THREE NATIONALS WHO MOST IMPACTED DIVISION TITLE
One of the best general managers in sports is having his finest season as the Nationals’ lead executive. Rizzo’s trade deadline acquisitions of four key pieces dramatically improved his club, fixing an ailing bullpen and bolstering the depth of an already potent lineup. Acquiring Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle, both of whom are under contract beyond this season, without having to give up a touted prospect was highway robbery. The addition of Brandon Kintzler, who had made 28 saves in Minnesota, to anchor a scuffling middle-relief group was another quality move that paid immediate dividends. But it was the swap for Howie Kendrick that may end up being viewed as Rizzo’s savviest of the season. Kendrick has had to play more than was expected with the Nationals riddled by injuries, and the professional hitter has proven to be a tough out and a legitimate top-of-the-order option.
Rizzo also oversees the Nationals sensational farm system, which has churned out a slew of contributors this season. Michael Taylor played the best baseball of his career in 2017. Brian Goodwin exploded onto the scene as a plus-fielder with immense power. Wilmer Difo hit for average while emerging as one of the better defensive shortstops in baseball according to advanced analytics. Do you know how easy it would have been for Rizzo to give up on Taylor or to trade Goodwin or Difo at some point in the last year? He chose not to. He kept them around to provide competition and depth. Each was vital this season.
How about the veteran offseason acquisitions Rizzo made? Adam Lind has been one of baseball’s most valuable bench bats. Like Lind, who was passed over by dozens of clubs filling out starting lineups, Matt Wieters was scooped up during spring training and handed a starting spot. The book on Wieters was that his receiving skills were declining and he struggled to frame pitches. Rizzo opted to give him a chance to prove doubters wrong. He’s performed admirably behind the dish and seems to have saved his best offensive production for at-bats with runners in scoring position.
The architect of one of baseball’s best teams over the past five years, the only thing missing on Rizzo’s GM resume is postseaon success. If the caliber of the roster he’s put together has anything to do with it, that should change this season.
Over the last several years, when the Nats were healthy they won mid-90’s games. If they didn’t suffer a rash of injuries, you could book them for a division title and one of the best records in the NL. But when they did suffer major setbacks or a pile of man-games-missed, they drifted out of post season contention and into the 80’s in win count. That was until this season, and Baker’s ability to keep his bench prepared is a big reason why.
Managing is as much about relationships and manicuring relationships as it is about the X’s and O’s. I’ll always have mini issues with Baker’s in-game tactics and philosophies, particularly with his paradigm on lineup construction and bullpen usage. But he is an exceptional communicator and a wonderful motivator. His players love him and want to play hard for him. He treats his bench players better than any manager I’ve ever followed up-close, giving them atypically normal playing time to keep them engaged.
The impressive performances of back-of-the-roster types like Goodwin and Difo can be chalked up to those guys being talented. Goodwin is a former MVP of an Arizona Fall League all-star game, meaning he was a fairly respected prospect. Difo has ranked as high as the top-five in Washington’s minor league system by Baseball America. It’s not like those guys were scrub minor leaguers. They can play. But did they play better because of Baker’s influence? Did they peak this season because of his ability to maximize their potential? I’d say so.
Taylor is another example of a guy that Baker made better. I was ready to give up on the former Eastern League (AA) MVP. A career .230 hitter who struck out a bout 34% of the time, Taylor had failed to take advantage of several chances to establish himself as a big-league regular. But Baker remained confident in him, at least publicly, and when it came time to replace Adam Eaton, he made sure he stood by Taylor. Last season, Baker played a struggling Taylor more than I thought he should have. The Nationals are better for that now.
I’ve always said that I’d rather have Baker manage the team I care about and be annoyed by his batting order almost every day than have 90% of other managers skipper the club. He is a baseball lifer who knows the game and who gets the most out of his players because they love playing for him. Sports are about people. Baker excels in that area and it makes up for some of the things he doesn’t always do as well.
In a season where several Nationals sluggers have posted gaudy totals, Rendon has separated himself as the team’s most consistent offensive piece. His .938 OPS ranks second on the team behind only Bryce Harper, but Rendon has played in 26 more games than Harper at this point. His 5.66 WAR is far-and-away best on the team among position players, a full run better than Harper’s worth according to the advanced metric. His 23 homers and 91 RBI are impressive, but the most outrageous totals he’s turned in are his nearly identical 74 walks and 76 strikeouts.
Hitting .302 on the season, only Harper and Daniel Murphy have managed better batting averages this season. Rendon is also one of only two Washington hitters with an on-base-percentage over .400 (Harper). He’s spent much of the season at the top of the league leaderboard on pitches seen per at-bat, a rarity for a guy hitting as low in the order as Rendon did this season.
The fact that he hit sixth for most of the year and was still able to impact the Nationals as much as he did is a testament to his consistency and excellence. Hitting sixth may have helped in drive in more runs and pad some of his counting statistics, but his overall value to the lineup and number of at-bats would have been increased had he have gotten more chances hitting in the top-third of the order, where most of the league’s other elite talents hit.
A former fifth-place finisher in the MVP vote, Rendon will be getting some votes in MVP balloting again this season.