Rozner: Nationals' Rizzo doesn't mind 'old-school' label

  • Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo talks with members of the media during the team's "Winterfest" baseball fan festival, Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020, in Washington.

    Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo talks with members of the media during the team's "Winterfest" baseball fan festival, Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020, in Washington.

Updated 3/30/2020 5:27 PM

• Last in a series

It is not cool to be a scout in today's baseball.


Wait, let us rephrase. Among those who yell the loudest, it's not cool to be a scout and actually attending games.

This isn't a knock on metrics or those who employ them as their main weapon. Far from it. There are plenty of championship rings on the fingers of those who have done it.

No, it's about those who believe that looking at players or getting to know them is a waste of time.

They don't much enjoy it when a Hall of Fame architect like Theo Epstein says there's no substitution for seeing players and getting to know them -- and everyone they've ever known.

And that's a man with a pile of rings who has employed computers better than anyone over the last 15 years.

It is, quite reasonably, a balance between the two schools.

But the metrics zealots use "old school" with decidedly pejorative overtones.

Nationals president of baseball operations Mike Rizzo is labeled as one of the few remaining old-school scouts in the game, yet there is some irony in Washington's World Series victory last fall.

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It was dubbed a win for old-school thinking, for scouting, great starting pitching, heart, character, loyalty and culture -- triggering words for the metrics community -- when there was more of an analytics backdrop than most will ever know.

That's because Rizzo doesn't feel the need to brag about who is crunching numbers when he's got two dozen former GMs, scouting directors, managers, coaches and players in his front office -- or on the road seeing players -- people who understand that there is more to the game than launch angle and spin rate.

Those numbers matter, but with apologies to the offended, they are not the only things that matter. Rizzo wants experienced men who get eyes on a player and find out who they are as individuals, and how they operate in a clubhouse.

"People describe us as old school," Rizzo said with a chuckle. "That's fine. To me it just means you respect the game. It means we conduct ourselves in a dignified way.


"There's no age limit on that. That doesn't go out of style. Win with pride, lose with pride. It sounds Pollyanna, but we want players here that believe the name on the front of the jersey is more important than the name on the back.

"Honestly, that's how I feel about building a team. You saw it last year."

Rizzo pointed to the number of veterans who were displaced throughout the season, or whose roles changed, as proof that you need the right type of person.

"Brian Dozier is a multiple-time all-star, a guy who's hit 40 home runs. Well, we go out and make a trade for Asdrubal Cabrera, and he played most of the time after that. Dozier didn't say a word. He didn't complain," Rizzo remembers. "Didn't matter if he went 4-for-4 or sat on the bench, he was as a good a team guy as you will ever see. And he was always prepared to play.

"Patrick Corbin is one of the best starting pitchers in the game. Had a great year for us. Well, in the playoffs we needed him out of the pen, too. Pitched 3 shutout innings in Game 7 of the World Series in relief. Pitched five times out of the pen for us. We don't win the World Series without him.

"Never said a word about it. Never said, 'I'm a starter. I don't do that.'

"Just two examples of 50 throughout the course of a season of guys doing things for the team and for each other.

"Lot of people thought we were too old or too beat up or too old school to win ... "

Rizzo didn't have to finish that sentence.

Now in his 38th year in professional baseball, the same number of years his late father, Phil, was a scout, Mike Rizzo's education has traversed the baseball landscape.

From unaccomplished minor-league player to coach to area scout to Diamondbacks scouting director to Nationals assistant GM and, of course, the man in charge in Washington the last 12 years.

The one certainty he learned at every stop and in every way is that if you have great starting pitching, you always have a chance.

This is considered radical in today's version of baseball, but Rizzo's Nats have won more games than any team except the Dodgers since 2012, when Rizzo's three-year, teardown-rebuild graduated to competing for titles.

"Everywhere I've been, it always seems to come down to starting pitching, whether it was my dad or (GM) Joe Garagiola Jr. in Arizona or my earliest coaches," Rizzo said. "Our first year as a franchise in Arizona (in 1998) we lose 97 games. The next year we get (Randy) Johnson and we win 100 games. Then we get (Curt) Schilling and we win the World Series (in 2001).

"It's not a coincidence. You have to have starting pitching and you need some veteran players who can anchor your offense. You need experienced players during the bad times. They've been through it. They know how to weather it.

"But if you have starting pitching, you give yourself a chance each and every day. Starting pitching is king."

It's not sexy, but it does have a certain ring to it.

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