Everybody in baseball knows the Washington Nationals are old-school.

Both president of baseball operations Mike Rizzo and manager Dave Martinez have a reputation for championing a more traditional perspective than most of their peers. And while the tandem, which delivered the franchise’s first title in 2019, remains respected by many across the sport, the Nationals have struggled to keep up with baseball’s technological arms race over the past half-decade, despite recent signs of progress.

But this spring training, the club took old-school to another level. Before camp commenced Feb. 14, signs that read “I don’t care how fast you throw ball four” were posted around the West Palm Beach facility’s bullpen area.

The signs were inspired by a wisecrack Rizzo himself made during an offseason panel and were erected at Rizzo’s direct request. But when The Washington Post’s Andrew Golden posted a picture of the signs on the first day of spring training, they immediately became a punchline across the baseball world.

“We were cracking up in the coaches room when we saw that,” a pitching-related employee with a team told Yahoo Sports.

“We are going with: ‘If you don’t throw strikes, you’re a stupid baby,’” a player development expert from another team joked.

One frustrated person inside the Nats organization simply called the signs “backward thinking.”

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Why all the blowback? At first glance, the signs are humorous, harmless and relatively inconsequential. When Rizzo delivered the original quip, the audience responded with a wave of laughter. So why are so many folks around the league literally rolling their eyes now?

“It’s so amateur that the Nats would choose that line of messaging,” one front office person explained. “Messaging like that should always be something positive.”

Case in point: If somebody tells you not to think about, say, Thanksgiving or Mount Everest or Jimi Hendrix’s performance of the national anthem at Woodstock in 1969, what pops into your head? If you see a sign behind your catcher’s target that’s essentially telling you not to throw ball four, what are you suddenly more likely to do?

Of course, many organizations have posters around their major- and minor-league stadiums that promote certain points of emphasis. The Mariners, for instance, have signs and T-Shirts that say “Dominate The Zone,” a phrase that highlights the same goal (throwing strikes), except in a positive and encouraging way.

But messaging aside, the Nationals’ signs are also factually incorrect.

In a phenomenal piece at FanGraphs, Davy Andrews explains that the quality of pitch outcomes is directly proportional to fastball velocity in every type of count (three-ball counts included). Rizzo, Andrews notes, wasn’t actually lobbying his hurlers to lob rainbows down the middle, but the signs communicate as much. Others around the league agree.

“I kinda care how hard I throw ball four,” one National League pitcher said.

“Let’s just say this. There’s a time and place for a walk,” an All-Star starter told Yahoo Sports.

And while the Nats posted the fourth-worst ERA in baseball (5.02) a year ago, their struggles had little to do with strike-throwing. Their hurlers located pitches in the strike zone at a league-average rate (42.0%). If you want to take the signs at face value, Washington’s pitchers ranked 20th in the league in average fastball velocity on ball four. That means 19 teams should, in Rizzo’s mind, care more than D.C. about how fast they throw ball four.

Rizzo told The Washington Post that he “didn’t want to be a smartass” but that “with one of the youngest teams in the league … and a young pitching staff, I wanted them to know that [throwing strikes] is important to the guy making the decisions on who’s making the team.”

But Jack Berry — founder of JB Performance, a progressive-minded pitching development company — laid it out plainly: “It’s not that their pitches are out of the zone. It’s that their stuff sucks, and it’s getting hit hard.”

Even though both Josiah Gray and MacKenzie Gore made meaningful strides last season, Nationals pitching had the third-highest hard-hit rate in baseball and the worst barrel rate — and they allowed the most home runs. Many members of the organization, Rizzo included, likely know this. The presence of high-tech pitch-tracking units next to the infamous signs signifies as much. And that juxtaposition — the forward-thinking literally alongside the regressive — makes this situation even more puzzling.

Let’s be clear: Nine words on a metal placard will not single-handedly sink this Nationals season or prevent the club’s pitching prospects from developing into impact big-leaguers. But both the motivations behind the signs and the messaging they promote are indicative that this organization remains behind the times.

Said a big-league coach on a team with a strong track record of pitching development: “We prefer to phrase things with positivity.”

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