The Nationals may no longer have Alfonso Soriano's 46 home runs. Maybe Nick Johnson won't be back until midseason after breaking the biggest bone in his body. And the smooth switch-hitting of Jose Vidro won't be on display at RFK. But look on the bright side. Manager Manny Acta dislikes the sacrifice bunt, is suspicious of stealing bases, loves slick fielders, emphasizes defensive positioning and promises not to frazzle his bullpen by May.
There, don't you feel better? Lots of talent left Washington over the winter but at least 21st-century strategy finally has arrived.
"Manny Acta is a modern-day manager in every sense," team president Stan Kasten said Thursday. To a degree, this season will be a case study in how much a low-budget team that did not add a single front-line major leaguer can overcome the loss of proven ability by adopting the latest thinking on many of the game's oldest tactical questions.
If the Nats somehow win more than their 71 games of last season simply by overhauling their theories on tactics and team building, then "Moneyball" should go from bestseller to holy writ.
The '06 Nats played much the same style of baseball as the '71 Senators. A stolen base attempt was considered a good idea if you had a better-than-even chance. So, 62 Nats were thrown out stealing last year, the most in the majors. Sacrifice bunts, even in the early innings, were considered sensible. So the '06 Nats gave away almost as many voluntary outs on bunts by their regular hitters (36) as by their pitchers (40). The Nats constantly tried to "make something happen" on the bases by being aggressive, even though what often happened was the instant death of a budding rally. "Last year, we ran ourselves into so many unnecessary outs that it was insane," pitcher John Patterson said.
"We'll run selectively," Acta said this week. "I'm not going to run all over the place just to prove to 25,000 people in the stands that I am aggressive." So Felipe Lopez, Cristian Guzman and Nook Logan will get a green light. Everybody else gets a ball and chain. "Studying a million games has proved that a guy on first base with no outs has a better chance of scoring than a man on second base with one out," Acta added. So any non-pitcher who sacrifice bunts before the late innings is henceforth a mutineer.
The '06 Nats emphasized the maximization of hitting at every position over the dangers of bad fielding. As a result, the Nats led the majors in errors. Nats outfielders had 30 errors, led by Soriano's 11. Nats shortstops had 32 errors, twice the total of top fielders. Just as ugly, the Nats were next-to-last in turning double plays, thanks largely to Vidro's immobility and disinclination to make the acquaintance of sliding runners.
"You can't let the other team get 31, 32 outs every night," Acta said. Reducing errors and increasing double plays to a normal level would gain the Nats an extra 70 outs while erasing an equal number of base runners. If they become above average, the improvement might be 100 and 100. To that end, Acta wants glove men Logan and Guzman in center field and at shortstop. Lopez moves from tough shortstop to easier second base. Ryan Church will guard less space in left than center.
As for pitching theory, the Nats usually let starters stay in the game until they were toast. In the late innings, if a game was winnable, the best relief pitchers were summoned, even if it was their fourth appearance in five days. Toughness was Job One. So injuries were commonplace.
"I like to get a starting pitcher out of the game when he can leave on a positive note," said Acta, who will remove an effective starter before he is shelled, while summoning a reliever who may have an off night. Statistically, it's the better theory. In practice, it can get a rookie manager plenty of boos.
As for the bullpen, "I'm not a fan of using a reliever more than three days in a row," Acta said. "We're not hiding that [Luis] Ayala is coming back from surgery. . . . I'm not going to ruin '08 or '09."
How do you try to take out starters a tad early while erring on the side of mercy with relievers? "We'll carry a 12th pitcher," Acta said. "That will shortchange me here or there on a double switch." But pitchers may live longer.
No Nat here disputes that virtually every strategic theory from Expos days has now been chucked. No one person was responsible for the previous style. And managers, even Frank Robinson, ultimately do what they're told by their paycheck-signers. The time for change just came.
Ironically, the Nats almost hope that their new thinking doesn't work too well. After all, they also know what students of the draft have discovered: If you get the No. 1 or 2 overall pick, you have about a 50 percent chance of grabbing a future star. From '99 to '01, such picks produced World Series MVP Josh Beckett, batting champion Joe Mauer and strikeout king Mark Prior. But as soon as you draft even slightly lower, your odds drop sharply.
"Baseball has, far and away, the most difficult draft of any sport," Kasten said. "It's so hard to project future performance. In baseball, so much skill hasn't yet developed. Your odds dwindle really quickly" with draft position.
So far, the Nats have acquired two draft picks as compensation for losing Soriano and another one for Jose Guillen. As a result, in the '07 draft, Washington will have five of the first 71 picks -- but only one is higher than No. 31. The hard truth is that the '08 draft may be the only time the rebuilding Nats have a clean shot at a No. 1 or 2 pick. And that depends on losing a ton of games in '07 -- probably at least 100.
What a time for the Nationals to decide to get smart. Couldn't they have played dumb for a year? But it's too late now. They've gone and hired Acta. If his ideas are vindicated this season, RFK may be a more pleasant place to visit. But the extra games that brainy baseball wins in '07 could cost the Nats a precious No. 1 or 2 pick. And that elite pick might've turned into an MVP award winner someday on the banks of the Anacostia.