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July 19, 2005

Prospectus Game of the Week

Washington Nationals @ Milwaukee Brewers, 7/17/05

by Jonah Keri

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This edition of Prospectus Game of the Week marks a first for the column. No, there were no no-hitters thrown or inside-the-park grand slams hit. It's the first time TiVo has ever let me down. When I flicked on Sunday's scheduled Angels-Twins game, I was horrified to find a bunch of Texans playing poker instead. So rather than write about the Prospectus Doyle Brunson All-In of the Week, I switched to the Nationals-Brewers game. With the Nats making their GotW debut and also falling back to the pack in the NL East, this seemed a good time to check in on my former favorite team.


1B Brad Wilkerson
2B Jose Vidro
RF Jose Guillen
CF Preston Wilson
LF Ryan Church
3B Vinny Castilla
C  Brian Schneider
SS Cristian Guzman
P  Ryan Drese

Other than Cristian Guzman, that's not an awful lineup. The deeper problem lies in the lack of star power, and the unlikely pace set by a few of the Nats' hitters. Jose Guillen leads the Nationals in VORP, yet he ranks just fourth among National League right fielders, let alone the league's overall elite. Meanwhile Vinny Castilla's .336 OBP may not last, given it would be his highest figure since a Coors Field-assisted .362 in 1998; Nick Johnson, the team's best hitter when healthy, isn't; and Ryan Church is a poor bet to keep going at a .316/.372/.532 clip.

Though Jim Bowden and company may feel they found a cleanup hitter and a big boost to their lineup in Preston Wilson, they haven't. Wilson put up a .961 OPS at Coors in 2003, .795 on the road. After a knee injury made him ineffective everywhere last season, Wilson's come back to post a .281/.350/.544 line at Coors, .230/.289/.426 on the road. The real question with Wilson may be whether or not he's even a league-average player anymore, never mind the linchpin of a team that fancies itself a playoff hopeful.

Tomokazu Ohka's on the mound for the Brewers. After a lousy start to the season in Washington, Ohka has returned to form with the Brewers, showing the same low-walk, pitch-to-contact approach that's made him a reliable, tick-above-average innings eater for the last few years. After putting up a miserable K:BB rate of 17:27 in 54 innings with the Nats, Ohka's come back to go 24:3 in Milwaukee over 40 frames. The impetus for trading him came when Ohka turned his back on Frank Robinson during a pitching change. But that was just the final straw; the Nats had long before become frustrated with the pitcher's lack of control.

Some have credited pitching coach Mike Maddux for the change--Maddux has legitimately done a good job with several other Brewers arms, and there's talk that he worked with Ohka on using his change-up more in Milwaukee. But Ohka's apparent return to form may simply be a case of a small, ugly quarter-season working itself out given a larger sample of innings. The Nats lost their patience and gave up a useful back-of-the-rotation starter who they could have kept in-house or traded for something of value. Instead they got Junior Spivey, a middle second baseman who only figured to play a couple weeks with Jose Vidro on the mend at the time of the deal. Spivey himself is now likely out for the year with a broken hand.

Ohka's change-up pays immediate dividends in this game. Sticking to his go-ahead-and-hit-it approach, he jumps ahead 0-2 on Brad Wilkerson. Ohka's profile has him throwing a split-fingered fastball and change as two distinct pitches. He seems to have developed a hybrid pitch--a splitter that dives to the ground, that also comes in significantly slower, and from the same arm angle, as the fastball. It's a nasty pitch, and Wilkerson has no chance as he goes down for the strikeout. Call it the split-change. Ohka then gets Vidro with a change, fastball, split-change, change sequence, inducing a popout.

He's not quite as lucky against Guillen. After jumping ahead 0-2 on a fastball and slider, Ohka comes back with another fastball that looks like a clear strike three on the outside corner, causing a loud moan from the fans. Maybe they knew what was coming next--Ohka tries another outside fastball, Guillen goes out and gets it, hooking it off the foul pole for a solo homer. That's his 18th road homer, vs. just one at cavernous RFK. Wilson flies out to center to end the inning.


CF Brady Clark
2B Rickie Weeks
1B Lyle Overbay
SS Bill Hall!!!
RF Geoff Jenkins
LF Chris Magruder
3B Russell Branyan
C  Chad Moeller
P  Tomokazu Ohka

Yes, Bill Hall, cleanup hitter. Carlos Lee gets a rare day off, hence the shift. Still, that looks insane, seeing Hall as the cleanup hitter. Where did this guy come from? Check out Hall's minor league numbers:

Year  Team          League        Level     BA/OBP/SLG
1998  Helena        Pioneer       Rookie   .176/.261/.212
1999  Ogden         Pioneer       Rookie   .289/.330/.421
2000  Beloit        Midwest       Mid-A    .262/.295/.370
2001  High Desert   California    High-A   .303/.349/.529
2001  Huntsville    Southern      Double-A .256/.285/.375
2002  Indianapolis  International Triple-A .228/.272/.301

Given the number of grossly misleading performances that have come out of the Cal League over the years, you can effectively throw out the bulk of Hall's 2001, making him essentially a flop at every level of the minors. Hall had a cup of coffee with the Brewers in 2002, went back to Indy and posted an improved .282/.335/.407 line the second time there. Always possessing a horrible batting eye but decent power, Hall logged a .261/.298/.458 performance with the Brewers in '03. After a decent start last year in semi-regular big-league duty he collapsed as the season wore on, ending at .238/.276/.374. How then to explain his explosion this year, which includes a .495 SLG and 13 homers, not to mention cleanup duty with Carlos Lee getting a rare rest. Though he's still only walking once for every 14 times up, that's a marked improvement over the rest of his career.

If Hall can keep up his production, the Brewers will find themselves with a pleasant problem on their hands, having control over two cheap, talented shortstops in Hall and J.J. Hardy, or a shortstop and a third baseman if they shift Hall there permanently. With Rickie Weeks looking ready at second and other young players knocking on the door, a Hall-like surprise or two could give the team the lift it needs to contend starting in 2006, possibly through the rest of the decade.

Hall as cleanup hitter may not be as weird as Ryan Drese going from out-of-nowhere Rangers ace in 2004 to Opening Day starter in '05 to dumped by the Rangers a couple months into the season. Word out of Arlington was that he and Buck Showalter didn't see eye-to-eye. Now Drese's K:BB rate and ERA are the ones that are out of whack: 12 Ks, 11 BB in 31 innings, 2.90 ERA. Drese can thank his 2.55 GB/FB rate (2.11 with the Nats), one of the toughest hitter's parks in the game at RFK, and a fair bit of luck. The Nats' color commentator, Ron Darling, says the team felt Drese would succeed playing in front of its great infield defense. While Johnson (+6 FRAA) and Castilla (+4) have indeed been excellent, the middle infield combination of Vidro, Guzman and Jamey Carroll is a combined -2.

The perception that Drese may be doing it with mirrors only intensifies as the Brewers get to him in the 1st. He retires Brady Clark on a groundout, then sees the precocious Weeks show off his strong batting eye, working a 3-2 count before lacing a single to left. After Lyle Overbay grounds out weakly to short, Hall hits a routine grounder to Vidro, only to see the ball get booted, keeping the inning alive. Geoff Jenkins raises his batting average to .500 against the Nats on the year with a ringing two-run double. Drese escapes down 2-1 only after a stray fastball hits Chris Magruder--eventually knocking him out of the game--and Russ Branyan hits a shot to center that gets caught at the warning track, on about the eighth fat, flat Drese fastball of the inning.

The Nats go quietly in the 2nd, an Overbay two-out error rendered moot after the reliable Cristian Guzman comes through again, making yet another out for his adoring fan club. That is, those who've relished his status as the best fantasy player in baseball, at least the ones who play BP's brand of rotoball.

Quick segue: Darling points out Vidro and Overbay's errors as egregious examples of gifting the other team with free outs. "One of the keys in baseball is that you don't give a team extra outs," he says. "That always seems to hurt you." That's a good point, of course--no team wants to extend an opponent's inning by making fielding blunders. Why though do so many teams attach no such stigma attached to shortening an inning, on purpose to boot?

We're through 24 of the 30 MLB teams in this weekly column, the season's nearly two-third over, and the playoffs will be with us before you know it. But if there's one message I hope gets through all this, it's this one: Treasure outs like they're your children. Don't give them away by sacrificing unless the situation absolutely requires it. Don't give them away on the basepaths. Don't celebrate productive outs. One day players will turn their backs on players who ground out weakly to the right side to advance a runner while down three runs. They'll shake their heads when the manager makes their teammate lay down a bunt in the first inning. Birds will sing, the heavens will smile, and all will be right in the world. I look forward to that day.

Back to the action. Chad Moeller bunts, but it's an attempt to get on base, and only a great play by the still nimble Castilla prevents a single. After an Ohka groundout, Drese gets away with another weak fastball on 3-1 to Clark, the ball dying at the warning track, as several will in left and left-center during the game. Meanwhile Ohka's cruising, inducing pop-ups and grounders with his well-placed fastball and whiffing batters with his split-change when ahead in the count.

The Brewers break the game open in the bottom of the 3rd. Weeks, who's showing that rare mix of athleticism and baseball smarts that could have him actually fulfill observers' stratospheric projections, gets on base again with a well-earned walk. Overbay whacks another Drese fastball for a double. After a Hall groundout cashes a run to make it 3-1, Drese hits Jenkins. Still no sign of action in the bullpen. After Lee pops out, Branyan ropes an RBI single to make it 4-1. Robinson stays with Drese, then watches Moeller make it 5-1 with another RBI single--only a vain attempt to stretch it into a double gets Drese out of the inning.

Ohka takes over from there. Again pitching to contact and throwing strikes, he gets Guillen, Wilson and Church in order in the 4th. After a one-out Schneider single marks the first Nats baserunner since the 2nd, Guzman oh-so-predictably raps into a double play.

Taking nothing away from Ohka, who looks to have regained his groove--as his six strikeouts and zero walks Sunday suggest--Guzman's digging himself into historic territory here. The average major league shortstop's hitting .270/.324/.396 this year, good for a .251 EqA. Guzman's at .190/.229/.275, yielding a microscopic .170 EqA. Mark Belanger, one of the best known good-glove, no-hit shortstops of all-time, never posted an EqA below .200 over a full season. Phillies catcher Mike Ryan, likely the worst regular or semi-regular in the National League in the biggest pitching year in decades in 1968, managed a .181 EqA. How the Nats can make any trade for any player and not address what may be the biggest weak spot on a contending team...maybe ever is unfathomable. That Guzman's been 2 runs below average defensively this year only adds to the amazement. The four-year, $16.8 million deal given to Guzman was a laughing stock when it was first announced in November. Now it's grown into something far more serious: a roadblock to the Nats replacing the worst player in the majors, the effect being a potential botched division title for a city that waited more than 30 years to field a team.

Guzman goes on to post an 0-fer for the entire four-game series against the Brewers, with the Nats dropping three of four, including Sunday's 5-3 contest. The Nats' bullpen, which includes four of the top 30 relievers by WXRL, held the Brewers in check. But Matt Wise (#19), Derrick Turnbow and company hold a two-run lead the last two innings, preserving the Brewer win.

Up-to-the-minute NL East standings:


Team     Record  GB
Nats     53-40   --
Braves   53-41   0.5
Phillies 48-45   5.0
Mets     46-46   6.5
Marlins  45-46   7.0

My bet? The Nats miss the playoffs despite holding a big division lead for much of the first half, and don't clear 85 wins. Guzman sticks with the team all season, polluting the lineup. The shrewd acquisitions of the prior regime--Johnson, Church, Luis Ayala, Chad Cordero et. al.--go to waste. Nats fans should be lobbying MLB to get a real owner in place, as well as a real GM. Major League Baseball watched as the Expos wasted its chances to survive and succeed. The Nationals' survival isn't on the line here, though every month that passes without a stadium deal or actual owner causes concern. But wasting a golden opportunity forged by a talented group of players would be nearly as shameful.

This may be the last day the Nationals hold first place all season. At the very least, they need to stop fielding an eight-man lineup.

Jonah Keri is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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