Nationals Baseball

Monday, July 06, 2015

Monday Quickie

I'm in and out this week so forgive any short post you may see.

Nats are good. The rest of the east is bad. The only question right now is if the Mets can hold on over the next few weeks (thanks All-Star break) so those series of 6 games between the 20th of July and the 2nd of August matter (for the Nats - they'll likely matter for the Mets in some way). Strasburg's injury doesn't help (he looked fairly strong before it) but the Nats can cover one SP injury. It's two that kind of sets the mouse trap of losing in motion. I'd rather see Ross than Roark if Stras isn't expected to be gone long but either will work.

The offense still isn't together, nor should it be with Werth, Zimm and Rendon out. This is just a waiting game and then a watching game to see if those guys are any good after coming back. I'm not enthused based on how they were playing before but at least there is hope as opposed to a "maybe people who aren't good will get magically good" that other teams might have to rely on.

I could still see a move for a relief pitcher (won't happen because they aren't crashing and burning right now, Rizzo can't take on salary, won't part with pieces for a rental, sees RP as fungible) or a bat (won't happen because it's too expensive piece wise). The Nats are winning and can take the East will little help so I don't expect them to bother. Instead the injury returns will serve as the added pieces. Will that be smart? Don't know.


Thursday, July 02, 2015

Doug Fister

Fister was important to last year's Nats team, pitching very well.  Fister is a free agent after this year and all indications are that he is going.

No one seems to care.

Other than the "and Fister is really good" tag lines that follow discussions with anyone that half-follows the Nats, there is rarely any one talking about him. Why is that? Is it because he has only been here a year? Is it because he didn't turn down the Nats, they turned down him (or at least stopped talking to him)? I just find it curious that's all.

But really it's helpful because the Nats should not resign Doug Fister.  He'll be 32 next year. He's pitched one full season in the last three. His FB speed and strike out rates have been on a steady decline since 2012. Coming into this year he was a bad bet for anything more than a 2 year contract in my opinion.

Of course the question then for Nats fans is not is he going to be ok the next couple of years, it's is he going to be ok in 2015.  And... well I don't know.

Those concerning things coming into this year have all reared their ugly heads. He's been injured again. His FB speed is way down. His K rate is down again among the lowest of starters. Along with that his HR rate is up, his walk rate is up and his bread and butter, getting guys to hit ground balls, yeah that's not happening as much this year. 54.3% GBs in 2013, 48.9% GBs in 2014, 41.4% so far this year.

Of course it's only been 10 starts and this is only his third post injury return. He could just be revving up. Or he could have gone over the cliff we've mentioned occasionally with him.

What else can we say...
He's getting hit harder (Hard% 25.7% last year, 30.8% this year), they are pulling the ball more (40.9% -> 46.6%), he's relying on his FB was more than he used to (50.7% -> 63.7% -> 70.3%) , guys are making more contact (86.8% -> 88.8%) and missing the ball less in general (8.2% -> 6.1% -> 5.3%).

Basically it's mostly explainable by the lack of FB speed. He's throwing an easier to hit ball and guys are hitting it, harder. However some of these trends are more than just last year to this year. Why didn't we see more problems last year? Well he got guys to hit balls weaker, on the ground more, and had a better defense behind him. He may not have missed bats but he made their contact bad. Whether that was movement or pitch sequence, I don't know.

One thing I can tell you is that he's not leaving the ball up more often. He is more down in the zone than he might have ever been. Is he being too consistent and not spreading the ball around? Is he not being as good at pounding certain spots that worked before (outside to lefties, insider or low and away to righties)? That's possible but why fewer groundballs? I'm still thinking it's a speed thing, not a location one.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

A tale of two FAs

We're getting dreadfully close to entering the dog days of summer early, aren't we? That's not really a complaint. The Nats' pitching rotation has come back to life carrying the rest of the uneven injury prone talent to first place and slowly pulling away from the rest of the maybe completely not good NL East. If the Nats don't stumble soon, I just don't see how the season can break any other way than winning the division.

That NL East sucking might be a topic you are tired of but it is probably going to be a sticking point for the rest of the year. The Nats are clearly good, dozens of prognosticators aren't wrong, but how good are they? Are they very good or are they just very good in comparison? Unless the Nats start dominating the non NL East competition (they are below .500 against them right now) this is going to hang over their heads until the playoffs. (And it'll be decided by the playoffs even though that's completely not a fair way to do it, win or lose)

But what are you going to do? The Nats have to deal with the hand that has been dealt to them so if they win the pot, we can't worry too much about whether they won it with a pair of 10s or with a flush. At least we can't worry about it in early July.  We'll look at the team come the All-Star break, see where they could improve through moves (even though none will probably take place). We'll look at the team come September and see how they are setting up for the playoffs. Until then we wait. (Hopefully - injuries can derail the best of trains)

Last night was a microcosm of the season for Jordan Zimmermann (7.2IP, 6 H 6K, 0BB last night) and Ian Desmond (0-4 4Ks), who both refused big, but below market, deals from the Nats in order to cash in on upcoming free agency. We should bear them no ill-will for these decisions as they both did what anyone would do. Not "trying to get paid!" but "trying to get paid fairly". However, things have fallen apart for Ian, while ZNN seems in line to get a big deal

Ian Desmond had a bad start to the season hitting .211 / .279 / .316 in his first 24 games. Really that isn't far off the typical off month for Ian but it was coupled with a crazy 9 errors in his first 20 games. It's harder to ignore an poor hitting month when you hurt the team in other ways too.  The next 24 games were actually really good for Ian (.309 / .337 / .495 with 4 errors) but hardly anyone noticed for several reasons. As far as the middle infield was concerned, Yunel Escobar had a fast start and continued to hit, while Danny was surprising everyone with his comeback. Mostly though Bryce turned into a monster and overshadowed everyone. So the "oh ok Ian is back to being normal" that should have happened never did. As soon as Bryce returned to mere mortal status, and we could pay attention to everyone else, Ian floundered again. That's actually putting it lightly. Ian started the worst slump of his career. He's hit .149 / .187 / .248 in the past 27 games. He may be righting the ship (he hit .123 / .163 / .173 for the first 22, .250 / .286 /.550 in the past 5), and his error clip has been normal the past 50+ games. but at this point as far as Nats fans are concerned he stunk, they looked away, and when they looked back he still stunk.  They are ready for a replacement. Difo and Turner are theoretical replacements and Rendon being healthy looms over the MI.

It's a difficult spot for Ian. I don't see any reason why he shouldn't get to play through it. His bat, if right, would be more influential than Danny (who's been slumping) or Yuney (who's been lucky) and the team should be comfortably ahead. But if the Nats want to prepare for a post-Ian world, why not sit him? Because it would show all your FAs to be and possibly coming in how you treat players? Possibly, but FAs are 99% motivated by money, so it's a small worry. Short of it - Ian better right himself before Rendon is back or he may not get that chance. He'll still make money, but the huge deal we thought he might get will have faded away.

As for ZNN everyone talked about his FB speed to begin the year. I wasn't sure why everyone cared that much. Sure it was slow, but outside a disastrous outing in Boston he still pitched well. Isn't that what matters most?  Well, as far as that's concerned it's been climbing ever since. Is it still down on the past few years? Yes. But it was almost 2 MPH slower in April, to a mile and a half slower in May, to less than a mile slower in June. Consequently we see the one worry area of his pitching (the K/9 numbers being low) getting better each month. Maybe this tells Jordan something about his Spring Training approach that needs to change as he ages but I have few worries about his arm. I have no worries about his ability to pitch. His control is as good as ever. His ability to keep the ball in the park is still great. The K's give him ace potential but even without it he's still a top of the rotation type pitcher. (Even shaking off rust he's 28th in the NL in ERA).

Short of it - Jordan is going to get paid. Of the deep FA class Samardzjia, Fister, and Latos are all having off years so far. Fister, Latos, and Cueto all have injury questions hanging over them. Cueto and Samardzjia could be dealt and in this day and age teams are more likely to wrap up acquisitions than go for 1 year rentals. This leaves Price, Greinke and ZNN as the likely top of the class. You really never know what Greinke will do but personally I'd be surprised if he leaves LA. He's pitched very well there after a mildly disappointing stint in Milwaukee. Price has a decent chance to stay in Detroit. Worst case ZNN ends up 4th on a list of FA guys, but the way I see it he'll likely be one of the top 2 available. That's a dump truck full of money situation.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

What happened in June

It was the worst of times, it was the best of time. June was a schizophrenic month in a schizophrenic year for the Nats. The first part of the month continued a losing streak that started a few days into May. They would go 3-8 those first 12 days of June (3-11 overall on the streak) to drop them from up a 1.5 to down the same (yes that means the Mets went 6-5 ish during this time - again hooray for this division). Then the Nats turned it on and before the 2nd double header loss they go 11-3 to get right back to the 9 games over they were a month ago. Ah symmetry

Offensively we've talkd before about the odd distribution of scores and how their standing (currently 2nd in the NL in runs scored) isn't quite reflective of the performance on the field. I think it comes down to Werth and Zimmerman being hurt then out, and Rendon being out then hurt. Without these guys in the line-up the Nats become a very free-swinging team. Moore, Ramos, Taylor, Yuney, Ian all have walk-rates in the lower half of the majors. Espinosa is seeing his walk-rate drop like a rock. This leaves Bryce and Span as the only two players right now who can work their way on base.  Also without these guys hitting like they should when healthy, the team loses a lot of power. Moore, Taylor*, Yuney, Ian (hey that sounds familiar) aren't hitting for much pop. Again Danny, who had been good before, is dropping here too. Ramos here takes the place of Span (who is having exactly the type of power month you'd be afraid he'd have after he started out with so much pop in the bat - 4 doubles and nothing else closing in on 100 PA)

What this all means is that the Nats offense right now is dependent on a lot of base hits strung together and Bryce Harper. That's not terrible because these guys are hitting for average Yuney is at .324, Span at .305, Rendon at .290, Robnison at .272 in limited play, but you can see why the offense will bounce around a lot. Walks provide stability in base-runners when luck (or great fielding) is working against you. Power provides stability in run driving in the same situations. Without those working for the Nats we're going to keep seeing peaks and valleys, depending on how many guys are hot/lucky or cold/unlucky at the same time. Now if we can get Rendon healthy again and Werth and/or Zimm back and hitting...

Pitching wise - hopefully June is the month where the Nats rotation turnes the corner.  I don't think I have to tell you anything more here, but what the hell. One of the hallmarks of the Nats last year was control. Remember they had that long stretch without giving up a walk or something like that. In June we saw that again, Fister (0.73 BB/9),  Ross in 3 starts (0.89), Max (0.93), ZNN (1.44), Stras in 2 (1.50) all had superior numbers. When you couple that with either low HR/FB rates or high K/9 rates (or both) you get superior pitching. Will it last? I have no issues with Max or ZNN.  Strasburg and Fister warrant closer attention, as would anyone coming back from injury but so far so good. I worry most about Gio, as his K-rate has dropped significantly and his BB-rate hasn't fallen with it. His saving grace is that he's become a complete Derek Lowe type GB pitcher all of a sudden. In theory, he'll give up runs, that'll happen with baserunners and a lot of balls in play, but won't get killed that often. It's working now but such a total change strikes me as odd. I hope he can pull it off but I'm not buying it just yet.

Bullpen? Work in progress. Let's see if Matt can settle into a rhythm by the All-Star break. At least we can rely on Storen

*OK Moore sucks, but where did Taylor's power go?

Monday, June 29, 2015

Monday Quickie - hanging around

1 0 2 1 1 0 2 2

Those were the runs given up by the Nats during their 8 game win streak.

1 0 0 0 0 0 2 2

Those were the runs given up by the Nats' starters during the same stretch

Gonna win a lot of games when you pitch like that.

The only real complaint I have about the weekend was the use of Roark as the spot starter. Roark started the year and the "emergency - break glass" guy who could take over if a starter went down for a few weeks. Right now though that spot has to go to Joe Ross. Not because Ross is guaranteed that much better a pitcher, but because Roark is being used and is needed elsewhere. What if you need an arm just for one day and you don't want to through Ross off kilter? Use whoever. Just don't start Roark and effectively make him unusable for 3-4 games.

I can see stretching him out again if, god forbid, two starters are out again for extended periods of time. He's better than the AAAA Jordan or the not quite ready Cole. But otherwise? Roll the dice with anyone else.

Meanwhile the Mets are hanging around, taking four in a row. It doesn't concern me in a "Look out! Here comes the Mets!" way. It's more of a way to keep the Nats on their toes and a reminder that this year's Mets are better than last year's Braves. A healthy Nats team should still win the division easily, but a banged up Nats team with the healthy guys playing below expectations? That team at least has to worry about luck and timing working against them - as you saw over the first 60 games or so.  If the Mets make a move and the Nats take another big injury? Things change. But just as easily it could work in reverse and the Nats would be on cruise control.

Starting tomorrow the Nats can pretty much end Atlanta's division hopes before they hita series of tougher games heading into and then out of the All-Star break. San Fran, Cincy (not a good team but did sweep the Nats earlier), Baltimore, BREAK, Dodgers, Mets, Pittsburgh, Miami, Mets.  I don't get the sense that this team will put the pedal down, but I expect this week as they play Atlanta, SF, and Cincy that they'll put more room between them and the Mets (Cubs, Dodgers, Giants) and then it'll just be a matter of slowly pulling away from the Mets. We'll see how large those two Mets series loom when we get closer to them, tiny chance they are huge, better chance the first one is the Mets last gasp, small chance they barely matter at all.

Friday, June 26, 2015

It's still the pitching

Hot potato goes over to Scherzer again who has allowed 1 hit in 18 innings.

There isn't a good reason why this pitching dominance can't keep going on a little longer. The Nats are on a streak where they haven't faced a decent offense in a while. Milwaukee is bad, Tampa is bad, Pittsburgh is below average, Atlanta without Freeman is not good, and now Philadelphia, worst in either league.

Did I hear "Johnny VanderMeer"? (hopefully not because even no-hitting a bad team is extremely hard)

Six win in 7 days, it can't all be the starting pitching though, can it? Well, yeah it sort of can. The relief pitching has merely been ok, preserving Ross' game and a couple of blowouts, but giving up runs in three straight games including the two close ones with Atlanta. The offense managed some runs during this time but that included some error filled rallies.  You may be surprised there are as many Nats struggling at the plate over the last week (Desmond, Escobar, Espinosa, Span) and doing well (Rendon, Bryce, Taylor, Ramos).

The Rendon thing is the most exciting on the surface and the least believable when you dig in. Rendon has the ability to help Bryce put the team on their shoulders and carry the offense through dry spells. So seeing Rendon hit .583 in the past week is exciting. But he has only 1 XBH and is carrying a .700 BABIP, meaning this is more a function of balls finding holes than Rendon turning things on. In fact Rendon has been back 3 weeks now and has only 5 XBH all doubles. Bryce is Bryce - it curious that he hasn't walked in the past week (even forcibly) but let's give that more time before reading into it. Ramos is having some luck as well but really why I'm not getting excited over Wilson is that I want to see power from him and that switch hasn't been flipped yet.

So who am I excited by? Taylor.  The kid is hitting but more importantly, the kid isn't striking out. Only twice in the past week, none in the past 4 games. Michael Taylor may or may not be a good player. I can't tell you that. But what could keep him from being a useful player are the Ks. Strikeout too often and the average drops too low and it doesn't matter how decent his pop is or his speed on the basepaths. If he can keep putting the ball in play, I like his chances to be at the very least a useful replacement, if not probably more.

So I looked at the good hitters and tore them apart, can I build up the bad ones? Yeah sure. Ian, Yuney and Span are all suffering from various BABIP luck issues. In a week a single game can change a view (Ian went from terrible to just bad after yesterday's HR) but Span is working some walks which is good in his position ahead of the big hitters. Only Danny is truly doing badly and completely earning it but right before that - like really just the game before this past 7 day period, he was doing quite well, so worrying about him suddenly reverting to old Danny is an overreaction.

Hmm talked alot about that offense didn't I? With the pitching this good the offense just has to be ok and I don't have any fears that it can jump that modest hurdle, either instinctively or looking at how these guys are performing. So sweep the Phillies and let's get on with it.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

It's the pitching, stupid

Let's recap

Zimmermann 8 IP, 6 H, 0 BB, 3 K
Strasbrug 5 IP, 4 H, 1 BB, 6 K
Gonzalez 7 IP, 4 H, 2 BB, 4 K
Scherzer 9 IP, 0 H, 0BB, 10K
Ross 7.1 IP, 6 H, 1 BB, 11K

Combined 36.1 IP, 20H, 4BB, 34K and oh yeah 1 ER

That's an ERA of 0.25, a WHIP of 0.66, a BB/9 of 0.99, and a K/9 of 8.42

This is why the Nats were pre-season favorites.

We talked about it Monday but it's worth going over again. We figured the offense could struggle. We figured the bullpen could struggle. These things though, weren't the difference between a good team and a mediocre one. They were the difference between a great team and a good one. The reason "good" was the base (and I take that to be high 80s/ low 90s) was because of that pitching staff because let's just say you quasi-averaged the last two seasons for these guys

Max : 3.02 ERA, 1.074 WHIP (in AL)
ZNN : 2.96, 1.08
Stras : 3.08, 1.09
Gio : 3.45, 1.23
Fister : 3.12, 1.21

and let's say you tweak Max down a little for the shift and the rest up a little because you are a pessimist

Max : 2.90 ERA, 1.00 WHIP
ZNN : 3.10, 1.15
Stras : 3.20, 1.15
Gio : 3.60, 1.30
Fister : 3.50, 1.25

Outside of assuming perfect health, you've done nothing crazy here. There is no magical improvements or bounce backs to best years ever. Just their recent typical year, even downgraded a bit because you tend to do that as you age.

Here's where those numbers would rank now in NL ERA

Max : 9th
ZNN : 14th
Stras : 16th
Gio : 26th
Fister : 25th

and this is now where you have some oddly low ERAs that should rise. Even if you expand past qualified and let in some more ERAs based on like 40IP  you get 11th, 17th, 19th, 33rd, and 30th. You felt good about the Nats because if you were an optimist you had 3 #1 types and 2 #2s in your rotation. If you were a pessimist you broke it down as a #1, 2 #2s, and 2 #3s. Either way what you had was much better than what they had. 

The Nats were baseline good because of this. But when this went didn't materialize for various reasons - that assumed baseline dropped and if the hitting failed (like it kinda has) and the bullpen failed (like it kinda has) you were looking at a .500 team. Now though it looks like the baseline has re-established itself. They aren't perfect, they are coming back from injury, but there is an energy I'm feeling now, a "you can't stop us because if you happen to beat us tonight we'll shut you down tomorrow" that's building. If the Nats can get a 3-4 more very good to great performances in the next rotation turn I think the attitude takes a definitive shift.

The early season run was because Bryce had become a monster for a month. The team was carried by him but that carried with it the knowledge that if this one guy slowed down merely to very very good (like he did) the train would roll to a stop (like it did). This run that maybe starting is different. If one guy struggles the next guy in line is there to pick him up.  It's time to put these jokers in the rear view permanently. Sweep.

Notes

Why did I mock the NL East yesterday? Because two reasons (1) the NL East really does stinks. Sorry if that offends you, but it's true. There's no way to look at the records or numbers and come across with any other conclusion. If the Braves or Mets collapse we'll start the "worst division ever" discussions. This doesn't mean the Nats stink. It means they could get away with playing mediocre ball for almost 3 months and still find themselves in first. The Nats are a good to very good team, (I think we can agree that right now various issues keep them from having great potential) trying to find their way. Once they do (and I think they are right there) they'll trounce these clowns, and (2) I didn't want to right about what I was thinking which was - Strasburg comes back from injury, throws shutout ball and a chunk of Nats fans are talking about how the Braves offense stinks or how his off-speed was worrying. I honestly think there is a group out there who want to see Strasburg fail, if he can't be the awesome generation defining pitcher they thought he would be. And I hate that.  (Strasburg did what we all want to see pitchers do - find out what's working that night and work it as well as you can.)

Also - yeah the Yankees lost 2 in a row to the Phillies. It happens. The Nats got swept by the Reds. The Reds aren't better than the Nats. Hell, the Yankees aren't better than the Nats. I can admit that. If the Yankees finish with a better record than the Nats I'd be shocked. Now granted a big part of that is NL East. But I'd say that if they were tossed today into a neutral division.

Next time I'll warn you that I may offend your NL East loving sensibilities.