500 ABs

The only outfielder in the American League ahead of Harper is Mike Trout.

The more interesting list is the players who Harper out hit this year.  Stanton, Bautista, Pence, Beltran, Upton, Bruce, Posey, and Adam Jones.

If you want to take that out to all positions, he also out hit Beltre, Molina, Longoria, Posey, Zimmerman, Fielder and Hosmer,

How does this rate to his stats in 2012?  He improved wOBA .019 points and wRC+ by 16%.  Yep, he was better this last year in an incremental way you would expect year to year.

Is it possible for Harper to be underrated?  Can he be one of the best players of his generation, appear on national magazines, head national TV ads and still be underrated?  It would be my guess that the players polled by ESPN would be shocked at how they have underrated him.

Zimmermann Should Start the Home Opener

 

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Twice in a year a MLB team gets to set its pitching rotation: The beginning of the season and the right after the All-Star Game.  It looks like Matt Williams is missing a chance to match his pitching staff in a way that would put his best pitchers against the NL East’s best team. The season sets up so the Nats play the Braves twice in the first 4 series of the year.   The #5 starter, either Roark or Jordan, will pitch in both series including the home opener.

My theory and idea rests on a few assumptions:

The National’s pitching staff has four potential Cy Young candidates and a 5th guy.

The NL East is a two team race.  The winner is either going to be the Nats or the Braves

The Nationals have a better chance winning the division if they have their best pitcher pitch against the Braves

My proposed pitching rotation has the benefit of Jordan Zimmermann starting the “Home Opener.”  It is a chance to give him an honor and, lets face it,  home fans would rather see J Zimm on the mound than a #5 guy anyway.

Opponent Probable Proposed
@Mets Strasburg Strasburg
Off Day
@Mets Gio Gio
@Mets Zimm #5
Braves #5 Zimm
Braves Fister Fister
Braves Strasburg Strasburg
Off Day
Marlins
Gio Gio
Marlins Zimm #5
Marlins #5 Zimm
@Braves Fister Fister
@Braves Strasburg Strasburg
@Braves Gio Gio

Under my proposal, Strasburg and Fister pitch twice and Gio and Zimm pitch once against the Braves and the #5 guy is reserved for series against the Mets and Marlins.  This is not a guarantee of anything, but it is an opportunity that is being overlooked.

It’s time to admit the Jayson Werth contract is a great deal for the Nationals

Some baseball fans are completely unable to reexamine the Jayson Werth contract
Some baseball fans are unable to reexamine their thoughts the Jayson Werth contract

Cognitive Dissonance is a theory in Psychology stating that humans tend to strive for internal consistency.  That is, when people are confronted with evidence to contradict their previously held beliefs, they tend to dismiss the new information to reduce anxiety and avoid the psychological discomfort of holding two simultaneous conflicting ideas.

The most classic example of this phenomenon can be found in Aesop’s fable “The Fox and the Grapes”.  In Aesop’s tale, when a hungry fox is unable to reach grapes hanging from a tree, he later concludes that the grapes are sour and not worth eating. This fable gave birth the term “Sour Grapes” (which would later be heavily misused throughout popular culture).

Nowhere is this phenomenon better demonstrated, however, than in the case of Jayson Werth and his $126 million, 7-year contract. When Werth signed with the Nationals before the 2011 season, his contract was almost universally panned–seen as a desperate overpay to a non-elite player by a team nowhere near contention.  Of course, quite a bit has changed since then, yet many people in the baseball world find themselves suspended in a permanent state of cognitive dissonance.

I was one of the people against the Jayson Werth contract in 2011. But three things have happened since then to lead me to the inescapable conclusion that his contract is now a great deal for the Nationals.

1. Jayson Werth had a better season in 2013 than anybody thought was possible.

Werth was the best player on the 2013 Nationals, and it wasn’t even close. He hit 25 home runs (2nd on the team behind Ryan Zimmerman’s 26). He drove in 82 runs (1st on the team), while slugging .532 (3rd in the league) and getting on base at a .398 clip (5th in the league). According to Fangraphs, Werth contributed 4.6 Wins Above Replacement Player (WAR). The 4.6 WAR is likely underselling Werth’s value, as the Nationals had nobody near replacement level ready to take his place (Steve Lombardozzi, Tyler Moore, and Roger Bernadina were a disaster in 2013). Considering the value of one win above replacement on the open market in 2014 is somewhere between 5 and 6 million dollars, Werth generated up to $27 million worth of value for the 2013 Nationals. Werth’s production will of course decline as he gets older, but his primary skill set–getting on base–will depreciate at a slower rate than the skill sets of power hitters his own age.

2. The Nationals contended far sooner than anyone expected.

When Werth signed his contract in 2010, the Nationals were still running under the reputation as one of the worst teams in baseball. Had the Red Sox or Phillies (re)signed Werth for the same price, nobody would have said anything. The thought was: if the Nats aren’t ready to contend, why are they spending this kind of money? However, since the Continue reading “It’s time to admit the Jayson Werth contract is a great deal for the Nationals”

The Kris Medlen injury is more proof Mike Rizzo made the right call on the Stephen Strasburg shutdown

The Braves failed to protect Kris Medlen like the Nationals protected Stephen Strasburg
The Braves failed to protect Kris Medlen like the Nationals protected Stephen Strasburg

There will always be people who continue to question the Stephen Strasburg shutdown of 2012.  Perhaps there’s nothing that will change people’s minds on this issue, but over here, it looks like history is beginning to vindicate Mike Rizzo.

The Nationals shutdown Strasburg two years ago because it was the smartest approach to protect his pitcher’s long term health based on all available evidence and professional expert medical opinion.

While Rizzo was taking the enlightened, educated approach, there were armchair “experts” everywhere advising him to do something different. Move Strasburg to the bullpen. Shut him down for a month earlier in the season. Skip a few starts. “Save” his arm for the playoffs…as if pitches thrown by young pitchers can be distributed whenever, wherever as if they’re chips being used at a casino.

One team listened to the armchair experts–the Atlanta Braves. Young ace Kris Medlen tore his UCL the exact same month Stephen Strasburg tore his in August 2010.  Yet, the Braves used a completely different approach with their recovering pitcher. Mike Rizzo put Strasburg on the same recovery schedule that proved successful with Jordan Zimmermann, who had Tommy John surgery a year earlier.

The Braves decided to “save” Medlen for the postseason, limiting his innings by pitching him out of the bullpen for most of 2012. In process, he racked up 53 total pitching appearances on the season.  That’s a lot for an elbow still recovering from surgery.

Listen, this is not an exact science. Stephen Strasburg could tear his UCL again tomorrow. So could any other pitcher on the Nats roster. You cannot prevent pitching injuries. You can only minimize the risk by listening to your doctors and replicating strategies that have worked in the past. This is what Mike Rizzo chose to do, and I commend him for it.

The Braves tried a different–and riskier–approach. In the process, they overtaxed a young arm they desperately need to anchor their rotation.

Nope, this isn’t an exact science. But the Nationals ace is healthy for the 2014 season. The Braves ace is not. I wonder if any of the armchair “experts” bothered to notice.