Monday night I was invited to the Howard Theatre to attend the Pitch Talks speaker series on behalf of Talk Nats, and it was an excellent event. There were two panel discussions, both moderated by MLB Network Radio and Sirius XM sportscaster Dan Laing who is based out of the Washington, D.C. area. Pitch Talks was also able to secure Dave Cameron, managing editor and senior writer at FanGraphs, for the event. Cameron was in the first panel, and y’all – he is so funny. That combined with his general baseball nerdery… I may have fallen just a little bit in love with him (shhh… don’t tell him). The second panel consisted of Washington Post writers Barry Svrluga, Adam Kilgore, and Chelsea Janes. Most topics came from audience questions, so the discussions were kind of all over the board, but several interesting topics were covered.
We’ll start with my favorite topic – my man Jayson Werth. The Washington Post guys (and gal) all talked about the huge impact Jayson had on this team after he was signed as a free agent.
Adam Kilgore stated, “There are a lot of tangible things Jayson has been able to accomplish…Ryan Zimmerman once said that Jayson is like the guy at the office that’s willing to speak up and tell the boss that the copier is broken.”
Not that Zim wasn’t willing to do that, but the Nats are all he’s known, so he didn’t have anything to compare it to. Jayson got upgrades to things like workout equipment and the clubhouse chef by simply pointing out what he had access to on other clubs. Better facilities and equipment go a long way to helping the guys on the field be the best they can be, which helps drive a championship caliber team forward. Regarding where Jayson will be playing next year, Chelsea Janes said that “Werth told me the other day he hasn’t ruled [staying with the Nats] out” (PLEASE STAY FOREVER, JAYSON), but indicated that he is also a pretty big fan of the DH (yet another reason to hate the DH….). She thinks that how the Nats finish this season will have a big impact on where Jayson plays next year, which Jayson strongly hinted at during spring training.
When the Lerners bought the Nationals, they were new to baseball and had to learn how baseball operates and feel their way through the process. The last 12 years have taught them a lot, however they have remained true to their own style of business. Barry Svrluga said “the Lerners are a unique ownership group…they don’t care what industry standards are,” and basically they’re going to run their team how they see fit. We all know that the Lerners like to offer a lot of deferred money contracts, and part of that likely has to do with hoopla with the MASN ordeal, however the Post writers don’t think a lot will change once that gets resolved. Deferring payment to a future date allows them to invest that money into something (someone) else right now, which will pay dividends down the road. We’ve all seen how some free agents don’t particularly like contracts structured that way, and have passed on offers from the Nats. The Post writers think that the Lerners would rather lose a free agent on their terms than sign one on someone else’s terms. So, get used to these types of contracts, y’all. I don’t think they’re going anywhere anytime soon.
Speaking of contracts… one of the biggest topics fans and media alike love to talk about is Bryce Harper, and his looming free agency. Dave Cameron thinks Harper definitely has a shot at a $500mil contract, especially if he can play the next two years like he played in 2015. He thinks that money will be spread over 10 years minimum, and he can see a 12-year, even a 15-year contract “if things get really crazy.” Chelsea Janes thinks the chance of Harper leaving for another team vs staying with the Nats is about 90-10, although she qualified that by saying last year, she felt Stephen Strasburg had about the same odds of signing an extension with the Nats, and we all know how that turned out. Adam Kilgore thought the odds were a little stronger in favor of Harper staying, if that makes anyone feel any better. The biggest question about a massive contract for Harper was about having enough money left over after paying him to put a competitive team around him. I mean, what’s the point of keeping Harper around long term if there’s no money left to put anyone else out on the field with him?
The Window to Win and Mike Rizzo
Y’all know how I feel about this topic, as I wrote about it before the season started. The Post writers had an interesting take on it. We’re definitely in a “window” for these guys to win, not necessarily for the Nats as a whole to win. Adam Kilgore put it as the idea of the Nats winning a title in 2016 after several key guys had left, especially Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann. While fans obviously want and would embrace a title anytime, there is that desire for a certain team to get it – for a specific group of guys to all win a ring together. I can totally see his point. Winning in 2016 would have been amazing, but I definitely would have had a thought of “dang… really wish we could have won a ring with Desi. That would have been nice.” I have that thought a lot with college sports. So the “window to win” for this core group of guys is coming to a close, but that doesn’t mean the Nats chances will fall off the table in 2019. Adam Kilgore said “the future is bright, and has a chance to be bright,” and Barry Svrluga said “if Nats execs were up here, any talk of a window they would take as an insult.”
Most of them equated the window to win not with the guys on the field, but with GM Mike Rizzo. Chelsea Janes said “Rizzo’s contract is up next year – he’s the window.” They all felt pretty confidently that if Rizzo remains at the helm, the Nats will continue to have a quality team and a quality farm system that would be capable of pushing for a title. Rizzo has done a lot for the organization beyond just the guys we see on the field. Adam Kilgore explained that “Rizzo really pounded the table with ownership” when he first arrived in order to get better scouts and improve the pay of front office execs, which, of course, would lead to better front office execs.
Michael A. Taylor
With Adam Eaton out for the year with a torn ACL, all eyes are now on MAT and what the Nats are going to do with the centerfield position. Regarding Dusty Baker’s “epiphany” for moving Jayson to 2nd in the lineup and dropping MAT down to the bottom third, Dave Cameron joked “was the epiphany looking at Taylor’s on base percentage?” (I told y’all he was funny.) The Post guys think MAT is going to be given a really long leash, and don’t see the Nats making a move as long as he isn’t an automatic out every at bat. They compared him to Danny Espinosa, and feel the team finds his defense is good enough to warrant his production (or lack thereof) at the plate. The idea of selling off even more of the farm to temporarily replace Eaton doesn’t seem likely given the options that are out there at center. And, as we all heard the other day, Dusty is not interested in moving Harper or Trea Turner to other positions while we await Eaton’s return.
This and That from Dave Cameron
Dave Cameron’s part was less focused specifically on the Nationals, and more on baseball in general. He talked about statistics, and said that the stats teams are looking at are changing. “We don’t have to infer from results anymore. We can look at player process.” This is what helped the Nats have confidence that Ryan Zimmerman would be able to find part of his old self after several abysmal years at the plate. The results data (like batting average) is less important than data about the player’s process, like exit velocity. We’ve all heard that Zim was making really good contact with the ball last year, he just wasn’t getting much out of it. So there was some good process there, he just needed a little tweaking. He also said “we’re at an age where players are using data to make themselves better,” which is kind of nifty when you think about it. We’ve all heard that Daniel Murphy is obsessed with hitting data and spends a lot of time reading it and talking about it with anyone who will give him a few minutes. All of this statcast information can be, and is being used by players to improve their performance. Woo modern technology and information!
Pitching and the new obsession with velocity was also a topic of discussion, especially given what just happened with Noah Syndergaard. We’ve definitely moved to a place where high velocity is highly valued, and that’s not likely to change anytime soon. The unknown part is the long-term effects on the pitcher. “The reality with velocity and health is we just don’t know.” This leads to interesting new biometric technology that is becoming available to players. Imagine having pitcher wear a sleeve that can determine all kinds of fancy things like stress on an elbow while they’re throwing. That data could be used to show just how pitching effects the body, and could possibly be used to prevent things like Tommy John surgery. However, this starts to lead you into sticky areas – what if teams use that data to question player health, and that effects a contract negotiation? The data is about the player and his health, so he owns it. Does he have to share it with the team? There are a lot of ethical questions that are arising with available biometric data, so this is an area that will continue to be discussed.
On a final note, someone in the audience (in a Red Sox jersey) asked about the Os. I’m not entirely sure what the question was, as I joined with most of the room in booing him. Dave’s response made me laugh. He said that the Os do a lot of things wrong, yet somehow still manage to win. “It’s almost like a bad practical joke.”