Washington Nationals: A-students still working toward graduation

The Post Sports Live crew discusses whether Stephen Strasburg will pitch over 100 pitches in at least one-third of his starts this season. In his first year back after Tommy John surgery, he topped 100 pitches in only five of his 28 starts. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)
Thomas Boswell
Columnist March 20, 2013

After the Washington Nationals workout ended one day this week, Adam LaRoche and his 11-year-old son Drake took infield practice alone together, dad at first base, son at second with Adam giving tips on proper technique. At first it just seemed cute, then you realized, “That’s the image for this whole team.”

Someone should change the name of what the Nationals are doing here: It’s not spring training; it’s spring learning. Most of the Nats are so young, they remain baseball kids who need to be instructed regularly.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

That may be the team’s largest long-term strength, its most appealing quality, but also, as seen last October, it’s key learn-on-the-job vulnerability.

Because the Nats became so good so fast last season, it is easy to miss what is, for me, their central fascination. Last year, the Nats had MLB’s youngest pitching staff, yet led the National League in ERA anyway. They also had the second-youngest position players.

It’s not just Bryce Harper, 20, and Stephen Strasburg, 24, who are emerging before our eyes — part mystery but all possibility. Most of the team has as yet undetermined “ceilings,” plus everybody in the minors, too.

Just how young are the Nats? Cardinals General Manager John Mozeliak recently said that players probably peak between 28 and 30. By that measure, 20 of the 25 Nationals who are expected to make the opening day roster have never played a full MLB season in their prime. Even Ryan Zimmerman, who seems like a gray beard, just turned 28 last September.

In fact, nine Nats will be 26 or younger, including Wilson Ramos, Drew Storen, Tyler Moore and Danny Espinosa, all 25, and Jordan Zimmermann who’s 26. Ian Desmond, Gio Gonzalez and Ross Detwiler are all 27.

When a team this young also has the game’s best record and plays above .600, their potential is universally acknowledged. But with that comes the responsibility to develop it. If the Nats think they’ve arrived, when they’re only partially formed, there will be trouble. So far, that hasn’t been the case.

Storen typifies the Nats’ learning curve. After missing months because of an injury, was he prepared, in the broadest sense, for Game 5, pitching for the third straight day? Ready or not, he must deal with that loss. “That’s how you get the salt in your veins,” he said this week. “Fold up or get better.”

The Nats are filled with young players who must become old salts, and quickly. Most of them are still works in progress. Most of their best players are still learning their craft and don’t pretend they are masters of the game.

Most genuine contenders — such as the Tigers, Dodgers, Blue Jays and Angels — spend spring training getting in shape and hoping to avoid injuries.

They aren’t learning rudimentary lessons in how to hold base runners (Strasburg) or adapting to a new defensive position (Harper) or undergoing revamping of their hitting style (Espinosa) or being instructed in the basics of how to make the double play pivot without getting killed.

“The middle infielders have to pass my footwork test,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “They don’t learn how to play the position properly because in high school and college these days the base runners have to slide straight into second base — no takeouts or roll blocks — or the ump calls an automatic double play.”

So last spring, and this year, Johnson has given the same drills to Desmond, Espinosa, Steve Lombardozzi and prospect Anthony Rendon that he learned from the best second baseman ever, Bill Mazeroski. But Johnson never played with Maz. How’d that happen?

“I was young, but I got hold of him, got close to him, played some golf with him,” Johnson said. “Finally, he gave me all these drills to practice, some to do in your hotel room with a towel for second base.”

And Johnson demonstrates how your shoulders have to be square to first base, and your left leg straight under you, to make “the pirouette” pivot, “like a bull making a pass at a matador, but missing him.” That, multiplied by a million, is baseball, a game handed down for generations with many of the basic aptitudes largely unchanged, but requiring years to polish. The double play may really be Maz to Johnson to Desmond to Lombardozzi.

Are Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano learning such basics this spring?

Grasping the details that define the game is the daily routine of the Nats here in Florida. In practice, Storen, goofing around, mimicked Zimmerman’s underhand scoop-and-throw of a dribbler. Storen fired submarine toward first base. His throw bounced at least 15 times and barely got there. “It’s harder than it looks,” Storen said to Zimmerman as teammates laughed.

Everything is. In baseball, there’s a trick, a big-league technique, a tip, on how to do absolutely everything. Of all the major sports, baseball takes, by far, the longest to master. Why? Because raw talent and acquired skills are almost equally important.

And fewer of those skills are unique to individuals. In baseball, “do it your own way” seldom works. There’s room for flair, but only if the fundamentals beneath it are sound. Great NFL running backs or NBA guards are learning their moves, or inventing new ones that the sport has never seen, when they are still just big kids. Perhaps you can refine Adrian Peterson’s running, but most of his methods were in place the day he hit the NFL.

So, the Nats learn the old ways first before refining them to suit their own skills. Zimmermann has added a change-up. Ramos got three hits in one game, all to the opposite field. Desmond, Johnson and hitting coach Rick Eckstein are implementing an even more drastic pull-for-power approach with Desmond. Strasburg says he’s learning to use the slope of the mound more advantageously for better leverage when he’s in the stretch.

It’s endless, and veterans aren’t exempt. Zimmerman, after shoulder surgery, has had to reinvent his throwing motion. Not tweak it. Start from zero and figure out how he wants to do it the rest of his career. It’s still scary to watch his anxious crow hops toward first base, but it’s working so far.

The oldest Nat, Jayson Werth (just 33) has to figure out how to hit again with a left wrist that was broken last year and now has screws, everything but a hubcap, in it.

“It may come back. Or it may never be the same,” he says. “It’s a good thing I’m a baseball player.”

By that, he means a student of the whole game, one who, over many years, constantly learns and adapts.

Can the kiddy-corps Nats become complete baseball players? Eighty percent of their roster has not even reached the beginning of its peak years. Despite that talent, the moment they stop being students, their ascent up the games ranks will stop.

But who knows what they might accomplish if their education is still in its early innings?

For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/
boswell
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