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June 25, 2008

On the Beat

Beating the g-Nats

by John Perrotto

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The Washington Nationals' performance and luck this season would be enough to make a grown man curse, kick, or cry. Manny Acta, the Nationals' manager, admits that at one time he would have done all three with his team having a 30-50 record, (worst in the National League), and with the 3-4-5 hitters in the batting order all on the disabled list.

"I'm sure when I was younger I would have dropped a couple of f-bombs and got thrown out of a few games by now," Acta said. "I've come to realize, though, that getting kicked out of a game or tearing up the clubhouse isn't going to make your team better. It has nothing at all to do with performance on the field."

That's a very mature approach for a 39-year-old manager, one that some skippers more than 20 years his age don't take. In fact, some managers insist that getting fired up from time to time helps their ballclubs stay focused. So, how did Acta learn to take such a measured approach? By reading Mind Game, the BP book published in 2005 that takes an analytical look at how the Boston Red Sox sometimes eschewed conventional thinking in order to put together their 2004 World Series winner, ending an 86-year championship drought.

"It's the best book I've ever read, and it really changed the way I look at the game and the way I manage," said Acta, the New York Mets' bench coach when Mind Game was published. "It helped me understand the history of the Red Sox, and it really helped me understand that there are logical reasons for everything that happens in baseball, that there aren't things like the Curse of the Bambino.

"A lot of the things I read in there, such as how stolen bases only help you in certain situations, and how you should really only sacrifice bunt when the game is on the line, I use as a manager. And the most important thing that I learned is the need to think things out instead of making decisions by emotion."

Thus, Acta is able to ride out a rough season that has seen first baseman Nick Johnson, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, and right fielder Austin Kearns miss significant chunks of time. Johnson has been on the DL since May 15 with a torn tendon sheath of his right wrist. He had surgery on Tuesday, and will miss the remainder of the season after sitting out all of 2007 while recovering from a broken leg suffered the previous September. Zimmerman has been out since May 26 with a small tear in his left shoulder, and will be sidelined until at least the All-Star break as he undergoes a strengthening program. The Nationals are hopeful that he can avoid surgery, though that option has not been completely ruled out. Kearns is also likely out until the All-Star break, as he underwent arthroscopic right elbow surgery May 18 to remove loose bodies.

Johnson had been the only one of the three having a productive season with a .304 EqA in 147 plate appearances, while Zimmerman has a .246 EqA in 220 PA, and Kearns' EqA is .198 in 173 PA. Present underachievement aside, they were considered the heart of a potentially good young batting order, and the Nationals' offense has struggled mightily in their absence, ranking last in the major leagues with 3.64 runs a game.

"It's easy to feel sorry for yourself, but nobody else feels sorry for you," Acta said. "You still have to keep playing the games, so there is no use in feeling sorry for yourself. We just haven't been able to score runs. We just haven't had players step up with other guys out."

There have been two bright spots in the offense, though, as catcher Jesus Flores has a .297 EqA, and right fielder Elijah Dukes has a .274 mark after a horrible start to the season. Both are just 23.

The pitching is also among the worst in the majors, as the Nationals are 27th in runs allowed with 4.99 a game. However, there is again at least some reason for optimism because of another 23-year-old, as left-hander John Lannan has a 2.9 SNLVAR and a team-high 21.4 VORP, which gives a better indication of his performance than his 4-8 record.

Despite not getting much support from his teammates, Lannan is a big believer that the Nationals are in the beginning stages of building a strong franchise now that they have moved into Nationals Park this season. Lannan began last season at High-A and rose through several levels before ending it in the major leagues, so he has a good feel for the farm system.

"It's tough to be losing now but this is an organization that's really all about the future," Lannan said. "I've seen what we have down in the farm system. I've played with almost all of those guys, and there is a whole lot of talent there. Now that we have our new ballpark, we're on better financial footing, too. You can see everything coming together. It's going to take some more time but we're headed in the right direction. We just need to be patient."

That would be following the lead of their well-read manager.

---

Interleague play was supposed to develop new rivalries when it was instituted in 1997. While Padres-Mariners hasn't quite caught on and Yankees-Mets gets the most attention on a national level, the most spirited rivalry to spring from American League teams facing Nationals League teams is certainly the battle for Chicago between the Cubs and White Sox.

The Cubs swept a three-game series from the White Sox last weekend at Wrigley, and the teams meet for three more beginning Friday at U.S. Cellular Field. While the Cubs were registering the sweep, it was the White Sox who were firing the verbal broadsides.

Manager Ozzie Guillen swore he spotted rats that were the size of pigs in the indoor batting cage underneath the right-field stands. Pitcher John Danks suggested that Wrigley Field reeked of urine. Catcher A.J. Pierzynski seconded a former Cubs manager's rant of 25 years earlier by telling the Chicago Sun-Times that "it's like what Lee Elia said, 'Eighty-five percent of the people work, the other (bleeps) come out here.'"

However, Guillen did take time after being swept to praise the Cubs: "This team is a real good team. They can beat you in so many different ways, and not having (left fielder Alfonso) Soriano here and playing the way they're playing, that's dangerous. This team has a shot. Those guys have everything in their ballclub to win it. They know that. (Manager) Lou Piniella knows that. They should win it. If they stay together and stay healthy, I would not be surprised to see them in the playoffs."

The Cubs have the best record in the major leagues with a 48-29 mark, but Guillen is not quite ready to anoint his rivals as the best team in baseball. "They are in first place for a reason," Guillen said. "I'm not going to say the best team, the one playing the best right now, yes. That ballclub right now, you look at the relievers and if the relievers get the ball, they are going to get it done. It's all about pitching. They have a good ballclub. They have a lot of depth. They can beat you so many different ways."

---

General manager Omar Minaya has not moved onto the Mets' hot seat now that manager Willie Randolph has been fired. In fact, Mets owner Fred Wilpon says he is happy with his GM. "Omar does a great job," Wilpon told reporters earlier this week. "Everyone who makes decisions isn't going to make all right decisions."

Wilpon wouldn't say what decisions he disagrees with, but made it clear he was for the change of managers that resulted in Jerry Manuel being promoted from bench coach. "We're OK with the switch." Wilpon said. "Omar had a plan, and we approved the plan."

The Mets have been criticized for the way they handled Randolph's firing early on the morning of June 17. Randolph was axed following a win over the Angels in Los Angeles, after making a cross-country flight the previous evening following a doubleheader with the Rangers in New York.

Wilpon said it was neither he nor Minaya's intention to treat Randolph with disrespect: "(Minaya) called me at the end of the doubleheader and asked me whether we could meet. He told us what his recommendation was going to be, and that what he wanted to do was replace Willie and replace the two coaches (Rick Peterson and Tom Nieto), and that he wanted to do it expeditiously. He wanted to do it in person. And he said, just like he always does--trades and everything else--he said, 'I want to just think about it overnight.'"

The final decision was made at nine the next morning, and Wilpon said that both he and Minaya agreed Randolph should be informed of the decision in person-even if meant the news would not come until after the game that night.

---

The Angels' offense is starting to break out, as they have scored six or more runs in five of their last eight games. Before this current stretch, the Angels were held to four runs or less in 20 of 24 games, including 13 in a row at one point, the longest streak in the major leagues this season.

That the Angels have a five-game lead on the Athletics in the American League West is rather remarkable, considering the Angels run differential this season is just 0.19 per game, while Oakland's is 0.84. Furthermore, the Angels averaged just 3.4 runs scored per game from May 19-June 15, but still went 16-8 during that time. Overall, the Angels are 22nd in the majors, with an average of 4.3 runs scored a game, but fifth in runs allowed with an average of 4.1.

"We're very fortunate to have our heads above water thanks to the way our pitching has responded," Angels manager Mike Scioscia told the Orange County Register. Added Angels center fielder Torii Hunter, "We've made some pitchers look good. Once we get it going, though--and I'm getting tired of saying that--but once we get it going, it's going to be a lot of fun."

While the Angels have been averaging 5.4 runs in their last eight games, the offense still hasn't completely clicked. That has led to the question of whether the Angels have run into good pitching, or just don't have much hitting. "I'm not going to say we've had guys pitch over their heads to shut us down. It's more internal than external," Scioscia said. "All in all, this is not something external where teams are just shutting us down. It's more internal."

---

AL Rumors and Rumblings: Tigers manager Jim Leyland is a big fan of shortstop Edgar Renteria, but it appears likely that Detroit won't exercise the $11 million club option on his contract for next season. The Athletics feel they have a chance to overtake the Angels in the AL West, and have their eye on Rockies closer Brian Fuentes as a possible trade target. There is also talk they have interest in Pirates left fielder Jason Bay. Rangers first baseman Chris Shelton got a reprieve when infielder Hank Blalock wasn't ready to come off of the disabled list Tuesday, but Shelton is expected to be designated for assignment soon. Blue Jays President Paul Godfrey reportedly has interest in hiring Bobby Valentine as manager for next season if he decides to leave Japan and come back to the major leagues.

NL Rumors and Rumblings: There is growing sentiment among baseball people that the Cubs might be relaying the catcher's signs from the hand-operated scoreboard at Wrigley Field to the hitters. The Cubs are averaging 6.5 runs a game at home and 4.4 on the road. The Cubs are hoping that outfielder Eric Patterson's recent hot streak might make him more attractive in the trade market. The Phillies feel that they need one more top-flight starting pitcher to hold on to the top spot in the NL East, and are zeroing in on the Astros' Roy Oswalt, the Indians' C.C. Sabathia, the Blue Jays' A.J. Burnett, the Brewers' Ben Sheets, and the Padres' Greg Maddux as potential trade targets. Sheets says he will test the free-agent market after the season, as the Brewers have yet to approach him about a contract extension. The Rockies would go with set-up man Taylor Buchholz as their closer if they trade Fuentes rather than Manny Corpas, who finished last season in the role. Mets left fielder Moises Alou is leaning toward retiring at the end of another injury-filled season.

---

Scouts give their views on various major-league players:

  • Braves right fielder Jeff Francoeur: "He's going to try wearing contact lenses (only in his right eye during night games), and that should only help. He's always been a free swinger, but it's gotten ridiculous this year. He's swinging at everything and he's missing some pitches by a foot. He's a great kid, and he has so much talent, but he is going to have to learn at least a modicum of plate discipline pretty soon or he's going to be out of the league in a few years."
  • Rangers first baseman Frank Catalanotto: "He's not the prototypical first baseman or corner outfielder, but this guy has quietly put together a nice little career. He gets on base and he's always a tough out. He's probably a little stretched being an everyday player at this point, but he can still help any team as a part-time starter or coming off the bench."
  • Royals left-handed reliever Ron Mahay: "A lot of people thought (GM) Dayton Moore was crazy to give this guy a three-year contract over the winter, including myself, because they said he couldn't pitch on consecutive days. He's pitched great this year, though, and he's been durable and effective. The weird thing, though, is he can't get lefties out with any regularity. It doesn't make any sense."
  • Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek: "He's still the heart and soul of that team, but he's getting older and his bat is really starting to slow down. He always brings intangibles with the way he handles a pitching staff and carries himself in the clubhouse, but he's a free agent after this season, and I'd be very wary of giving him a long-term contract."
  • Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter: "You always think of him as still being a kid, but he is getting older, and his bat is slowing down, too. I'd still take him on my team in a minute, but he's not quite the threat at the plate he used to be because he's starting to lose some of his ability to drive the ball."

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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