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Nationals veterans want to be clear chemistry matter as much as analytics

Nationals veterans want to be clear chemistry matter as much as analytics

WASHINGTON -- Inside the age discussion around Washington’s older team is another percolating topic. Those same members of the 30-plus realm also tend to roll their eyes -- to a degree -- at analytics.

Multiple veterans have pushed back at the influence of statistical analysis on success. They are not discounting it on the whole. They are trying to add emphasis on the human element, the so-called “eye test” and, no matter how it is received elsewhere, express their thoughts about information overload.

Washington's organization remained scout heavy even as it developed its in-house analytics system named “Pentagon”. General manager Mike Rizzo comes from a scouting background. He also spearheaded a push for more depth in the organization’s analytics department, capping those efforts by promoting Mike DeBartolo and Sam Mondry-Cohen to assistant general manager positions before the season began. 

Both were reared in the organization. DeBartolo graduated from Tufts University, then Columbia Business School. He worked at an investment advisory firm prior joining the Nationals as an intern in baseball operations seven years ago. Mondry-Cohen is charged with “the front office’s analysis of baseball data and the development of department-wide baseball systems.” He went to the University of Pennsylvania, and, like DeBartolo, began his work as a baseball operations intern.

Next to Rizzo, they represent balance. Rizzo ascended from assistant college coach to regional scout to director of scouting in Arizona, where a portion of his roster-building technique (starting pitching, plus more starting pitching) was honed. He consistently touts the club’s scouts. 

Davey Martinez was hired to use more information and deploy it. In all, the Nationals have tried to balance the sides while keeping a large emphasis on scouting.

At this point, the distribution and absorption of information is more of a challenge than discovering or creating it. One thing Scherzer pointed out about Juan Soto is his ability to process so much information so quickly. Soto mostly does this via experience, not charts and scouting reports. Another thing Scherzer pointed out at the All-Star Game was his irritation the weight of analytics now possesses in the game.

“Everybody thinks this is just a math game and a numbers game, and you just look at WAR, and you know your team,” Scherzer said. “We can have projections and models -- you name it -- and that’s baseball. That’s not baseball. 

“Baseball’s played by humans. We’re humans. We experience emotions and we’re pretty good about channeling what it takes to compete every single day, but when you get a good clubhouse and you get some good energy, good vibes, it makes it easy for everybody to compete at the same level. I feel like that’s what we have going on. We have very good clubhouse. Everybody’s kind of settled in their roles. We all know how to clown on each other, have fun, when anybody makes a mistake -- my God, I’ve been making a heck of a lot of mistakes lately, everybody is getting a good laugh at -- that’s a sign of a winning club.”

Rendon uses analytics as a key to jokes about his success. When he beat out a grounder after returning from quad and hamstring tightness, he told reporters to “Statcast me.” Asked during the National League Division Series why this became his best statistical year, he sent another zing.

“Launch angle,” Rendon said with a smile. “No. Yeah, I really don't know. I've been getting a lot of those questions lately or at least this season. And I think if I actually knew, if I changed anything or if I knew if I was going to have this type of season, I actually would have done it a long time ago and I wouldn't have waited six or seven years into it. But I think that, man, I say all the time, I think I'm partly, I'm getting lucky.”

The idea of simplicity -- and the human touch -- trickles down to the initial assessments when hunting the next prospect. Johnny DiPuglia, Nationals director, international operations, explained the club’s player-hunt philosophy is less about using technology to assess spin rate and more about finding the best player on the field.

“We don't complicate ourselves with all this analytic stuff that's out now with all this TrackMan (pitching analysis) and all the Blast (swing analysis sensor and software) and all this stuff that is used," DiPuglia said. "We go out in the field, we beat the bushes and we watch games. We try to find the best player on the field, get the checkpoints and if he checkpoints the profile of a big-league position, we evaluate the numbers money-wise and try to sign the kid. We do it to the simplest form here. We don't try to complicate things.

“The game is the same game it was 50 years ago. Unfortunately, now it's a little more complicated and too much information is given.”

The contrast between the Nationals and their likely World Series opponent, Houston, is striking. Astros shortstop Carlos Correa is on the box of the Blast “complete hitting solution.” Tomes have been written about Houston’s application of analytics when restructuring and rebooting its organization. Its success indisputably shows the process has worked: The Astros won the World Series in 2017, made it to the ALCS in 2018 and are back there again in 2019. Five years ago, they lost 92 games. Baltimore hired former Houston assistant general manager Mike Elias to repeat the process.

In Washington, the veteran-filled clubhouse casts a wary eye toward analytics. Their process has been simpler. They believe in the karma coming out of their room. Many of them think its value rivals that of deep scouting reports or color-coded charts. Whatever the formula, it was enough to finally breakthrough and reach the World Series.

Chase Hughes contributed to this report.

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If teams start 19-31 like the Nationals, it really is over in a 50-game season

If teams start 19-31 like the Nationals, it really is over in a 50-game season

To put 50 games in context, just flashback to last season. It’s easy enough. Say it: 19-31. If the Nationals could, they would trademark those numbers together.

Fifty games is a flash. Almost a death knell to the eventual 2019 World Series champions. That’s a season over in late May. Think of it this way: Teams play around 30 games in a normal spring training alone.

The owners have pushed this number into the public with their non-counter-counter to the players’ suggestion of 114 games. Commissioner Rob Manfred is trying to use the March agreement between players and owners as a cudgel. Players are refusing to take a further pay cut on top of the one already negotiated. Manfred in turn is saying, “Fine. Then we will schedule the amount of games that are in line with what you are being paid.”

In play now is the 48-game season, according to ESPN. A smidge under 50. A full blitz that would be looked back at as a farce if it’s attempted to be played in the regular way. Playing half a season in the traditional manner is probably the minimum for any legitimacy. Even then, 2020 will be awash in caveats.

The Nationals’ 2020 recovery came against restrictive odds. The manager was supposed to be fired. Some suggested trading the best players, and to do it sooner than later. Season simulations said the Nationals were done. Or as close to it as possible.

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A 50- or 48-game season would cook anyone who has a bad two weeks. Lose a frontline starter? It’s over. Have your shortstop and leadoff hitter hit on the finger by a pitch and miss three weeks? It’s over. Half a season feels like a baseball sprint. Fifty games or less defines the league’s desperation to put some pennies back in its pocket in 2020.

There is one fun idea around a 50-game season. It was hatched at Fangraphs. The premise is one big 50-game tournament. Not the usual three-game series in this town, and four-game series in that city.
Fangraphs makes the on-point mathematical argument that 50 games determines next to nothing when comparing the best in the league to the mediocre. It’s just games for the sake of games.

Since baseball is trying to wade through extraordinary times, why not attempt something extraordinary, such as the tournament?

The model used at Fangraphs included 32 teams, all 30 major-league clubs plus two futures teams, one from each league. Let’s use that premise.

Stage the whole thing in the Texas Rangers’ new park -- Texas is already saying it will allow fans. Have a loser’s bracket. Make the final a five-game series. Pay the players what was already negotiated. Pin more money to the outcome. Run it from early July to the end of September. That way, you still play through much of the summer but duck under a possible fall coronavirus spike the owners are so wary of.

No caveats about if the season was long enough for an authentic champion. This is a complete outlier. The tournament year. Players wore microphones. Some kid from Double-A struck out Bryce Harper in a big at-bat. No leagues. Everyone in the same pot. Have some fun amid an historically troubling time.

What’s not working is the public whining from both sides. The inability to make a deal. The lack of common ground. Both groups are working toward one idea: loss mitigation. A 50-game season does little of that and carries even less validity. Just ask a team that opened last year 19-31.

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MLB return: Union fires back at owners in latest statement, reject additional concessions

MLB return: Union fires back at owners in latest statement, reject additional concessions

The latest whack of the negotiation tether ball came Thursday night when Tony Clark, the executive director of the MLBPA, issued a statement of discontent.

“In this time of unprecedented suffering at home and abroad, Players want nothing more than to get back to work and provide baseball fans with the game we all love. But we cannot do this alone,” it began.

Clark went on to cite the league’s most recent suggestion of a “dramatically shortened” season “unless Players negotiate salary concessions.” The league suggested a 50-game season would be reasonable for the amount of money players agreed to in salary following a late-March negotiation.

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The statement went on to refer to the league’s stance as a “threat,” as opposed to the players' proposal, which in Clark’s view, was designed to move the negotiations forward. He rattled off the various items in the union’s proposal, which was framed around a 114-game season: more games, two years of expanded playoffs, salary deferrals and the exploration of additional “jewel events” (All-Star Game, etc.).

Clark said a conference call with the MLBPA’s eight-person executive board, which includes Max Scherzer, and several other player leaders concluded “the league’s demand for additional concessions was resoundingly rejected.”

Clark went on to say the players are ready to compete and get back on the field.

The union’s reaction to MLB’s non-reaction is not a surprise. Players are adamant they are not taking further salary cuts. The league solidly believes salaries should -- and need to be -- negotiated if there is to be some form of 2020 season. Everyone continues to wait for a solution.

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