The Washington Nationals Leadership Void

You’ve got to have heart right now. You’ve got to play as a family, and everybody’s got to want it, starting with the manager on down to everybody. –Bryce Harper

 

The above quote is from Bryce Harper’s post game comments, and it highlights
something that has been an issue with the Nationals all season long. Back in
Spring Training when asked about retirement Davey Johnson gave a weird comment
about working until you die and if it were up to him this wouldn’t be his last
season. Right from the start it sounded like there was a rift in the
organization. That if Davey Johnson had his way he would be here for more than
one more season and that essentially he was being forced out, but no one
expected this to be a problem because Davey Johnson is a professional. 

Then Spring Training got underway and
the Nationals had one of the most boring Spring Trainings in recent memory. The
roster was set even before pitchers and catchers reported, and because of this
Davey Johnson ran a loose and fun Spring Training, but then April came. The
Nationals got off to a hot 7-3 start but there were signs of trouble. The
defense was poor and error prone, base runners ran into far too many outs, and
mistakes would be in at bats with batters swinging at a pitcher’s pitch in a
3-0 or 3-1 count. Many of these issues have fixed themselves as the season has
gone along. The defense has tightened up and the base running has improved, but
the Nats still look robotic when ahead in the count swinging more to swing than
waiting for a pitch that can be driven.    

This isn’t to say that all of this is
Davey Johnson’s fault, or more it is to say we can’t know how much, if any, is
Davey Johnson’s fault. Saying managers have no effect discounts the entire
reason for a manager to exist. Managers have an effect on a team and an
apathetic manager that goes on local radio and says he wants to slit his wrists
or says that he stands behind his World Series or bust boast but it looks more
like bust before quickly back tracking and saying the Nats are still in it
isn’t good for a team. To what degree it is having a negative impact cannot be
known, but there are a few signs that the Nationals are missing the strong
guiding hand that in 2012 helped them from getting too high or too low. In all
appearances Davey Johnson has quit on the Washington Nationals, and he may have
done so long before his buddy Rick Eckstein was given the ax.   

There are a few stats with the
Washington Nationals that don’t make sense unless there is a leadership void.
Unless the team is missing its guiding hand. First off the Nationals are not a
good hitting team when behind. When the score is tied they have a .733 OPS,
when ahead .729 which are both higher than the NL average of .710 and .722, but
when the league falls behind in a game they see a minimal drop to a .685 OPS
while the Washington Nationals drop all the way down to .602. That speaks to a
complete change in approach. A give up attitude that once the team is behind
the game is over and they have no chance at coming back. The minimal difference
of the NL average can be explained that when a team is behind it is because
they’re being out pitched and late in the game they will be facing the set-up
man and closer instead of the third through seventh reliever in the bullpen.
The Nationals over .100 point drop in OPS speaks to a much bigger issue. One of
attitude and preparation. It shows that when the pitching flounders the
Nationals completely give up.   

The next big issue and perhaps the
biggest with the team is they are a completely different team on the road. The
NL average OPS for a team at home is .717 and .694 on the road. The Washington
Nationals are a better than average offensive team at home with a .721 OPS at
home, but on the road they are a dismal .645. As demonstrated by the league average
splits there is some expected drop off when a team hits the road, but the
Nationals take it to extremes. The same line-up, the same players, the same
bats, and they suffer a .076 point drop in OPS. It makes no sense. To put this
another way, the Nationals have outscored opponents by 14 runs when playing at
Nationals Park, but have been outscored by 51 runs when on the road. The
Nationals offense at home averages 4.11 runs a game at home and 3.29 on the
road. That is nearly a drop-off of one whole run a game. That is absurd and
cannot be explained with any modern statistical understanding of home/road
splits, especially when the home park is as neutral as Nats Park.   

If this was just the offense that were
different it could be tacked up to something Rick Eckstein was preaching about
hitting differently in each park or something, but no hitting coach would even
say that and it isn’t just the offense. The Washington Nationals pitching is
also significantly worse on the road. At home the Nationals have allowed 3.86
runs a game and on the road 4.27. The same pitchers pitching in a different
stadium shouldn’t see such a radical split. Nationals pitchers have a 3.48 ERA
at home and 4.09 ERA on the road, but that isn’t too far off from the league
average split of 3.54 at home and 3.98 on the road. It is only a radical
difference because the Nationals do not have league average pitchers and them
being better than league average at home is the expected outcome and them being
worse than league average on the road is the anomaly. 

What is it exactly about hitting the road or falling behind in a game that
changes the Washington Nationals? Why do they struggle so much in such
situations? These are questions I cannot know the answer to but I have my
suspicions and those may be wrong. Perhaps the Nationals have had a lot of late
night flights on the catering at hotels and in opposing clubhouses is drugged,
but more likely there is a leadership void. We have real examples of poor in
game decisions like pitching Maya and Henry Rodriguez in tie games, of leading
off Scott Hairston or batting Lombardozzi second, of refusing to move Ramos out
of the eighth spot because catchers bat eighth, of Drew Storen and Craig
Stammen struggling for the month of July but being two of the most used
relievers on the team, and maybe even a few a missed that show that maybe Davey
Johnson’s heart isn’t with this team anymore. That there is a leadership void.

There is statistical proof that the Nationals crumble as a team when they
fall behind in a game or aren’t playing at Nats Park. What we don’t know is why
those numbers exist as they do, but a lack of the calm guiding hand of Davey
Johnson that was with the team in 2012 is as good a reason as any.   

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