By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, March 26, 2008
For two years, as their new park was built, the Nationals talked about how they couldn't wait to play in a normal big league stadium, one with average dimensions just like the typical stadiums they played in on the road. Over and over, especially from hitters, you heard the sentiment, "I can't wait to get back on the road and get myself straightened out."
Once again, we may be witnessing a severe case of be-careful-what-you- wish-for. Without knowing it, the Nats have built a team remarkably well suited to their home ballpark. Unfortunately, the hard-hearted statistics say the park that loves the Nationals actually is RFK, the constantly maligned stadium they are leaving.
As for Nationals Park, it's too soon to know, but not too soon to start worrying. After checking the facts, the Nats might even want to consider a couple of trades before the rest of the league figures out that most of their best hitters, and almost their entire stellar bullpen, have a history of performing better at RFK than in other parks.
The general assumption is that the starting rotation will suffer in its new digs but the team's batters and relievers will perform the same. The statistics say just the opposite. Starters such as Matt Chico, Tim Redding and John Lannan got little help from RFK last year, though Shawn Hill and Jason Bergmann preferred home cooking.
The dramatic numbers, however, are those of the top seven relievers. Last season, all of them benefited from an RFK advantage, posting a combined 3.02 ERA at home with only 14 homers allowed compared with a scary 4.88 ERA with 27 gopher balls in other parks. Does a summer of arson await us?
Then, of course, there's the effect the change of venue will have on the hometown hitters. Nationals Park definitely will be better for hitters in general than the RFK canyon. But will it be better for the Nats' specific collection of hitters, some of whom have adapted their games to the park to survive? "It can't be worse," Ryan Zimmerman quipped this month in spring training. "In RFK, I had the lowest home run total of my career for a full season," Dmitri Young said. "You give up hitting the long ball and slap line drives to all fields. This year, I get my power back."
"I can't wait to get up there," Nick Johnson said.
Sounds convincing. Yet Zimmerman's career batting average at RFK is .309 with 21 homers and 117 RBI; on the road, he's only .252 with 23 homers and 90 RBI. He's been an all-star hitter at RFK, but much less dangerous in most other parks. Was his line-drive style actually a fine fit for RFK? Was he trading a few frustrating long outs for a lot more singles and doubles?
Even more dramatic, Young slapped the ball around RFK for an amazing .366 average last year. Johnson, despite what he thinks, has a .302 career average at RFK with slightly better all-around production than elsewhere. Switch-hitting Cristian Guzm¿n had a .369 average at RFK last year and Ronnie Belliard was slightly better at home, too. That's half the lineup. In reality, the only Nats hitter who should ignite after escaping RFK is Austin Kearns, whose fly-ball style was eaten alive at RFK (a paltry .386 slugging percentage in two seasons). If he's healthy, expect him to hit 25 homers with 90 RBI this season.
The Nats may be luckier than they know to have acquired three new hitters with power since the middle of last season. Wily Mo Pe¿a (only one RFK homer) and Elijah Dukes will have careers that are defined largely by their home run totals, so the smaller the park the better for them. Lastings Milledge, who sprays the ball with authority, might actually have liked RFK. But as he matures and pulls the ball more, Nationals Park figures to suit him much better.
The scariest part of moving to Nationals Park may be its impact on the team's one indisputable strength -- its bullpen. How much of that fire brigade's stature derived from RFK? Did the deep outfield fences give them the extra confidence to pitch aggressively, to trust their stuff and to minimize walks? Last year, Sa¿l Rivera, Luis Ayala, Chad Cordero, Jon Rauch, Jes¿s Colome and Ray King had ERAs at RFK of 2.27, 2.29, 3.00, 3.06, 3.34 and 4.79. Joel Hanrahan, the most likely pen addition this year, was at 3.80. What a bunch of near stars.
On the road, their ERAs were 5.16, 3.97, 3.82, 4.24, 4.35, 4.74 and 7.90. That is an astronomical gap, the difference between being clearly superior and distinctly inferior. If a bullpen ERA well above 4.00 is going to be the norm -- in other words, if last year's road stats presage this year's overall performance -- then the Nats' ability to hold late-inning leads, essential to the team's plucky identity, may come under attack.
If General Manager Jim Bowden finds that other teams covet his relievers, he might consider including a couple of them in deals before Opening Day. Their value, as a group, is unlikely ever to be higher. Rivera and Rauch are much valued because they have proved they can pitch in 85 games. Their career ERAs at RFK are 2.70 and 2.88. Elsewhere, 4.54 and 4.27. Luckily, the Nats have two relievers who, over their whole careers in Washington, have shown that they are just as good no matter where they pitch. Cordero and Ayala may provide enough ballast to stabilize the situation. Ayala's career ERA at RFK is 2.72, only slightly better than his 2.82 mark everywhere. Don't worry about him. His sinker's venue-resistant.
Cordero is the key. And he may be a pleasant surprise. In 119 games at RFK, which is a huge sampling, his ERA is 2.85. In every other game of his career, it is 2.79. How can this be? One possibility is that when Cordero gives up a homer (his Chief flaw) it is usually a bomb that would fly far out of any park. So, RFK's deep fences don't help him much. Also, Cordero's makeup is so ideal for a reliever that he seems oblivious to his surroundings, including whatever park he happens to be in. If anything, RFK's huge outfield may have allowed more cheap rally-starting singles to fall between fielders.
Conventional wisdom says Cordero will be under a microscope in the new park, that he is perhaps the most vulnerable Nat. Forget it. Cordero probably will perform the same as always -- saving many games, incinerating a few. Don't let a couple of Towering Inferno games fool you. It's the rest of the bullpen that might not be able to hold a lead for Cordero to preserve.
Some players, it should be noted, are powerfully influenced psychologically by playing at home or away. Some love the comfort of their own park. For example, Zimmerman's stats may have little to do with RFK. Perhaps, early in his career, he may just feel more comfortable when trying to please a cheering crowd. Similarly, Cordero has an ornery streak; maybe his fine road stats reflect the pleasure he gets out of spoiling the fun of a Philly or New York crowd that is jeering him in the ninth inning.
Nevertheless, one of the Nats' main tasks this season will be to analyze which types of players -- and which of their own players -- seem best suited to the as-yet-unknown characteristics of Nationals Park.
For now, a focus on the bullpen may be appropriate. If that fire brigade performs anywhere close to last year's level, offseason additions and improved health may allow the Nats to make a realistic run at .500. But if the bullpen's 4.88 road ERA last season is a harbinger of things to come along the Anacostia waterfront this summer, another 73-89 record might not be so bad.