Nationals Baseball

Monday, November 23, 2015

Monday quickie - Nats on the move?

There hasn't been any rhyme or reason to the Nats dealings time wise in the past. Last year the Nats major trades were in mid December (bye Souza, hello Ross/Turner), mid January (bye Clippard, hello Escobar), and late March (bye Blevins, hello denDekker).  The year before that traded for Fister right before the winter meetings, and got Lobaton and Rivero in med February. The year before that Meyer for Span was late November and Morse was mid January.

So, the take away is that there isn't one. Rizzo will make the deal when it's there. But it could be next week. He's certainly done it before.

We've been a little rough on Rizzo so far. It feels like he's setting the Nats up for doing nothing ("We got new doctors and they are soooooooo expensive") and we've seen some prominent closers be traded when the Nats seemingly have an unresolved, untenable bullpen situation (bye Kimbrel! bye Benoit!). But in the end I have to give Rizzo the benefit of the doubt. Every season it seems that he has the team ready by Opening Day (well maybe not 2013...) and maybe pulls out a surprise deal. So until we get to Pitchers and Catchers, I'm not really going to worry about it.

Hopefully a rough and terrible podcast up late tonight. If I do it, it will be everything I already know not to do - not make it just me, not use mic on computer, etc. etc. but apparently planning to do it the week leading up to Thanksgiving when you are going to travel isn't the best idea. So you get what you get and you be happy with it! Or not!

Friday, November 20, 2015

Quick Notes on Bryce

You ever been to Oklahoma City? There's a lot of stuff named after Mickey Mantle there. That's where a steakhouse is, at least one road, the plaza of the minor league stadium (Dodgers AAA) along with a big Mantle statue outside. Mantle actually, as far as I can tell, didn't really have an association with Oklahoma City. He was born (Spavinaw) and raised (Commerce) in far NE Oklahoma, closer to Kansas City than Oklahoma City. He played semi-pro in Kansas, minor league ball in Missouri.  After his career he opened up restaurants in Texas and NY, invested in land development in Texas, hotel management in Missouri, lived in Georgia, and died and is buried in Texas. Even his eponymous steakhouse that now does, as far as I can tell, pretty well in downtown Oklahoma City, opened a few years after his death. Compare that to someone like Bobby Murcer, who was born and raised there, lived there, supported businesses there, owned the minor league team there, died and is buried there. No statue, no road, just a bust alongside other Oklahomans. It just goes to show you that what you do on the field, ultimately trumps all.

Just an aside really before talking a bit about Bryce Harper. Bryce won't have the Mantle problem. He was born and raised in Vegas and I'm sure at some point there will be roads and statues there and probably some themed slot machines as well.*  Why am I sure about it? Because he just had one of the greatest offensive seasons ever.  By OPS plus (a fair enough metric in my mind) there have only been 60 or so seasons by anyone this good or better, never by someone younger. The ones to do it within three years of Bryce are all HALL OF FAMERS, and the capitalization is on purpose. These are no doubters. Williams, Cobb, Foxx, Mantle, Ruth, Gehrig. That's it. Go to age 26, 27, 28, 29 and you find the first non HOF player (Norm Cash**) but you also find more HOF names. Lajoie, Hornsby, Frank Thomas, Bagwell, Musial, Brett, Bonds.

Think about that for a second. A handful of baseball players in 100+ years of history have had an offensive season this good and done it under 30***.  All but one are Hall of Famers. All but one did it while being older.

As for MVP you look at the other hitters around as young who won it and you see the same thing. Bench - HOF. Musial - HOF. Ripken - HOF. Trout - on track. Mays - HOF. Aaron - HOF.

I just noted how much he affected the Nats. (I really am going to do more with that. I promise!).

This guy is great. This guy is so young. That's important because usually when you see a season like this you are seeing a player's peak. A 22-27 year old at his baseball physical peak combining with health and overall luck to produce something special. Bryce is young enough that this may NOT be his peak. That's obvious just because no one had a season this good at a younger age, but it's also true looking at some of the youngest performers. Mantle would have a better season a year later. Cobb around 30. Ruth would have multiple better seasons. Even for the ones where the youngest season was the best, it was not the only season they had that was around as good.

Unless Bryce is the next Norm Cash, and no one thinks he is, the downside isn't down. The floor, where this past season was the peak, would likely be something like 6+ years of MVP caliber performance slowly degrading after that. More than half a decade hitting like Trout, Stanton, Cabrera dropping down to something like say... Ryan Zimmerman's best for a few years. The ceiling would be over a decade of performances that add a few more entries into the "best ever offensive seasons" club. Assuming health of course.

The Nats can pay him a ridiculous amount of money now and work around that. They can keep not paying him and work payroll (most likely adding very few big contracts) with the hope of signing him later. Or they can keep not paying him, assume he's gone, and add some big contracts now. If I were a Nats fan I'm hoping against hope they take that first road.

13/500 oh ok 15/500 make it "for life"

Oh yes, don't forget to ask me any questions below. Should you break up with your boyfriend because he hasn't proposed? What about asking for a raise? What's the best way to cook a turkey for Thanksgiving dinner?  Maybe even something baseball related!

*Fun fact : There's a Mickey Mantle Ct in Las Vegas. There are no other baseball/sports themed roads around it so I got nothing on why it's there. I assume someone living there picked it out. Good for you, sir or ma'am!

**Cash was partially a victim of war - he spent some time in Korea - and got a late start on his career. His first 120+ game season coming as an "old" 25. Partially it was just a once-in-a-generation lucky season. Even he realized that season was something crazy too noting everything was just dropping in (.370 BABIP when his career was like .270). Basically at his power peak, he had the luckiest season of his career average wise, and at the same time pitchers walked him because he was doing so well. Perfect Storm really. Cash also did this.

*** At 30-34 you add a mix of HOFers and almost HOFers career years. Frank Robinson, Mike Schmidt, Willie McCovey, Honus Wagner show up here, along with Jim Thome (probably a HOFer) and Dick Allen. You also get a couple of... you know, those guys. Giambi, McGwire, Sosa.

Thursday, November 19, 2015


Hey I've got an idea. How about a podcast?

I've always wanted to do a podcast. I enjoy listening to them - I basically spend any time I'm doing something that doesn't require much thought listening to one. The problem with baseball podcasts though, is that it's tough for them to stay interesting* because of the day to day nature of the game. I also figure they are a lot of work. So the end result is you end up doing something that might deserve a listen for about... 3 days. Hard to get worked up about something like that. I suppose Day 1, the All-Star break, and the playoffs are all possibilities but there's usually something more pressing I feel like writing about.

But the offseason is different. Nothing pressing. Things don't change fast enough (usually) to make the work useless. Seems perfect, especially now when little will happen between now and thanksgiving and you might be in the car with time to listen. So how about a little QandA, a little AMA, a little FAQ. Just ask a q below by Saturday and I'll do my best to Q it up.

*In my opinion of course

Friday, November 13, 2015

The BRYCE effect

I'll do a little bit more of this later but I wanted to leave something to chew on for the weekend. Yesterday, we had a little discussion on Twitter about the Nats offense and how it had the potential to be bad. I'll admit when you look at the numbers at the end of the year it didn't seem so terrible this year, 3rd in the NL in runs and all. However I've noted that there are two really big caveats to that ranking.

The first, is that rankings can be misleading. What matters really is how far you are (relatively) from the average. The NL is much more tightly packed than in the past and being 3rd doesn't mean as much as it may have in a previous season. I'll talk about this more next week with numbers and such.

The second, is that Bryce put the team on his back and carried them to that ranking. Without Bryce the team would look at lot worse. I got some push back here when I floated "without Bryce" numbers because it was rightfully noted that it wasn't fair to compare the Nationals minus their best player to other team's full rosters. I said I'd go ahead and do a look at all the teams minus their best player then and compare. This is a taste.

In the NL East the Nationals ended up with the best offense. Here are the final rankings.

Nationals : .251 / .321 / .403  .724 OPS
Mets : .244 / .312 / .400  .712
Marlins : .260 / .310 / .384  .694
Phillies : .249 / .303 / .382  .684
Braves : .251 / .314 / .359  .674

Nats pretty good! Mets ok (certainly good post trade deadline), the rest garbage! Now let's remove the most productive offensive player over the 2015 season* from each team and see what we get.

Mets : .243 / .305 / .393  .699
Nationals : .243 / .304 / .376  .681
Marlins : .260 / .308 / .372  .680
Phillies : .247 / .300 / .375  .675
Braves : .249 / .310 / .350  .660

The Nats lose an amazing 43 points of OPS if you replace Bryce with a "team average" player. That takes the team from a step above the Mets to a step below and from clearly better than the Marlins to just barely squeaking by them.  In the no BRYCE world they are closer to the last place Braves - who were terrible WITH Freeman -  than they were to the Marlins in the with Bryce world. I'll note now that the Phillies, Marlins and Braves ranked 13th, 14th, and 15th in the NL in runs scored respectively.

What does this tell you? It tells you that the Nats offense around Bryce last year was awful. That group was barely better than the groups around the best player on the worst offensive teams in the league. Ok not the Braves, who were special bad, but the Phillies and Marlins. It highlights starkly how the team depended on Bryce last year and how the 2016 offense could flounder if Bryce downshifts to very very good and the rest of the team doesn't pick it up somehow. The potential is there for a struggling offense so much so that getting another reliable bat (arguably reliable bat #2 given that Werth, Zimm, and Rendon are all injury risks, Escobar is coming off a surprise year, and Robinson is a 30 yr old career minor leaguer) should be on that off-season to do list. Where? Corner OF? C? MI? 3B? That's for Rizzo to figure out.

There is good news though. The Nats do have Bryce. Maybe he can carry them again. Also 13/500 million, Unca Ted. Think about it. 

*I bet you are wondering so to clarify. Bryce for the Nats (duh), Freeman for the Braves, Stanton for the Marins (despite playing only half a season - Gordon is a one trick pony and couldn't beat Stanton through average alone. Yelich might have passed Giancarlo but he missed 40 games himself), Granderson for the Mets (he had a really good year and Cespedes wasn't around long enough - another couple weeks might have done it though), and Franco for the Phillies (Herrera almost passed him).  All this was verified by seeing the OPS drop with each player gone.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Can't live with him, Can't live without him

Wagner had a short litte piece at the Post the other day on Wilson Ramos. It quickly outlined the positives and negatives of Ramos and gave you Rizzo's (mostly fair) impression of the situation. In short, Ramos has some real skills and as far as catchers go, that can be hard to find.

The Nats are in a hard place as far as the catcher position. It was not good overall last year, but if they attempt to improve it's not impossible that they'll make it worse. There's always going after someone currently disappointing that may surprise, but given his skill set and age Wilson Ramos may be the best bet of those types of catchers. What to do?

Well let's put defense aside for right now. Wilson has hit well in the past. If he can do it again, or better, there isn't a problem here. Wilson hit really poorly last season. If he does that again, or worse, the Nats may have to stop playing him. Which is more likely?

The biggest offensive draw for Ramos is his pop but the flash of real power in 2013, when he hit 16 homers in 303 PAs was likely a fluke. That was the highest isoSLG of his career in any decently long stint, including the minors. You do grow into power yes, but you also tend to show some pop when facing lesser competition. Ramos hit for average but never really was more than a mild power hitter while coming up. The HR/FB rates back this up. 27.6% in 2013 was unusually high for Ramos. Everything says that last year was more reality.

Wagner notes that this still may be good for a catcher.  He was 4th in HRs for the position in the NL. True, but some of that is PAs (being healthy is a big plus for the catcher position) and it ignores the other part of power. Ramos was 10th (looking at NL C with at least 300 PAs) in doubles, and didn't hit a single triple. Hitting homers is great, but hitting doubles is important too. Ramos is all or nothing and probably doesn't have enough "all" to make up for the nothing*. That's why his isoSLG ranked merely 17th out of all catchers (min 300PAs). He's ok power wise, but not special.

OK, well I said he hit for average in the minors. Can he do that again? I'm not sure about that. I'm pretty sure he can do better than .229. His .256 BABIP is low even considering he's not fast and getting slower. He put up a .290 BABIP last year, .270 in 2013.  So just by luck the average will go up. But it won't go up by a lot. His hitting in 2015 was actually remarkably similar to his hitting in 2013 (and not too different from 2014), in the type of hit and where he hit the ball. That would suggest that luck was the difference, but we have one more thing to look at.

There is a strong downward trend in how hard he has hit the ball. 40.7% in 2013, to 27.5% in 2014 to 26.2% last year. It's all "real" but given how hard he hit the balls prior to 2013 the 2014/15 numbers are more in the expected range than that 2013 number. Sometimes you can point to an increase in swings outside the strike zone to explain the change but there is nothing here that really suggests that it's a change in approach. He is just missing a lot more on pitches outside the strike zone (70.5% contact in 2013 to 60.8% last year). He's striking out more. That feels like a loss of skills. So I see him hitting better but like .240 better.

And walking? No. That's not him. Don't expect that.

2013 was a fluke - at this point everything screams that. It was a half-season of almost everything going right. Looking for the positive, we combined that season's power and average with 2012's patience and formed a very good offensive catcher in our mind. While this wasn't crazy to do given Wilson's age and injury history, we now have 200+ games much closer to the present that tell us it was more realistic to take 2013's patience and 2012's power. We didn't get the best case, we got the worst case. The worst case isn't unworkable... but it's close. I have no faith he'll get any significantly better than he is now. low average, no walks, occasional homer

But is the defense good enough to make up for it? Maybe, but good luck figuring that out in any reliable way.  As Wagner notes, he's become great at throwing out runners and his passed ball and wild pitch numbers are very low. On the other hand his pitch framing has been middling the past two years. What matters more? For now I'd consider these things pretty reliable (catcher stats are based on thousands of pitches) so I assume he is pretty good at defense. But the question isn't is he good but is he good enough?

The best guess says we're back where we started. It isn't good enough to make up for it. It's merely good enough to get him to "below average" as a catcher, maaaaaybe average if he can hit a little better. But below where he sits now are a handful of catchers that start that are terrible. There isn't going to be an easy to find fix sitting on some bench that will improve on what Wilson does. And above where he sits is a group of 10 or so catchers only marginally better. There isn't going to be an easy trade target to improve on him either. To better the Nats at catcher they have to go after either a true catching prospect or a Top 10 catcher. Either will cost them plenty.

This all brings up the biggest question of all. We accept going with Wilson Ramos in 2016 because he's not terrible and there is nothing better easily obtainable. But if that's all true, what happens in 2017, when the Nats let him walk via free agency?

*However, I will note that I think he's better than the typical all or nothing guy. I think he hits balls that will drive in guys but just can't get himself into scoring position. So he gets half the benefit of a double type hit. Which is more than nothing, and probably explains some of his relatively high RBI total. But don't get me wrong. It's still not great. And I didn't even mention GIDP this whole time either! Which probably wipes out whatever I'm talking about here. 

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Will Bryce be here in 2019?

The Nats are at somewhat of a crossroads. This offseason marks the first of two where a mass exodus of players will completely change the make-up of a Washington team that has been fairly stable and moderately successful since 2012. After that second year, we do not know whether the talent base that remains will be strong enough to continue to be successful. The Nats therefore are faced with a choice. They could focus on competing now. They could try to compete later.  Or they could attempt to thread the needle and field consistently competitive teams through the next half-decade or so. An important influencer for this decision is whether they believe Bryce Harper will be around in 2019. It seems like an unnecessary question to ask three years out, if Bryce will leave via free agency, but it isn't. Whether you think Bryce will be here after that time informs what the Nats should do right now.

The Nats know they can be competitive in 2016. The talent that had the pundits picking the Nats as runaway favorites for the NL mostly remains. Yes they will lose Zimmermann, Fister, Desmond, and Span (and don't forget Matt Thornton!). But Ross and Roark can probably replace what ZNN and Fister gave to the team in 2015, Espinosa should be able to compensate for 2015 Desmond, and Taylor may raise his game a bit in year 2. That would hold the team steady around 85 wins. If Rizzo can add a solid bat to compensate for the injury risk inherent in the offense and can bring in some reliable bullpen arms, the Nats will likely be seen as in a fight for the NL East title with the Mets.* Given health of course.

Beyond 2016 is hazy though. Strasburg, Stammen, Storen, Ramos, and Papelbon (and Escobar) will all likely be gone by 2017. In that year, Werth will be 38. Scherzer will be entering the danger zone for arms. Gio may still be sliding. Zimmerman will only be an older injury risk. Even if all those guys remain productive in 2017, it won't be enough by itself to make the Nats good. You would also be looking at the first or second full years for Giolito, Turner, and Ross and expecting them to be effective. You would be looking for Taylor to have turned a corner and Rendon to have bounced back, along with any other number of things going right. Free agency and trades can certainly help but there is no denying beyond 2016 there is a lot of uncertainty. As it has been since the 2012 offseason, it is a good bet the Nats will be competitive in the upcoming year, but, for the first time in a long time, it is not a good bet that they'll be competitive the year beyond that.

This is where the dilemma begins then. If you don't believe that Bryce Harper will be around in 2019 then it makes all the sense in the world to invest very heavily in players for this season. That doesn't mean you have to sign a bunch of old guys, but it could. As strange as it may sound, you can easily come up with a scenario where 2016 represents the best remaining chance for the team to win with Bryce. By going with good enough players you are only opening the chance for another wasted MVP type performance like the Nats got in 2015.

However, if you think the Nats can keep Bryce, it may be best to try to thread the needle. Hope that you get healthy in 2016 and compete, but if you don't, you haven't over-committed to aging players beyond that. 2017 is probably is a dip year, but assuming a clearer picture emerges via the development of the young players, you'd then likely have the money available to go out and get help via free agency to make the team good again in 2018.

A third option exists, too. If you are sure you are going to keep Bryce**, you could try to build a super team of youngsters around him in 2018 and beyond. How? By giving up on 2016 and trading the talent you do have (and potentially shedding contracts if possible).  It's a riskier move to be sure, but in the previous scenario there is a chance those young players haven't developed. Let's say Taylor never develops, Turner disappoints, and Giolito gets injured. It would be hard to see how you can simply trade and sign your way to a great team in 2018 and beyond given that scenario. So instead of relying on hitting all your gambles, you get enough that it doesn't matter if you hit on all of them. Trade Strasburg, Gio, Ramos, Storen, Papelbon, Escobar. Get rid of Werth and Zimmerman if you can. Get a BUNCH of guys who may be very good in a year or two or three. It's very unlikely they'd all fail and the idea of using FA and trades to field a very good team in 2018 seems a lot sounder. But it only works if there's a 26 year old Bryce to build around. 

The Nats are most likely going to try to thread the needle. It's the conservative choice. It's the choice that keeps them in it in 2016 and allows Rizzo to work something out for 2017 and beyond when the time comes. However, as we've seen twice now in 3 seasons, when you don't go all-in you have a smaller margin of error. We'd be looking at three more seasons of "if healthy and if all this goes right" planning. It could net the Nats three seasons of playoffs or no seasons of playoffs. And then Bryce could be gone. I think I'd rather see the Nats spend alot to win this year or spend alot to keep Bryce, then to spend a little and hope luck breaks their way.

*Of course this is dependent on what the Mets do. I'm assuming now that Uribe , Johnson, Murphy and Cespedes all leave and only one moderately good bat is signed. If they do more they would probably be a solid favorite.

** like how about offering him 13/500 now?

Monday, November 09, 2015

Monday Quickie - Qualifying

Qualifying Offers went out on Friday. For the few unfamiliar with the concept, these are one-year deals you can make to free agents where if they reject you get a draft pick as compensation. The QO number is set fairly high. this year it is 15.8 million, and because of that we end up with a situation where almost no one offered accepts the deal. If you are good enough to be offered a QO, you are good enough to make more in free agency. You reject. If you aren't good enough to make more in FA, the team doesn't want to pay you 15.8 million. There are borderline cases though and they often deal with injury risk.

The Nats offered to Jordan Zimmermann. Easy call. He's been worth more than that for several years and on the open pitchers market will likely easily surpass that annual value. In fact he should make around 20 million a year not just for one season but for something like 6 years. You offer. He'll reject.

The Nats offered to Ian Desmond. Another fairly easy call. Ian had an poor year and wasn't worth 15.8 million this year but has been in the recent past and the SS FA market is not strong. So if you want to get someone of Ian's talent on the Nats next year through free agency it would cost at least 15.8 miilion. You offer. He may or may not beat that salary annually but he should be relatively close and get offered a multi-year deal. For him there's really no reason to accept this when there could be 4/52 out there, and that's a very pessimistic number. (What's optimistic?  6/102)

Doug Fister is another easy call, at least to me. He wasn't worth 15.8 million next year and frankly 2014 was a mirage. You only offer if you are sure he won't accept and I don't see how you could be. Fister is likely to only get offered two types of contracts. The first would be challenge deals, one-year deals that maybe have team option years and incentives, that are a little under market.  The team is gambling that it might get a steal for a year on the player. The player gambles they might be able to turn it around and get a long term deal later. For Fister I don't see a better challenge deal out there than re-upping with the Nats for nearly 16 million. It'll be more money for likely a more talented team, then he could get on the FA market. The other type would be a way under value short mutli-year deal. 3/27, 2/22 something where the team is accepting risk on what could be useless years beyond the first and funneling into a lower annual salary.  If you can make 16 this year though and think you can turn it into a long term deal why accept a deal like that? You don't. So if I'm Fister I'm taking the QO if the Nats offer and nobody here wants that. You don't offer.

Denard Span is the injury risk tough call. When healthy, even this year, he's been very good. It's easy to see that if he plays a full year he'd be worth the money. However he has dealt with at least three separate injuries in the past year and has a concussion history to boot. It's more than fair to downgrade his value based on these risks. However even if the Nats don't want to pay Span 15.8 million for next year, they do have to think about the other side. Would Span accept that deal? Unlike Fister, who was awful last year and had most stats guys expecting that crash if not sooner than later, Span was great. He hit like he did in 2014 when he was pushed as a MVP-vote worthy player. Even with the injuries it is very likely he has a multi-year deal out there waiting for him. It won't likely be the "maybe last one of my career" one that he probably was hoping for but 3/4 years at 10-15 million? That's possible. Do you take say 4 million more in the hopes of turning it all around? I don't. I go for it. So if I were the Nats I'd have offered Span a QO. It's likely he rejects and if he accepts, for one year the risk is worth it.

What does it say that the Nats didn't offer the deal to Span? Well my guess would be they have an idea of the budget for the team without Span and don't want him to accept and mess that up and/or they feel his health is too big a risk to take a gamble on. On the latter they surely know more than me (or you). On the former that could be good or bad. It does sound cheap yes, and that's how I'd lean in thinking about it, but it could also mean they know exactly where they want to spend their money. It's a little presumptuous that they could hit all their marks and a little sad they don't have flexiblity to absorb Span if he accepts (not that 10 million isn't alot but it'd be nice if the Nats could gamble with what hoepfully amounts to less than 7 percent of their payroll) but it's not that problematic.

I was only going to be worried if they didn't offer any QOs. That would mean they couldn't even deal with ZNN, who is totally worth the money, accepting. That's very worrisome. But it didn't happen. The Nats did pretty much what they should have so let's move on.