By: Leigh Steinberg
ORIGINAL POST on Forbes.com
The playoffs in Major League Baseball have begun. Why do some franchises excel and head towards the World Series while others flounder? The key is the quality of the organization. I fell in love with baseball in 1958 when the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles and spent my youth rooting for Sandy Koufax, Maury Wills and the gifted storytelling of announcer Vin Scully. The Dodgers could have folded this year with half the team on the injured list including their superstar Clayton Kershaw. Andrew Friedman and the Dodgers organization did a superb job in finding creative ways to to add help, and the team played its best baseball. Their opponent in the first series is the Washington Nationals. Their organization has excelled in ways that could provide a template for struggling teams.
The Nats just won the National League East pennant for the third time in the last five years. They have become a perennial winner without leaning towards the popular ends of the baseball spectrum, with mathematical based "moneyball" analytics on one end and heavy spending on the other. The teams that follow those respective blueprints usually do not win year in and year out the way that the Nats have recently. So what gives rise to this non-"moneyball," non-break-the-bank success? The Nats scout well, keep young stars, are strategic in free agency, hire experienced managers, and have created a vibrant game day atmosphere. Here's how they are succeeding in those areas.
Talent is the backbone of any successful club in team sports. The Nats are one of the best when it comes to scouting talent. Their 2016 starting line-up has six position players that were drafted and/or developed by the team's farm system. These players are headlined by 2005 1st round pick Ryan Zimmerman, and the 2011 NL Rookie of the Year, Bryce Harper, who was also MLB MVP in 2015. The Nats also scout pitching well. The first overall pick in 2009, Stephen Strasburg, who is now a two-time All-Star in his seventh year with the team, has accumulated 69 career wins and 1,084 strikeouts. Skeptics might claim it is easy to get it right when you have the first pick in the draft and high first around picks, but history shows that those picks don't always pan out. The Nats have done a nice job in scouting to make sure they select players that make it to a 40-man roster and contribute to winning.
Signing Free Agents that are Strategic Fits
Unlike some teams that spend a lot of money in free agency and look to build their team that way, the Nats are strategic in terms of which free agents they sign, and understand that money can't buy chemistry in the clubhouse. The Nats first big free agent move came in 2010 with the signing of outfielder, Jayson Werth. At the time, the team was coming off 102, 103 and 93 loss seasons respectively, and signed Werth to a seven-year, $126 million contract. Many were critical of the signing. Although Werth had just been to the World Series in back-to-back years, naysayers viewed him as a role player that didn't deserve that type of money.
The Nats, however, saw something else. They saw a position player that hit for average, had power, stole bases, could play all three outfield positions, and had a rifle for an arm. More than anything though, the Nats saw a veteran that understood what it took to win and could rub off on a young clubhouse. The greater genius behind the Werth signing was that he was a fan favorite. His blue-collar play, distinct hair and beard, and fire in the field draw fans. Bringing in more fans increases ticket, parking, concession and merchandise revenue. Werth essentially pays for himself with those enhanced earnings. The next great big strategic free agency move came in 2015 with Cy Young award-winning pitcher Max Scherzer, who previously played in the post-season with the Tigers. Scherzer brought more experience and pitching dominance to the organization. Then came veteran infielder/outfielder, Daniel Murphy, earlier this year.
Similar to Werth, Murphy had just finished a playoff run prior to joining the Nationals, but at 31, many teams were scared by his age and hesitant to offer him a contract because they would have to give the Mets a compensatory first or second round draft pick in view of Murphy declining the Mets' one-year $18.5 million offer. The Nationals were not intimidated. They signed Murphy to a three-year, $37.5 million contract, and cheerfully surrendered a compensatory pick to the Mets.
Werth, Scherzer and Murphy have been core components of the Nats' success in 2016. They are proof that the strategy of adding free agents that are both experienced winners, and good players pays dividends. Werth and Murphy playing multiple positions also provides insurance when other players on the team get hurt, as the Nats are able to rotate the big league roster rather than having to call-up inexperienced players from the minors.
Extending Proven Talent
The Nats have also done a great job of keeping their young talent by extending contracts early. Strasburg inked a seven-year $175 million contract earlier this year, which will keep him and Scherzer as the backbone of the rotation for years to come. Harper will receive a mammoth long-term contract extension that is likely to top $500 million. While these are staggering figures, in a league where the media contracts continue to grow and provide increasing revenues to teams, the Nats are simply spending what is available.
Investing in Experienced Baseball Managers
Talented players are not everything when it comes to winning in baseball. Having a great manager is critical. With mixed results, many teams rely on metrics to assist managers in making strategic decisions or hire popular retired players that are fan favorites but lack experience as managers. The Nationals on the other hand invest in managerial experience to bring about wins.
In 2012, the Nationals hired veteran manager, Davey Johnson. Johnson led the Nationals to a 98-win season and the franchise's first NL East Division Championship since relocating from Montreal. Johnson retired after the 2013 season, citing his age of 70 as the reason. Recognizing the value of Johnson's strong strategic baseball mind, the organization kept him on as a consultant. The next hire was Matt Williams. A friend and client of my old firm, Steinberg Moorad, Williams brought to Washington years of experience as third base coach of the Arizona Diamondbacks. He was NL Manager of the Year in 2014, but after World Series aspirations were not met in 2015, he was let go. Faced with a tough decision as to which direction to go with the next manager, the Nationals again went to experience in veteran manager Dusty Baker. Baker has the Nationals looking like a contender again this year.
Game Day Atmosphere
If division titles aren't enough to attract fans, a beautiful stadium situated along the Anacostia River closes the deal. Nationals Park combines the historic feel of an old-time ballpark with modern technology. Fans can enjoy views of Capitol Hill, a 4,500 square foot HD scoreboard and 600 linear feet of LED data and statistic loaded ribbon board inside of the stadium. Unlike most ballparks inside of city limits, there are many ways to get to Nationals Park. The stadium was strategically positioned so that fans could take mass transit, bus lines, carpools and water taxis to games. Getting in and out of Nationals Park is a breeze compared to many other stadiums.
The Nats have also done a nice job with in-game entertainment; particularly in the form of the President's Race, which has taken on a life of its own. The Presidents Race features six giant, caricature headed, former Presidents that race around the outer part of the field. These races have become so popular with the fans that they are local celebrities. The six "Presidents" have made numerous visits to the White House, as well as being involved with a number of parades within Washington D.C.
It's no surprise that the Nats' attendance has risen dramatically since Nationals Park opened in 2008. It's noteworthy that the only team ahead of the Nats in attendance from a city with a smaller market is the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cards, however, draw fans from a number of bordering states that do not have a MLB baseball team. St. Louis also does not have a local NBA or NFL team. The Nats' success in creating a great way to enjoy baseball was assuredly a big part of landing the 2018 MLB All-Star Game for Washington D.C.
As the playoffs get ready to take center stage, the Nats are an example of how to build and maintain an annual winner on the field and how to build a game day experience that keeps the fans coming back. They are playing a Dodgers team whose front office has been excellent. There is much to learn from the Washington game plan and they will be a contender for the World Series for years to come. Hopefully it will not come this year at the expense of the Dodgers.