Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Nats' Arrogance is Deliberate, and It's Rubbed off on Bryce Harper and Jonathan Papelbon

Mark Zuckerman knows the Washington Nationals better than anybody. He covered the team from its very first game in DC for the Washington Times, and, after being laid off when the Times eliminated its sports section, kept doing so on his own blog, Nats Insider. Today he's the team's Comcast SportsNet beat writer. So you have to take it seriously when this guy says that the Nats have an organization-wide, top-to-bottom problem with arrogance:
"This organization, from top to bottom, too often acts like it has accomplished far more than it really has. The Nationals fly the largest division championship banner in baseball, high above the scoreboard in right-center field. (The 2012 NL East champions banner still resided up there throughout the 2014 season, long after they had ceded the title to the Braves.) They boast no fewer than three highly visible reminders to the world that they’ll be hosting the 2018 All-Star Game, an event that won’t take place for another 34 months. They spent the entire first half of this season playing intentionally annoying slow-jams over the PA system when the opposing team took batting practice, for no reason other than to thumb their noses at the rest of the league. They continue to show replay after replay after replay of Jayson Werth’s walk-off homer in Game 4 of the 2012 NLDS — an admittedly wonderful baseball moment — while completely ignoring what happened only 24 hours later to render that moment a mere footnote."
I think this is pretty much right. I've noted my own problems with the way the Nats conduct business, and it fits with Zuckerman's depiction of a team "out of touch with reality." But in my consideration of the Nats' actions, I came to a conclusion that Zuckerman doesn't: the Nats know full well what they're doing. The arrogance that Zuckerman describes is 100% intentional. More than that, it's their most lucrative business strategy.

The Nats face a unique challenge in being the worst-established team in baseball: they're about to complete only their 11th season of existence. The sport of baseball is built so strongly on tradition, yet the Nats have little of it—so they try to manufacture it in order to strengthen DC's attachment to the team and, ultimately, sell tickets. They trump up big franchise moments like Werth's home run because it's all they have to remind people of—yet they are forced to remind people of something. (They even meddle with the songs Nats Park sings during the seventh-inning stretch and after wins in their frantic quest to hit on something lasting.) The financial success of the Nationals—baseball is first and foremost a business, remember—requires that the club "acts like it has accomplished far more than it really has."

But, as Zuckerman notes, it's a damn shame that their desperate but possibly necessary business strategy is rubbing off on their employees. Bryce Harper has long been faulted for comporting himself as if he had already conquered the world (the "best prospect ever" epithet, his Sports Illustrated cover shoot), despite his rookie status. (This may have been true his first or second year, but he has now firmly accomplished enough, and been around long enough, to outgrow this narrative, in my opinion. Although one of his walk-up songs remains Frank Sinatra's "The Best Is Yet to Come"...) And Jonathan Papelbon, despite his declining fastball velocity, insisted that his past accomplishments entitled him to the closer's role (and the $13 million 2016 salary it guaranteed him) before he would agree to waive his no-trade clause so that the Philadelphia Phillies could trade him at the deadline (despite being vocal about wanting to get out of Philly). This led to the conditions that fostered Harper and Papelbon's now-infamous dugout brawl on Sunday. Not for the first time, a company's bottom-line-first attitude backfired on its employees.

However, it's important to draw the line at what the Nats' arrogance does and does not mean. It does lead to frightening and embarrassing incidents like Papelbon's assault of Harper. It does mean that they are often condescending to the fans and their paying customers. It does mean that they don't appropriately value their employees and a positive work environment (as Zuckerman notes, how terrible must Tanner Roark, coming off a 2.85 ERA, have felt when they signed Max Scherzer? or Drew Storen, who had 29 saves when they imported Papelbon?). But it doesn't—at least by itself—explain why their on-field performance was so lacking in 2015. Sure, Roark and Storen both took huge steps backward after they were displaced, and the psychology of those snubs can't be ignored. But plenty of teams have won big even with bad chemistry. "Bad chemistry" is too often an easy excuse for poor performance that can be identified and quantified upon more rigorous examination. Rob Arthur of FiveThirtyEight demonstrated that this week, when he showed how easy it was to identify the Nationals offense as the reason they didn't live up to preseason expectations. That, of course, was due to the club's rash of injuries, not an intangible attitude.

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