Nationals Baseball

Monday, August 21, 2017

Monday - super super quickie

I'm not watching the eclipse (well I don't think I can completely avoid it) but I'm otherwise occupied. In quick notes

Strsaburg good! - Great. I want to see him do it twice on a regular schedule before I put it out of my mind and that won't happen next start either (he'll have an extra day off) so it'll be a while before I can assume health but there isn't anything right now that isn't positive. It didn't need to be a great start (though it really should have been) but it was.

Max hurt again! - At this point we're very close to hoping he just doesn't wake up on the wrong side of the bed right before the playoffs right? One is a fluke, twice is a pattern.

Werth and Turner rehabbing - as was pointed out to me Turner is stuck in rehab until the 29th because of a 60 Day DL thing. Werth is stuck in rehab because Kendrick has been real good. We've talked about pushing Kendrick out but Difo has also had a hot bat for a good long while. He does have some bad splits historically and he's not a "PROSPECT" so you'd sit him for Turner but it can be hard to stop doing something that's working. Of course "Oh no we have to sit our great performing back-ups to get back in our respected veteran leader and last year's nearly ROY" is a "problem" everyone would like to have.

OK that's it. Told you it was quick.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Saturday?

Strasburg has been all but put on the mound for Saturday's game. It's still not official. He's not on the probables, but I haven't heard anything about him not pitching. That means the "non official" status is all about getting one more day from someone on the roster before they have to be moved for Strasburg to come off the DL. I'm not reading anything into it.

There could hardly be more favorable conditions for a pitchers return. It's his hometown (he pitches well on the West Coast in general). The weather is good. It's a twilight game (thought to favor pitching - and this year and historically he pitches better during the day). It's against the lowest scoring team in the National League in one of the most run depressing ball parks. He's following Scherzer which means there isn't going to be much pressure on him to eat up innings.This is being gently eased back into the pool, inch by inch.

What am I looking for? Nothing much beyond throw ~90 pitches of decent baseball.  I suppose I'd like to see a higher percentage of strikes, as it was his control that was going that last game.  The velocity isn't an issue. It wasn't one before he left so it shouldn't be now. I mean, don't get killed obviously, but I'm not going to throw up any alarms for a 4 run, 5 1/3 outing where he has good control. Even with such favorable terms, it's still his first game back in the majors, and I still only care that he's healthy, not that he's ready to potentially shut down the Dodgers next week.

Other notes

The Nats are feeling the offensive woes from all these injuries but thanks to the solid pitching staff taking on some weak offenses the Nats haven't felt it in the win column. They've scored 3-3-10-3-3-2-6-3-2-2 runs in their last 10 games, and it took a walk-off grand slam to get that 6.  I'll be curious to see how the Nats hang through the Astros - Mets - Miami - Mil stretch.  Still it's just for curiousity's "what if Bryce doesn't come back" sake. Standing wise you can go ahead and assume HFA for the NLDS and a #2 seed overall. They are up 9.5 on the Cubs, and trail the Dodgers by 13. And if Bryce does come back in time to get back in the swing of things, how the Nats did without him hardly matters. 

Kelley is back and Madson is down. Madson hurt his finger. They are going to sit him and hope it feels better in a week. That's the only good news that accompanies all these injuries. The Nats are so secure that every one that happens they can sit people and let them take all the time they need because there is nothing in doubt. Kelley has been in Syracuse and has pitched to a 1.80 ERA. Sorry that's a typo. I mean an 8.10 ERA. Ouch. Most of that was early damage though. He gave up 5 runs in his first three outings. In his last 5 outings (4IP) he's given up 1 run (a homer of course), striking out 3 and walking none. He's as ready as he'll ever be.

Updating that injury post : Scherzer did come back. The finally are ready for Kelley. Raburn still sits in limbo until roster expansion (maybe)

Werth is still nowhere, last seen jogging bases apparently waiting to see when he can run and it hasn't happened yet. After having the team point to a general time frame and missing that, it's hard to figure when he'll return at this point. That's really the only bad news the Nats have had on the recovery front. Strasburg was delayed an additional week but as we said should be back Saturday. MAT was brought up very early that 3rd week.

Drew is taking grounders and seems to be on schedule for an return sometime this month. Turner is as well but still needs to swing a bat before he can get a rehab assignment. End of the month seems more likely and I'd be surprised if he wasn't with the team by Labor Day weekend. Glover has seemingly gotten the clear to ramp back up but given his current state is probably still a month away. Any setback but the mildest one would probably put him down for the year.


Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Howie Kendrick - Secret weapon

Howie Kendrick has been on a tear since joining the Nats. .386  with 4 home runs.  That can't last can it? Well, no but It isn't impossible that Kendrick has one last really good season in him and this is it.

Kendrick, we discussed earlier, is a high average guy He hasn't hit over .300 since 2008 but he's had a .291, a .297, a .293, and a .295 since then. The last one was as late as 2015 so the thought he could go not only over .300 but well over .300 isn't that far fetched. Especially given his moderate 33 year old age.

We noted that he didn't have a lot of pop. His career best HR total is 18, second best 13. He's not much of a doubles hitter either - career best 41 but next best 33. But this season... this season is different for a lot of people. The league isoSLG (SLG - AVG, basically pulling the singles out of slugging) was under .140 then last year it jumped to .158, this year it's over .170.  That's not a HUGE difference .140 to .170 but it's the difference between last year's MAT and last year's Werth. The difference between a guy hitting 26 doubles and 17 homers and a guy hitting 28 doubles and 21 homers. A half-step up at least.

Well what if you have a guy that always has made good contact, who always hit the ball hard far more than he hit the ball soft, who tends to put the ball in play and drop him into this environment? Seems like he's ripe to take advantage of that. Maybe not for as much advantage as the guys that swing for the fences all the time* - I'd like him to keep up this bombing if he hit more flyballs - but for getting those frozen ropes to now carry into the gaps? Yes.

Ultimately this may present an issue that we wouldn't have thought but was brought up in the comments. If Kendrick is now a guy who can hit .300+ with reliable doubles power, if he's a guy who can field left moderately well and who is more than an outside threat to steal a base... don't you have to consider starting that guy over Jayson Werth, if he gets back?

The Nats probably won't do that. Werth is more than a player, he's a totem. He's someone the team rallies around and someone the fans identify as the face of the good Nats. This could very well be his last season here. If he's ready, he'll play. And let's not forget Werth has shown he's a smart, adaptable hitter. He would likely take advantage of the souped up balls as well. He was already on pace for 25+ homers in a 140 games or so season before going down. But Werth can't overcome the defense gap that would only be worse with a gimpy foot, and his smart though not all that fast baserunning would be affected as well. It's very likely down the stretch in 2017 that Howie would be the slightly more valuable player.

*This would be an interesting thing to look at. SLG has gone up. Who gets the biggest push? Is it guys with a lot of fly balls or guys with a lot of hard hit balls? It would suggest the guys to pick-up / avoid when something changes in the equipment being used.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Strasburg's coming

Probably.

Today is probably the biggest day - he threw a real 75 yesterday (well actually a real 66 - then another 9 in the pen because A ball isn't exactly a challenge for a guy who could be a #1 in a major league rotation) and felt good. All signs say he could be back this weekend. Feel normal today and I don't see that plan being derailed. Then the real review begins as we watch him for a start or two in the majors as he's forced to go all out for 100 pitches a couple times in a row. That's something we never saw post-recovery last year because he just slid from injury into the post-season. We've verified that about a month is enough to get him back to where everyone thinks he can keep pitching. Now we just have to see that they are right.

Gio Night!

Gio has had his best season for the Nats since his first year here. Why is that? How did someone seemingly declining through age at a slow and steady pace turn things around? Has he turned things around?

The second is a real question because if you look at the first fancy stats we generally look at, FIP and xFIP* and BABIP, it looks like Gio is skating along. The FIP stats suggest a "true ERA" of closer to 4.00 and the BABIP is extremely low and the lowest of Gio's career. This all suggest some extended amount of luck.

Part of that is true. Gio has been lucky. However what that means has changed over the course of the year

Month  ERA  FIP  xFIP  BABIP
Apr 1.62  3.82  4.41  .258
May 4.37  5.85  5.08  .297
June 2.53  3.29  3.85  .221
July 2.14  3.30  3.89  .193

To start the year Gio pitched ok but got very lucky and got great results. In May, Gio pitched terribly but got lucky and looked passable. In June Gio pitched well and got maybe a little lucky. In July Gio pitched well again and his luck again kicked in.

So in the first two months of the year Gio pitched ok to terrible but got SO lucky that he looked fine. Since then, while he's still seen luck drive his ERA down, he's pitched quite well.

Now I keep saying he's lucky but if Gio is generating a lot of ground balls and soft contact - well that could explain a lot and that's on him, not luck.  We'll compare to last year. Ground ball rate? It's down. It's actually the lowest it's been for a few years. That's not necessarily a bad thing. Gio's always been naturally a flyball pitcher and the attempt to become a GB pitcher a couple years ago may not have suited him. His HR/FB rate is a little low, but it always has been. Gio has been a flyball pitcher who's been able to keep the balls in the park. There was thoughts when he came over from Oakland that it was park based but nope it's him. What does this mean? It means that the xFIP up there - which tries to normalize HRs - is probably more off than the FIP which doesn't. Except for May, that's good for Gio.

Soft contract is up a little and hard contact down. about 3 percent for both. That isn't nothing. But there is something else here that I found a bit interesting. Guys are pulling the ball more than ever against Gio and hitting the ball to the opposite filed a lot less. This generally isn't a good sign. It means guys are getting around on your pitches more and probably making more contact in general (K rate, swinging strike rates and contact rates suggest that's true a little bit) but there could be some deep thinking going on here. RHB are now pulling almost 7% more balls than they used to up to almost 46%. They are also hitting over 6% fewer balls to the opposite field. LHB are pulling more balls as well (about 3%) but are hitting more to the opposite field as well - more than 5% more.

What is the overall picture to what's going on here? Gio is getting A LOT more balls hit to the Rendon - Turner - Bryce side of the field than the Murphy - Zimm - Werth Statue park in right.  By my quick and dirty calculations he's gone from having like 36% of batted balls going to the "good side" and 29% to the "bad side" to 44% to the good and 25% to the bad. In other words, he's getting more batters to hit the ball where he wants them to toward the better fielders. (One would think)

What's the end conclusion? Well Gio is getting a bit lucky, it's hard to suggest otherwise.  Guys who walk people like Gio does and strike out people like Gio does don't usually flirt with 2.00 ERAs But he is pitching better. He's gone back to being a FB pitcher which is fine for him because he doesn't give up a ton of homers. He's getting more favorable contact, getting fewer hard hits and more soft ones. And maybe just as important, he's driving batters to hit balls to the guys on the field most likely to turn those balls into outs. All in all I can see a pitcher who is throwing, especially in the last two months, like a guy with a low to mid 3.00 ERA should.

I know your natural instinct is to say "So he's a 3.40 ERA guy. Great. So a #3 type maybe, probably a #4" but remember. We WILDLY overrate how good pitchers should be by their rotation spot.  A 3.40 ERA is good enough for TENTH in the NL in qualified pitchers. I won't say Gio is pitching like we'd want a #1 to pitch, but he could be some teams #1 and he's certainly pitching like a #2.

Can this continue in the playoffs? I'm not sure. You want a guy like Max who can impose his will on the other team not just get them to hit it to a certain side or in the air and hope they don't hit it too hard. Playoff teams usually can hit it hard enough. However there are far worse pitchers to throw out there, including 2016 Gio. If he can keep this up for another two months, I'll want to see if he can GB to SS and lazy FB a team to death in the NLDS. 

*These are different ways to pull out luck from the ERA. Things like HR rate and BABIP tend to bounce around for pitchers and a run of luck (bad or good) with these can make your ERA really not represent the talent behind the throws. This tries to normalize those values and see how a pitcher would do then. It's imperfect, because it doesn't take into account a guys personal ability to keep these things down (which does exist) and things like home park, but it's good for a quick look at how much luck a pitcher may be skating on. A BIG gap (say 1.5 runs) and a history of BABIPs that go against what a pitcher is doing now? You'd be wise to start with "He's been affected by luck" and then use a deeper dive to try to prove otherwise.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Monday Quickie - Down but not out... well out for now

There was one over the weekend story and that's the injury to Bryce. For those of you who think negative lines of code have been insert / d into my programming, let me tell you that I was firmly on  the "who knows, let it play out camp" and reviewing the footage of the Eaton injury said "Oh. It doesn't look like that".  I went on to hazard a guess that it wasn't a tear and he wouldn't be out for the year. I also noted I know basically nothing other than what was said above and my opinion is close to worthless.

But it turns out that Bryce doesn't seem to be hurt that badly, that the MRI shows no major ligament or tendon damage, and while the timeline is still fuzzy, there is certainly potential for him to be back for the playoffs. It could be even sooner but let's be honest, few of us care whether he's back August 20th or September 20th.

This isn't to say "I'm right." This is to say "That is where the (admittedly sparse) evidence suggested the most likley outcome is (based on my low-informed opinion)" I am giving the same sort of take when I speak about Strsaburg who's about to pitch in Potomac tonight. Ideally he will go 5 innings and throw around 75 pitches. If he feels well he could join the Nats in time to pitch against San Diego on Saturday. He was hurt on July 23rd and would return to pitch on August 19th. That's fairly close to a month which is what a calm review of the initial injury seemed to suggest as the most likely scenario based on the admittedly sparse evidence fed into the low-information opinion producing me.  We can disagree but I'm not crazy here.

So what does the Bryce injury mean? A lot. The Nats are an offensive juggernaut. That is how they win games. They are second in baseball in runs scored per game (to Houston) well past 3rd place Colorado. We are used to the Nats being led by their arms, and backed up by a very good offense.  Here's a quick ranking

YEAR : SP ERA RANK, RP ERA RANK, RS RANK
2012 : 1 3 5
2013 : 6 11 6
2014 : 1 2 3
2015 : 6 6 3
2016 : 2 2 4
2017 : 3 15 1

Now obviously the relief pitching is now better than 15th. But is it dominant? Probably not. And the starting pitching isn't dominant either as a whole. No, what's carrying the team in 2017 is the offense.  Bryce isn't the offense by himself as he was kind-of sort-of in 2015, but he IS the best offensive player the Nats have. He was hitting  .326 /  .419 / .614 at the time he went down. You don't replace that. Guys like Stevenson, Goodwin, Kendrick, might catch a good week or two but eventually the Nats will feel it.  MAT is back and Werth could be coming back. That may help but they aren't Bryce. Rendon is a great bat. He's not Bryce. Zimm is having a decent August holding off some decline fears. He's not Bryce. They will score fewer runs. They will lose more games.

Will that matter? For the next 7 weeks - hell no. They are up by 14 games. The next best team in the NL East sits at 4 games under .500. They could literally take off two weeks, forfeit the games to give their team a rest, and it wouldn't matter.  After that it most certainly will. To win as it has in the regular season the Nationals need Bryce Harper.

This isn't to say a Bryce-less Nats team couldn't survive, even thrive in the playoffs. Even without Bryce the team is games above .500 and you put that kind of team with a Max level starter in the playoffs and it can win. But it'll probably have to win in a different fashion than it has been all year long.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Straction Day

Actions speak louder than words. However, what happens when you have limited access to the actions?

Over the past... now 18 days, there's been a growing argument on how to view the injury situation with Strasburg. I tend to advocate a reaction that is more "action based". Set your view and wait until you find out about some action that may alter it. Most on the other side have gone with a more "word based" reaction. Let the team set the view and don't let your own opinion get in the way because there are unseen actions taking place. Neither is wrong and have certain strengths and weaknesses. You can appear foolish if you follow my way if things are quickly settled in a way contrary to how you thought they would. On the other hand, following the other way may make you seem foolishly naive, if the source of the information, even if they are the best available source, is unreliable - either by choice or chance.*

In this particular case, my way has proven pretty strong. Strasburg's injury resembled last year's injury so assuming that it would follow a similar path and need perhaps a month away from starting, seems to be the way it will eventually turn out. All the while the team has sent out a string of milquetoast positivity, suggesting that Strasburg's return is closer than it has turned out to be.

There were another set of words yesterday from the team, but finally there may be actions behind them that we can hold on to.  Rizzo said Strasburg could be pitching right now and they are just being cautious with him. In itself, pretty meaningless. Rizzo said the same during Strasburg's recovery last year. Strasburg pitched again and said he "felt really good" yeseterday. Again, in itself pretty meaningless as he said that earlier in this injury recovery . But the actions yesterday (and hopefully today) matter.

Yesterday Strasburg pitched a simulated game, an important step on the road to recovery. This is much more than a bullpen session where you throw 30-40 pitches and see how he feels. Instead, he throws a simulated inning, sits, comes back and does it again, throwing probably 50 or so pitches with that important break, cool down, and return added in. If this goes well then he should be in line for a real recovery start, my guess would be Sunday or Monday, in the minors and then back with the team in the majors for a start at the end of next week. Not ultimately the best case scenario, which I had pegged at missing 3 starts, but close as he'd miss only four I think.

That's the next action we need to see. And while I consider the words to be pretty meaningless we could hear something important today.  At the tail end of July Strasburg through a bullpen session they thought went very well. They said if he felt well the next day he could just miss one start. This was followed by conspicuous silence. There was a similar feeling coming from the team yesterday. If we hear that Strasburg is on track for a recovery start today (or maybe tomorrow) then everything lines up. We've seen the actions we want, and we've gotten the words we want, and if he's moved somewhere we get an important set of confirming actions. If we don't hear anything today or tomorrow, well I'd be worried. I'd still have to see Strasburg not be assigned anywhere, or regress in his recovery, before I take it back down but it would be a bad sign.

So keep your ears to the ground today. It just might tell us whether to renew worries, or to get ready to set them aside.


*To be honest - most times these different approaches arrive at the same place because really we're both just waiting for confirmation on the type of injury from the team. It's only in these types of unclear situation where the differences can become apparent.  And really it's not like either side is ALL action or words. It's a mix for both, just what takes precedence is different.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

On Nicknames

Back in 05/06 some of us internet followers of the Nationals had what we thought was a great idea. Saddened by the seeming lack of modern nicknames in the vein of those of old, we would try to bring them back by giving a new young star player a nickname reminiscent of one he'd receive in the pre-war era.  So Ryan Zimmerman, he of the German last name, was christened "Dutch" Zimmerman.

Now it is not surprising at all that this didn't take off. A few dozen people on the internet (at best) are going to have a tough time making something like this into an on-the-field reality. However, what was surprising was the unearthing of a group of people who found the idea of fans giving a player a nickname extremely offensive. "NO!" they said "He already has a nickname! It is ZIMM! and it was given to him in the CLUBHOUSE! How dare YOU think you can name him!" Honestly I still don't know what to make of it.

That is the truth though. Most players do get their nicknames through the clubhouse and since writers don't stand between us and them nearly as much as they used to, the "Sultan of Swat"s and "Sey Hey Kid"s of old have been replaced by "Mac"s and "Jonesy"s   They are utilitarian unimaginative nicknames much like, well regular nicknames. Thomas becoming Tom or Tommy isn't the height of inspiration.

A weekend in late August we'll see the Nats featuring a bunch of nicknames on the back of their jerseys and it gives us a good cross-section of the different types of nicknames around a baseball team.

The most common is the last name shortening. This usually takes one of three forms; the "straight-shorten", the "shorten and add an s", and the "shorten and add a y sound".  You see two of these types for the Nats

Straight-Shorten
Daniel "Murph" Murphy
Stephen "Stras" Strasburg
Ryan (ed note - sigh) "Zim" Zimmerman 
Sean "Dooooooooo" Doolittle* 
Chris "Heis" Heisey

Shorten and add a y sound  
Matt "Wiety" Wieters
Jose "Lobi" Lobaton
Matt "Albie" Albers
Matt "Gracey" Grace - case where your last name is only one syllable thus can't be shortened

Another popular nickname derivation is combining the first initial with a shortening of the last name. Think A-Rod. The Nats have their share of these as well.

First Initial - Shorten Last name 
Brian "B Good" Goodwin
Edwin "E Jax" Jackson
Tanner "T Ro" Roark
 
Others name and initial plays are seen as well. The shortening of the first name, like the last one. Basically your traditional nickname.
Anthony "Ant" Rendon
Oliver "Ollie" Perez

The use of the last initial or both initials
Joe "Joe B" Blanton
Joe "JR" Ross
Gio "Double G" Gonzalez
Jayson "Dub" Werth

Or both first name shortening and an initial!
Michael "Mikey T" Taylor

All of this is very standard and typical. We also have simple nicknames based on some physical attribute, like "Shorty". This can be a bit more creative but a lot of times it's putting the adjective "little" or "big" in front of things. Nats are a little better here though with an actual comparison for a nickname from their injured CF.
 Max "Blue Eye" Scherzer
Adam "Mouse" Eaton

Last we get to a group of standard nicknames that are around the game. For baseball some are limited to Little League ages, like "Slugger" while some carry on.  Drew's one of these guys
Stephen "Dirt" Drew.

Finally we get the interesting ones. Ones that come from somewhere other than the obvious derivations.

Bryce "Big Kid" Harper - I've never heard this before, but actually it's been out there  Here's Ian using it in 2015. There's a Span tweet with it too. Seems like it caught on in clubhouse around that time.

Trea "Triple T" Turner - This isn't an initial thing (His middle name is Vance). It could be as simple as "He hits triples" (led the team last year despite playing only 73 games - still leads team this year)

Koda "Bear" Glover - Koda is a Cherokee word for "bear" or so they say.

Shawn "BAK PAK" Kelley - no clue

Adam "Donnie" Lind - also no clue

Ryan "Blest" Madson - Near as I figure this is not a nickname but a religious call out.

Enny "Hernandez" Romero - So you guys know how Hispanic surnames work, right? No? Read this a little ways in. Anyway Enny's full surname would be Romero-Hernandez so this is a shout out to his mother's side.

Wilmer "El Lindo" Difo - Translates to something like "The Good Looking Guy"

Ryan "Bobby" Raburn - This is the most involved one as it is a reference to THE FAN, a baseball movie from about 20 years ago. It was trash but the baseball star played by Wesley Snipes was named Bobby Rayburn.  So there you go - obscure pop culture reference for you, but probably a pretty familiar one inside baseball where I imagine they watch nearly every baseball related movie.

Also I'd be remiss to not acknowledge, some people don't have a nickname. Or don't want to use their nickname. So we end with that guy
Howie "Kendrick" Kendrick

My guess is that if he has one, it's not a name-based one. Howie is a good informal sounding name to use in a clubhouse and "Kendry" or "Kends" or stuff like that doesn't sound all that good.

*It's more imaginative in the spelling but guys just call him "Doo" I'm sure.