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What The Track Nats Lack

My story this morning attempts to anatomize a simple play from Sunday's game, when leadoff man Lastings Milledge stole second in the first inning. In a broader sense, the story examines basestealing -- and Washington's (e.g., Manny Acta's) approach to it. Milledge was the prism for this more or less by default. Take him away, and the Nats have very few proven basestealers. Even if their success-rate rises this year -- it was a dreadful 65.3-percent in 2008, 29th in baseball -- don't expect to see their total swipes atop any league leaderboard.

Anderson Hernandez can steal some bases. Same with Elijah Dukes, provided he stays healthy. Same with Willie Harris, whenever he cracks the lineup. That is about all.

As Acta summarized it: "The rest of the guys -- I mean, they can steal bases, but they can also get thrown out a bunch of times." When I was talking with Willie Harris yesterday about basestealing, he was optimtisc that the team, working this spring with Cesar Cedeno, could improve its numbers. "You might even want to call us the Track Nats," he joked. But the track record of the Track Nats isn't so impressive.

By percentage:

Adam Dunn (8 seasons): 59 SB, 19 CS, 75.6%
Willie Harris (8 seasons: 85 SB, 29 CS, 74.6%
Lastings Milledge (3 seasons): 28 SB, 13 CS, 68.3%
Cristian Guzman (9 seasons): 117 SB, 61 CS, 65.7%
Elijah Dukes (2 seasons): 15 SB, 8 CS, 65.2%
Austin Kearns (7 seasons): 26 SB, 14 CS, 65.0%
Ryan Zimmerman (4 seasons): 16 SB, 10 CS

And nobody else on the projected Opening Day roster is above 60-percent. Even those numbers might paint a picture more promising than deserved. Dunn, the most efficient stealer, stole just two bases last year, and has essentially removed base-stealing from his game. (He stole 19 in 2002.) Guzman, the most practiced base-stealer, went just 6-for-11 last year. Dukes has the potential to steal 20, but he dealt with injury problems last year.

Bottom line, you steal if you have the speed, Acta said, and his point was, the Nats doesn't have all that much of it. "You have to manage according to what you have," he said. "Whitey Herzog could not manage the St. Louis Cardinals waiting for a three-run homer, because he had Vince Coleman, Willie McGee, Tommy Herr and those guys over there. Simple as that. I don't think there are any geniuses on the field managing. All of us just do the best we can with what we have."

By Chico Harlan  |  March 24, 2009; 6:49 AM ET
 
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Comments

... getting to this a bit late, but it's better than never, right? I'm happy for Shawn Hill that he landed on his feet in San Diego, albeit I would have been happier if it had been Toronto.

... so now that the Padres got their man, maybe they'll pass on Strasburg, eh? Yeah, right - I hear ya'. But I can hope can't I?

Posted by: natscanreduxit | March 24, 2009 6:59 AM | Report abuse

Which brings up the question: how IS this team built? It's not built around speed, and not around power (two example), so what is the team building philosophy? And does that philosophy filter down throughout all farm teams?

Oh, wait: it's the Nats we're talking about. Forget those pseudo-thought provoking questions.

Posted by: joemktg1 | March 24, 2009 7:04 AM | Report abuse

natscan-

The Padres don't have any bearing on whether the Nats get Strasburg, since the Nats have the first pick. Boswell's column today suggesting that the Nats might not even want to take Strasburg is hurting my head. I think they pretty much have to do it, but I would rather they draft the best hitter available and sign him instead of failing to sign Strasburg after drafting him.

I don't look forward to the draft. You would think we all should, since we have the first pick. The team simply screwed up last time, and I still don't forgive them.

+1/2St.

Posted by: kevincostello | March 24, 2009 7:12 AM | Report abuse

I think its pretty clear that over the last couple of years there has been little to no continuity to how this team has been put together. The Plan insists that the team focus on developing pitching and go from there but even that carries only so far in the minors. Only two pitchers (Martis and Zimmermann) have exceeded expectations from when they were acquired. Others still have a chance but many have been disappointments (Willems, Hinkley, Detwiler, etc.), at least thus far. That said, pitchers typically turn out to be disappointments (see Boz).

Bowden's strategy of picking up strikeout guys with a little bit of power was clearly a faulty plan. Rizzo has shown signs of focusing on defense first. My major hope is that we have some sort of continuity of philosophy for the next few years as we attempt to move closer to contention.

Posted by: VT_NatsFan | March 24, 2009 7:18 AM | Report abuse

As close as I can remember, my projected roster for 2009 and how they were acquired:

Jesus Flores - Rule 5 in 07
Nick Johnson - inherited
Anderson Hernandez - for Ayala (FA Year)
Christian Guzman - Signed as FA in 05
Ryan Zimmerman - Drafted 06
Adam Dunn - Signed as FA in 09
Lastings Milledge - Traded for Ryan Church
Elijah Dukes - Traded for Glen Gibson
Austin Kearns - Traded for Bill Bray
Josh Willingham - Traded for Bonnifacio
Willie Haris - Signed as FA in 08
Ronnie Belliard - Signed as FA in 07
Josh Bard - Signed as FA in 09
John Lannan - Drafted in 07
Scott Olson - Traded for Bonnifacio
Daniel Cabrera - Signed as FA in 09
Jordan Zimmermann - Drafted in 07
Sharion Martis - Traded for Stanton in 06
Joel Hanrahan - Minor League FA 07
Saul Rivera - can't remember
Joe Beimel - Signed as FA 09
Wil Ledezma - Signed as FA 09
Steven Shell - Minor League FA 09
Jason Bergmann - inherited
Julian Tavarez - Signed as FA 09

Actually I think Tavarez will start the year in extended spring training and Flores might start the year on the DL (pure conjecture).

But when the question "how was this team built?" gets asked the clear answer is: "with spare parts on the cheap". There were precious few assets on the team when they came to DC. Our first year roster included: Carlos Baerga, Will Cordero, Vinny Castilla, Zach Day, Jose Vidro, and a host of other castoffs, has beens, and never was's just to fill the roster. On the one hand, its frustrating that they have not done much more much faster. On the other hand, its amazing that they got where they are by now.

Not only was the major and minor league roster in shambles, but the scouting department and minor league systems were worth less than zero - total liabilities.

But there's a foundation now. If this team is not competitive this year and contending next year it will be on the current ownership and management. They have a long way to go. Philadelphia and New York have significantly more talent at the major league level and Atlanta and Florida have significantly more talent at the minor league level.

Posted by: natbisquit | March 24, 2009 8:20 AM | Report abuse

+ 1/2, take comfort that Ronnie Miller, the HS kid who plays third is also scored a perfect 100 by RBI. Move him 1B or something and you have a much lower risk prospect with arguably higher upside because he can play everyday. Think Texeira, Youkilis, etc.

Really, even if they sign Strasburg he makes me nervous because of what Boz expressed very well, pitchers are very risky. I'd almost be happier w/ Miller. It's not even just about risk it's that a hitter is infitely better than a pitcher four days a week because the pitcher contributes nothing on his 4 off days.

Posted by: Avar | March 24, 2009 8:22 AM | Report abuse

Wow bisquit, great post. Thanks for looking all that up.

Posted by: Avar | March 24, 2009 8:36 AM | Report abuse

Saul was signed as a FA in 2005.

#4

Posted by: db423 | March 24, 2009 8:41 AM | Report abuse

Gee whiz, I'm down for a couple days with flu-like symptoms, and look what I miss: JORDAN (sigh) gets his lunch money stolen; Chico Harlan chooses to align himself with the freedom-haters; and Lastings Milledge is excited because in the leadoff spot he won't have to worry about all those pesky walks any more.

The question of team philosophy is an interesting one. We should remember that a) the stadium hasn't had a chance to show its effects yet, so they haven't had anything to build toward (Fenway and Busch, for example, tend[ed] to force the GM's hand); b) the manager is still rather young and may not have settled on a "style" yet; and c) as VT points out, the focus has been on pitching, leaving the offense to be built from what was available.

Heck, pitching-first is a philosophy. That might sum it up right there. We're used to saying "pitching and defense," but the two don't *have* to go together.

Posted by: Scooter_ | March 24, 2009 8:51 AM | Report abuse

"Dunn, the most efficient stealer, stole just two bases last year, and has essentially removed base-stealing from his game."

... if at sixty-two years of age, I were ever to find myself in a baseball game of any sort, and were to attempt to steal a base, I might for any number of reasons, make it to second. That would give me a 100% success rate, but it would hardly make me a base-stealing threat.

Posted by: natscanreduxit | March 24, 2009 8:52 AM | Report abuse

Yes, not great speed at the MLB level, but a lot more in the Minors.

Roger Bernadina has great speed but doesn't get great jumps. Let's hope with his time at AAA they can work on it (along with bunting).

Posted by: GoingGoingGone | March 24, 2009 8:52 AM | Report abuse

Very good bisquit. Refreshing to read soemthing that makes sense instead of the usual....., blah, blah, blah.

This just proves the point that the MLB A-Draft is a crap shoot if you don't have the ability to develop those HS and college players into ML roster players in rather short order.

Posted by: TippyCanoe | March 24, 2009 8:56 AM | Report abuse

I understand Boswell's point, but I'm not sure I agree with it. I also don't agree with Avar's point about pitchers being less valuable because they only contribute every five days.

Great teams are built on pitching, not hitting. Most play-off teams have at least 1 or 2 studs at the front of their rotations who dominate games. Many play-off teams have pretty ordinary hitting. Pitching and defense is what gets it done.

We need to let the next few months play out and see where Strasburg sits then in terms of prospects. Certainly though it appears at this point that drafting him is akin to signing a #2 in mid-season. With experience, he becomes your #1 pretty quickly.

I have not seen Strasburg throw in person. I can only go on what the reports are in the press. If he is truly "living" at 101 MPH for 6-7 innings each start, he's not comparable to McDonald, Prior, or any of the other guys that Boswell listed. He's ahead of them. Nolan Ryan and Sandy Koufax threw hard but they also walked a lot of guys, particularly early in their careers. While 19Ks per 9 innings is impressive, I'm more impressed with Strasburg's 1.85 BB per 9 innings. It's not just the stuff that scouts are raving about, it's more importantly his command.

Reports are that Strasburg changed his training habits, getting himself in better shape, so the 93-97 MPH at the end of last summer could also be deceptively slow.

People say that "it's a bunch of college kids". Well, high level D-I baseball is considered about the same talent level as full season A ball, and the hitters have a huge advantage because they are swinging lighter bats that don't break. If there was a guy in Potomac with Strasburg's stats, he wouldn't be in the minors for long. They are similar to the numbers that Doc Gooden put up in the Florida State League in 1983 as an 18 year old, I think. The next year he was 17-9, 2.60 ERA, and 276 Ks in 218 IPs in the big leagues.

Draft the guy and pay him. Sure there's risk, but they need to go for it.

#4

Posted by: db423 | March 24, 2009 9:06 AM | Report abuse

I dunno, #4, I found Boz pretty convincing. Not one Hall of Famer among No. 1 picks that were pitchers in over 40 years, which includes the totality of cases?

If we had position players, that would be one thing, we could take the risk. With the huge need for them, I think 50% odds are a much better choice.

Posted by: Section506 | March 24, 2009 9:40 AM | Report abuse

"While 19Ks per 9 innings is impressive, I'm more impressed with Strasburg's 1.85 BB per 9 innings. It's not just the stuff that scouts are raving about, it's more importantly his command."

Do college hitters tend to work the count? Or do they, as Bob Carpenter loves to say, go up hacking? How many of Strasburg's Ks are swinging and how many are called? Because it's entirely possible that his low BB rate is more due to college batters swinging at a lot of pitches that aren't strikes than it is to a supreme degree of command on Strasburg's part.

Posted by: spamcastin | March 24, 2009 9:41 AM | Report abuse

Deadspin now has a post about Chico-gate. Some interesting comments, there (plus, they quoted me, which I'll take over POTD). Here's the tiny link:

http://tinyurl.com/ce4qzc

Posted by: CoverageisLacking | March 24, 2009 9:45 AM | Report abuse

Yeah, Bowden just collected whatever talent he could that other teams didn't want. If he had several players that duplicated their talents, he'd use them later on as tradebait, hoping that other teams somehow changed their minds and wanted some of these guys back. We're at the stage where the trades to unload these undesirables has yet to happen. That's why it looks like there's no plan. Because that's the plan.

This is all making me hungry. I had scrambled eggs this morning, but decided to spice it up with some hommous to give it a decidedly middle-eastern vibe. A twist of lemon in there to perk it up. The problem I'm having is, how can I spruce up lunch? Turkey sammies (I've had about 10,000 of those for lunch so far in my life) - I've tried dijon mustard, to no avail in general - although it melds nicely with the smoked turkey. Honey-basted turkey - regular ballpark mustard. I'm ashamed, but I use iceberg lettuce instead of romaine or something more exotic. Maybe sweet cheeks can help me out with my weekday menu. I'm fretting!

Posted by: Brue | March 24, 2009 9:49 AM | Report abuse

"Do college hitters tend to work the count?"

Like I said I haven't watched Strasburg's games, but two responses:

1. College hitters do work the count. College games take forever.

2. If college teams aren't working the count against Strasburg, driving up his pitch counts, and trying to get him out of there in as few innings as possible, they are being foolhardy.

#4

Posted by: db423 | March 24, 2009 9:54 AM | Report abuse

"If college teams aren't working the count against Strasburg, driving up his pitch counts, and trying to get him out of there in as few innings as possible, they are being foolhardy."

Well, since you bring up pitch count, what about it? What does that say about Strasburg's supposed superior command? We know he throws a lot of strikes, because he gets a lot of Ks. But what's his strike-to-ball ratio?

Posted by: spamcastin | March 24, 2009 10:01 AM | Report abuse

"+ 1/2, take comfort that Ronnie Miller, the HS kid who plays third is also scored a perfect 100 by RBI. Move him 1B or something and you have a much lower risk prospect with arguably higher upside because he can play everyday. Think Texeira, Youkilis, etc.

Really, even if they sign Strasburg he makes me nervous because of what Boz expressed very well, pitchers are very risky. I'd almost be happier w/ Miller. It's not even just about risk it's that a hitter is infitely better than a pitcher four days a week because the pitcher contributes nothing on his 4 off days."

Avar its Ronnie Mitchell not Miller that Real Baseball Intelligence rated so high. The problem is their projection system is truely unproven. Maybe 4 years from now we will say Mitchell was as good as Strasburg but its hard to say that now since scouts don't seem to agree. He doesn't make the BA top 100 prospects list for high school players, not to mention college players. In the Baseball america world he wouldn't be drafted in the top 5 rounds. Not saying thats the end all be all but look how many of their final top 200 prospects were drafted early or were the big bonus guys drafted late. Its a pretty big percentage. Maybe its possible Mitchell fell through the cracks but thats not a guy you draft number 1 overall. Also if you were to draft Mitchell you wouldn't move him to 1B, he's barely 6 foot if that (which may be why he flies under the radar...and no i'm not making a pun) and projects as a good right fielder. From all accounts he has a good arm and is athletic so he'd be a waste at 1B.

While Boz's point was sobering it shouldn't make us completely turn away from Strasburg. So history tells us that taking a pitcher number 1 overall doesn't lead to success well history also told us that the Red Sox and White Sox couldn't win a WS, or any team from Philly could win a Championship. History also told us that the 4 number 1 seeds never make the Final Four (happened last year) and the top 3 seeds in each region will never make the Sweet 16. History can change.

Now i'm not saying Boz is wrong. He is right, hitters are much safer picks, guys like Green and Ackley (the two best college hitters in the draft) are probably more likely to have a ML career. But if Strasburg stays healthy than he could be as good as Randy Johson (different pitcher but best hard thrower who wasn't on roids). A bigger point to Boz's article that most people have seemed to miss is him talking about the amount of money that Boras is asking for...b/c like he said even the best pitchers usually have a few bad to average years when they come up. Since 1989 only 9 of the 40 Rookies of the Year have been pitchers and 2 of those were Japanese imports who weren't really "rookies", 3 others were closers which is a much less valuable position than a SP. We shouldn't be paying millions of dollars a year for those first three years esp. if he won't be that effective.

Posted by: Steveo11 | March 24, 2009 10:11 AM | Report abuse

>Do college hitters tend to work the count? Or do they, as Bob Carpenter loves to say, go up hacking?

They swing at more inside pitches because even if you hit it below the trademark on an aluminum bat, you can still get a base hit. A lot of pitchers in college have to re-arrange what they do in the pros because they were afraid to pitch inside. I'm getting the feeling that Strasburg is so superior, that he doesn't even bother with avoiding the inside part of the plate. Which would make him different than 99% of the guys who ever pitched in college.

Christ, I'm even hungrier now - I so look forward to the golden lunch hour with all of its promise! I put my food on the plate, and eat from left to right like the French do. Everybody asks me why I'm so weird, and I say I'm not weird, I'm French, and that means I know more than you! Food is so much fun!!

Poll: Do you eat to live, or live to eat? Talk amongst yourselves.

Posted by: Brue | March 24, 2009 10:11 AM | Report abuse

I'm starting to live to ignore your posts.

Posted by: Section505203 | March 24, 2009 10:34 AM | Report abuse

>I'm starting to live to ignore your posts.

Based on what I've read from you, this doesn't come as a surprise. Chin up - it's almost food time! Oh joy!

Posted by: Brue | March 24, 2009 10:46 AM | Report abuse

Ronnie who? Not trying to poo-poo the kid nor people of "average" height, but if he's not on BA's Top 100 (not that they are the end all be all of scouting) then you have be cautious with RBI's analysis. Addtionally, he's 5'11" and 170, thats nice size for a HS middle infielder, but it just doesn't project. Don't have time to check the HT/WT of today's top hitters, but I would venture most of them are not 5'11" 170 (which in HS numbers means 5'9" 155).

Draft Strasburg.

Posted by: jfromPG | March 24, 2009 10:53 AM | Report abuse

Boswell's column is interesting reading. I finished it wondering, "Then where do good pitchers come from?" The Easter Bunny?

Of course they come from the draft. But, as Boswell says, its just harder to predict major league pitchers than position players. They take longer to develop.

Given Strasburg's skills, you've gotta draft him #1, though. He's got the tools. He has the discipline and the desire. He could be the guy that breaks all the rules.

Posted by: nattydread1 | March 24, 2009 10:59 AM | Report abuse

"Do college hitters tend to work the count? Or do they, as Bob Carpenter loves to say, go up hacking? How many of Strasburg's Ks are swinging and how many are called? Because it's entirely possible that his low BB rate is more due to college batters swinging at a lot of pitches that aren't strikes than it is to a supreme degree of command on Strasburg's part."

spamcasting, the real question should be how does strasburg's WHIP and BB/9 compare to other college pitchers? you can't compare college WHIP and BB/9 to MLB or minor league numbers fairly, but you can measure him against other college players.

Posted by: sec231 | March 24, 2009 11:06 AM | Report abuse

At one point, Brian was suggesting that there is a good likelihood that #9A will be a college pitcher. Essentially, an opportunity to double down on the #1. Decent odds at least one will work out very well.

Posted by: jca-CrystalCity | March 24, 2009 11:33 AM | Report abuse

Bill James did a study many years ago that showed that basepath speed is overrated. The premise was that triples were the best measure of how fast a team was, and teams that led the league in triples, on average, finished worse than teams that led the league in any other offensive category - BA, homers, walks, doubles, slugging, you name it.

You'll hear announcers talk about how important speed is - it upsets pitchers' timing, it forces fielding errors, it lets you go from first to third on a single, etc. James answered those arguments with one very simple question: If speed is so important, why don't the fastest teams win?

Excellent column today, Chico.

Posted by: gilbertbp | March 24, 2009 1:14 PM | Report abuse

I think you all missed Boswell's point. Not only is it unlikely (historically) that Strasburg will be a Hall of Famer, only four previous #1's have even been .500 pitchers. The issue isn't whether he's the best available talent (looks like he is); rather, the question Boswell asks is this: is Strasburg worth over $8M a year for 6 years? That shatters previous recods -- David Price's $8.8M in 2007 was for 6 years. That's $1.5M a year!! Boswell's saying that Strasburg is worth THAT kind of money, or even $10M over 6 years... but not 5 times that much.

He's right.

Posted by: outsider6 | March 24, 2009 1:33 PM | Report abuse

The problem isn't that there's no one else worth drafting, it's knowing who that will be. I think they have to have more faith than that in their scouts, to consider the draft as if it were a blind, random selection. But even if the draft is a crapshoot, you don't want to have to make a number the hard way if you can help it, unless nothing else will do, which isn't the case here. They have two top picks--if at least one of them isn't a major talent, and I mean perennial all-star, at least as good as Zimmerman, they will have kipped the pooch. If they get hurt, maybe that's bad luck, but there's no reason to draft someone that high who won't be at least a steady major league player barring injury--this team still has too many deficiencies to be buying lottery tickets with the rent money.

Posted by: CEvansJr | March 24, 2009 1:37 PM | Report abuse

the other thing is, even if you draft Strasburg expecting you can trade him for a whole sackful of real prospects to some needy win-now GM, he has to have a tradeable contract, and that's assuming you're willing to write off a massive bonus as part of the cost of doing business. there is a point at which *nobody* is worth a blank check.

Posted by: CEvansJr | March 24, 2009 1:43 PM | Report abuse

I checked out the RBI site and I believe they had Okie State pitchers at #2 and #4. I sat and watched those two guys pitch against Nebraska this weekend and they both got lit up, leaving before the fourth inning. Baseball America has one of them in the top 15 and the other is no where to be found on their list. So I'd take all RBI's rankings with a grain of salt.

Posted by: tallbaby2121 | March 25, 2009 7:11 AM | Report abuse

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