Nationals Baseball

Friday, January 23, 2015

The comparison game

One of the things about trying to compare players is that there is no definitive "Max Scherzer like" group. You set a series of definitions that fit the player you are interested in and you see what you get. Some of the players might seem like great comparisons, others you might wonder if you should bother to include them at all. You could narrow down, of course, with even more conditions but then the dreaded small sample size really comes into play.  The last thing you want to do is put yourself in a corner where you seem to be saying one player is going to follow exactly the career path of another. It's a balancing act.

Case in point, this fangraphs article. We both have limits based on our analysis. Because I was limited by when pitches thrown data is available I could only look at pitchers from 2002 on. He used IP instead so he could go before 2000 but because he's interested with performance through the mid-30s but using performance through age 29 as a qualifier he can't use the most recent examples. They wouldn't have thrown those age mid 30 years yet.

His list looks far more impressive and even if you remove Clemens and Maddux (Scherzer doesn't seem to be in their class) and Teddy Higuera (only in MLB system at age 26 - most likely threw a TON before then) you still get a more positive view of Max. Viola (32, 33), Appier (32, 33, 34), Guidry (32, 34, 35), Cone (32, 34, 35, 36) and Mussina (32, 33, 34, 37, 39) all had plenty of success in the period that I've just deemed a probable wasteland for Max Scherzer. Only Jose Rijo blew up.

So who's right? Well no one really. I can tell you why I like my comparison group better though.

There are some things - like how comparable are pitchers who threw these years in the late 80s through early 90s?  The runs scored may be back down but the approches are different. Guys aren't looking to put the ball in play as much. Whether that's strikeouts or walks it means longer at bats.  This isn't a strict pitch count workload thing, these guys in the past threw a lot more innings. But if guys would swing at more pitches outside the zone and make more contact and if you were less worried about the long ball... that could effect stress on the arm. I'm a lot more in favor of saying Max is like a recent guy who threw say 575 innings at age 28-30 or 26-28 than a guy 20 years ago who happened to hit the 200IP limit in the 27-29 age range specified.

Another issue is the fact that there only one guy here who started his career after 1991. Why do, out of the 10, five of them lump together in careers starting from 1984-1986 when a 29 year span is specified?  This makes the group seem to be non-random and should lead to further investigation.

For example, you can explain part of the above issue by the strikes in '81 and '94. If you happened to be 27-29 during either of those periods it would be hard for you to make this list (I think only Maddux and Rijo fit that bill). So if you are thinking, shouldn't Glavine or Smoltz or etc be here? That's what happened. That could explain for the most part the late 70s gap, along with the early 90s one. The late 90s one takes a little more thinking - perhaps starting out in a steroid induced high-scoring era led to fewer high WAR or big IP seasons? You can find some reason I bet.

But this strike thing brings up what I consider a bigger problem. Out of the 10 guys on your list, 9 of them (well 6 really - Viola, Rijo and Higuera all had their arms die before the strike but that doesn't count against my theory) had a season where they didn't have to pitch as much in the middle of their careers. How much does that help an arm out?

You might poo-poo that idea (who are you, Madeline?) but chew on this fact.  Out of the latest group of 4 300 game winners - all had that '94 strike season in their careers. Out of the group of 6 right before them - all had that '81 strike season in their careers. Coincidence? Perhaps*. But it would make sense to me that having a light workload could rejuvinate an arm. It certainly jives with what I see for myself in my analysis. Once that workload threshold has been met and you get into your 30s a good year is more likely to follow a year with a light workload than a heavy one. If your arm is done then your arm is done, but if it's healthy getting that light workload can keep it on track.

There are a couple of other examples as well that fit this line of thinking. Ryan Dempster was heavily used for a few years while young but managed to have a lot of early 30s success as a starter. He also saw a big drop in workload during his late 20s as he was a reliever during that time. Javy Vazquez spent the back end of his career ping-ponging between good years and mediocre ones. After the age of 25 the IP in years before the seasons with less than 100 ERA+ : 230.2, 215.2, 216.2, 219.1. The IP in the years before the seasons with 100+ ERA+ : 198, 202.2, 208.1, 157.1

Anyway this is a long-winded way of saying I like my comparison just fine and better than that fangraphs one. You can make your own decision. You can find any number of groups that Max Scherzer might fit in.  Baseball Reference for example likes Matt Morris, Roy Halladay, and John Lackey the most. Don't dismiss any grouping, but don't buy into it either. Look at it, think about how you feel about it. Do your own tweaks. Then adjust your judgement if you feel necessary. We're all just guessing here so if you want to make Max out to be Mussina or Oswalt or Webb that's all ok. We'll just forget about it by the time it happens anyway.

*They also almost all began their careers in relative minima in terms of runs scored. Easier time pitching as a young arm + a light year in the middle of career could help with longevity as much as anything else. Someone do some work!

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Analysis in Action

The Nats are going to be hard pressed to "win" this Scherzer deal. Such is how it goes with long term deals. You don't hope to have a guy perform up to his salary each year. Instead you hope to get enough value on the front end so it balances the value you lose on the back end (and you secretly hope real world inflation/baseball salary inflation makes your deal look better).  What we are looking for from Scherzer is really 3-4 very good to great years, plus 2 or so middling ones, followed by one or two bad ones. That would be the most reasonable scenario. 

But what can we really expect from Scherzer? That's hard to say. You don't have access to an infinite number of dimensions to test out Scherzer theories and while I do, I have better things to do with that power. Instead we'll have to look at comparables to Scherzer and kind of guess at how he'll do based on how they did. Which brings us to pitches.

One of the notes I heard about the process that brought Scherzer to the Nats had Boras telling Lerner that despite the high number of innings pitched, Scherzer hasn't worked that hard. He used the number of batters faced to show he really wasn't Top 5 in burden, more like Top 20. Boras of course is spinning a half-truth to favor his client. It's his job. He's right it's not innings that we should be looking at, but its not batters faced either. Both are proxies for what we are really interested in, the number of pitches thrown. That tells you how much work a pitcher has really had and with Scherzer, that number is pretty high.

I started the analysis there, Scherzer is a good pitcher that throws a lot of pitches. What do those people look like in their early to mid 30s? At first I looked at pitchers who threw over 10000 pitches over any 3 season period. The good thing is that this also tends to subset down to good pitchers. You don't get to throw the number of innings necessary to throw that many pitches if you are doing poorly.  What did I find? Not much good, but enough noise that I didn't feel good saying any one thing. So I narrowed the analysis. What I was really interested were those pitchers that threw that many pitches in the periods ending in their 28th and 29th years, like Scherzer has. What did I find now?

For those looking at it the legend is as follows
Black : DNP
Stripes : Started fewer than 28 games
Red : Had an ERA+ of under 100.
"X" or "YYYY" : Ended a 3 yr period with 10000 pitches or more
Heavy Black Borders / Gray : 2014 / Years that haven't happened yet

Anyway what we see is a mess. Almost none of these guys produced a fully useful year (100+ ERA+ with at least 28 starts) after the age of 31. Very few even produced one good pitching year of any number of starts after 31. A few were out of baseball within a couple years. If there is any good news to glean from this chart it's that most of these guys had more use than Scherzer prior to age 28 and the most comparable guy usage wise, Roy Oswalt, while done at 33, would come closest to giving the Nats what they want from Scherzer. Three good years and one good but injured one before being claimed by the baseball gods.

(Why did I stop at 35? Because when I started looking at this I thought anything that happens after 35 really can't be linked to arm abuse. Of course now I'm like should have just went to 36 because that's where Scherzer's contract ends but whatever. Too late now)

There are two big problems though thinking about the analysis. One is of course small sample size. Nothing I can do about that. The second it doesn't help answer the question - Scherzer over Zimmermann. Zimmermann is an extremely efficient pitcher who is not throwing over 10000 pitches. Does that make him a better bet to pitch well into his mid 30s? Or is it just that all pitchers crash and burn and you are rolling the same dice with any contract?

So I changed the conditions a bit for easier subsetting, using 13333 pitches from age 26-29 and an ERA+ of at least 100 during that time (Scherzer is only 117 mind you). That loses Lincecum and Livan from the above and adds Aaron Harang, Jon Lester, James Shields and Javy Vazquez. OH! Another thing to note - these data are only from 2000 on. That's what BRef has for pitches - How does that change the interpretation of the pitching group? It makes it slightly more favorable to have a decent age 32 year, but after that you are pretty much dead.

How did the other group do, the under 13333 pitches from 26-29 and and ERA+ over 100 (112 starts as a guideline - the ones where the color coding starts at 30 never had any 10000 3 year periods)

What we found was mostly the same thing. Ages 30 and 31 were coin flips. Some guys got injured. Some pitched poorly. Others were fine. At age 32 though things changed quickly and for the worse. However this group didn't completely die out like the other group in the 33-35 age range. For the right pitcher you could in fact still do well right into your mid 30s.

What's the conclusion? Well there isn't any. One of the strangest things about this whole process (other than realizing Edwin Jackson is only 31) is James Shields. For nearly all pitchers when they threw a ton of pitches over the course what amounts to 5 years around age 31 something bad happened. They got bad. They got injured. Something. But Shields ended up starting having these pitch burdens at age 29 and has kept them going right on through last season with no noticeable effect on his results. He did start a little later than most, and maybe he'll blow up next year but if he doesn't he'll really be an outlier doing something no other pitcher had done in the past 15 seasons. The point of that tidbit is there are outliers. There always will be outliers. Nothing can be said with 100% certainty espeically not with this kind of comparison work. (though I can break out some small-sample categorical analysis tests if you really want to find out if these groups are statistically significantly different)

Anyway I'm skirting around though what the question really is, what do I think? Well I'd say this. I'm not very hopeful that Scherzer will give the Nats any value past age 32. The above is a work in progress of course as some of these other pitchers Verlander, Lester, Greinke, etc. work into their mid 30s but looking at 50 or so pitchers during this whole analysis made it clear that pitching well in your mid 30s is hard enough given any amount of work. When you give someone a large workload, it becomes nearly impossible.

I do not see any reason though that we can't reasonably hope that if his workload is decreased and he's not already hurt, that he can pull a career like Oswalt did. I think frankly that would be pretty much on target for expectations from this contract.

Looking at all this, I'm not loving the deal no. I think from what he'll do on the mound, it's tough to see Scherzer give value back for the Nats on this deal. BUT that's only part of whether it's a good deal. The other part is whether they can win a series with Scherzer and he's probably got as good a shot as any arm at being healthy for the next 2 years which right now is what we care about.

As for the ZNN vs Scherzer - well this is just another piece of gold on Scrooge McDuck's side of the huge wealth measuring scales ("Scherzer's a better long term deal" people are obviously the Flintheart Glomgolds of the world). I imagine if the data wasn't skewed to get those that pitched a lot until age 29 we'd see that age 29 seasons are like age 30 and 31, maybe a tiny bit better. Meaning that you have a decent chance of getting a good year at that age. Given the real world age difference between ZNN and Max you are almost getting a year younger player for the contract. That favors ZNN giving you more good years right off the bat.  Add to that the fact that the "not heavy workload in their late 20s" group has Hudson, Lee, and Buehrle all successful into their mid 30s while the "heavy" has... well no one right now and you get a feeling that while it isn't likely, that ZNN does have a much better shot of being good through most of the next contract than Scherzer does.(those that don't think that at this point have to be literally draped over "Tommy John" hanging onto it for dear life)

There you go - my thoughts. Collect your own. Trade them with your friends.

Monday, January 19, 2015

More thoughts

It's a big deal so of course I have more thoughts - but quickly

Why do I like ZNN more than Scherzer? Scherzer has been great for 3 years and is moving from the AL to the NL. I should love him. Guess what? I do. So why do I like ZNN better? Because :

ZNN is almost 2 years younger
ZNN was arguably better last year
ZNN has had a far lighter workload
ZNN fastball speed is remarkably steady

When I went over the big FA guys to see who the Nats should sign or not I could not find a single thing to worry about for ZNN. I can pick apart Scherzer if I want to. Little things here and there. I can't do that with ZNN.  This, to me, given their very similar results last year, makes ZNN a much more appealing choice for a long term deal.

This doesn't mean I don't like Scherzer. He'll be great.  Just that I don't mind years 5-7 for ZNN. I do for Scherzer.

I think the Nats should deal a starting pitcher. Of course this is all contingent on what they can get back but with Scherzer in the fold you can have a staff that will be expected to perform as well as last year, which was good enough to possibly be the best in the majors and help the team to 96 wins AND you can possibly get a high level prospect back. It's the best of both worlds. I don't worry about depth because Treinen looked ok and Cole looks ok. I am fine with those guys as the number 6. Of course if you'd rather just have a dominating staff that's fine but I don't think that's getting the most value out of this contract and the situation it sets up. Do I trade Fister? ZNN? Strasburg? All depends what I can get back. I do know I try dealing in that order.

But what about being all-in? Aren't I big on that? Yep I am. But if the Nats were all in then Zobrist would be here. Or they could have signed Sandoval and moved Rendon back to 2nd. Or they could try trading Giolito for Carlos Gomez. This is a big move, huge, but it's similar to the Soriano signing in that it makes the Nats better but it doesn't make the Nats the best team they can be. It doesn't fix a weakness (however mild that weakness may be). It makes something else stronger. I'd rather see a team try to get rid of all weaknesses. But we're quibbling here about how best to improve a mid 90s win team. Let's not lose sight of that.

Am I celebrating yet? No, let's calm down on all the "best rotation ever" talk or anything to do with 2015 or beyond. We're not there yet. There could be trades. There could be extensions. For right now the Nats have one great pitcher signed for the next few years. That's all we know. There is a lot more work that could be done depending on prospects developing or being brought in. All we can do is judge the deal when we hear what exactly it is and then we wait until the season starts and we know what the deal is with all these other guys.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Sure, sir? Yep. Scherzer!

Scherzer go!

Quick thoughts

Clarifying the money thing the Nats do clear up enough money over the next few years to keep at least two star players.  But that is because they are losing 3 starters, a catcher, a center fielder, a shortstop, and a closer (and already lost - a guy good enough to close).  That's a lot! So yes signing Scherzer means they don't HAVE to trade and that they can extend ZNN but they can't (and won't) keep everyone they are losing.

Well unless they decide to become a new big boy on the block. I talked about this before but it is far more an ownership decision than a location one. Is Detroit a huge market? Philadelphia? They could be a Yankees type if they want and that could mean signing everyone. Not likely but in baseball this is a personal choice

More likely is one of three scenarios.
  1. They deal ZNN (or more sensibly Fister, or possibly Strasburg) for prospects. Makes sense. He could potentially bring back a player that could help if not his year then next 
  2. They deal no one. Let them walk for draft picks. I don't like this.  You are talking about guys to be picked in June of 2016.  Scherzer is not a win later acquisition. Help later makes no sense. 
  3. They extend one (or more) of them. Not everyone. Just one. That would probably be enough with what's on hand and if you can keep Bryce
Do I Iike the deal?  Let's see what it is first.

Are the Nats better and WS favorites? Yes (but not as much as you think) and yes (but they might have been before)

Do I like Scherzer more than ZNN? No. Do I like Scherzer & prospects more than ZNN? Depends

I preached patience before on not jumping on the Lerners. I'll do it again for not patting them on the back. Let's see where this all ends up

More tomorrow

Friday, January 16, 2015

It can't happen here

There are a lot of things taken for granted when it comes to the Nats. Nothing more so than the "fact" that the Nats have the NL East firmly in hand in 2015. The Braves have taken it upon themselves to rebuild while the Mets and the Marlins need too much to go right to really contend. (Philadelphia Fellies? Is that a team?) The Nats on the other hand are sure bets for 90+ wins so if they happen to end the offseason off a game or two from last year it's no big deal.

We talked about this before but it was just 2 years ago that the Nats floundered and missed the playoffs. Espinosa regressed/got injured/was infected by the same disease the Nats front office was that destroyed the "shouldn't he get surgery" part of their brains. Ramos, Bryce, and Werth all missed significant time while the "no comeuppance" bench of 2012 recieved their comeuppance and became the worst bench in baseball. The Gio/ZNN/Stras triumvirate took a half-step back from sheer awesomeness, Detwiler got hurt, and Haren took forever to find his groove. Meanwhile in the pen, Storen battled his head, Mattheus battled lockers, Zach Duke was never the lefty answer, and the H-Rod experiment mercifully ended. The combination of all these things getting worse and little getting better had the Nats out of contention for a long time and when the gun sounded, on the outside looking in.

But the optimist looks at that team and sees a team where a TON went wrong and they still ended up with 86 wins. If the Braves weren't very good that year (96 wins and 13-6 versus the Nats) they still might have ended up on top. This year is different. The Nats are a more complete team. Fister and Roark are in the rotation, rising Rendon is in the lineup, and the bench... well it's still not great but it certainly shouldn't embarrass.  Plus as we said the Braves can't win, the Mets can't win, the Marlins can't win. The Nats are set right?

Of course that's nonsense, these teams could win but it would take a lot.
  • For the Braves, it's been overlooked but the pitching staff, which was very good last year, could be great. If Minor bounces back they might even challenge for the best rotation in the majors. But this has been overlooked because the offense has taken such a hit. No Heyward, Gattis, or good Upton in 2015. At the very least Freeman and Markakis have to have career years, Johnson needs to bounce back, and Simmons needs to break out for them to have a chance. Then someone else would have to surprise.
  • The Mets likely have the pitching as well. If Harvey comes back at anywhere near the level he was at and they get the back of the bullpen set it's another impressive NL East pitching staff.  Offensively though they need help. Wright needs to find his MVP stroke again. Cuddyer needs to come in and be an impact bat. Wilmer Flores needs to be that .300-type hitter they think he might be. 
  • Unlike the Mets and Braves, the Marlins had terrible pitching last year. But they traded for Cosart during the year, the underrated Latos in the offseason, and Jose Fernandez should be back. If he's like he was again - it's a very solid pitching staff, though the #5 spot  could be a question (Dan Haren!).  Offensively they need less help but their infield is still a big hole. Old friend Mike Morse has to keep it going at 1B while newly acquired Dee Gordon has to keep up his 2014 performance at 2B. If that happens and Prado is Prado then this could be a contender. 
"That's great" you say "One problem though. You only had good things happen to these teams. A season is a mix of good and bad. Teheran gets injured. Duda flops. Stanton puts up a good but not great year. Things don't meet expectations all the time. You just showed a big example with the 2013 Nats. It never goes all right. The Nats don't have anything to worry about."

Man, you are wordy. Well you are right. I did only go with mildly dreamy scenarios. But you are also wrong. Sometimes it does go all right. Not only have you been forgetting the 2013 Nats for an all-wrong example, you've been forgetting the 2012 Nats for an all right one.

In 2011 the Nats were a just below .500 team similar to the Marlins, Mets and Braves. In order to become a dominant team they needed newly acquired LaRoche to come in and do well, Ian Desmond to become an All-Star caliber player, Zimmerman to be healthy, Werth to bounce back, Bryce to make an immediate impact, and a makeshift bench to magically all have their best years. They also needed the newly acquired Gio Gonzalez to show top of the rotation stuff, for Strasburg to be healthy, for maybe someone else to step up in the rotation (Detwiler would), and for the middle of their pen to take a step forward. All that happened.

The Nats are the favorite to take the NL East in 2015 and should be. They are the best team top to bottom. But it would be foolish to assume that the Nats can't break down or more likely, that one of the 3 teams below them won't step up. We're looking past 2015 now thinking about keeping windows open or starting new ones, but there's no guarantees, even for the year in front of us.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Additional Thoughts

Some additional thoughts (geez it's like you can't read the headline)

I said Tyler Clippard got a lot of work - what does that mean?  

Well it means he appeared in more games than anyone since becoming a full time reliever in 2010. 371 games, just outpacing Matt Belisle's 368.  It's about 20% more appearances than the 30th guy on the list.  He's faced more batters than any pure reliever (a couple relievers with a handful of starts have more - like Stammen!) and given that his control has not always been the greatest he's thrown more pitches than any reliever during this time by far. 6533 for Clippard to 6098 for 2nd place Belisle.

Do I think that this means Clippard is going to break down? Not immediately no. He threw a lot more in 2010 and 2011 than the past 3 years, and I've always liked relievers who started out as starters as far as durability goes. Clippard spent 5 years (2003-2008) in the minors as a starter. But he'll be 30 this year which means his next contract will be either 31-33 or 31-34, years where I feel the risk of injury starts to really pick-up.

Why do you think Yuney will not be great/terrible at defense? 

Because that's what you usually see. Defensive stats are notoriously iffy when it comes to yearly evaluation. There's a number of reasons for that but the simplest way to think about it is evaluation of good defense can only occur if enough balls are hit to you in a certain spot. Not just that enough balls are hit to you, because if they are all hit right at you (or hit to spots no one could reach) we don't learn anything. They have to be hit in spots that some players can reach but others cannot.  You have a bad week when you have a half-dozen of these hit your way and your D can come out looking bad. This is why they say look at 3 years of data. More data to evaluate.

Ok so specific to Yunel he had always not just been good but really good before last year. If we look at rolling 3-year average Defense stats from fangraphs we get 8.9, 8.0, 9.0, 11.5. You'll have to trust me those numbers are good. So last year's plummet to a -11 looks fishy. It's doubtful he's become a terrible fielder overnight.

That being said it's also doubtful he'll bounce right back. This guy over at Athletics Nation looked at comparables when Yunel got there and only found one example of a guy bouncing back to provide stellar defense and that guy was 25. Yunel is not 25 (he's 32). So while these comparisons are all over the place the take away is that he's probably going to be ok, but there isn't a good reason to think he'll be great again. It's fluky that he looked so bad, but it's not fluky he got worse.

This is important because if Yunel provides average D and gives his usual just below average bat that's where he'll provide enough additional production over theoretical Espinosa to make the deal worthwhile. If he gives below average D and the bat maybe slips a bit? It's a wash and a waste.

Who takes over for Clippard? 

My initial guess is Thornton does. Veteran guy. Did well last year. Nats have another lefty (Blevins) to handle the rarely necesssary but often used LOOGY role. However I don't expect that role to last as last year was an oddly good season for Thornton and he'll be 38 next year. Who do I expect to end the season there? Either a converted Treinen or Aaron Barrett. Both will probably get a lot of later inning work, whoever shines brightest will win out.

So good right! Someone shines bright and replaces Clip. Easy peasy. Except we don't know how long it will take and previously if one of these guys shines bright they give the Nats a killer arm to use before the 8th inning. Now unless both do there's a meh arm being used more than it would have been. The loss cascades. Hopefully you have enough RP depth that the shift up doesn't put a bad reliever in an important role. Right now I'm not so sure that won't be the case

 Do you think this is about money? 

Hard to see otherwise right now. You can argue that the Nats are a little better today then they were yesterday with Escobar instead of Clippard. But if it was solely about getting better there were ways of doing that without shedding Clippard. The Rays wanted to trade Escobar and would have done it probably for a moderate prospect or two, or you could sign someone like Asdrubal (1 year 5 million). That way the Nats would be better with no argument necessary. The problem for someone with that way is that it costs the Nats more money. This way they save 9 million.

Now maybe they use those cost savings in other ways... but I doubt it. Still, I promised benefit of the doubt until the season starts so I'll hold off on any harsh criticism.

Any other notes? 

Yeah three things I mentioned last night on Twitter (at harpergordek if you must know)
  1. In trading Clippard and Detwiler and letting Soriano walk the Nats let go of their relievers who pitched the 2nd, 3rd and 4th most innings totaling up to nearly 200. That's a LOT of innings to replace in general. It's even harder when you remember that Clippard was great, Soriano was very good for most of the season, and Detwiler was not terrible. This can't be corrected by throwing just anyone into the pen
  2. Taking it a step further, this upcoming offseason both Blevins and Thornton are FA and will likely go off to greener pastures. That's 5 important relievers from the end of 2014 not being on the team in 2016. It's hard to argue with any of the individual decisions to let these guys walk but as a whole it's worrisome.
  3. Let's not forget that Storen did not perform well in the playoffs again and has been known to let that affect his pitching. He also hasn't been the healthiest guy. If something happens to him... this could get ugly fast

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Quick Answers in regards to the Clippard/Escobar trade

Brass tacks - Does this make the Nats better for 2015?


It's tough because Clippard was so very useful and while Espinosa was a bad choice to start at 2B, Escobar isn't really a good one. In the end though Escobar will play everyday and the Nats bullpen should shake out ok so I'll say tentatively yes. But it's not a guarantee.

Is it a good deal overall? 

That's much clearer, yes. Escobar is signed for reasonable money for the next three years and that third year is actually an option so if Escobar is terrible the Nats can just let him go for a million.

Clippard is going to get paid a lot this year and will enter FA. If he's very good again you could see him getting a deal like 3/27 or 4/30 something like that.  Clippard is a good reliever but guaranteeing that type of money to a relief pitcher is a luxury purchase. The Nats don't need that. Also Clippard has had a ton of work since being a reliever.

Short version : He's walking and the Nats got value for him.

Does this mean Desmond isn't coming back? 

Was the fact they've been trying hard to deal him not a sign? What about the fact that they haven't really talked to him about an extension?  Umm yeah he's not coming back.

So Yuney is the SS of the future? 

Well they are hoping Trea Turner is the shortstop of the future. Escobar is the SS of 2016 assuming Turner doesn't tear up the minors.

Does not signing Desmond and freeing up some money with Clippard mean the Nats are going to sign Zimmermann? 

I don't know.

I want to say no. That's my intuition. But really it depends on what their payroll ceiling is. They should have money to do something, unless they are looking to go under 100 million, but I'd bet on Bryce and Rendon extensions first.

Strasburg - the bellweather

In the past few weeks, we've tackled what to do with the post-2015 FA class (my conclusions for review : sign ZNN, let Fister walk, offer Ian a fair deal but for no more than 6 years) But there is also an upcoming post 2016 draft class that needs to be dealt with and if you are serious about signing them talks would normally begin now. The biggest of the names in that class is Stephen Strasburg and signing (or not signing) him sends a message to the fans on the direction of this franchise now and in the future.

Signing Strasburg long term feels like no sure thing. The consensus "generational" talent has turned into a very good pitcher, certainly top of a rotation worthy, but has not developed into a special player. At least it doesn't feel like he has. What do the stats say?

Strasburg threw 215 innings last year (14th in majors) and put up an ERA of 3.14 (25th). He tied for the NL lead in strikeouts with 242 and he ended up with 14 wins, good enough for T25th in the majors. (exactly the same number as everyone's "ace" Jordan Zimmermann). Without any digging, you see a guy who is a legit #1 type.

If we go a bit further we see a WHIP that was 17th in the majors, a xFIP (kind of like ERA taking out errors and bad timing) that was 13th in the majors. Nothing derailing the initial supposition. Let's keep going into stats that might show he was lucky last year.

BABIP : .315 slightly on the high side both overall and for him. Should drop.

HR/FB : 13.1%  Same as BABIP.

LOB% : 74.8%  Pretty much on target

GB% : 45.9% Down from last year but better than the average pitcher. Though this is the stat that arguably corresponds least with performance. 

K%-BB% : 22.9%  4th best in majors - not a fluke either similar to other years.

No surprise, but nothing here says last year was a fluke. In fact, it says we should probably expect a slight improvement in ERA/Wins if all goes to plan. So what's the problem?

Well, with that last stat, K%-BB%, you start to get a feel for why people are disappointed in Strasburg. That last stat screams "as good as anyone not named Kershaw" as the other names up there are a who's who of guys who would challenge for Top 5 spots; Sale, Price, Kluber, King Felix, Scherzer, Bumgarner, Greinke; but Strasburg doesn't put himself in the top 5 instead settling in the Top 20. Or does he?

In the past 3 years it can be easily argued that only a handful of pitchers have really outpitched Strasburg.  Kershaw, King Felix, Scherzer, Price, Wainwright. Maybe Sale. Not ZNN - not over the three. Based on "on the field" results, he should be thought of at least as a Top 10 guy. But while every year Strasburg succeeds in the battle versus hitters, every year Strasburg fails miserably in the perception battle.
  • In 2012 he was great, but wasn't the best on the team (Gio had his best year) and there was the whole shutdown thing. 
  • In 2013 he was very good, but while bad luck was taking him to an 8-9 record (13th lowest run support) and the team was missing the playoffs, Kershaw was entrenching himself as the best pitcher of this generation and the two new hot pitchers that came around were both in his division (Matt Harvey and Jose Fernandez). 
  • In 2014 he was arguably great again, but again was not the best pitcher on his team (this time ZNN would take a step up) and he'd spend most of the season struggling to get his win record to match his performance. He was 8-10 as late as Aug 8th before winning 6 of his last 9.
I truly believe in another world with just a ball bounce here or there we wouldn't be talking about this. Strasburg would be a top tier pitcher and that would be all there is to it.

Of course, the feelings about Strasburg are not completely crazy. There does always seem to be something about Strasburg that shouldn't be. This year he oddly couldn't finish batters off if they battled back to an even count. In the past some though he might be rattled by what happened behind him (I showed that wasn't the case in 2014 - but haven't looked at past years.) He's spent time learning new pitches that haven't seem to benefit him on the mound. He's "complained" about heat or the mound or what have you. These things though would probably be ignored or certainly downplayed if we had a different view of Strasburg. Instead they are used to confirm thoughts we already had. "He's not an ace. Here's why." 

Still, I don't want to make it seem like Strasburg is a no doubt about it re-sign. Along with the issues I just pointed out his fastball speed is declining. Right now it's not an issue because his fastball was so fast to begin with (97.6 average in 2010) but it's gone down every year. If it doesn't stabilize he'll eventually run into bigger issues. Sure that probably wouldn't be for a few more years but I'd expect his next contract would be a LONG term one so definitely by the end of that. However, there are far more things right with Strasburg than wrong.

The other thing to note is that Strasburg is still young.  Over two years younger than ZNN, younger than most of the names above. Additionally, Sale, Bumgarner and Harvey are all younger but within a year (ok within 380 days). Only Jose Fernandez stands out as noticeably younger.

Put it all together and you have a Top 10 pitcher who is young has been healthy the past 3 seasons.  Much like Zimmermann he hasn't been worked that hard, and he doesn't work himself that hard (pitches per inning is low). I don't see an issue here. You basically can take what I said about ZNN and replace "consistency" with "some potential still left" and knock the age down.

I say you sign him. You wrap up ZNN and you wrap up Strasburg and you let them and Roark or Giolito or whoever carry the team for at least the next 3-4 seasons. Not only do you sign him but you sign him now because I don't believe he's likely to put up a worse season and he may in fact put up a better one. What could now be 7/180 (eating up one arb year) could become 7/200+ after a 2.50  ERA 20 win ish season.

Of course you may disagree. It's a hell of a lot of money, especially presumably signing ZNN as well, but understand this, as far as free agent pitchers go, it's going to be difficult to find two guys on the market who have as much going for them and importantly, are as young, as Jordan Zimmermann and Stephen Strasburg. Those guys tend to get locked up because their talent and age combination is rare. I would recommend the Nats do the same.

However I'm not going to kill the Nats if they end up signing one and not the other. I don't like it as much, but perhaps they have strong feelings toward one and lukewarm feelings toward the other. Pitcher contracts are the biggest gambles understanding how often they get injured and how that can derail them for years. They could gamble on not signing one and bet that Giolito becomes an impact starter (one of the best bets in minor league pitching currently) and that Cole/Fedde/Ross/? becomes a good starter. Use that extra money to keep Bryce or get more offense or something. It's a plan that may fit better with the imagined salary ceiling we expect they have. 

The issue comes if they don't sign either. Again if you ranked "sure things" on the FA starting pitching market in the past decade these two guys would rank very high. If they don't sign either - well I can't see them signing anyone ever. Giolito becomes a star? Great - don't buy a jersey though because he's out the door. Rotation falls apart because of injury or lack of development? Hope you like Haren/Jackson esque one year value deals. It sets a disturbing precedent that says the Nats' fortunes at any one point hinges entirely on being able to develop a top rotation from scratch. It took a lot of things to get the Nats to have the rotation that they had for the past 3 seasons. ZNN developed slowly, while their #1 pick Stras developed fast so they set-up at the same time. Gio blossomed. Detwiler was a surprise in 2012, Roark in 2014. Dombrowski went insane for a day.  It's doubtful things will come together so nicely to form a good 3-4 year window again.

An interesting alternative would be dealing Strasburg. He has value before this season with 2 years under control.  But I'm doubtful the Nats can afford to do that this year and with Gio declining and Fister gone, they almost certainly can't next year;  ZNN or no ZNN. Of course that is a plan though. Sign ZNN trade Stras try to bounce back in 2017 or trade ZNN, trade Stras try to be a force in 2017 and beyond.  These are plans but they should be plans for teams like the Rays, right? Certainly that last one, right?

The Nats don't have to sign ZNN. They don't have to sign Strasburg. There are plans that can work with either of them gone. But is there a plan that works with both of them gone and no similar FA types in their place? I just don't see it.