Friday, September 26, 2008

The S.O.B. Returns to Look at Boz's Latest

My good friend the S.O.B. (Self-appointed Ombudsman for Boz) is back to take a look at the latest piece from our esteemed Washington Post 'Nationals columnist.'

I actually have little gripe with a lot of what's in this column. He's right--if the Nationals start winning, the fans will come. The stat about how the Nationals have the second-best attendance of any 100-game loser ever is a shamelessly misleading, cherry-picked stat, but aside from that he presents mostly accurate, appropriately contexted facts to back up his argument. His Kasten quotes are interesting, if not all that new.

My big problem with the piece is back to my more fundamental disagreement with Boz, his contention you can't win without big spending and that the dominant reason the Nationals aren't winning is the absence of big money free agents.

The main reason I keep harping on this is that it lets everyone else in the organization off the hook for the quality of their work. As long as you believe that it's impossible to build a winner without a $100 million payroll, then Stan Kasten, Jim Bowden, Manny Acta, Dana Brown, Mike Rizzo, Randy St. Claire, Lenny Harris, all the minor league coaches and managers, and everyone else involved in the organization is off the hook.

And it also bugs me because it is demonstrably wrong. You can win with a $55 million dollar payroll, and a $100 million payroll doesn't guarantee success. T
he two biggest spending teams in the league--the Tigers and the Yankees--are both out of it, while the 24th and the 29th cheapest teams, the Twins and Rays, respectively, are right in the mix. The three cheapest teams in the league (Marlins, Rays, and A's) have actually won six more games total than the three most expensive (Tigers, Yankees and Mets). The correlation between spending and winning has never been weaker.

You can look at the free agent classes of '06 and '07 here, but let's look closer at how we might have improved ourselves with free agent last year. The highest paid catcher and first baseman available, in fact, were Paul Lo Duca and Aaron Boone. At second base, the most expensive options were Luis Castillo and Kaz Matsui. At shortstop, David Eckstein. Let's agree we're not shopping for a third-baseman.

So that leaves us with the outfield. Would we be better if we took at bats away from Willie Harris (101 OPS+) and given them to Aaron Rowand (OPS+ 99) or god forbid Andruw Jones (32)?
Torii Hunter (114) would have been a slight upgrade, but not much. You can blame Manny for not benching Wily Mo Pena for Willie Harris in May, but Harris was every bit as productive as the big money guys.

And then there's pitching. Bullpen free agents are so notoriously risky and closers so much less valuable for losing teams that I'm setting that aside. But even the big money starting pitching options would have made little if any difference. Carlos Silva (6.46 ERA) was the biggest fish, and if we traded Odalis Perez's (4.27 ERA) innings for his, we'd be far worse off in every way except in the Strasburg Sweepstakes.

If the Nationals had wanted to improve via free agency, their best course of action would have been to spend the $5 million they handed to Dmitri Young and Paul Lo Duca this season to Milton Bradley (165 OPS+) and Kyle Lohse (3.78 ERA). In fact they'd have saved a bit since Lohse ended up signing for $4.25. Start Bradley in left field from opening day and add 200 innings of 3.78 ERA from Lohse, and now you are talking about a team that would have been measurably better.

Of course, maybe Bradley doesn't stay healthy if he's in the field all season, and maybe Kyle Lohse doesn't do as well without Dave Duncan. My point is that building a winner is about player evaluation and projection, not just spending the most money.

You have to be smart, not rich, to win. Period.

I've said it before and I'll say it again. Free agency is by definition about acquiring older, declining players who no one bothered to sign long-term in the first place. Wayne Huizenga bought a World Series championship ten years ago, but free agency has changed a lot since then. More and more teams are locking up stars long term. There just aren't as many great players available out there when you go shopping.

Don't get me wrong. I want this team to spend more too. International free agents, signing draft picks, an extension for Zimmerman, and yes even more free agents can help. I'd like to see the team make a run at a starting pitcher in this year's unusually strong class of FA SPs. I think a smart critique of how and how much the Nationals have spent can be made, but it's only one part of the story of how we need to improve, and frankly it's not the most important part.

Boz is the highest profile media critic of the team, the guy most able to hold the Nationals accountable. If he's going to have any influence at all (and I do believe that media criticism can influence a team), we need him to look at more than just payroll, and I want to see him stop letting everyone off the hook by pinning all the blame on the bogeyman of free agency.
  • Update: from today's chat with Boz: "I'm not sure, until recent weeks, that I had ever HEARD of the Potomac Nationals. Or the'P'Nats.'" All I can say is... Wow. Just, wow. (Hat tip to the commenter on NJ who pointed it out.)

17 comments:

traderkirk said...

You've nailed it. Pushing for more major league FA spending is just begging for a disaster a la Carlos Silva. (Jon Garland is the guy who will make a fan base crawl on a ledge when he gets his 5 yr/75m albatross this off season.)

Young stars can still change teams . . . (Miguel Cabrera for example) but what do you have to have to even get the chance to spend $100 million on one of them?

You need prospects to trade for the arb-eligible. The pathetic state of the Nats system makes this very profitable route of development off-limits. Who would the nats have offered for Cabrera last offseason? In reality, who could they offer for say Prince Fielder or Dan Uggla this offseason? Someone will bite, sign them and keep them off the open market.

An Briosca Mor said...

Just remember, you can't spell Boswell without BS. Which is probably why I find myself yelling that every time he writes a column. I don't even bother dissecting and commenting on them any more. It's way too much work, and just increases my annoyance with him even more.

Section 222 said...

Well said Steven. Boz is kind of like David Broder. Able to find a few nice sounding statistics to write a nice argument supporting whatever side of the bed he wakes up on. In 2005, when he used to write about how rather than where the team was playing, he would contradict himself every other week. It's a shame he is the most influential baseball columnist we have.

Sean Hogan said...

Hey-feel free to drop by and enter my Nats 25-man-roster prediction contest. Winner gets bragging rights!

http://dcsportsplus.blogspot.com/2008/09/25-man-roster-contest.html

Dave Nichols said...

after Boz' comment on the P-Nats, i'm just about ready to stop reading the Post altogether. how utterly disappointing.

Mike said...

Spot on with this. What annoys me the most about Boz's constant harping on spending is that it supports all the "casual fans" out there whining about the lack of "big name players". I've always believed that if you are going to stink, stink young and stink cheap. Because as hard as this season was to digest, it would have been a ton worse with an Andruw Jones on the roster "contributing" his 32 ops+ for $18 mil this year. Losing hurts so much more when you're paying a ton of money to do it.

Steven said...

Well and the other thing it just has nothing to do with how we're going to win a world series, which to me is the goal. I want to figure out how we're going to do THAT, not how we're going to avoid humiliating embarassment. What kind of goal is that?

Harper at OMG argues that free agents won't bring us to the promised land, but they'll get us from 62 wins to 75 and for him that's worth it. I can respect that argument, because it's at least grounded in reality. But for me, 62 win v. 75 wins... who cares? If you aren't in the mix to win it all you're just a fart in the wind, to paraphrase Ron Wolf.

JayB said...

Oh I think not being the laughing stock of the league and not losing 90 games would be worth the money.

It really would not hinder the development of the farm system. Maybe you lose a few draft picks for a Type A FA but hey what would Bowden do with them anyway? Better to see some competitive baseball next year while we hope Jimbo and the player development people can get it done someday in the future.

The biggest need in my book is some much better coaches at all levels. This team sucks at baseball 101 and everyone from the farm seems to have the same flaws.

Steven said...

@JayB--the value of going from 62 wins to 75 wins is a debatable point. And really there's no right answer--it's a value judgment. I measure success purely based on how fast and how many times we can win the World Series. Others measure it based on how many regular season wins we have, and the 66th win is as valuable as the 90th. But that's a philosophical debate and reasonable people can agree to disagree.

The cost of blockbuster FAs is 1) the picks 2) the opportunity cost of what else you could do with that money, and 3) being saddled with a bad, declining player at that back end of that salary.

If you adopt my point of view, the soriano contract for instance is a no-brainer. ASor would never have been a part of a Nats WS winner--he's probalby going to be old and bad by the time the rest of our young talent gets ripe.

From your POV, it's more debatable.

But let's actually debate THAT, rather than this stupid canard that if only we spent like Bill Bavasi we'd be in the playoffs, which is the implicit Boz contention.

I'm not disagreeing with you, just responding and elaborating.

JayB said...

Steven,

You make sense.

Looks like my season long call (and again this early PM post) for changes in coaching staff is coming. NJ is reporting that changes will be made.....AT LAST......now will it be just Harris or will it be a whole sale change all along the player development ladder?

I would not even be surprised to see Acta go by May 2009 if Fundamentals do not get the proper focus in Spring Training. Acta has done a very poor job this year with getting the most out of his players and instilling some acceptable level of professionalism and accountability for learning the game. Nobody has been made an example of and thus nobody has improved his focus on the field…..how many outs are there and how many runners get picked off……Bad baseball this year.

Mike said...

Soriano is a great example. After posting one of the all time great stat lines he has done what a lot of players do in their early 30s: start the long decent down. In the big picture he's been productive, but not nearly as productive as 06. And I think it's safe to say he'll never again be as productive as he was in 06. Soriano's 07 and 08 (in both of which he missed significant time) wouldn't have moved the win total very much for the Nats. And don't forget that the Nats won more games without him in 07 than they did with him and that monster line in 06. $136 over 8 years is a lot of money to spend for what amounts to, in effect, if not in statistics, a complimentary player. Truthfully, I wasn't even comfortable with the 5/90 that as rumored.

Steven said...

I can't imagine I'll be blogging or that any of you will remember it anyway, but dollars to donuts Soriano is out of baseball at the end of that contract.

I think it's really hard for an outsider to judge coaches. You can look at stats and be somewhat intelligent about players, but what coaches do is much more opaque. So I try to stay away from that since I know my opinion is uninformed.

That said, I certainly wouldn't shed any tears if there were some overhauls.

JayB said...

Steven,

I greatly respect your approach and your indeed stay with your strengths.......I have enough time in Baseball to comfortable tell you that this coaching staff has done a very poor job......what you see so well in stats I see in the game itself. Harris and Tolman are an embarrassment. Acta has been managing by numbers all year with no fire in his team. This team needs infield practice before every game and accountability for players who do not get with the program.

Mike said...

On the coaching front ... it also doesn't help that all the impactful players on this team are 23 y.o.. I think Barry Larkin's comments a few days ago had some truth to them in that there just isn't any player-level reinforcement of the small things. I don't think "veteran" always equates to "leader", and when the veterans on this team have thrown any credibility they had away by showing up to camp at 300 lbs or .620 OPSing your way through 3 major injuries ... well I just wonder at times how much is due to coaching negligence and how much is due to young guys not having enough positive peer pressure.

John O'Connor said...

I agree that signing guys who will be declining badly the last few years of their contract is not the way to go for the nats now. Sometimes you do that when you're one piece away, but that's not the Nats. For that reason, I fully supported not trying to sign Torii Hunter or Aaron Rowand last year. And I would be disappointed if they picked up Adam Dunn because he's the classic guy who will be in steep decline in four years.

But I do think it makes sense to chase a guy like Teixeira. He is 28. On a seven-year contract, you've still probably got a reasonably productive player at the end. The Boras angle is probably a plus here, because Boras guys almost always go to whomever will pay the most money. I understand the argument that there's no reason to spend a boatload of money to try to get to 75 wins, but I don't accept it here. This ownership could lose the city by putting a terrible product on the field again. That's a delicate situation. Uncle Teddy is raking in enough dough this year to try to put a better product on the field AND keep building the farm system. Thre is no opportunity costs issue here unless ownership decides that there is.

And, Boz still thinks Church and Schneider for Milledge was a mistake? Is he insane?

Steven said...

But I do think it makes sense to chase a guy like Teixeira. He is 28. On a seven-year contract, you've still probably got a reasonably productive player at the end.

I need to look closer at Tex. I've had the vague impression for a while that he's overrated--maybe from the park effect of Arlington. I'm not sure. But again, John, that's the relevant argument to make.

I understand the argument that there's no reason to spend a boatload of money to try to get to 75 wins, but I don't accept it here. This ownership could lose the city by putting a terrible product on the field again. That's a delicate situation.

I dunno. I tend to think that if the Nationals win, the fans will come. If it takes 5 years, the fans will come. Regardless though, I'm not blogging on behalf of the city--I'm just saying how I feel about it. I don't want them to do something that feels good in the short-term but will keep us locked in at 85 wins, just shy of the playoffs, in 2012.

Uncle Teddy is raking in enough dough this year to try to put a better product on the field AND keep building the farm system. Thre is no opportunity costs issue here unless ownership decides that there is.

Your first sentence is undeniably true. Your second sentence, however, I think you're feigning naivete, all due respect. There's always an opportunity cost. The Nationals aren't the only business these people run. I don't expect them to run the team with a sense of philanthropy or civic obligation. The goal for them is to make money, and, happily, winning will help them make more money. So fans and the owners ultimately want the same thing. But thinking there's no opportunity costs is not very thoughtful or realistic.

John O'Connor said...

Steven:

I disagree with a couple of your points. First, on opportunity costs, while it might be true in a purely capitalist system that there are always opportunity costs, there are two external factors that impact that in the case of the Nats. First, Uncle Teddy has said he won't take any dough out of the team for ten years. So presumably, he has to take his revenues and either spend them on the franchise or hoard it for a later team-related purchase. Combine that with MLB controls on the ability to spend. The Nats cannot take the money saved by not signing free agents and use it to sign all of the best amateur players. MLB places an artificial constraint on that through a draft that limits how many of the top American and Canadian amateurs the Nats can pursue (essentially, the same number as everyone else). They could use the money to ramp up their signing of international players, that is a fair point. But I doubt that is a limitless pool and, ahem, there might be issues in the air that limit our ability to do business in the Dominican Republic at present.

I think it is reasonable for fans to have your view, that if you're not going to the playoffs, there's no reason to try to win 75 games. But you don't buy enough tickets for Uncle Teddy to follow that strategy completely. Your blog has trumpeted the pathetic gate the team has had this year. Presumably a better on-field product will attract more fans even if the product isn't a 90-win team yet. If Uncle Teddy only builds for the die-hards, he's in trouble. The casual fan's money spends as well as yours and mine.

Also, you're probably right that fans will come when the team wins, but Teddy likely wants to build a fan following that will have an appreciable number of fans come when the team wins 75 and 80 games. Because this is a new market that hasn't had a hometown team in more than 30 years, and likely has some portion of its metropolitan area inexplicably attached to the Orioles 30 miles up the road, the first few years will have at least some long-term effect on where the team resides in the area's sports conscience.

Finally, to win a World Series, you have got to get better probably over a period of years, and not go from 60 wins to 95 in one year. So, a targeted signing of someone young enough to be a good player 6-7 years from now might help the team get to 80 wins, and then become a more attractive destination for that "final piece" free agent who might not want to go somewhere where the team can't win. Sort of the Magglio Ordonez and Pudge Rodriguez for the Tigers. Again, I'll have a heart attack if they sign Adam Dunn, but Teixeira is 28, has been more consistent than I actually remember, fields his position well. The Nats should chase that guy. If they can't get him, then some of the Jimbo trash heap specials (the Odalis Perez types) is probably the most they should do.