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To the Man(n)y Apologists, Ron Villone Just Dropped to 0-4 IN THE PAST SIX DAYS!

I was out of town for a week, so I didn't really have the computer time to post my feelings on the subject (which most of you already know).  Sadly, I was going to point to the Pythagorean Win-Loss records, but Doghouse stole my thunder a bit there.  I'm still going to throw a little more in there about the Pythagorean Win-Loss, but I just won't go as in-depth.  Instead, we're going to go with a narcissistic lead where I begin with a quote of my own from two weeks ago.

Acting GM Mike Rizzo started the change Tuesday, when the club fired pitching coach Randy St. Claire.  From a performance standpoint, the move certainly makes plenty of sense.  The Nationals are currently last in the majors with a 5.67 ERA.  The club also ranks dead last with a .285 Batting Average Against, a .370 OBP against (12 full points higher than 29th ranked Cleveland), 8 Saves, 15 Quality Starts, and a 1.34 Strikeout to Walk ratio.  Seeing as how the problems with the walks have been well documented, I'll bring up that they're 28th in the league in Walks Allowed, slightly better than the Dodgers (who counter that with a leauge-leading .236 BAA) and the Indians.  The staff also ranks 27th with just 297 strikeouts thus far.  Yes.... the players are obviously harder to "fire" than the pitching coach, but it was clear that St. Claire just wasn't on the verge of turning things around.  The staff got off to a poor start in April, but they actually regressed across the board in the season's second month. 

The question regarding the St. Claire move, however, is this: Could this be a message that Manny Acta had better get it together quickly?  Admittedly, I've been one of the more adamant critics of Acta all season long, so those of you who have read anything I've written already probably knew I was going here.  Still, St. Claire's firing removes a crutch that Acta could have continued to use before Tuesday.  If there's not a huge change in team performance by the end of June, I would be shocked if Acta is still running this club by the All-Star Break.  I'm not necessarily talking about a winning month, but if the club doesn't play at least .400 ball, Acta's job should be on the line.

To give a brief update, St. Claire was fired on June 2 and replaced by current pitching coach Steve McCatty.  The pitchers have responded.  After allowing 308 runs in the 50 games of the season's first two months (6.16), they've allowed just 57 runs in 13 June games under McCatty (4.38).  Before you blame the awful defense, the 1.78 runs/game differential is not representing the earned runs the Nationals pitchers have allowed.... those are the total runs. 

In spite of the corrections on the runs allowed side of the ledger, the Nats have been worse (3-10, .231 winning percentage) in June than they were heading into the month (13-36, .265), as the offense has gone from scoring 4.8 runs/game in the season's first two months to 3.07 runs/game so far in June.  Is Acta to blame for all of this?  Certainly not all of it, but it is a bit striking that (albeit with a small sample size) the team's biggest problem has corrected itself by nearly two full runs per game and the team is actually performing worse.  I stand by what I said a couple of weeks ago.  The performance of the bullpen/pitching staff in general under St. Claire early this season was what should have been the last crutch he could have leaned on.

Let's jump, because this could take a while.....

Again, Doghouse did a fine job of looking into the Pythagorean Win-Loss performance of the Nats so far this season.  Based purely on a runs scored/runs allowed comparison, the Nationals would seem to have a 23-38 (.377) team, though they've played well below that.  I'm of the belief that, as long as you have a manager who is intelligent enough to read above a fourth grade level (i.e., someone competent enough to fill out a lineup card), the manager isn't going to have a huge impact on a team's performance in comparison with their run differential.  There are going to be some close games where they make the right call and some close games where they make the wrong call.  In all honesty, once you're talking about a manager that's good enough to have gotten to the big league level, you're probably talking about a guy who can (at most) change the outcome of ten games over the course of a 162 game season. 

Still, I'm going to point to some of the numbers that Doghouse used in his look:

Extra innings: 0-8 (Pythag: 3-5)

1-run games: 6-11 (Pythag: 8-9)

2-run games: 1-11 (Pythag: 5-7)

3-run games: 3-9 (Pythag: 3-9)

4 or more: 6-14 (7-13)

The two that really jump out at you are the Extra Inning games and the 2-run games.  While errors, bad luck, and even bogus home run calls factor in, as Doghouse told us, he neglected to toss any of that blame Manny's way.  The fact that the bullpen lacks quality arms certainly isn't Manny's fault, but his use of those arms has certainly been questionable all season long, including the past week.  With all of the losing that we've had to endure this season, let's go back to the first home stand of the season, which (sadly) has turned out to be one of their best stretches of the season.  The team went 3-5 on the homestand, with four of the five losses being games that involved a blown save.  The fifth loss came in a terrific pitcher's duel that was (disgustingly enough) decided on a bases loaded walk with two outs in the ninth inning (1-0) to the Braves.  In said losses, here are some of the bullpen decisions that Manny made:

He hung with "his seventh inning guy" Saul Rivera after bringing the right-handed setup man in to face the most heavily left-handed portion of the Phillies lineup.  Rivera hit Shane Victorino and Chase Utley on consecutive pitches (hmmm... was he not right that day, maybe?) before giving up a three-run bomb to Ryan Howard.  For some reason, Rivera was still in the ballgame two batters later when Raul Ibanez (see: another lefty) hit another homer, which would prove to be the difference in a 9-8 loss.

After having watched Joel Hanrahan blow saves on consecutive nights (no blame on the first one.... he's your closer, and he blew a one-run lead.  It happens.  There probably should have at least been someone ready as he blew a three-run save the next night), Acta decides to turn to Rivera again.  At this point, Rivera had already been hung with two losses in the past week, having allowed five runs in his past two innings of work.  This time Rivera, a pitcher struggling to find the zone and getting tagged consistently when he does find it, is his ninth inning guy.  He loses the lead before retiring a batter, and quickly turns a one-run save opportunity into a three-run loss.

While both examples that I cited were about Saul Rivera, I'm giving him a bit of a pass on the Hanny thing.  Hanny did record two saves in the first two games of the Braves series after being given the vote of confidence by Acta.  Of course, he didn't look great in doing so, and he's since lost the closer's job not once, but twice.  The main thing that I'm pointing to is that, while Acta is showing confidence in his players, he's simply not reading them well.  When Rivera hits the first two batters in an inning, it's probably about time to start getting someone ready.  When you're calling on Rivera (rather than one of the three lefties in your bullpen) to face a switch hitter (Victorino) and then three power-hitting lefties (Utley/Howard/Ibanez), you're simply not playing the numbers unless it's one hell of a dominant right-handed pitcher.  Has he learned from those mistakes, though?  You tell me!

I know that there's been a lot of support for Ron Villone in Natstown.  The lefty started the year with a 0.00 ERA in his first 17 innings this season, and he certainly deserves some of that praise.  Still, let's look at the past week.  Here are Villone's performances since Wednesday, June 10:

June 10 vs. Cincinnati - 0 IP, 1 BB, 1 R, 1 ER, Loss

June 12 @ Tampa Bay - 1.1 IP, 2 H, 1 BB, 1 R, 1 HR, Loss (side note: Nick Johnson's fielding error on a pop-up in foul territory happened in Kapler's at bat before he homered, making the run unearned)

June 14 @ Tampa Bay - .1 IP, 2 H, 1 BB, 1 R, 1 ER, Loss

Everyone keeping up?  In Villone's last three appearances, he'd thrown 1.2 innings of work.  He'd allowed 4 hits, walked 3, served up a dinger, and taken three losses.  Now, is there any part of you that isn't screaming "He's ice cold!  Give him a couple of days off"?  Manny again decided to "stick with his guy" by bringing him into Tuesday's game against the Yankees with a 3-2 lead in the seventh.  Villone promptly allowed hits to the first two men he faced, watching Johnny Damon cross the plate to nullify the lead.  He then allowed a game-winning double to Robinson Cano after retiring Alex Rodriguez, taking his fourth loss in six days (and five games).  I'm going to have to do some research, but I think that may be a record!  At least he didn't walk anyone.

So yeah.... while the Pythagorean Win-Loss record suggests some bad luck, you simply can't tell me that Manny has had nothing to do with this.  I check in at this site every day, and even did so while I was on the road and could only check via my cell phone last week.  There's a lot of great information here.  There are a lot of great ideas here.  Unfortunately, there's also a whole lot of Manny Apologizing going on here.  I've been convinced that he's lost the team since they started 0-7, and while I'm intelligent enough to realize that it's not all his fault, I'm reading a little too often that it's not his fault, which leaves out a key word in my opinion.

Continuing along those Pythagorean lines, the Washington Nationals were three games above their expected win total in 2007 (Acta's first season).  They were three below their expected total in 2008 (Acta's second season).  They're seven games below their expected win total this season. 

There are many reasons I want to see Acta gone.  It's not that I dislike the guy, but.... In my opinion, he continuously mismanages the bullpen.  What's worse, he doesn't learn from the mistakes he's made in the past.  The team has regularly shown a lack of fundamental play and has appeared to lack passion at times (well.... most of the time).  While I'm certainly sure that Acta knows the game of baseball well (considerably better than I do), he rarely does anything that seems creative or innovative, and this team certainly has shown all season that they need someone who's going to try and do things differently.  Finally, while many people have mentioned the players that we'd like to see go to eliminate the Bowden era, Manny has done little to inspire confidence in the manager from the Bowden era.

So keep apologizing for Manny all you want, guys.  I'll still check in, and I'll read your thoughts.  I just haven't found an argument yet that can sway me on this, though.  Acta had a nice year in 2007, and it bought him a year and a half to help develop some of the talent in the organization.  Very few of the players seem to be showing much (if any) improvement under his tutelage.  It's time for a change!

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