Old Dogs and New Tricks in DC
The season flies past like a train gathering speed as it leaves the station. The cold spring days are a memory and the ball is starting to carry in the early summer heat. Mookie Betts and Cory Seager are etching their names into the list of young sluggers to be taken seriously, but in Washington it is the old guys who are carrying the team.
Dusty Baker appeared to make the move to slide Daniel Murphy into the clean-up spot for the Washington Nationals reluctantly. Ryan Zimmerman was the franchise player for Washington from the time he could drink legally until the 2014 season. By the time he was 29 Zimmerman had eight years of superlatives under his belt, but for the past two seasons he was hurt as often as not. In the first month of the 2016 season, he was struggling to hit effectively behind Bryce Harper and it was hurting the team and the kid.
Harper took up in April where he left off in September 2015, but then the Phillies decided it was suicide to pitch to him and in a series in late April they walked him five times in 13 plate appearances. Other teams began refusing to pitch to him as well, since with Ryan Zimmerman next in the order–hitting a lusty .219/.301/.301 for the month–why pull the trigger with a loaded gun? The month of May continued apace although Zimmerman had a multi-homer game on May 10. Then on May 17 against the Mets, Dusty Baker made the switch. Murphy was hitting .399 and Zimmerman .237 and Harper was in a slide as he started to lunge at balls outside the zone in order to get anything to swing at.
Harper’s average slid to .241 and for four weeks starting in late April he had only two home runs. And then a funny thing happened. Ryan Zimmerman found his mojo and for the month of May he hit .262 with seven long ones and 17 RBI. He was feasting behind Murphy and the Nationals were winning without Harper being a monster presence in the attack.
Tom Boswell had a nice piece analyzing the new Daniel Murphy. Murphy has moved six inches closer to the plate and is hitting in a more pronounced squat so that he makes contact with the ball from a lower angle. He has gone from an extreme ground ball hitter, one who found the gaps regularly, to one who is an extreme fly ball hitter who founds the left field bleachers regularly. The idea of him hitting 20+ home runs and batting above .300 for the season seam realistic at this juncture.
Sure, the Nationals lucked into the three-year deal with Murphy for $37.5 million after Brandon Phillips left them standing at the altar. But the fans in Washington are doing nothing except celebrating a middle of the order that can compete with Detroit and just about anyone. Brandon Who?
Like Zimmerman, Murphy is no spring chicken as baseball lifetimes go. Both are 31 years old and both will hopefully be hitting effectively behind Harper for several more seasons, because it presents a formidable middle of the order if they can remain healthy.
And it is good to see the elderkind prosper. No doubt they have been pulling up their Stickley rockers in front of the tube to watch Ian Desmond in Texas. The former Nationals shortstop is tearing a new hole through the American League pitching. Called in mid-April, the worst player in the Majors, Desmond is now one of the best outfielders in either league who can run them down in center field as well as anyone and is hitting .310/.356/.486 with 11 stolen bases.
One has to ask the question as to why Desmond suffered such a long and miserable season in 2015 in Washington. How could hitting coach Rich Schu leave him flailing for so long last season? What difference can a hitting coach make anyway? Well, for starters, Daniel Murphy credits Mets hitting coach Kevin Long with adjusting his swing. How much does Desmond credit Texas hitting coach Anthony Iapoce with helping him cut down on the strikeouts and make more consistent contact?
If Bryce Harper’s struggles continue for much longer, Rick Schu may be the last of the holdovers from the old regime to look for new pastures outside DC. Brian Daubach managed Harper in Hagerstown and other minor league stops along his development path and is now the hitting coach for Nationals AAA-affiliate in Syracuse. Mike Maddux has been a nice change of pace for Washington pitching and it might be time to see if someone different can do the same for the offensive attack in DC.
Wilson Ramos had lasik surgery and is hitting .342/.386/.542. Change is good and even old dogs can learn new tricks.