Intangibles are a tricky thing. By their very definition they cannot be defined. This week is going to be a little different. There won't be any numbers or stats or projected added wins. A lot of these intangible qualities weren't even that much of a problem for the 2010 Nationals. From what was reported the clubhouse was full of good character guys that all got along. That doesn't mean it can't improve it just means it wasn't a problem, and for some intangibles the negative impact far outweighs any possible positive effect. I am going to list what I feel are the five most important intangible qualities for a Major League baseball team, and briefly discuss each one.
5. Character Matters
What does driving while talking on a cell phone have to do with the game of baseball? Nothing, except I couldn't find any scientific studies that tested the reaction times of ball players against the reaction times of distracted ball players, but there have been studies done on drivers. The interesting findings are that cognitive distractions have a greater negative impact on reaction time than the act of talking on a cell phone. The drop off in reaction time is virtually the same when a person is talking hands free vs. using the cell phone in a more traditional manner. The intensity of the conversation had far more to do with the drop off in reaction time than the act of talking on the cell phone.
A fastball traveling 90 MPH will reach home plate in half a second. It takes the average human 0.2 seconds to even recognize that the pitch was thrown leaving 0.3 seconds for the reaction. Just imagine what would happen if a ball player is having a problem with someone in the clubhouse, or if a player is having their own off the field issues. It isn't hard to make the conclusion that this will have an effect on performance.
The question I can't really answer is how much of an effect it has. Baseball players' brains are built differently. Some players are more focused on the game than others. Maybe this is where the GM and manager come in. They need to put a team together of players that don't just complement each other on the field but in the clubhouse as well. As far as the impact of character I would say bad character will have far more of a negative impact than good character a positive one. Being a nice guy or surrounded by nice guys isn't going to make a ball player more talented. This is really a zero sum game where the goal is to remove character entirely from the equation and have a team that isn't distracted and is fully able to play to their talent level.
4. Jim Riggleman
Jim Riggleman teams have a way of always playing below their expected win total. Is this because of Riggleman or is he just unlucky? The Nationals should have won 72 games last season according to Pythagorean rankings, but they ended up winning 69. That is only a 3 game difference and is likely within the margin of error. Jim Riggleman did make a number of questionable decisions last season, and I am sure I don't have to go over them all for everyone to remember.
The one thing that Riggleman does do well is stand up for his players. He will argue calls on their behalf, and he is quick to get between an angry player and an umpire. The most important thing a manager does is manage personalities, and some feel he botched the Nyjer situation and others feel that he hasn't handled Drew Storen correctly, and they might be right. The real question of managing has always been what impact does it really have on the game, and while a good manager might only be worth two or three games how much of a negative impact does a bad manager have?
Again this should be viewed as a zero sum game where the goal is to let the talent play. The real question is did Jim Riggleman learn anything last year, or is he at a state in his career where learning is beyond him? If he is able to apply the lessons from last season and there are less double switches and sac bunts from non-pitchers then perhaps he did learn.
Riggleman's main problem has been over-managing. He takes good bats out of the line-up too early in close games for added defense, and sometimes will give away an out in a situation where the trade isn't truly justified. If Riggleman can stop doing these things then while he still won't be the best manager he will be a perfectly adequate one capable of letting the talent play to its level.
3. Pitcher Confidence
Confidence on the mound is important. If a batter sees a pitcher looking weak or worried on the mound then it will increase their confidence and help them focus. Intimidation plays a large role in sports, and if a pitcher can make a batter feel that the at bat is over before it even begins then likely it is.
Washington Nationals pitchers in 2011 should have more confidence than they have in previous years. There is now a defense behind them that should be able to catch balls, and there is a bullpen that should be able to preserve leads. The Nationals pitchers in the past liked to nibble. Always trying to be too fine and just nick the outside corner of the plate. With outfielders that can run down fly balls and infielders that aren't statues maybe the pitchers can now feel confident enough to own more of the strike zone.
A lot of intangibles have to do with basic psychology and it is easier for a person to succeed if they believe that success is the most likely outcome. A pitcher knowing that there is a good defense backing them up and a bullpen that can preserve any lead they acquire should help. Again confidence is no replacement for talent, but pitchers are simply better when they are able to trust themselves and the stuff they possess.
2. Bryce Harper and Other Unexpected Contributors
The realistic goal for the Nationals is to have Bryce Harper in the majors full time in 2013, but what is realistic isn't always what happens. People focus a lot on Bryce Harper's age. The fact that he is 18 shouldn't be a reason for him to be treated differently than any other polished prospect, and from all accounts Bryce Harper is polished. He isn't a raw talent still trying to learn how to play the game of baseball. He has all that down, and while most kids start playing at the age of six, Harper has been playing since he was three years old. He has the same experience playing baseball as a 21 year old college junior, and while the competition he faced might not have been as good as an ACC or SEC player would have faced I am confident that his insane batting average at CSN would have transferred to good numbers at Georgia Tech. If Harper is able to get into the minors and simply dominate then there is no telling what will happen with him.
Sammy Solis is another prospect that isn't expected to contribute to the majors in 2011, but like Harper his performance will have the most to do with when he plays in the majors. Unlike Harper Solis is a college pitcher that was selected partially for his ability to reach the majors quickly. It has been rumored that he might even be on the Stephen Strasburg minor league tour program. If he can pitch effectively in the minors, and make it to the majors in 2011 he could help contribute to making the Nationals a surprise team.
Prospects aren't the only place that unexpected contributions can come from. The Nationals signed a host of players for the bench and to compete for spots in Spring Training. Bernadina, Morse, LaRoche, Nix, or Ankiel are all capable of playing above their heads and have a career year that helps the Nationals to surprise a few people.
1. Baseball IQ
Now this one was a problem last year. Too many times Nationals players would make ill advised throws instead of pocketing a ball, miss the cut-off man, or fail to run the bases properly. It is questionable as to whether or not baseball IQ is a learned trait or a natural one, but the certain thing is the Nationals need to get better at it. The main two culprits last season were Nyjer Morgan and Ian Desmond. From all accounts Ian Desmond is a smart baseball player and his main issue was in making ill advised throws. He acknowledged it a few times and chalked it up to the aggression of youth.
Morgan on the other hand had IQ problems all over the field. He would routinely get picked off or thrown out stealing, he over threw the cutoff man nearly every game, and everyone remembers when he ran over the catcher instead of sliding. Now maybe with better coaching Nyjer will start listening and can get back to being the player he was before 2010.
Baseball IQ is the most important intangible because it more directly effects what is happening on the field than any of the others. It is important not just to get players with the talent to play baseball, but the mind to play baseball as well. A smart player with talent is more dangerous than a talented player that doesn't always know what to do or when to do it.
The biggest effect of baseball IQ isn't on the most talented of players. Players with average ability are easier to replace and the damage they do with poor decision making will hurt the team far more than it would from a player that can make up for runs lost due to poor decision making with their bat or glove over what the average player can.
Conclusion: The Difference between Can and Will
If the Washington Nationals have improved on defense as much as they think they have, if the starting pitching can pitch anywhere close to a league average number of innings, and if the offense can get a couple of guys to surprise some people than the Nationals can win 82 games. That is likely on the very edge of reality. Those 82 wins are the best possible outcome of the Nationals season, and if they played the season 100 times then it might happen 5 of those times.
I fully believe that the Nationals have the ability to be a surprise team, but the matter of if they will is something different. Not everything is going to go right. Players will get injured or underperform. The big thing about the Nationals in 2011 that was lacking in 2010 is depth. It is unlikely that a player of Kevin Mench or Willy Taveras' skill level plays for the Nationals in 2011, and as much as the pitching staff is full of bad major league pitchers it is unlikely that Luis Atilano or Shairon Martis see significant time on the mound.
While it is a lot more likely that the Nationals will win somewhere between 72-75 games than it is they win 82 games they do have the ability to do it, and in reality it should be the goal. Winning teams strive to be the best that they can be, and don't settle for what they are expected to be. Yes, the Nationals can be a surprise team, but the answer of will they is still a few months off.