Baseball lacks ‘star power’…abolish the draft to fix it

Major League Baseball is lacking star power. Mike Trout, the undisputed best player in the game since at least 2013, has the name recognition of maybe the 50th best NBA player. Since Derek Jeter retired, there arguably isn’t a single baseball player capable of crossing over into popular culture.

There are structural reasons for this. Baseball players don’t have the same ability as their football and basketball counterparts to dominate a game. Tom Brady touches the ball almost every offensive play–same with LeBron James. Meanwhile, baseball pitchers don’t even play in 80 percent of their own games, and hitters only bat one out of every nine times.

Baseball players also play almost every day, limiting their time for promotional and marketing appearances. Also, don’t underestimate the marketing strength of basketball’s shoe culture and fantasy football.

Still, I reject these structural issues as a full explanation for the lack of marketable baseball players. Less than a generation ago, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were the most well-known American athletes. Others like Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr, and Cal Ripken were nationally known. The world has changed since then, but it hasn’t changed that much.

In 1992, a high school baseball player named Derek Jeter wanted to play for the New York Yankees, who picked sixth in that year’s draft. To achieve this, he lied to the first five teams picking in the draft, telling them that he planned to attend the University of Michigan on a baseball scholarship. The ruse worked and the rest is history. The Yankees and Jeter were a perfect marketing match–the most storied baseball franchise in America’s biggest city drafted a mature, biracial team leader with an uncanny ability to make memorable, clutch plays.

What if every player were able to choose his team?

Take Trout, an electric player on the field but a complete bore off of it. Angels fans love him, but he’s miscast in Southern California, which has its own unique definition of what it takes to be a star. Trout is a blue collar guy–he belongs in a blue collar city where a willingness to shine only on the field is an asset. Put him in Philadelphia (which is his hometown, btw). His persona would be immediately transformed. He would define the city and be more easily marketed playing on the East Coast.

The perfect star for LA isn’t Trout, it’s…and I hate to say it…Bryce Harper. Harper was raised in Las Vegas with a flare for the dramatic, and he’s a natural in front of the camera.

Baseball doesn’t have the wrong players. It has the right players in the wrong places.

I realize proposal this is highly unlikely. Teams will be remiss to give up the only democratic means they have to distribute talent. Any proposal to abolish draft will have to come with spending caps to prevent baseball from reverting to the 1950’s–a clone of college football where Alabama signs whoever they want.

But there are benefits. The incentive to tank for draft picks is entirely gone. And teams will be penalized for engaging in perpetual rebuilding projects–top prospects will only want to sign with teams actually trying to contend, or teams that are close to contending. Also, teams will be forced to treat their minor leaguers better since they’ll be recruiting them.

Abolishing the draft would be a bold move. But if baseball truly believes they’re facing a crisis of irrelevancy, perhaps a bold move is necessary.

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Do Nationals fans still love Bryce Harper?

Early in his career, either 2013 or 2014, Bryce Harper did a short stint on the disabled list. In his first game back, he played left field and fielded a ground ball single in the top of the first inning. Instead of lazily throwing the ball back in to the infield, he charged it and fired the ball into first base, hoping to catch the runner not paying attention. It was a one in ten thousand type baseball play–the type of thing fielders rarely ever do.

Harper didn’t get the runner. In fact, the throw was a little off target and the Nats’ first baseman was caught off guard–he had to dive to stop the ball from flying into the stands. The whole sequence was unexpected, bizarre, and–above all else–exciting. Some tweeter on my timeline simply wrote “yup. Bryce is back.”

That was the bargain with an early Bryce Harper. He’d do crazy things you didn’t expect. Take second base on an otherwise routine single when the outfielder casually fielded the ball. Try to throw out runners where no other sane fielder would try. And they weren’t all good things. Bryce would routinely get himself ejected. He’d run into outfield walls. Most of all, he didn’t care what anybody thought. He didn’t mind that opposing fans thought he was a preening pretty boy when he’d flip his hair after a home run, and he’d keep arguing with umpires when it was completely counter-productive. In spite of, and often because of, all these flaws, Nationals fans loved him and defended him when it seemed all 29 other fan bases and the national media didn’t like him. For better it worse, he made a repetitive game like baseball a little more thrilling. The game was different when he was involved–you could immediately tell when “Bryce was back.”

Now Bryce Harper is on what seems to be a death march through his last three months as a National. He is struggling at the plate–he’s currently hitting .213–but something else seems different as well. His ubiquitous presence has receded, and fan loyalties have been distributed to other more “accessible” players like Max Scherzer or younger players like Juan Soto. There is no way to measure this, but fans seemed resigned to him signing elsewhere and it’ll no longer be a cataclysmic event when it happens.

There are many reasons why this might be case, but perhaps one of them is the fact that Bryce himself is different. Those “youthful indiscretions” on the baseball field that were charming in 2013 are both less frequent and less forgivable considering Bryce is supposed to “all grown up” now and a team leader. In any event, the experience of watching Bryce Harper is noticeably different and, for what it’s worth, Bryce doesn’t appear to be enjoying himself as much either. Eventually, Bryce won’t “be back” and it’ll be less painful than we ever imagined it would be.

Was last night’s comeback against the Marlins a “turning point”?

Let’s get this out of way: last night’s game was fun. It was the biggest comeback in Nationals history and it came at the perfect time. It was a cathartic moment for a fan base that badly needed one. More importantly, it put the team back at .500 and a little bit closer to the top.

Ok, now that we’ve established that, can we be real for a millisecond? The Nationals didn’t score 14 straight runs because they had a “players-only” team meeting the day before. They didn’t give up 9 straight runs because of the team meeting either. To paraphrase a President from an Aaron Sorkin liberal fantasy, post hoc ergo proctor hoc does not apply.

The Nats won because they finally put hits in close enough proximity to each other to push runs across the plate. They scored runs because the Marlins’ starting pitcher stumbled the third time through the Nats order and generally ran out of gas. And the Nats finished erasing the 9-run deficit because the Marlins bullpen started throwing batting practice in the 6th inning.

It’s an old trick to hold a “players-only” meeting right before your star pitcher takes the mound or you face a bad team. It just so happens the Nationals finished a tough 3-game series against the best team in baseball–the Red Sox. And before that, it was the Phillies, who would be in the playoffs if the season ended today.

Here’s another thing to consider. The Nationals had a brutal 7-16 stretch in April that started their season on a sour note. The poor record in that stretch was a bit of a mirage–the Nats lost 8 straight one run and extra inning games. Results in close games tend to regress towards the mean, and they did. After April 28, the Nats went 8-2 in one-run and extra inning games, a stretch that briefly put the Nats in first place and 10 games over .500. The luck reversed. In their 4-13 stretch before last night, the Nats lost 6 straight one run and extra inning games.

The trend will again regress to the mean. Maybe it’ll happen this weekend against Miami. Maybe not. That’s the thing with luck–we don’t know.

But we do know a bad team came to town, and the Nats recent losing skid isn’t exactly what it appears to be. A turning point was likely–“players-only meeting” or not.

By all means, enjoy the comeback. It was a memorable night of baseball. If it inspires this club, that can only be a good thing. You were bothered by the losing–I promise you it bothered them more.

I’m rooting for a big winning streak. But unless the “players-only” meeting involved steroids, we’ll have to find a more logical explanation.

Strikeouts are fun

Last night’s Nationals game was a fun one, as far as sparsely-attended midweek May games against terrible opponents go. With the score 3-2 and two runners on base with one out, closer Sean Doolittle blew away two consecutive Orioles quad-A hitters with mid 90’s fastballs to lock down the victory. After the last strike 3, Doolittle turned towards centerfield and uncharacteristically let out a guttural scream while Pedro Severino pumped his fist behind the plate. It was a fun display of emotion from both and provided the Nats a signature moment in the young season.

Would the moment have been more fun had Doolittle acquired the last out through a routine pop up? Would Doolittle have reacted in the same way if he was forced to wait for an outfielder to catch the ball? Would it have been more or less satisfying for the fan watching on tv?

There’s been quite a bit of hand-wringing this season about the drop of “balls in play” across Major League Baseball. Pitchers are getting better and batters are caring less if they make contact. Strikeouts are up. Ground balls and pop flys are down.

Is this a reason for worry? Last night’s experience with Sean Doolittle suggests that it’s not. Strikeouts are fun. There’s something immediate and primal about a strikeout. It’s instantaneous satisfaction. When Dootlittle let go of the ball, it could have been a walk off home run or game ending swing and miss. The fan gets the answer right away. That’s the essence of sports. It’s the baseball equivalent of shot at the buzzer or 4th down throw into the end zone. That’s why Doolittle let out his scream. The game went from uncertainty to finality in a fraction of a second. It was exciting.

It also provides Doolittle, and the fans, the the gratification of conquering an opponent. Baseball is unique among sports that the majority of the action is Mano a Mano. It’s an individual sport masquerading as a team sport. Ninety percent of the time, its just pitcher against hitter. We repeat until one team has 27 outs. It’s a series of individual duels bundled into one “game.” A strikeout is the purest form of that duel.

Strikeouts provide us our best moments. Think about Stephen Strasburg striking out the side in the 7th inning of his first start. People would have cared less had he induced 3 straight ground balls. Max Scherzer’s 20 strikeout game in 2015 is another great franchise moment. Plenty of Nats pitchers have compiled 20 outs via ground balls and pop flies, but you never bother to remember them. Teams track “K’s” on the scoreboard–they don’t track ground balls. Fans stand and applaud when a pitcher gets two strikes–they’re not doing it because they’re rooting for a pop fly.

There’s a line in “Bull Durham” where Kevin Costner encourages his young pitcher to avoid strikeouts and get more ground balls because they’re “more democratic.”

Well, democracy is boring. Give me to the Dictatorship of the strikeout. There’s a reason Napoleon is in every history book.

Quick reaction to the Nationals “firing” Dusty Baker 

I’m not surprised very often when it comes to Nationals. Most big events–free agent signings, trades, firings–are telegraphed ahead of time or rational responses to a known series of events. 

But Dusty getting the axe?  That surprised me.

Maybe it shouldn’t have. Dusty managed the entire season on the last year of his contract–a highly unusual circumstance. But I attributed that to the Lerners being the Lerners.  They always have an unusual way of doing business.  I assumed Dusty would come back as long as the Nationals kept winning. And they did keep winning. Two divisions titles in two years–the only Nationals manager to that, doing what Davey Johnson and Matt Williams should have done considering the talent they managed. 

The story will come out and this will be explained, but one thing is clear: this is Mike Rizzo’s team. When Dusty was hired, I made the observation that Rizzo’s sterling reputation as GM is most marred by questionable managerial hires. He’s back to square one. I said this last time and I’ll say it again: how many chances does he get to find the right guy? 

Why is everyone so outraged about the Strasburg situation?

Nature–and the MLB postseason–abhor a vacuum. So it was only natural that a day filled with zero baseball games, yesterday, would lead to unecessary drama. 

The Nationals announced yesterday that Stephen Strasburg would not start Game 4. Dusty Baker’s press conference regarding the issue was confusing. I wrote about that yesterday. But that’s Dusty’s style, and to be honest, this decision wasn’t made by him anyway, which explains why he had trouble explaining it. 

Mike Rizzo stepped in right away, however, and was actually pretty honest about the situation. Stephen Strasburg was sick, and the team had a decision to make. Were their chances of winning Game 4 greater with an ill Strasburg or a healthy Tanner Roark?  They decided Roark, and made the the announcement, which they were required to make by MLB. Some may disagree with this decision. Strasburg is the ace, and they want him on the mound no matter his condition. This is fine. You can disagree, but I’m not sure you have a right to be outraged.  As Rizzo noted on the radio. He’s trying to win too.

Nor does anyone have the right to be outraged at Strasburg. He didn’t fly home. He didn’t tell the team he wasn’t pitching. He went out and showed the team what he had in his bullpen session. Mike Rizzo, who is paid to make these decisions, thought a fully healthy Roark gave them a better chance to win. 

The biggest outrage here seems to be the team’s “poor communication.”  I concede Dusty’s pressure didn’t really settle the issue, but other than making their manager skip the league-mandated press conference, I’m not sure what else the team could have done. They were honest, which is probably what threw off the media and public. They didn’t think Strasburg could make the start. Today, he felt well enough to do so, and the Nats adjusted accordingly. 

Some suggest the Nats should have done the opposite, named Strasburg the starter and then switched to Roark if Stephen’s condition did not improve. I suppose this could have been a viable option, but is it really a better one? What happens when they name Strasburg the starter but then word leaks he’s sick and Roark was informed by the team to be ready to pitch? Doesn’t that lead to a bigger circus? It doesn’t eliminate the uncertainty, and it adds a level of deceit to the Nats’ actions. 

The Nats had a bad situation. Their number one starter was questionable to pitch. The Nats had two options. They chose to be honest. The fact that people are so outraged about that speaks more poorly of us than it does them. 

Edit: apparently the Nats weren’t required to name a starter by MLB. Even if that’s true, it still makes sense to announce Roark the night before. It is not ideal for the likely starting pitcher to go to bed having no idea whether he’ll pitch. 

All 12 Nationals Home Openers ranked from worst to best

12. 2010 – The Nats are blown out 11-1 by the Phillies. Worse, the stadium was filled with Phillies fans thanks, in part, to Stan Kastan’s policy of selling block tickets to out of town fans before individual tickets went on sale to the public. Coming off two horrific seasons in 2008 and 2009, there’s a good argument this day was the low point in Nationals history.

11. 2009 – The Nats entered the game 0-6 and left the game 0-7 after losing to the defending champion Phillies, 9-8. By the time this game ended we were all on notice that the 2009 season would be just as painful as 2008. One bright spot: Christian Guzman went five for five.

10. 2011 – It was cold. It wasn’t even April yet. Livan Hernandez turns in a quality performance in his last opening day start. But the Nats lose a lackluster 2-0 game to the Braves.

9. 2007 – The last opening day at RFK. John Patterson got rocked and the Nationals lost 9-2 to Dontrelle Willis and the Marlins. It was an inauspicious start to the beginning of the Manny Acta era.

8. 2006 – Everything about the home opener in 2006 was a little bit of a bummer. The team was already 2-5 on their way to 91 losses. Opening Day starter Ramon Ortiz gave up four runs and the Nats lost 7-1 to a superior Mets team. The excitement of the previous years home opener had already started to wear off. Can anyone name the leadoff hitter from the home opener in 2006? Anyone? Brandon Watson.

7. 2014 – Not great weather as the Nats lose 2-1 to the Braves in part due to the Justin Upton ground rule double fiasco. The loss wouldn’t be nearly as bad if it didn’t breathe more life into the annoying “the Nats can’t beat the Braves” narrative.

6. 2016 — Tanner Roark had a rough day. After giving up 3 runs to the Marlins in the first inning, he didn’t make it more than 4 innings.  The Nationals scored 3 runs in the first inning too, which was cool, but they didn’t do much more than that.  Bryce Harper hit his 4th opening day home run, which is becoming a fun trend.  The Nats lost 6-4.

5. 2015 – The game started well. Great weather. Bryce Harper homering in his second at bat. Max Scherzer beginning his Nats career with 5 shutout innings. Unfortunately, a critical miscommunication between Dan Uggla and Ian Desmond on a routine pop-up opened the door to some Mets runs and the Nats bats were silenced by Bartolo Colon and the Mets bullpen (including recently traded Jerry Blevins). It was a foreshadow to a disappointing 2015 season. The Nats lost 3-1.

4. 2012 – Nationals win a 3-2 walk off against the Reds in the 10th inning after a blown save by closer Brad Lidge (spoiling a nice start by Gio Gonzalez). The win moved the Nats record to 5-2 to start the season. After quality end to 2011, we started to get the feeling that the Nationals were actually playoff contenders.

3. 2008 – The first game at Nats Park. The excitement of a new stadium puts this game high on the list. But Ryan Zimmerman’s walk off homerun in the 9th inning puts it higher. Unfortunately the temperature dropped steadily throughout the game. By the time Zim hit his homer, the stadium was half empty and freezing. Also, while the Opening Night walkoff provided a signature moment for the new stadium, nobody in that park thought the Nats would be contenders that season dampening some of the enthusiasm.

2. 2013 – Almost everything about Opening Day 2013 was perfect. Bryce Harper hit the first two good pitches he saw out of the ballpark. Stephen Strasburg nearly threw a shutout. And the game was over in record time. That season didn’t turn out as planned but on that day it looked like the Nats would be cruising to their second straight National League East title.

1. 2005 – This will be #1 forever. Everything was perfect. The President threw out the first pitch (and didn’t bounce it). Livan Hernandez threw a gem. Vinny Castilla almost hit for the cycle (thanks Lance Cormier). The stands were bouncing. Most importantly professional baseball was back in Washington DC.  It’ll never get better than Opening day 2005.