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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