A few days after being claimed off waivers from the Colorado Rockies, more than nine months since being traded from the Nationals to the Rockies, Zach Day makes his first start for the Nats in almost exactly a year. To suggest today's start is a product of anything other than desperation is to be oblivious to the unremitting pitching flux in which the Nats find themselves. The team is fighting injury and ineffectiveness among its starting corps, and Day brings both (shoulder spasms, 10.80 ERA) in spades. I can't imagine much more than a serviceable five or six innings is expected out of Day.
It's fashionable to dump on Day. I suspect this is a product of three factors: a) the utter lack of success Day experienced last season in Washington; b) the acrimonious demotion and parting of ways in which Day played a part last summer, as recounted today by the Washington Times, and c) the fact that most Nats' fans---including me---really didn't follow the Expos all that closely when they were indeed the Expos.
Barry Svrluga's book National Pastime (review forthcoming later this evening) provides a few pages of Day's history with the Montreal/Washington ("Natspos," as some wittier people call it) organization:
The uniform unveiling did not exactly go as planned (Cristian Guzman attended the eventual unveiling, months later), which is a fine way to sum up Day's first stay in Washington---so much so that most Nats' fans, probably with good reason, regard him as little more (or less) than a garbage pitcher.
While he was no superstar for the Expos, though, Day had been a solid pitcher for parts of three seasons in the majors:
YEAR IP ERA+
2002 37.3 115
2003 131.3 119
2004 116.7 105
Prior to his arrival in Washington, Day had pitched nearly 300 big league innings, with an earned run average, adjusted for home park, comfortably better than the National League average during that time frame. Certainly, a closer look at Day's record through 2004 revealed some warning signs: a pedestrian strikeout rate and a poor strikeout-to-walk ratio, in particular, did not suggest future greatness. But Day's sinker was an effective pitch, and his ability to avoid the home run ball was of great assistance.
Coming into last season, Day looked like a decent enough pitcher, one of the better options on a team full of back-end rotational depth (Ohka, Day, Rauch, Patterson, Vargas, Kim, etc.).
Perhaps Day was never destined to advance himself beyond that point, though. While this is no doubt a convention employed to tell a more convenient story, Svrluga juxtaposes Day with John Patterson---particularly with respect to the competition between the two for a spot in the Nats' rotation, which took on a direct, one-against-one shape during last March's reporting from Viera. In National Pastime, Svrluga describes Patterson as a driven competitor, one confident of his ability to become an anchor in the rotation and almost destined to prove himself after years of frustration. Day, on the other hand, is depicted as quiet and introspective, as accomplished in his sketch art as in his pitching.
Essentially, Day comes across as timid and tepid, the antithesis of a hyper-motivated fling-the-toughguy-BS kind of athlete management loves. No vignette is as illustrative of this temperament as a conversation between general manager Jim Bowden---himself a Hall of Fame BS-flinger---and Day:
"I hope so," Day responded, almost sheepishly.
The implication in these pages of National Pastime is that Day is not a competitor, almost that his failure and banishment to Colorado were pre-ordained. (Injuries, freakish and otherwise, no doubt played a part.) At the least, it is interesting to compare how Day and Patterson viewed the prospect of being relegated to the bullpen. Patterson's response was essentially, "No way, no how; I'm a starter." On the other hand, Day's response was essentially, "I'd prefer to start, but it's up to the guys upstairs."
I don't know if all of this means anything. To be sure, Zach Day had enough of a competitive spirit to make the big leagues and pitch well enough for parts of three seasons. In addition, history is written by the victors---and, as of last July through early last week, Zach Day was perceived by the Washington media as anything but a victor.
But now Day is back---if the media perception of him is true, perhaps the most introspective prodigal son you'll ever find. Assuming good health (a starkly bold assumption), I think Day can rediscover his form. Let us all hope so, because this team needs anyone---even the formerly banished Zach Day.