Dave Sheinin fills in for Tracee Hamilton to discuss the Nationals and the rest of baseball, plus opera and whatever else you want to talk about.

May 24, 2012

This week, Dave Sheinin discusses all the sports news.

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OK folks, I've finally gotten through our top-notch online security system -- designed to keep riff-raff like myself away -- and I'm ready to go. Sorry for being so late. And thanks again to Tracee for inviting me to fill-in... Here we go...

Shiner, How've you been? Long time, no chat. What are you listening to today? I've got the Punch Brothers playing here. My question, when - just once - are the Nats as a team going to step up and win a meaningful game? Last night was a game where they all should have been fired up against Hamels. National TV, the aftermath of the Hamels/Harper incident and a chance to sweep the Phils at Nats Park North. And how'd they play? Like it was any other game.

Hey there 114E. Good to hear from you, as always. I'm listening to a lot of Jason Isbell lately, in advance of the Saturday mantinee show at the Ram's Head in Annapolis, for which I have some nice front-row tickets. Also, loving the new Dr. John, produced by Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys.


Anyway, as for your question... That's not really fair, is it? I mean, the first two Philly games were no less "meaningful" than the last one, were they? I know what you're saying about last night's game being one that any self-respecting Nats fan was dying to win. But they ran into a fabulous pitcher at the height of his game, and they lost. There's no larger meaning than that, in my mind.

So what do you think of this start? Is it sustainable?

Absolutely, it's sustainable. At the start of the season, I thought the Nationals were still one year away from serious contenderhood (is that a word?) -- but what I didn't count on was the Phillies being so awful. And maybe the Phillies will improve significantly, once Ryan Howard and Chase Utley are back. But maybe not. And in any case, the Nationals have enough pitching (even taking into account the expected shut-down of Strasburg in August/Sept.) to stay in this thing for the lone haul.

I am assume it is a failing of mine, but I love classical music of all sorts, including collections of opera overtures, or opera arias. But when I plunk a 3 CD set of an opera into the player, I find it mind-numbingly boring, lots of speak-singing, with occaisonal outbursts of something more exciting to listen to. Is the live experience that much better that just audio? Any suggestions?

The live experience is significantly better. Like, night and day. If you don't like the 3-CD audio experience with a single opera, try getting a compilation of arias by a tenor that you love. My favorite is Jussi Bjoerling.

Dave, I'm taking my wife to New York to see Figaro (my favorite opera and one I haven't had a chance to see live) this November. We aren't going on opening night but rather on a 'regular' Saturday night. Would a tuxedo and woman's equivalent be out of place? I used to subscribe locally on opening night and always went formal, but I haven't been to the Met or on a non-opening night so I don't know the protocol. I'd like to go dressier but not if I'm the only one wearing black tie.Thanks!

If it's not opening night, the dress code is significantly more relaxed -- like any other part of society these days. (I mean, seriously, have you taken a flight lately? If you're wearing jeans and a collared shirt, you're overdressed.) But a tuxedo is always a good choice for the opera, particularly on a Saturday night. Look at it this way -- everyone will assume you're going somewhere exciting afterwards.

What stat best captures Harper's aggressive baserunning? Last night he advanced two bases on two fly ball outs, and the result of his plunking by Hamels has become semi-legendary. Is there a way to measure this production other than to say "hustle"?

Great question. Baserunning, even more so than defense, is the last frontier of sabermetrics. It's incredibly difficult to measure, because before you can give credit for someone taking a base, you have to determine the extent to which an "average" player would have taken the same base. But there is a lot of great stuff being done with baserunning at sites such as Fangraphs.com and BillJamesOnline.com. I'd be interested to see how the new baserunning stats measure Harper's contribution.

Will the Angels get back in the mix, or will both wild cards come out of the very balanced AL East? GO SOX!

Interesting question. True fact: If the season ended today, the Angels, Phillies, Tigers, Red Sox and Yankees would all miss the playoffs. Those are the five highest payrolls in baseball, folks.


Of all of those teams, I think the Tigers and Angels have the best chance of clawing their way back into it, because of the divisions they play in. Yes, the AL West has the Rangers, but other than that it's a weak division.

With the depletion of the nationals pitching in the farm after the gio trade, do you think the nats have to go for a pitcher with their top pick this year?

No, it's well-understood in the industry that you don't draft for need -- simply because the baseball draft is too much a crapshoot, and the time a prospect typically needs to develop into a productive big leaguer is so long. I doubt the Nats would draft a pitcher just because they're feeling thin in the rotation. And for that matter, I wouldn't say they're thin in the first place, not with Wang (and even Lannan, who, despite his struggles this year is an accomplished big league pitcher) waiting in the wings.

I assume you knew that the Met ordered OPERA NEWS to stop reviewing Met productions (in part because the reviews are often negative). A day later, the Met recanted, so to speak. So should OPERA NEWS be more of a house organ for the Met or the largely independent magazine it is now. Thanks.

Obviously, as a journalist, I feel pretty strongly about the concept of objectivity, and my view is that Opera News ought to be completely independent.

In 1997, Keith Olbmermann said, "Sell your Kerry Wood cards. Now." His reasoning wat that no one who throws that many strikeouts that hard at that young an age will hold up. Strass does not have Jim Riggleman and Dusty Baker leaving him in for 120 pitches because they were scared of losing their jobs and had no faith in the 'pen, but the "biceps tightness" scares me to death. Should I be afraid?

Great question. We've a come a long way, in terms of our collective knowledge about the health of pitchers, since 1997. The Nationals are absolutely going about this the right way with Strasburg. They have been conservative as pretty much every juncture, including his pitch counts and innings counts. They are determined to shut him down this year at around 160-165 innings, and they have also convinced him to be less of a strikeout artist and more of an efficient, ground-ball-inducing machine.


At the same time, you just never know with hard-throwing pitchers. Ask yourself this: How many pitchers who can throw 100 mph last for any great length of time? There's Verlander and... well, that's about it. The Nationals did everything correct with Strasburg in 2010, and he still blew out his elbow. You just never know.

Dave, If/when the Nats are fully healthly (which will be start of next year with Ramos and a full year of SS), what holes do the Nats have with their starting lineup and starting pitching? I don't see any so I can't see Rizzo making any medium or big moves in the offseason. I just don't see a player coming in and taking a starting position. Go Nats.

They still have a need for a center fielder/leadoff man, although when everyone is healthy -- which means Morse in left and Werth in right -- they can slot Harper in center field. But that still doesn't solve the lack of a leadoff hitter. To me, that's a fairly glaring lack right now. I've advocated using Harper at leadoff -- seriously. He's got a .350 OBP, he can steal bases, and it's not as if he has 40-homer power right now (as a 19-year-old) that would be wasted at leadoff.

Best live, next best live on the radio.

Well said.

I feel bad for the guy, but man, he chokes every time he's on the mound! Is Davey Johnson going to keep putting him in there, hoping for a miracle, indefinitely?

Well, Davey has pretty clearly stated that Rodriguez is no longer the sole closer. Clippard did a bang-up job on Tuesday night, and I suspect we could see Burnett in there in situations where the opposition has some LH batters coming to the plate. I'll also make this prediction: Henry Rodriguez will be a critical contributor for the Nats this season -- just probably not in the ninth inning.

What will you be watching for in the 3 game series vs. Atlanta? Looks like a good battle: Nats strength (pitching) vs. Atl's strength (hitting), Nats weakness (hitting) vs. Atl's weakness (pitching).

Should be a great series, even though the Braves are on the verge of getting swept by the Reds. I never expected the Braves to be such an offensive juggernaut, as they were early in the season, and maybe we're seeing some regression to the mean, as Kilgore likes to say, since they have scored only nine runs in their last five games.

I am excited to read opera and opera fashion posts in this sports chat.....nice diversity. Do you wear opera pumps and sock garters with your tuxedo when you go to the opera?

I have two little kids, so I don't really go to the opera anymore -- or to the movies or the jazz clubs or even out to dinner. I watch a lot of "Dora the Explorer."

Beating Roy Halladay in Philly doesn't count as a "meaningful game?" Seriously? How quickly we get spoiled.


One good rough measure of a player's baserunning, and his overall offensive impact for that matter, is the oldest one in the book. In 24 games, he has 16 runs scored, tied with LaRoche for 4th on the team.

Well, there you go.

In baseball, unlike in football, you can't identify a "meaningful game" until after the season is over. If the Nats had won Wednesday and lost Monday, the W-L records would still be the same, the Phillies would still be in last place and the Nats in first. As Earl Weaver said, "This ain't football. We do this every day." (Well, Earl said it with more profanity, but you get the drift.) Start worrying about "meaningful games" in October. The way things are going, Hamels might not even be pitching in a "meaningful game."

And speaking of Hamels, don't the Phillies absolutely have to sign him to a long-term extension? Like, now? Hamels and Carlos Ruiz are the only things keeping the Phillies afloat right now.

The thing that most amazes me about Bryce Harper is how his batting stance has changed in just one year. He no longer has the high leg kick and everything seems more under control, was this the Nats doing or did Harper do it himself?

The Nationals have worked at length with Harper on his swing -- basically streamlining it. But the thing that impresses me the most about him so far is his plate discipline. He has come a loooooong way in this department since a year ago this time. You used to be able to get him to chase breaking balls outside the zone, especially if you were a lefty. But now, I see him spitting on those pitches. Eleven walks in 24 games -- that's what impresses me about Harper.

How many Nats should make the All-Star team? Strasburg, Gonzalez and LaRouche. Is that too many? Could Desmond get a bit hotter and make it?

That sounds about right. Desmond could still sneak in there. And I have a hunch Burnett may be on the radar as well. All-star managers have been adding bullpen specialists to their rosters in recent years, and Burnett has been nails this year.

Two of my great loves! So glad you're here, Dave. I was thinking--what opera characters do the Nationals remind you of? I can definitely see Henry Rodriguez as Sparafucile or as Barnaba from La Gioconda. Only Tyler Clippard could be Papageno (unless Werth shaved his beard and cut his hair. . .) The Zimms are definitely the stalwart hero types--Seigfried, Lohengrin, Tamino, Rhadames, etc. Morse as Manrico or the lead guy from Gioconda--anyway, some kind of pirate/rebel. Espinosa as the hero of Elisir D'Amore. If I think of any more, I'll add them. Gio should also be the hero of a comic opera--no tragedy for him! Espinosa could be Figaro.

Wow, this is rich. I looooove the Morse-as-Manrico thing. You nailed that one. How about Harper as the Duke of Mantua? Storen as Rodolfo?

Backing up to get a running start? Or just backing up?

Just backing up. I mean, I don't think it's any surprise the way they're playing. This was a bad team, and Theo Epstein knew exactly what he was getting into. I really believe the Cubs have no hope of contending until they're out from under the Soriano contract. Of couse, that's easier said than done. He's under contract through 2014 and is absolutely untradeable.

Clearly, HRod has not yet mastered the mental challenges that go with closing. But, surely, there is also something mechanical going awry when he gets so wild. Do you know if the Nats coaching staff is approaching his difficulties from this angle at all?

I'm certain the Nats are approaching it from ALL angles with HRod. It's really simple -- he just needs to throw strikes. When he's in (or around) the strike zone, he's untouchable.

If so, do you think both he and Harper could win rookie of the year?

No, Strasburg is no longer considered a rookie. But obviously, Harper is -- and I think Harper is definitely in the mix for Rookie of the Year, despite the somewhat late start he got. Right now, I'd say Arizona's Wade Miley (5-1, 2.14 ERA) is the frontrunner in the NL, but Harper has to be right behind him.

Opera Sing-Speaking to your kids can be a tremendous weapon when they are getting ornery on ya. Takes them totally off-guard, distracts them from their focus on battle of wills, etc. Of course, over time it can lose it's effectiveness. But used judiciously, it is a fantastic tool to have in your belt! (And, it might even get them semi-into opera!)

I'm fully aware of this. In fact, when people ask me if I still sing opera, I always answer, "Only to punish my kids." There's nothing quite like a ringing high C to bring a room full of noisy kids to a stop. (OK, well, my C's aren't what they used to be, so maybe a B-flat.)

If Burnett has been nails this year, what's Craig Stammen been - a railroad spike? He's the one who should go to the All-Star Game.

True enough.

Phils resigning Hamels? Sure they "need" to. But can they afford it? They already have $104M committed to 6 players - Halladay, Utley, Howard, Papelbon, Rollins and Lee. Plus Pence made >$10M this year and he's arbitration eligible. So, let's say that they are at $115M for 7 players. I don't think that they can fit him in their budget....

Yeah, they're going to have a hard time finding room in their budget. They can't keep everybody, and they seem to have made their choices already. But the Phillies have found ways to be creative in the past with payroll, and I have to believe they are working to find a way to keep Hamels.

To the fan who asked best way to see it: I recommend the Met in HD theater broadcasts--you can see the facial expressions, and as longtime Met subscriber I can tell you that the productions nowadays seem to be more geared to how they will look on the broadcast than you they will look on stage. Also, all singers sound pretty good over the audio system, even those who are criticized for not having a big enough voice to fill a big house like the Met. The one thing you do miss is the spine-tingling experience of hearing a really great voice live (you'd never know how huge Stephanie Blythe's voice is!) but you can work up to that once you get more comfortable with attending performances.

Yeah, I've never seen one of those HD theater shows, but I hear they're great.

What do things look like in the division for the next few years? We know all of the Nats key pieces are young, mostly cheap, and are locked up for the next few years. We also know the Philies are old, expensive, and are also locked up for the next few years. What about New York, Atlanta, and Florida?

I'm not being a homer when I say the Nationals are the best-positioned team in the NL East for long term success. No other team in the division has as good and deep of a young core. Atlanta probably comes closest. Everyone in baseball knew that once the Nats arrived, they were going to stick around for awhile. The only question was when.

How do you explain how a pitcher can be FANTASTIC in AAA but a Disaster with the Big Club (Maya) or Horrible in AAA and Decent on the big club (Lannan)? I'm a huge Lannan Fan and I think his issues in AAA are a mental block for being sent down. BTW, when is Opera in the Outfield?

There are a million of those types of players. There's even a name for them -- "Four-A" or "AAAA" players. (And I'm not saying Lannan is one of them. He's unquestionably an accomplished big league pitcher who happens to be stuck at AAA.) Only thing I can say is what scouts tell me, which is that the jump from AAA to the majors is the biggest jump in all of 0rganized baseball.

OK folks, gotta run. It's been an absolute pleasure. Hope to do it again before too long. Bye bye.

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Dave Sheinin
Dave Sheinin is the national baseball writer for The Washington Post.
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