Right now, the Washington Nationals are on pace to go 44-118. This would give them the third most losses in a season in Major League Baseball since 1920. It would also place them as the worst Washington team ever as the 1909 Senators went 42-110, and it would staple them as the official embarrassment of Major League Baseball.
This wasn’t supposed to happen this year. The club was projected by many outlets to be better than they were last year; most having them finishing the season with about 70 wins.
On paper, the team got better. They signed an All-Star outfielder who hits 40 bombs a year, they have their starting first baseman healthy for the first time in several seasons, and reaching the Majors finally are three top pitching prospects who have more talent than anyone who has pitched in a Nationals uniform. The young hitters of the Nationals should only get better with age, and it seems like Cristian Guzman is in his prime.
Then why can’t the team win a game?
Right now the Nationals' Pythagorean Over/Under is -5.3. This means that even with the Nationals allowing the most runs per game in the Majors, 6.33, the club is underachieving. For those of you unfamiliar with the Pythagorean baseball theorem, basically it takes runs scored vs. runs allowed and creates a logical record based on the two outcomes. Disregarding intangibles, the number is usually very accurate. So according to the theorem, the Nats should be 18-30, a pretty large difference.
Is 18-30 good? No, its not. But we’ve all seen bad teams and this club is clearly not the worst there is. They are third in the National League in runs scored per game. They have stars in Adam Dunn and Ryan Zimmermann, and for Christ’s sake they have four everyday batters batting over .300 and three getting on base at .400.
So what’s causing this team to underachieve? Well, that answer isn’t as easy as what is causing them to lose ball games. To start, the Nationals are fielding like a Triple A team. Right now they rank first in the Majors in errors with 48 and are on pace for 162 team errors on the year. Another obvious reason for the Nationals losing is their ineptitude on the pitchers mound. The starters are young and learning, the bullpen is just awful, and despite their poor track record, they seemingly are jinxed in the ninth inning.
So how does this happen? How does a team that on paper should be winning at at least a reasonably higher rate end up this bad? How does a ball club that invested in becoming better in the winter of 2008 become so much worse?
Two words: Manny Acta.
It’s hard to put much value in a manager in Major League Baseball. Most statisticians have proven that they really have a minimal impact on a winning ball club because most make the textbook decision regardless of the situation because it is almost always the right one. Often overlooked however is the importance of a manager on a bad team.
The Nationals, much like the Rays were in 2008, or the Tigers in 2006, are desperately in need of some sort of direction. Whatever the message is in the Nationals clubhouse, it is clearly the wrong one; it is causing unprofessionalism, poor performance, and quite frankly, choking.
To be honest, it probably doesn’t matter what message is sent in the Nationals clubhouse, the most important thing however is that the message change. Regardless of anyone’s feelings for Manny Acta, the current plan is clearly not working. It is stale, it is dying.
The Nationals need a change, sooner than later.