It wasn’t that long ago that the Washington Nationals, like their two predecessor franchises in the major leagues in D.C., were the poster children of poor performance and underachievement. Every time a light would shine some hope in the way of a young prospect or a fast start to the season, the heat of the Washington summer would drop the Nats back to the bottom of the National League East.
Maybe it was the ghosts of Expos and Senators past or the star-crossed legacy of franchise-swapper Jeffrey Loria (now with his own malaise again in Miami to deal with), but the Nats seemed destined to remain the punchline of the old riddle as to "where Washington is." The answer for years was the same: "First in war, first In peace and last in (now the National, then the American) League."
That, of course, has all changed in the last few years with the arrival of young stars like Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper and Gio Gonzalez; the resurgent leadership of Davey Johnson on the field; and general manager Mike Rizzo in the front office. A division title, a full stadium and a summer full of excitement have made the Nats, for the first time, the toast of D.C.
It is hip and cool to be part of the Nats these days. They race over-sized presidents around the warning track and suddenly they have created mascots with a cult following, one that created a frenzy of activity in social media in the offseason when a new president would be added to the race.
Diplomats from around the world make regular pilgrimages to the stadium to try and not just understand baseball, but to be seen by the glitterati of a young and vibrant city. The president might still be a White Sox fan, but he and the first family can surely find their way to watch some good National League baseball as well.
All the coolness is not lost on the front office, either. Rizzo, who has made a career of helping build the franchise from where it was left in its nomadic existence from Montreal to Puerto Rico, has even embraced technology, trying to keep the Nats at the top of the heap for years to come.
No, it’s not tablets in the dugout just yet, but this week, the team did announce that it is advancing its work in player evaluation by partnering with analytic giant Bloomberg Sports to build a talent evaluation system that will give the club the ability to analyze every piece of data available.
“We have a need in our business today to manage data quickly and efficiently to make sure we are maximizing the performance of all our assets on and off the field. No one can help us manage all that data more effectively than Bloomberg Sports,” said Rizzo, executive vice president of baseball operations and general manager.
“We have a need to make sure everyone in our baseball operations department has access to the best tools to properly evaluate our players, from prospects to the players on our major league roster. This partnership will make the evaluation process more robust for individuals at all levels of our organization and will help give us the best chance to be successful not just today, but well into the future.”
During the winter, Nats assistant general manager Bryan Minniti also talked about the team’s need for advanced analytics during an event he spoke at with Orioles general manager Dan Duquette. Minniti, who came to Washington from the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, also saw the value of combining veteran scouting with the best analytic tools possible and felt that technology would help push the organization along.
“There is no substitute for the evaluation in person that our scouts do,” he said. “However, the ability to use technology to pull together every piece of data, and use that data along with the work of our scouts, is something that we have to do as an organization to keep things moving along. We would be foolish not to use the tools available given what is at stake and the investment we make in our players.”
The new system will include the use of tablets to create customized charts for all members of the baseball operations staff, and the data will be linked to video that can be downloaded almost in real time.
Bloomberg Sports is working in some form with almost every MLB club. However, the new system the Nats will use will be similar in scope to the advanced ones that the BSports team built for Theo Epstein when he joined the Chicago Cubs and for Jerry DiPoto and the Los Angeles Angels. Each has a level of security which keeps the customized analysis available only to whomever the club decides should have access.
The system—which Bloomberg Sports head Bill Squadron has demonstrated for members of the media several times over the four years the company has been in existence—can pull from over 100 years of baseball data. But most importantly, it can link data to available video in a moment’s notice. The result for the Nats will be a time savings of hours—hours which their scouts and coaches can spend on the field looking at players rather than in a clubhouse or video room waiting for reports to be finished.
“Our goal with all the work we do with MLB clubs is not to replace the human element; it’s to enhance what can be done and create a system that gives a club the best possible chance at success,” Squadron said.
That success is obviously well along now in D.C.—a place where baseball, whether it is in flashy technology or fun rising star athletes, is almost as much in bloom today as the cherry trees now flowering along the Potomac.
Jerry Milani is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained first-hand.