Nationals Baseball

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Back to the edge

The Nats won last night. The Nats have the best record in the NL. The Nats are playing arguably their best baseball of the year.

But...

Zimmerman went down yesterday.

In of itself this doesn't stop the Nats from taking the NL East. Assuming it's something bad (and it seems like everyone does) Rendon takes 3rd, Espy takes 2nd, and the Nats end up with their best defensive group on the field. The offense takes a hit but if the Nats can't compensate for having one guy out of the lineup then they don't deserve to take the division.

The problem is what it sets the Nats up for, which is a scenario where one more injury cripples the offense. It may not - 60 games left you could get a decent run from a McLouth or even a Frandsen (it's not impossible!) - but one more injury would likely leave the Nats with the dreaded "easy inning" where Espy/?/pitcher gives the opposing starter time to relax and regroup. The offense never really clicked before whenever two guys (or more) were out. I don't see a reason why it would now.

It would also, in my mind, demote Zimmerman to Ramos status when it comes to injury, which is "hope to get 100 games out of him". That's probably not fair, he's played at least 142 games four of the last 5 years, but it's how I feel.  The every third year massive missed time due to injury has to catch up with a body, especially one a couple months from 30 years old who has spent the last year and a half dealing with an arm issue. Next year the Nats will have to plan around this. (Don't ask me how just now)

Do the Nats make a play for someone now?  Headley would have been the obvious choice, excellent defense, history, recent play, and home/road splits suggest he's due to hit better (and that he can hit righties - which could allow the Nats to do a platoon of sorts with Espinosa).  He's off the table now. With Luis Valbuena is crashing, the Nats are left with probably Martin Prado or Trevor Plouffe if they want guys that can play everyday. Both are better versus lefties.

My guess is that they don't make a play. Again - the Nats don't NEED to do something and Rizzo has shown a strong proclivity to ride the horses he brought to the dance (something like that) the past few years in that situation (hell, he's done it when they do need someone). So I don't see him making a move unless Zimm is out for the rest of the year.

Still, there's a chance it isn't too bad. Just keep repeating to yourself. 15-day DL.  15-Day DL. 15-Day DL. 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Best team in baseball?

It's a legit question.  On May 28th the Nats lost to Miami and dropped to 25-27.  Since then they've gone 29-16 or the pace of a 104 win team. Normally I hate the "since May 9th" type of things, but in this case it's clear that the Nats have become a better team over time.

Pre-season : Fister out
March 31st : Ramos out
April 12th : Zimmerman out
April 25th : Bryce out

Three weeks into the season they lost a Top 3 starter and starters at 3 positions. That's tough to overcome.

May 7th : Ramos back
May 9th : Fister back
May 9th : LaRoche out

Early May looked like it might be the turning point but as soon as they got a couple guys back they lost another bat. It felt like they might never be healthy and it showed in their play.

May 25th : LaRoche back
June 3rd : Zimmerman back
June 10th : Ramos out again
June 26th : Ramos back
June 30th : Bryce back

But from the end of May until the end of June the team has finally come together mostly on a straight path with the exception of Ramos being out again for a couple weeks.

The gist is, I'm not saying the Nats are a 100+ win team, but the month+ long run they've been on is no mirage and the 2 month stretch prior to that is almost irrelevant. That team, from Mid April to the end of May was a different team and only serves to show how things could fall if there is another run of injuries.  If not, like we've said before, like everyone said before except the Braviest of Braves fans, the Nats should take the East.

Are they the best team in the NL? I think so. The run differential (which they lead) highlights the Nats' lack of flaws. They are a half-run better than league average when it comes to runs allowed per game, 2nd only to San Diego who plays in a run-depressing park. They are 3rd in the NL in runs per game and while that's not close to being as impressive as the pitching* it still means you are talking about a squad that's better than average now and likely has room to improve as guys get healthy and round into form.

In baseball? That's tougher. Both Detroit and Oakland have teams that are doing well both offensively and defensively. I'm not quite ready to say this. Let's see where the Nats are in a month though.

Looking at this, screw 5-4, road or not. I'm going for that 7-2 run. Let's start putting the East away.

*they are less than a quarter run better than average.  Or let's put it another way - the difference between the Nats offense and the 2nd to worst offense in the NL is 0.48 runs. That's equal to the gap between the Nats pitching and the average. The same kind of stretch comparison - we'll compare to the 3rd worst since the D-backs are a step worse than everyone else and the Rockies are the Rockies - get the Nats pitching to a 0.92 run difference.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Monday Quickie - Rested Roark

There isn't that much to say.  The weekend was almost a loser for the Nats. As a good team playing another good team the Nats should take 2 of 3 at home. They did, but they almost didn't. Weeks doesn't get caught stealing, Braun catches a little bit more of that ball...

But that's sports. There's a lot of wins that you could have lost and a lot of losses you could have won. No reason to dwell on it. The Nats did what they needed and now move on to what should be a relatively easy stretch of away games, Colorado, Cincy, and Miami. You'd love to see the Nats shift gears and run over these teams with a 7-2, 6-3 stretch. But 5-4 will do. They may lose a game in the standings to the Braves who are finishing out their last easy stretch of games for 3 weeks, but you'd expect them to make it up in August.

The most interesting thing from the weekend for me is Tanner Roark's game. Prior to the 13th Roark had taken a noticeable turn south. His outings were short, he was giving up a lot of hits, and it seemed like only providence was keeping him from having a terrible blow-up game. A 1.500 WHIP should show worse than a 3.68 ERA. But this looks to be "that year" for Roark and things didn't go as bad as they should have. Now his last two outings have been much better.

While there are a lot of things it could be, rest seems the most likely reason for the turn around. He had been pitching every 5th game all-season and from May 16th through June 27th he pitched on the 5th calendar day (4 days of rest) for 6 out of 8 starts. While Roark had always been a starter, he's never racked up a season close to 200IP, which is what he was pacing. The most innings he had pitched in a season since starting in the minors was 158, and that was last year. It's not crazy to think he was tiring of the pace, the effort, and the constant major league goal of getting deep into games. Then, just when he needed it, two days off in a short time frame (thanks to the Cubs DH) gave him six days between starts. He didn't do great that game but it set the stage. He'd next be schedule to pitch on Wed the 9th, but after a rainout took away Fister's start, the Nats decided to push Fister, skip Roark, and keep the rest of the rotation on track. Roark wouldn't pitch again until the 13th. That's eight days of rest for Roark. Then the All-Star break intervened and while the Nats threw Roark in early in part to give ZNN a longer rest, it was still five days of rest, another day longer than he might sit than during a long stretch of uninterrupted games.

The end result is that when Roark next takes the mound, with another day off in between now and then, will have pitched 5 times in 29 days. If you were keeping on a strict schedule you'd make your 5th start on Day 21. Granted it's rare that you have 21 days without a break, but more a than a week longer than expected is a lot more rest than you'd usually luck into.

If it is rest the question will be what happens in mid August. The Nats will go from July 25th through August 10th without a scheduled day off thanks to the Oriole make-up. Roark would be pencilled in for that first game and then pitch 4 straight games on normal rest, the last one being a potentially huge one in Atlanta. Will the arm, then around 140 IP be tired again? Or is this time off in mid July enough to recharge his arm for the season? Was a tired arm even the issue? A lot can happen between now and then - rainouts, injuries, etc. but it's something to keep an eye on.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Up, Down, All around

Occasionally we like to peruse the fancy stats and try to pick up on things that are unsustainable. The truth is though, there is enough variation in these stats, their relationship to each other, and the number of events in a single baseball season is small enough, that a lot of what we say is little better than coin-flipping.

Span has a .299 BABIP but usually has a .315? So he should get better... unless he's just getting older. But his LD% is up a little which is better... But his GB% is up a lot, which could be worse, and LD% is the flukiest of those... His HR/FB% is down too, so should that bounce back or is it aging as well... but like from 3.5% to 1%... He's slightly more selective O-Swing rate down, a better eye maybe... but he's making more contact on these pitches and less on pitches in the zone...   Conclusion? We shouldn't be making conclusions here.

I like to look at these fancy stats to try to explain things that have happened, but as a predictor of things to happen it gets dicier. I prefer, especially with less than half the games left to only focus on those things that seem truly out of whack.  Here's what I think have a good shot to be true for the rest of the season

Adam LaRoche continues to see his numbers fall. LaRoche started out so hot that this is kind of an inevitable, but what I don't like is that .315 BABIP.  It's not far enough off his career numbers (.306) to be even glanced at, but his numbers the last two years are .298 and .277.  That jives with what I would expect from an aging, occasionally injured, slow player. It also matches what I've seen - he's not getting faster. His range numbers, kind of an independent way to judge speed/quickness, are getting worse. Really I can't see any reason for the high BABIP other than "getting lucky".  I'd expect numbers more based off a base .240 average going forward.  He won't be bad, but he'll be decidedly shruggable.

Ryan Zimmerman will hit homers at a better rate. Ryan's 7.4% HR rate is way out of line with his past numbers, almost half his average. It may be a legit drop in power (flyball distance is down) or a bat speed issues (spray charts show a lack of deep balls pulled) but I'm going to chalk it up to injury recovery. Ryan in the past has shown a tendency to recover slow and be a totally different hitter when feeling good as opposed to a little off (remember those cortisone shots). I don't think he'll go on a tear but he could end up with 15 or so, a decent ending considering he has 4 now.

Rafeal Soriano will have a rougher end to the season, so will Fister. Rafeal Soriano is floating with a .207 BABIP well below his average of around .252, his LOB% is the highest of his career, his HR/FB% a ridiculously low 2.2%.  Soriano has had a past year where he produced a lot of poor contact fly balls so I could forgive a single out of line number, but all three? He doesn't have to collapse or anything, just not an ERA under 2.00, let alone 1.00. Fister's BABIP is also below normal - part of that is the switch to the Nats from the Tigers, but the Nats D is actually seasonally trending in the wrong direction. Most of the staff are seeing BABIP rises, Fister's .263 stands out as unusual in comparison. His ERA should rise.

Strasburg and Zimmermann should see their ERA dip. First I want to note that while the Nats defense did improve over the course of the year, that's really only because it was oddly bad at the beginning. Guys like Span, who has shown himself consistently to be a good defender, and Rendon, who everyone likes as a defender, had oddly poor stats. Such is the way when looking over a few months at stats that need combined years to find consistency.  Are the Nats suddenly great in the field*? I doubt it.  I see the Nats as an average defensive team at best. Which means that I don't like a sudden drop in the BABIP the team is putting out for the pitcher. That's bad news for guys over achieving but for ZNN and Stras, who are putting up higher BABIP than normal they should see a drop which should show up in their ERA. It doesn't have to be huge, just lower.

Those are the bets I'd make for the last 70 games

LaRoche's BA drops
Zimm HR rate goes up
Soriano's ERA jumps
Fister's ERA climbs a bit, Strasburg and ZNN's drop a bit.

All in all a mixed bag, so no big push in either direction that would boost or serve as a detriment to the belief we all have that this is a good Nats team that should win most of these games coming up.

*Did you know a significant part of DRS that Kilgore cites is something called rGFP? Which is a "good fielding play" as observed from someone watching film. That potentially has its own issues but it's an interesting way to try to encapsulate things that don't show in your typical or even fancy stats. The thing is the majority of these good plays came from Frandsen, Moore and Lobaton (7 of 12). Not that they didn't happen - these guys could be "smart" if not they are not good. Doesn't matter. They aren't playing

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Avoiding this mistakes of last year

The 2013 Nats season has been boiled down to a simple set of statements. The Nats suffered important injuries early in the year. In the starters' places, the bench, questionably remaining the same from an over-their-heads 2012, produced hideously. Rizzo was too slow to make any changes. When the team finally got healthy and made a push at season's end, it was too late. End of story.

However, this convenient cliff notes version leaves out something important. From game 115 on the Nats went on a 32-16 run, playing better than anyone in baseball, but the team was back together healthy at game 85.  What happened from game 85 through game 114?

After Bryce came back on July 1st, Ramos would return to the team on July 4th, game 85. The Nats would immediately win 4 in a row and pull within 4 of the Braves and 4 of the 2nd Wild Card. Here come the Nats, right?

Wrong. The Nats would then go 2-5 leading up to the All-Star break and would follow that up coming out of the All-Star break 6-13. That 8-18 stretch culminated in a sweep by Atlanta that left the Nats 15 1/2 games out of the NL East lead, 9 1/2 out of the 2nd Wild Card and unofficially ended the season.

Stories tended to focus on this period as if it was simply a continuation of the earlier season and whatever conclusions that they had drawn from those first three months were re-inforced by the poor record. But this was with the full team, it had to be different and it was. The starters, as good as one would expect every other month, had their worst month of the year in July, putting up a 4.53 ERA. ZNN (7.18,  next worse month 3.86), Gio (5.34), Stras (4.62, next worse month 3.24) - blame went across the board. The relievers put up their 2nd worst month by ERA (0.01 better than March/Apr) and probably their worst pitched month (1.438 WHIP, next worse was 1.328), with Stammen, Soriano, Mattheus and Storen all putting up ERAs over 4.50.

The bad pitching hurt, but it could have been mitigated by some timely hitting now that the band was back together. But while Wertth and Ramos hit well, they were cancelled out by Rendon (.556) and LaRoche (.511) completely crapping out. The remainder of the team, Bryce, Desmond, Span and Zimmerman, all produced at a average level (OPS from .732 to .786). End result a very average month hitting (7th in NL in runs scored).  The hitting wasn't the problem, but it wouldn't be the solution either.

What's the point?  The point is even though the Nats are healthy they aren't immune to long periods of bad play. If you are just assuming the Nats will take over first and coast to the playoffs, you are getting ahead of yourself.  They should do it. For one thing, you can argue that the team is slightly better with Fister, Roark, a head on straight Storen, a more seasoned Rendon. For another, they are starting from a better spot. 51-42 and tied for first rather than 47-48 and 6 games out. But should isn't will. Even without a major injury the Nats could see 30-45 days of poor play for no other reason than "it happens". Don't take anything for granted.

It's a message for the fans, but it's a message for the team too. They should make those minor improvements. They should try to maximize the team's potential, even if by just a game or so. Remember last year at this time they traded for Scott Hairston... and that's it. They did nothing for three months leading up to the Nats being healthy again, and they did next to nothing when they were healthy but struggling. They assumed when healthy the Nats would win and that would be enough. They waited... and waited... and waited for the cream to rise and quite possibly waited the team out of the playoffs. You don't know if those games will matter, even for a healthy team capable of winning 2/3rd of their games for long periods of time. It happens.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Still no baseball

Well some - but Clippard looked good didn't he?
 
So why not delve into some various blog topics brought up by yesterday's celebration of a decade of destruction? But first - some All-Star thoughts.
  • The All-Star game "hat tip" to Jeter actually didn't bother me. As fan service in game form it's the proper venue for such things. What makes far less sense to me is the city by city shows of love. Why does Kansas City need to give Jeter a present?
  • I am totally in favor of one player per team. I remember when the Yankees weren't good and I watched the game to see if Roberto Kelly would do anything. As a kid, it matters. Thus I can see trying to work these "singles" into the game. But I don't think you need to work in as many players as possible. If there's already a guy on the team who's played (say Alfredo Simon for some reason) than there's no reason to bring the game to a halt to bring in Aroldis Chapman. I mean, for example. 
  • I also think the first two SP used on each side should go at least 2 IP each, and every offensive starter voted in should get at least 2 ABs. That's how I'd manage it. 
  • If managers managed like the above it's far easier to avoid the extra-innings no players left tie game situation and thus we can get rid of the ridiculous no one cares about home field advantage stipulation. Still want a safety valve for it? Have an honorary All-Star that's a recently retired pitcher who can pitch for his league if the game goes past the 13th or whatever.
  • The game should be moved to Sunday night. Teams won't like the lost weekend revenue but it would be better for the sport and you could start the ceremonies, etc. earlier without worrying about the West Coast getting home from work. 8:19 is too late for first pitch. 
  • I tweeted it but MLB should totally play up the Futures Game more than it does. Essentially it's baseball's "draft", in that it's a showcase for players that are likely to be helping their teams this year or next.
 Ok enough of that - some blog history now!

So if I've been posting since 2004 why does the archive only seem to start in Dec 2009?  Here's the story:

Back in the mid 2000's guys in the sports blog world were trying to create aggregated blog sites (think SBNation) that they could turn into successful money-making ventures. All-baseball.com was one (here's what it looked like at the time). It collected some of the best baseball writers on the internet (and also OOPS Carroll), but then there was some disagreement and a bunch of the talent (and also Carroll) went off to form their own site (baseball toaster - which I believe runs the sports internet now, right?) and all-baseball was sold to some guys. Those guys ran a site called "The most valuable network" and started recruiting other blogs to cover more teams. After probably a half-dozen other Nats blogs turned them down (no joke), I said sure. I was going to write anyway.

I didn't mind being on all-baseball. The site was pretty clean and ad-limited, and even though they had a co-writer on the blog (Needham called him JP LaFrogge) he was more... writerly (he was the one that had a blog named "Oleanders and Morning Glories" that was kept hence where the subtitle to this blog comes from), so it didn't clash with what I was doing. But these owner guys, remember, are looking to make something they can sell so eventually they consolidated all-baseball into the new mvn.

MVN.com was terrible. It looked like this. That doesn't look too bad now, but with 2007 download speeds and stuffed with ads thankfully gone from the archived version it was awful to visit. I hated it. I also didn't love working with a partner. Thought about stopping a bunch. Didn't. Eventually mvn.com folded as most "Idea -> ? -> PROFIT!" sites do and I went back to the blogspot site and haven't left. All those posts on MVN? Lost to time.

For those that don't know, I am ESPN's Sweet Spot's official Nats blogger, which means that a few years ago after a couple other Nats blogs turned them down (progress!) I said ok. It's basically been links on their site in exchange for a banner on mine, so in other words a pretty perfect arrangement for me.  Oh - I don't get paid from them. I could have been paid by MVN (they did cut checks for the ads on site) but I just let them keep the small amount of money because I fear the taxman.

There you go! History! 

Other things

Pay no attention to the time stamps. They are wrong and I can't be bothered to fix them because what does it matter. I currently live in Chapel Hill, NC, not the West coast.

Wally summed up what makes this work for me for 10 years "Just post when you want, on whatever topics you want". Yep. Early on I equated blogging to running a race. If you go at your own pace for your own goals you'll be fine. It's when you start comparing yourself to everyone else that you run into problems. For those of you that don't run... I don't know compare it to a hot dog eating contest.

Wired HK wrote that I would say -"Thanks for the supportive comments, but I honestly didn't write this post to receive kudos. It was more just to remark at how easily something that started on a lark can turn into a much larger project."  and he was dead on. I was writing that initially but couldn't make it sound right. You know me too well.

Has my attitude toward the Nats shifted? Yes it has, as many of you have noticed. I like them more now than I did. Before it was more player based and honestly I barely cared if they won or lost. Now they really are my NL team (though I still don't hate any other NL East team and carry some fondness for the Braves). Overall as I've aged my baseball fandom has waned ever so slightly, just enough to notice. It's still far less a drop than my football fandom (even though in NC you can still pretty much catch 10-12 Giants games a year thanks to one regional team and all their primetime appearances) 

Most of you get this but don't compare me to beat writers. Different jobs, different realities. They have to be far more... diplomatic than I do because they have to cover the team everyday and get those quotes. And they have to cover the team everyday. Win or lose. Interesting or not. From like mid March to October. Ugh. I actually think Nats fans have been extraordinarily lucky starting with Svrluga and now having Kilgore and Zuckerman. Sites like MASN or MLB can't really be objective because of the business partnerships, and sites like ESPN don't have any incentive to have specific team writers outside the super-fandom based teams like the Yanks and Sox. I guess what I'm saying is there's a reason things are different here beyond me somehow magically being better than other people. In fact I like to think of myself as the constantly 2nd best Nats blog, first to Capitol Punishment, then FJB, and now NatsEnquirer (who himself will hit 10 years pretty soon)

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Absurd

Forgive the diversion away from the Nats... 

Ten years ago on this day I wrote my first blog post about this franchise.  You can see it here at expos baseball DOT blogspot DOT com (I prefer to pronounce it emphasizing the dots).  Impressive, right? By my accounts this means that I've been writing about this team longer than anyone save "Rocket" Bill Ladson.  When I think about that it strikes me as completely and utterly absurd.

It's absurd because as most of you know, I don't live and die with the Nats. I live and die with the Yankees. It's nothing personal. I grew up in New York (state) and I've never lived in or even near DC (or Montreal for that matter). But if that's the case, why write about the Expos and then the Nats? Well because when I started I was afraid that by writing about a team everyday it would change how I viewed the team. I kind of think now that was a stupid thought but maybe it would have, I don't know. 

It's absurd because I didn't start blogging because of some goal of being a sports reporter, or media liaison, or sabermetrician. I didn't start because I was bursting with things to say either. Why did I start? Spite. I started because I wanted to prove to a friend how easy it was to blog about something on a semi-daily basis because he wasn't updating his blog enough for my taste. Really once I proved him wrong, (IN YOUR FACE DAN) I should have stopped. Say... September 2004? Early 2005?

It's absurd because 10 years is a long time to do anything. A decade! That's like a third of my cognizant life! Wasted! Why am I still doing it though? Because I found that I really like to do it. I like digging into stats to find something interesting. I like following a team on a crazy level. I like writing stuff, having people read it, and interacting with them (on some level - it was easier when there were fewer of you). At one point I was responding to a comment and I was writing something like "I'm not writing this for anyone to read" which I realized was not true, because if that were the case all this would be scribbled notes in a row of journals in my house, not online.

Anyway, I didn't want this moment to pass without recognizing it.

Return to baseball tomorro, maybe.