By Sean Burke
WASHINGTON—The Washington Nationals’ improved play through one-third of baseball’s regular season has spawned realistic expectations of their first postseason berth, and much of that can be credited to their use of the sport’s economics.
Thanks to a stockpile of draft picks (a plan implemented by former team president Stan Kasten), access to baseball’s luxury tax system and a complex formula called Sabermetrics, the Nationals have used it to their advantage. Washington has been no lower than second in National League East division, a testament to draft selections such as third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, pitcher Stephen Strasburg, outfielder Bryce Harper and trades for other key players.
While it remains to be seen how this plays out, their current standing is a good sign, especially with an extra wild card team added to the playoff picture.
“Using the luxury tax allows the Nationals to be a contender this year and grow up as long as the division allows it,” USA Today baseball columnist Paul White said.
While improvement could be expected considering consecutive No. 1 draft picks Strasburg and Harper have met expectations, Washington owes part of its early season success to Sabermetrics in assembling a supporting cast of pitchers and position players.
Developed during the 1950s, Sabermetrics chooses extensive statistical criteria such as on-base percentage and runs scored over traditional categories like batting average and runs batted in to determine a player’s monetary worth. Oakland Athletics general manager and co-owner Billy Beane coined the term “Moneyball” (popularized by Michael Lewis’ best-selling book and the 2011 movie starring Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill) to use the formula and the luxury tax to find cheap players.
The small-market Athletics used it well from 2000-03, reaching the American League playoffs each year despite one of baseball’s lowest payrolls. The Tampa Bay Rays for example use Sabermetrics for defensive shifts to force specific or key outs needed in games.
Many general managers, who formally dismissed it, now use statistics and ratings.
“Baseball is so traditional, so old-school, they’re almost afraid to do anything different from any other team” said USA Today’s White said.
The luxury tax was instituted in 2002, where teams exceeding the salary cap (currently $178 million) pay a tax into a pool that is redistributed to other lower-payroll teams. For example, the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox are annual contributors to the pool, allowing small-market teams such as the Pittsburgh Pirates to pay players or get lower-priced free agents.
Current Nationals Jordan Zimmerman or Ross Detwiler are examples of this system. Washington has also signed key free agents such as outfielder Xavier Nady and infielder Chad Tracy.
Right now, Washington’s draft picks are coming through. The question is whether the club will keep Strasburg on a 160-inning limit this season to prevent injury to his right pitching arm, which underwent Tommy John reconstructive surgery two years ago.
While removing him from the rotation is thought to possibly hurt the Nationals’ playoff chances, the organization is deep in pitchers and could promote several from its minor league system if it shuts down Strasburg. But their use of the luxury tax money, Sabermetrics and grass-roots team building has positioned them for their first serious playoff run in more than half a century.