Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Tao of Rizzo

Every great sports team has one thing in common; an over-arching, organization-wide philosophy. A set of principles and procedures that stretch from the bottom of the team to the top. In baseball, that means from instructional league to “The Show” every player is taught to bunt the same way, to throw to the same base, and to think about the game in the same way. When Jim Bowden was the GM and guiding force of the Washington Nationals, the philosophy was scattershot - trying to acquire young, toolsy players (i.e. Milledge and Dukes) and taking flier after flier on reclamation projects (i.e. Meathook).

Then all hell broke loose in the Dominican.

Enter Mike Rizzo. Enter Pitching and Defense… and a new emphasis on the Draft. Rizzo undertook a huge makeover of the entire organization and his plan was to do it using his greatest tool, scouting. For years, Rizzo was known as one of the top scouts in baseball, signing untold numbers of future Major Leaguers for his employers. And thanks to the piecemeal rosters the Nats were running out during the '05-'07 seasons, they were set up with some choice draft positions.

So Rizzo went to work building an organization designed to compete year-after-year. The best way to do that, in his mind, was to draft pitching, and lots of it - then surround those pitchers with a defense designed to save runs and inspire the confidence to be aggressive on the mound.

The total number of pitchers drafted during Mike Rizzo’s three years as GM: 77. He drafted countless more before that as the special assistant to the GM and point man for scouting and the draft. The Nationals have now 15 starting pitchers under 27 already in the major leagues or on the top-prospect tract:

Stephen Strasburg - 23

Jordan Zimmerman - 25

Brad Peacock - 23

Tom Milone - 24

Matt Purke - 21

Alex Meyer - 21

A.J. Cole - 19

Sammy Solis - 23

Robbie Ray - 19

Ross Detwiler - 25

Shairon Martis - 24

Cory Van Allen - 26

Josh Smoker - 22

Jake McGeary - 22

John Lannan (yes, he is still under 27) - 26

Wow. We already know what some of these pitchers are capable of; Strassy and JZimm are top of the rotation guys and Lannan is a solid left-handed starter who can take the ball every fifth day and give you a chance to win. That leaves 12 guys with the potential to be above average MLB starters. Well over half could fail and the Nats would still have a top flight rotation.

Now, Rizzo knows that the best way to make sure those young pitchers are set up for success is to put a great defense on the field behind them. A great defense can save runs, yes, but more importantly, a pitcher that is confident in his defense will be more aggressive and throw more strikes. So, the focus needs to be solely on creating a solid defense, primarily up the middle (catcher, shortstop, second base, centerfield) - where they have already settled half of the equation (Ramos and Espinosa).

As an organization, the Nats are on the way up. Everyone who comes through the clubhouse or front office sees it - Livan will be the bat boy next year if that's all they offer him and Adam Dunn was desperate to stay. Going forward, all the Nats need to do is stick with Rizzo’s philosophy. Get a manager who will put defense first, help develop all the young arms, and set each and every player up to succeed. Is Davey Johnson that man? My hunch is no, his love for the 3-run bomb doesn't really have a place in Rizzo's philosophy.

Who will it be? You tell me in the comments section and I'll tell you why you're wrong!


  1. I do not see Rizzo 's and Davey Johnson's approaches as being anything close. Will Rizzo really let Johnson blow up the team and re-make it in his own image in the off-season? Rizzo does not seem like that type of guy. I personally find this scenario very confusing and contradictory - and I wonder if the players do,too. Is the organizational philosphy clear right now??

  2. it was clear to begin the year...with davey in the picture im not so sure. the nats are to a point where they have enough talent to push through any organizational confusion right now and not lose 30 games in a row. but unless rizzo brings in a manager who has the same mindset (pitching, defense, smart baseball, young hungry players with a few savy vets) the nats will not find sustainable success

  3. Sean, nor will they find success without an at least league-average offense. pitch-and-catch is a great way to build because it's generally cheaper than buying big bats on the free agent market.

    but offense is still a big part of the game and sacrificing hitting for the sake of defense isn't always the best route to take. there must be a healthy blend.

  4. The list is too generous. Van Allen, Smoker and McGeary have all been reduced to relief roles, and McGeary is only just returning from TJ surgey. Though you could ADD Danny Rosenbaum, who had a great year at A & AA.

  5. Dave: agreed...use each theory in moderation. but it is my belief that just a little more consideration should be given to defense and athleticism as opposed to hitting the ball very very far.

    Bill: agreed...and thanks for the addition! I was just tring to make a point with the list...13 is just as impressive as 15...just less unlucky

    Thank you both for your comments, I believe I have an interesting and nuanced voice and hope to see your comments as often as I post!!