Nationals Baseball

Friday, August 29, 2014

Zimm, Bryce, and the here and now

It's kind of strange to be talking about the future with a month plus left in the season like I have been the past couple days. Really though, it's the Nats fault. Outside the usual "this guy is slumping, is it going to last" questions, what do we have to talk about going into the final month of the season? There's the playoff rotation... ok I can hear some of you screaming DO NOT TALK ABOUT THE PLAYOFFS!!! but seriously? The Nats just lost 3 games for the first time in months and their lead dropped to 6 games, better than all but one other division lead.  If this hypothetical Braves run to a division title is sparked mainly by their own amazing play, while the Nats play average baseball, then the Wild Card would still be a likely outcome given that the Cardinals and the Giants would have to play very good baseball to catch them.

Think of it like that - if the Nats play average baseball the rest of the way the Braves have to be great the rest of the way to pass them, and the Giants AND the Cardinals have to be very good (or I suppose the Pirates could be great).  That's a lot of unlikelies thrown together.

More worrisome would be the Nats play terrible, because then all those teams could play to more normal levels to pass the Nats. That's really what you are saying when you say not to look to the playoffs. You are worried that the Nats will reel off, for no good reason like injury or schedule or strife, their worst 30 game stretch of the year right now, allowing the Braves to catch and pass them with a good September, and the Cardinals/Giants to beat them for the WC with average ones. Could it happen? Sure. But as I said in the comments - for every famous collapse you can quote I can give you 4-5-10 teams that didn't. The fact that it could happen means we don't call it, but we can start to look to September to answer some questions because if you don't do it now there isn't a two week exhibition season prior to the playoffs to figure it out.

Anyway - back to the topic at hand.  We could talk about the rotation but that's going to be played to death by the end of September or whenever Williams makes a decision.  You know my thoughts going into the month - the 4 best pitchers should start regardless of IP or handedness. Really the only team that is leaps and bounds worse vs LHP is the Pirates, who probably won't make it. The Dodgers are a little worse but I don't want a questionable Gio facing Puig, Kemp, & Hanley do you? No, four best.

Anything else? Clip's struggles would play into that "slumping" category... we can wrangle out a couple.

What to do with Ryan Zimmerman?

He should be healthy in September. If he comes back, the Nats can do four things with him.
  1. Sit him - The Nats are a perfectly good team without him and who knows how long it will take him to get his swing back.  Of course if he is fine he's certainly a better hitter than some guys in the lineup he could replace and he is the best of that non-Werth/LaRoche group at taking walks. 
  2. Start him at 1st, platooning with LaRoche - LaRoche is pretty terrible versus lefties (.197 / .291 / .299) so at the plate it makes sense, but the Nats are convinced that LaRoche is a key defender. On GBs I can affirmatively tell you that's not the case. LaRoche can't move. When's the last time you remember a diving LaRoche stopping something? But on throws? Maybe. Zimmerman could be better, should be better, but is really a big question mark since he's been playing primarily LF. If he isn't ready for 1st, you don't want to find out during a playoff game.
  3. Start him at 3rd - Rendon goes to 2nd removing probably the weakest offensive player, Cabrera, from the lineup. This gives you the strongest line-up overall but brings back the Zimmerman at 3B issues. He's altered his throws in a way that might be able to compensate, but he's not comfortable and no one fully trusts him. With Rendon playing the position well enough why mess with it?
  4. Start him in LF - Now this could be a platoon with Bryce thing - which wouldn't make sense as Bryce has actually been fine versus lefties this year - but it remains out there. We'll talk about it later. The other way this could work is a Bryce to CF and sit Span thing. Again, makes your offense better because Zimm is better than Span, but Span plays a critical role compensating for Werth's declining range. Move Bryce, who is passable in LF but not great, to CF and the OF defense takes a big hit. Not to mention what sitting Span would do to Williams' mind line-up wise. 
There isn't an easy answer here unless either Zimm can't comeback, or he does comeback the Nats do #3 or #4 and he just kills the ball in September.

Will Bryce face tough lefties in the playoffs? 

For a while there it seemed like Bryce was sitting versus lefties regularly.  Whether that was the truth or not, it no longer is. In August he sat twice, both versus Cole Hamels, and started against every other lefty (Miley, Locke, Neise and Wood I think). So he's facing lefties now, but sitting versus the hard ones.  In the playoffs though, usually the talent is upped so all the pitchers you are facing are hard ones. My guess will be yes he will face all the lefties, part of the Hamels sit was because Hairston hits him well, but I think a big indicator will be when the Nats face Kershaw in the upcoming Dodgers series.

This is not to say you can't sit Byrce. You can. I don't like it. I don't think it's a good idea, but I get where it's coming from. But you can't sit Bryce versus lefties before you sit LaRoche, that just flat out makes no sense. Let's see what happens in LA.

Is Blevins demoted to LOOGY/Mop-up status?

Blevins can't face righties in a big spot. The evidence this year is too strong to risk it. Yet it keeps happening. I'd love to see this stop in September.

Any other non-rotation questions sitting out there?

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Ian Desmond and the future

We'll get back to the Braves Nats when it's 5.0 games... maybe 5.5. For now let's talk about Ian Desmond

Last night Kilgore noted  Ian was three steals away from his third straight 20SB/20HR season. It's true and it helps explain why Ian Desmond is a key piece to the Nats future... potentially.  He's a steady presence of power (and speed) in a position that doesn't lend itself to power. In the past 3 years Ian has hit 66 homers. The next best SS (Hanley) hit 56, the 5th best (Rollins) hit 46, and by the time you get to the 10th best you are talking about SS with half the homer power of Ian. He's a unique player and young enough that it's not too hard to expect he'd be near the top of this list for another 3 years. He hasn't signed long term yet but he seems to like it here, the fans want him here, and the Nats really need a SS because their minors is lacking in the MI dept. There's one problem.  Well two problems really.

The first problem is that Ian will be disproportionately expensive to sign, meaning you will get less from him than would be expected given how much you are paying him.  This is a problem contenders often face. To go from bad to ok isn't expensive, to go from good to great is. Teams need to get a little better, or reduce the variability of performance a little, but there aren't many places to do that if you are already good. So they spend more money than would theoretically be necessary in order to make this improvement. Usually it's the "3 years, 15 mill for a reliever!?" situation, but some long-term player signings fit the bill as well.

The Lerners haven't shown much interest in these kinds of signings. The good news for Ian is that both times when they have done it, it's been with position players (Werth and Zimm). The bad news for Ian is that so far those haven't worked out great. Werth has been worth it the past two years, but robbed the Nats in those first two and has got three more years in his late 30s at even more money. Zimmerman was doing well at 3rd base even though he never got back to star status, but injuries and arm troubles make the team worried that they'll be paying 14 mill a year for a part-time LF.  Of course neither of these are a surprise for someone who follows a perennial contender. You sign a long term deal with the idea that you are paying for the first half of the contract. The back half is lost money you hope to luck into. It's a terrible way to run a business but as a way to get results? It works, if you can afford it. The Lerners can definitely afford it but considering they just placed a bean-counter high up in the organization, they used the phrase "topped out" earlier in the year... well you get the idea.

The second problem is that Ian is declining. The K% which ticked up last year, has made a full jump this season. He's always been prone to the K, his former rates would put him around the top 25% of all players, but he was saved by the jump in his power. That made him an very good hitter despite being a bit strikeout prone (and not much of a walker).  Now though with this big increase (he's 7th in the majors) the average has dropped accordingly and his power can't keep him a very good hitter. He's merely ok overall. He has seen his walk rate go up but not nearly enough to help.

What's going on? Something kind of scary. He's not really swinging at more bad pitchers. He's always been a bit of a free-swinger and his swing % out of the zone has been worse than what we see this year. The problem is he's having a problem making contact when he does swing. The number of swinging strikes is on the rise and the contact rates are all dropping. So it doesn't seem to be a recognition issue. He sees inside and outside the zone as he has before. He just can't hit the balls. Is it the pitch type he's seeing? Maybe. He is seeing more curves and less changes but there isn't a single pitch you can pick out and say "oh he's always hit that" or "he's never hit that" since 2012. So... I don't know.

Homework assignment : find out if this contact rate drop at this age is telling of a greater problem or not. If it's something that gets worse then Ian is a few years from being done. The average will drop enough that he will no longer be a positive at the plate (unless he can magically start walking a ton or hitting even more homers). If it stabilizes... well Ian should probably be fine for a while. There's no reason he can't hit 20-25 homers for the next 3-5 years and that's enough to make him a good hitting SS. If he doesn't lose range in a hurry that's worth a deal. Or maybe, just maybe, it's often a blip. Something that corrects itself and leaves Ian able to be that very good hitter he was before. I'm not betting on that, but you gotta leave that option open.

 The Nats undersold Ian with their 6/90 deal before the season. That was too little for a top defensive shortstop who was arguably the best offensive player at his position, 28 years old or not. But after this year? 6/90 sounds about right. That's a lot of money but for a reliable fielding SS who can hit 20+ homers a year? It's fair.  To give Ian more would be betting on a reversal. 

I'll be interested to see where this goes in the offseason. A re-offer by the Nats should be taken by Ian. He's not the player he was post-2013. Will the Nats offer that though? They undersold last year, so perhaps they come at Ian with 5/65 now? If they do that they put Ian in a similar situation as last year. It's not close to what he can get on the open market. However, going into 2015 he'd be coming off a year where he potentially cost himself money by not signing. Would he make that same bet on himself again?

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Somehow this turned into a LaRoche post

Nats lost last night. Again.

But like I said the other day a loss for the Nats is a minor annoyance. As long as the night doesn't end with the Nats loss / Braves win combination, it's actually an overall win for the Nats. The Nats remain X games ahead and the Braves lose a game in which they could possibly come back. Unless you are obsessed with NLCS home field advantage, today is a good day.

The offense is going through one of it's dry spells. Can I take a moment to call out my own private MASN commenters, those that love Denard Span? Again going over all the caveats - Span should start, Span should be re-signed, overall Span makes the team better because he fields and runs well - I'd like to point out this:

34 games from July1-Aug10 : .399 / .462 / .464
97 other games : .259 / .304 / .372 

Why is it I'm called out as if I'm waiting for the brief moment Span does bad (hitting .226 / 262 / .290 in the last 15 games), when it's pretty obvious it's the opposite? I'm using a much bigger sample to come to my conclusion that the "eh Span" is the real Span. He does get super hot at times (so the 97 numbers aren't 100% fair either) but for the most part is a mediocre singles hitter. This isn't me. This is his last 2800 plate appearances talking. He may have a slightly better overall year in 2014. That's great! But don't try to turn that into him being a good offensive hitter.

A far more reasonable "How good IS he" question is the one regarding with Adam LaRoche because he's been all over the place since 2009. This is crucial to figure out because he's up for a 3rd year option. 

Looking at OPS+ you'd probably default to him being a 120+ OPS player which is good to very good.  He was that in 2009, 2012, and this year. 2011 is easily ignored as an injury lost year so you only have to reconcile the more mediocre 2010 season (under the free-swinging D-backs influence is how I'd do it) and 2013 (ummmmmm).

But there's an issue in that his offensive presence has changed. He was previously relying on his pop to be his selling point, but this year he really upped his patience. Before he was a 65 BB guy who hit 25+ homers a year. Does the fact that he may now be an 85+ BB guy, but ~20 HR guy change what you think about him?

You might have noticed that I went from 25-26 homers to say... 19-23. Not a huge drop really to change a profile.  Really what's disappearing though isn't the homers. He was an exactly 25 homer guy for a number of years. His 33 in 2012 was clearly an anomaly and the 20 he hit last year was probably a couple low because of luck.  His HR/FB% is consistent and the distance of his homers still looks good. He's probably not going much under 20 if he does do that. Really what's plummeted are the doubles. Excluding 2011 of course, he hit between 35 and 42 doubles every year but one from 2006 through 2012 and in that off year he "only" hit 32. But last year he hit a mere 19 (with 3 triples) and this hasn't changed much as he has only 19 so far. He'll probably end up with 23 or so. That's where the loss of power is really coming from.

(FWIW His batting average has been pretty steady and the BABIP seems generally what I would expect based on aging and previous numbers so I think .270-.260 slowly drifting down is right. )

He's been a rather consistent hitter in his HR/FB% and types of hits (LD/GB/FB breakdown), so it's not that that's changing the results for doubles. Most likely it the fact that he's always been slow and now he's reached an age where it's finally taking away his ability to leg out some doubles he could have 3 years ago. You'd want to say he's becoming a "true outcome" guy, the type that homers, walks, or strikes out, but he doesn't really strike out THAT much or walk that much, even with the improvement. It's more of a middle ground that still works. Hits some singles, hits some homers, walks enough. For 2014 at least.

And let's not discount the increase in walks just because it isn't a ton. The Nats are a decent walking team on the whole but really only Werth and LaRoche use walks reliably to get on base. Bryce might get there but if you lose LaRoche it'll drop to straight up middle of the pack.

My personal opinion is you do re-sign him. I know the Nats need 1B space, for Zimm, for Werth (the guy is becoming a statue) and possibly for Ramos (injuries, injuries), but for one more year and considering the other options out there, I don't see how you can let him go. I think the walk increase isn't a fluke. The fancy stats tell us he's swinging at fewer pitches outside the zone and it's something that he did succesfully before in 2011 to mitigate his other issues (not nearly enough but still). I think he can walk more when he wants to and now he wants to. With the batting average and power probably staying about the same, it's worth it. I wouldn't want to have him 3 years from now, when the HR power finally starts to go and his age starts costing him singles along with doubles, but in 2015. Yes.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

I must break Roark

The Nats lost last night. Not a huge deal as they still stand 7.5 infront of the Braves, but it gives an an opportunity to delve into two pitching things of interest, the extended use of Tanner Roark and the bullpen woes.

As we talked about here and has been brought up again now that we reached it, Tanner has pitched more this season than ever before. A few innings - maybe even 20 or so wouldn't be a big deal, but he already sits at 8 innings past his previous high with the entirety of September to go.  He could easily pitch 30-35 more inning putting him 40+ over his previous high going into the playoffs. This is why most people see him as a lock for the bullpen.

What do I say? I say if he's still pitching great come the end of September, ride him into the ground.  Start him if he's in your Top 4. Relief pitch the hell out of him if he's not.

I know that may sound harsh but it's an extension of my belief that was espoused when the Nats tried to convert Christian Garcia into a starter. If you have an older "prospect" you should strike while the iron is hot and get the most use out of him NOW because any sort of future derailment could easily spell the end of his career. Garcia was an obvious case, 26, reliever, multiple previous injuries. He was a time bomb but the Nats thought they could possibly save that arm for future use.  They were wrong.

Roark isn't that cut and dried. He's a bit older (27 closing in on 28), but he's a starter with no big injury history. You could see curtailing his innings for another season if this were a non-playoff year. But it's a playoff year. It's one thing to sit down a young prime prospect a year after major surgery at the beginning of what looked like a 4 year stretch of relevance. It's a much less explainable thing to me to stop using a surprise story of an older guy finding his stuff toward the end of this stretch. (and look how well it worked out for Strasburg) There are no guarantees in sports beyond what you can put out on the field today. At some point you have to choose between playing for now and playing for tomorrow and certainly this is it, right? Saving Tanner Roark for a later date can't be a line the Nats draw in the sand, can it?

As for the bullpen, the dichotomy is alarming. In the past two weeks Drew Storen and Matt Thorton have ERA's of 0.00.  Stammen has an ERA of 1.50. Then you have every starter between 2.11 (ZNN) and 2.84 (Stras) and then the rest of the relievers. Clip (4.26), Blevins (6.23), Detwiler (6.75), Soriano (7.11). Of course it's only two weeks. Are these just blips or something to worry about?

I'm actually least worried about Soriano.  He had a few rough outings in a row then went back to being Soriano. It was market correction really as he wasn't a 1.10 ERA type knockout reliever. A 2.50 ERA feels more correct. It didn't have to happen but it doesn't bother me that it did. I don't see any other reason to be concerned.

Blevins bothers me because he has just deteriorated into such a true LOOGY.  But this isn't a two week thing, it's a year thing so I don't feel I'm reaching in being concerned in his use. Last night he was brought in to eat up an L-R-L inning. He got out those Ls. The problem?  The R hit a HR. He can't face a righty in a big spot. Just can't. 

I worry about Det too just because there something there between him and Matt Williams.  He's not a bad pitcher, but he's treated like the worst guy in the pen and just occasionally enough pitches like that so Matt doesn't have to change his mind. This spotty use (4 times in last 17 days) fails to keep him fresh, so the end result is I don't want to see Det because I don't trust him to be ready to go, because Matt hasn't used him. Matt's won.  Again though I don't feel this is a two-week judgment but a yearly one.

Clippard is the most bothersome to me. The issues with Blevins and Detwiler should be understood by now and compensated for in how they are used. I'd say that they are. Thorton has passed Blevins on the depth chart and Detwiler is caught in the Detwiler Paradox. Clippard though is different. The Nats are a 3 pitcher pen; Clippard, Storen, and Soriano, and don't need to be much more with their starting pitching. I don't see this changing.

Clippard has appeared in more games than anyone but Matt Belisle since 2010. 356 games to be precise and in terms of IP and G there is him and Belisle and a huge gap bfore you get to the next set of high use arms. They pitch often, they rarely pitch less than an inning.  Looking at all the pitchers who have pitched 300IP and have appeared in 320+ games you have Belisle - worse this year, Gregerson - better, Ziegler - worse, Axford - better (at 3.72), Peralta - worse.  Scanning alll 300+ guys... more worse than better. That in itself is not damning but add in a decreasing velocity and you get scared.

93.53 on his fastball in March -> 93.56 -> 92.96 -> 92.75 -> 92.45 -> 92.13

The same thing happened in 2013 and the same general trend, a worse 2nd half, was seen.

This concern I will say is based a lot on just recent data so unlike my worry of Blevins and Clippard, this could just be a momentary dip in a otherwise fine season. The FB speed is dropping but maybe he works a way around it, or can dial it up for the stretch run. I'm not counting Clippard out yet. But no one's arm last forever. At some point Clippard's will run out of steam. Just not now, ok?

Monday, August 25, 2014

Monday Super Quickie - A sacred calling

People who get into accidents on major roads during rush hour should have their licenses revoked.

Just saying.

It's funny but there was a sense of uneasiness when the Nats lost on Friday and the Braves won.  Only 6 games out? A tough stretch for the Nats ahead? Here's where things get interesting! Nope.  Two Nats wins and two Braves losses later and we're back tubing down easy street... or easy river I suppose if I want to carry that analogy to a more logical place.

As for calling the race - there are four times you can call a race. In order of decreasing certainty :

The first is when it's officially over, say 11 games out with 10 to play. It is impossible. This is the cowards call.

The second is when it isn't officially over but the circumstances needed to make it happen are two unlikely performances.  Say 6 games out with 10 to play. If the following team goes 8-2 (great!) and the leading team goes 2-8 (terrible!) that would tie them up.  It isn't likely that the following team does that though, and even less likely that the leading team does that, so calling it makes sense. It's the realist call.

The third is when only one unlikely performance is needed. Say 3 games out with 10 to play.  If the following team goes 8-2 then the leading team only has to go 5-5 to reach a tie.  8-2 is unlikely (the Nats have only hit that kind of stretch 3 times this year and they would presumably be the better team in this scenario).  Or vice versa 6-4 and 3-7 would work, but 3-7 isn't likely for a team that has done well enough to lead a division. (Nats have had two of these time periods). It's a gutsy call.

The fourth is when there's no reason to call it. Say 1 game out with 10 to play. What kind of call this is depends on the person making it. It could be a fun call, for those who don't take it seriously. It could be a fool's call, for those that don't understand. It could be a "Jeane Dixon" call for those in public who like to say a bunch of things and then pick out the couple that end up working out to be true. Anyway - not a call I'd ever seriously make.

Where do the Nats stand with just over 30 games left (Nats 33, Braves 31)? Somewhere between the second and the third.  The good thing is these don't extrapolate linearly.  It's would be one thing to say the Nats need to go 2-8 and the Braves 8-2. It's a whole 'nother thing to bump that up to 4-16 and 16-4. If the first is unlikey for each then the latter is crazy unlikely because you're stretching out something rare for 10 games into something rare for two sets of ten games. If you think there's a 20% chance the Nats can go 2-8 and then same chance the Braves go 8-2 (just work with me here) then you'd being saying there's a 4% chance the Braves can catch up 6 in 10 games. That's tiny. Catching up 12 in 20 games? The chance would be 0.16%, assuming you didn't change the odds. That's impossible.

In other words the Nats don't need to be 12 games up with 20 to play to have the "realist call". 8-10 would do it. At 30 games out... maybe 10-12? It all depends on what you think of the teams. We're getting close though.  Right now the Nats going 16-17 would force the Braves to go 23-8.  The Braves going 23-8 is unlikely. The Nats going 16-17 is getting close to unlikely. A couple more games ahead for the Nats and we might get there.

*What does the H2H games do? They increase the magic number because they add certainty to the chance of one team rising and one team falling at the same time. Normally I'd call it 8 games up with 21 to play (when they next meet) but the H2H will give me pause. I probably wouldn't call it unless the Nats were up at least 10. 

You can see how this works though - if the Nats get up 12 games before then I might call it because to say the Braves have a chance you'd be saying (1) The Braves close that gap by 3 games in ~5 games, which is hard, and then (2) catch up 9 games - basically winning all the head to heads- before the season ends. That's two unlikely things.  


Friday, August 22, 2014

Another great start and great finish

The former is what excites me more. Sorry walk-off fans.

Gio seemingly finding his way is going to set-up a very interesting situation if it continues. Remember, the Nats need a playoff rotation.  They don't have to throw just 3 or 4 guys out there. They could go with 5. But the days off that are sprinkled throughout the playoffs lend themselves better to a shorter rotation, probably a 3+1 would be the best way to describe it.  While Gio is the most... volatile Nats pitcher he's also the only left-handed one and for a guy who seemingly isn't interested in treading new ground as a manager Matt Williams will be very tempted to bring in a "new look" for the opposition. That would mean someone sits. And there are no easy answers to which of the other 4 sits unless one of them blows up in the next 6 weeks.

Oh well, these are first baseball world problems.

Is anyone not doing well recently? Danny. That's about it. You could say Michael Taylor is being looked at for induction to the Nats AAAA Club (hopefully temporarily) of guys that kill it in AAA and get killed in the majors.  Tyler Moore is reviewing his credentials as we speak. But bench players, you know. And the Nats have a bench player hot right now in Frandsen, 9 for his last 22 PA, with a walk. Granted they are all singles but like we said when Span was hot - you hit .450 no one cares if you walk.

How is Span doing.?  Arguably the worst of any regular Nats, .280 with minimal power and few walks over the last two weeks. Let's call it standard Span. But he's had all his walks recently so we'll see. And when a guy hitting .280 is your "worst" you're in a damn good stretch.  No guy you expect to start is close to being slumping.

Can the Nats keep up this during their last hard stretch? SF, then @PHI, @LA, @SEA? The reality is that they don't have to. Just keep from going 2-10 and they should be set up to finish the Braves off in that 6 faceoffs in 10 games that follow. And if they happen to roll through this stretch - even better. The only thing that is keeping the division alive is the Braves being hot. One team has to cool down. If it's the Braves first that'll put an official end to what I'm so close to wanting to call over, but just can't not yet. Just... Can I... no.  Not yet.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Placeholder

I'm all busy with work and stuff but figured you kids would like a fresh place to discuss things like why the Nats bullpen can't get anyone out.  Why the Nats offense keeps scoring late runs to win these games the bullpen blows.  What shirt you are wearing to the NLDS home opener.

Really this is how I see things is this

The comebacks are fun but of spotty meaning.  You love a never say die attitude and more importantly you love a win but this is more a function of timing and having a good offense.

The relief pitching is worrisome but not that much. Not yet anyway. Almost. If you accept up and down times you need to ride out the downs

The starting pitching is so good.  Ok Gio can be rough but the last bad nonGio start was two weeks ago.  This is why the Nats win. Not because of 9th inning heroics but because the starter set them up to win from innings 1-7.