Nationals Baseball

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Lucky or Unlucky - 2017 version

I've done posts like this before but it's always fun to try to look at a season impartially in regards to luck. Most fans percieve their teams as unlucky regardless of what happened during the season. The good is expected, the bad is not. But that's not the way it goes. I don't expect to find that the Nats were super-lucky or anything. This team was built to be good, but I do expect to see a lot of lucky in there because teams don't win 95+ games without some things going their way (or NOTHING going against them)

Lucky (Better than expected)  
Zimmerman bounces back like one of those balls you can buy for a quarter at the front of a grocery store - For a good chunk of the season Zimm was sort of a "best case" in terms of reasonable recovery.  From May 1st through August 30th Zimm hit .269 / .330 / .476 with 18 homers. Forecast that out for a whole year and .270 with 28 homers? It's almost 2013 pre-injury Zimm again!  That itseslf would have bordered on lucky. But what pushed it over the top was how he hit in the other two months. .325 with 7 homers in the last month. Best hitter in baseball in the first one. These were long stretches of baseball we didn't think we'd see again from Zimm. The Nats got two of them in the same year. There was a minor slump mid-year but there was no low that matched those highs.

Anthony Rendon better than ever - It could be reasoned that Rendon doing well as he ever had done was as expected. But Rendon did better than that.

MAT breaks out - 75 OPS+, 73 OPS+, 70 OPS+.  See a pattern? We all did and those first three years of MAT in the majors all spelled out the same thing - below average hitter. But an injury to Eaton meant they had to run with MAT and in what might of been his last chance to be a starter MAT broke out. Now, for the seaosn that actually only meant he hit around average. But given his fielding that turned a 4th OF into a starter.

Rolling straight 7s on the bench - That any one of Lind, Kendrick, Starter Difo, or Goodwin, would hit like they did isn't too much of a surprise. Difo maybe a little but it was a limited time frame. The fact that they all basically gave you what you would want is though.

Gio reborn - Gio was on a slow decline and even though he'd probably do better than he showed in 2016, putting up a Cy Young vote season was beyond expectations.

Unlucky (Worse than expected)
Adam Eaton misses most of season - pretty self-explanatory. Played 310 out of 324 games past two years. 28. Every team gets this kind of bad luck with a player it's the who and when that determines how bad that luck is and Eaton going out early is pretty bad bad luck.

Matt Wieters RIP - While it could be expected that Matt Wieters would continue a decline it was generally considered that he'd float along as a below average hitter for a few more years. With the exception of a month of great hitting in 2014 that was his MO. Usually a little below average, sometimes surprising with a little above average. And at only 31 going into this year there were still a couple more years before you were sure age would play a role. Instead Wieters was one of the worst hitting regulars in baseball

Trea Turner gets injured - I can't call his performance unlucky because we only got half a year from the kid so far. However, you don't expect your young SS to miss 40% of the year.

Bryce Harper gets injured - ok this is only a mild bit of bad luck because injuries are a thing for Bryce, but he had managed to play basically full seasons the last two years so it's reasonable to think as a very young guy he could put his early injury history behind him. Also the injury itself was a fluky slippery base step thing, as opposed to gotten by swinging the bat too hard or just running around the bases.

Rolling straight 12s on the bullpen - Bullpen swings are not unprecedented. And there was a lot of things last year that were question marks going into this year. Could Blake Treinen repeat? How was Glover's health? How was Kelley's health? Why was Joe Blanton left in FA for so long?  Were one of these guys going to rise into the closer role? Talk of "best bullpen ever" was ridiculous but you sit here and look at those 4 after 2016 and think - ok worst case 2 come out of this and if they find one more arm they are passable. Instead 0 came out of this and the bullpen needed to be fixed by trade.

As expected 
Daniel Murphy - overall on target
Jayson Werth - didn't hit well and injured?  That literally happened two years ago and he's 38. If this wasn't within your expectations I don't know what to tell you.
Jose Lobaton - he's not good.
Max Scherzer - he is good.
Stephen Strasburg - I could maybe put this in lucky but anyone watching him closely could see he had this type of season in him if he could get the big outs.
Back of the rotation fails - Ross ended last year not pitching well and hurt. The Nats traded away best SP prospects. No surprise here

Tanner Roark - I'm not sure what was a fair expectation for him. As a starter in 2014 and 2016 he was better than this year but those were only two seasons with a season of mediocre pitching in between. It was a different role yes, but at the very least it doesn't give us the 3 straight years of results we would like to lean on. I could see an argument either way.

Overall opinion 
It was a pretty even season luck wise. The Nats offensive performances cancelled out the injury issues and the bench play pushed them higher. The Nats starting pitching was a little better than expected with Gio more than overcoming Roark's inbetween year. However, you can't ignore how the pen crash hurt the first part of the year. This was a team built to win 90+ games. The luck balanced as you hope for a good team and the NL East parted and the Nats were able to run away and hide.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Monday Quickie - Now you see why Davis pitched 7 outs

While the Nats beaters go down meekly to the back to being all-powerful Dodgers, the Nats themselves must go on. And as the team does, so does the paper of record.

Janes managed to put together the 5 biggest offseason questions without actually including the biggest one (extending Bryce). Boz wrote a column about the Nats lacking intangibles that the Cubs have that looks only more ludicrous after a weekend of losing and continued bad managing.   I could pick that column apart but Boz is reeling just as bad as any of you, so I'll pass.* **

What we'll do is go through the offseason position discussions again. Probably starting this week. Today though, because some of these decisions may be made sooner rather than later, we'll go over all the free agents the Nats have and what I think will happen with them and why.

Dusty Baker - the biggest free agent of all is the manager. While I've made no secret I don't love the Dusty persona as much as most fans (and nearly all media) it is undeniable that Dusty wins games where ever he goes.  It's also undeniable that he doesn't win in the playoffs. Why? I don't know if there is a particularly good reason. I think Dusty is an average tactician so he can get outmanaged, but more often than not it's just the breaks of a short series versus a team of equal talent.

I think Dusty will be back because the Nats and Dusty line up really well. Dusty wants to win a World Series so he can make the Hall of Fame. He needs a team that's a good shot to make the playoffs. It's hard to argue that any team is a better shot to do that next year than the Nats. The Nats are all about winning enough to get to the playoffs and using the "quantity, not quality" argument to find themselves in more important playoff rounds. Dusty wins a lot of regular season games.

What's the hold up then? Money. That's the only thing that differs between the two. Dusty would of course rather get paid like managers of his record and experience get paid (and probably thinks he deserves a bit more than that). He'd like a contract with some long term assurances. The Nats like to pay their managers around the low end of what managers make and for short term deals so they don't get locked into a Matt Williams situation again (paying a guy not to manage).

I expect the Nats to offer Dusty a deal with a modest raise for 1 year with a team option for a 2nd. Does Dusty take it? Well any team likely to make the playoffs and wanting to go further is probably not going to hire Dusty, given his track record. So right away, the teams Dusty would want to be managing to hit his goal are out. That leaves him with teams on the cusp of the playoffs who think Dusty could put them in with a solid regular season. The Mets? The Mariners? The Angels? The Orioles? It would be a gamble for Dusty and a gamble is probably only worth it if one of these teams pays out big time for him. I don't see it happening. So I think Dusty reluctantly signs back on.

Jayson Werth - Werth is gone. There's no way around that. With Eaton's return and Zimmerman's resurgance and MAT's... uhhh... "surgance" there isn't a place for Werth on the field. It's possible he could be a bench player but Goodwin showed enough that you'd probably pencil him in as the 4th OF. And we're not even mentioning where Robles ends up (likely AAA but that's not the only development path). No, the team is crowded with OF and the only way you take a Jayson Werth back is in a Chris Heisey type of role, where  you pinch hit unless on the field injuries make you play everyday. That's not a role I think Werth wants. Not when he can probably get a team to buy in an a full time DH job in the AL, at least for a year. Unless the Nats pull a trade and they suddenly need an OF, this is the last we've seen of Werth in a Nats uniform.

Howie Kendrick - He's not going to make 10 million a year but last year showed he wasn't washed up. At a reasonable 34 next year ome team will give him a deal to start in the outfield or maybe even at 3rd, for starter money. The Nats don't have a position for him out there nor are they going pay him a lot to sit the bench just in case. They might for a younger player who they may see as being able to bridge a post Bryce, post Muprhy era, but Kendrick ain't that.

Oliver Perez - Perez is a LOOGY now, but not a dominant one. When you talk about replaceable bullpen pieces, this is what they mean.  While the Nats could offer him a cheap-o deal to stay, I don't think they bother. They let him walk and Solis becomes the LHP guy.

Joe Blanton - What a terrible year for Joe Blanton. Despite a great last two years as a reliever, no one trusted him and he sat out on the FA market for such a long time that the Nats were able to sweep in and get him. Then he showed why no one trusted him as injuries and poor performance regulated him to the middle innings. There may be another year or two in Joe Blanton's future but that's for another team to figure out. The Nats aren't against taking chances, but I don't see them taking one with Blanton.

Stephen Drew - Drew is a good player but ended the year injured and is obviously nearing his career's end. Meanwhile Wilmer Difo had a very fine year filling in. I don't know if you want to go into next year with Difo/Goodwin as your top bench players though so there is room for a guy like Drew to come back. However it would have to be a minimum type deal. I think it's possible because he has a good relationship with the team, but I think the Nats will explore other options first.

Brandon Kintzler - He's gone. Not that the Nats couldn't use him but they'll be paying a cool 12 million for Doolittle and Madson next year and keeping Kintzler for the 5 million or more it'll cost the Nats is a bridge too far I think. I also think there is just a natural tendency to look away from guys who are going into their 30s and don't strike anyone out. He'll find a team, everyone needs bullpen help, and probably a team to close for.

Jose Lobaton - Why would you bring back Jose Lobaton? The Nats have to keep Wieters (he'll pick-up his option, and no one will take that contract and the Nats won't eat it). They are desperate to prove Pedro Severino can hit in the majors. Lobaton is terrible. This isn't difficult.

Matt Albers - Sometimes things just work out and Matt Albers becoming a solid reliever with the Nats is one of those things. When things do work out, a lot of times you lean toward keeping that good thing going, so I can see Albers wanting to stick around. The Nats of course would want him to stay but Albers does only have one good year behind him and isn't young (35 in January). I think the Nationals cautiously offer him a deal like Dusty. 1 + option, maybe two, for a modest cost. And I think Albers takes it. The one caveat is you never know if the reliver market is going to explode and if it does Albers could be offered a deal he can't refuse.

Adam Lind - I think both sides want Lind in Washington but I don't think it'll work out. Like Werth and Kendrick before, there isn't a good place for Werth and he has proven he can still hit like an everyday player. He probably needs a DH role though because he doesn't field well. Perhaps the Nats could still lure him by offering to pick-up the option for 5 million but that's a lot of money for a bench player for this team. In the end I don't think the Nats can offer Lind the money or the time he'll find elsewhere, not even close really, and it won't be much of a choice.

*I will note that it's no coincidence that the first player Boz blames for the loss is Bryce Harper. He's setting the fans up for a post-Bryce world.  

**I'll also agree that praising Wieters and Werth for being angry at losing while not addressing how they were among the biggest contributors to the losing is ridiculous. OK I'm done. I swear. For now.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Lost, goddammit, lost.

Last year I ended up doing a post where I went through any moment I felt was pivotal to that game 5. I feel like if I did it for this game I wouldn't stop writing until next Tuesday. So instead I'm just going to spread the blame around where I feel it needs to go.

Worst Player Ever

Matt Wieters already had an iffy play in the top of the 3rd. With men on 2nd and 3rd and with two-outs Gio threw a pitch that went exactly 60 ft and skidded off the back of the plate. With a man on third a catcher needs to block that pitch and try to keep it in front of him.  Wieters instead reached out with a backhand. It hit his glove/arm and went to the backstop and Contreras scored. This would only be a prelude for things to come.

It was supposed to be the inning where the door began to close on the Cubs. Max Scherzer, MAX SCHERZER, was coming out of the pen and he would shut down the Cubs for as long as he could giving the Nats 2 or 3 turns at the plate to expand on their one-run lead. He set down Bryant and Rizzo but then the Cubs got some breaks, an infield single, a bloop right, and a sharp gorund ball down the line to score two. The lead was gone, the momentum was gone, but the Nats were still just a run behind and in this game that didn't feel like anything.  If they could hold them here, at 5-4, surely they could score 1-2 more runs.

But they couldn't and the reason why was Matt Wieters. After a couple of errant pitches they decided to walk Heyward and reset. They'd focus on getting out the free-swinging Baez. And Max did it. Struck him out on three pitches. But the third one got away from Matt. It wasn't a particularly tricky pitch. Just a ball in the dirt that a catcher should smother in place. But Wieters stood up, protecting against a crazy high bounce I guess, and the ball went right through his legs. The Cubs scored again.  6-4. Not only that Wieters mailed the ball somewhere to RF allowing the runners to move up. Max would have to bear down again, now facing two runners in scoring position, and on a 1-1 count he got a foul ball that put LaStella behind but wait Wieters wasn't finished. He reached out too far and LaStella's bat caught his glove. Catcher's Interference. Bases loaded. Now Max had no room for error and he made his one true mistake - hitting Jon Jay - to bring in another run. 7-4. The game wasn't over but it sure felt like it to a lot of people.

Wieters wasn't done yet. the Nats would come back with two outs in the 6th. They would plate two and Mike Montgomery would IBB Rendon to get to Wieters. Montgomery had already walked one and off of an IBB patience was probably the order of the day. Of course you swing at your pitch but anything close you let slide at first to see if you can't get him into a bad position. Instead Wieters would swing at the first pitch, a fastball high and off the plate, and fly out to RF. A strong hit but not the right move on a 1-0 pitch when literally anything can score a run.

Mercifully a double switch would take him out. If this game was normal outside of these instances Wieters would be getting killed today, and maybe he still will be.

Second Worst Player

Momentum is a funny thing. It's an intangible so you can't measure or plan for it, but you sure can feel it when it's there. Gio Gonzalez had already put the Nats behind because of some bad pitching including a Wild Pitch so bad that I can't in any way, shape, or form pin on Wieters. (Believe me I would, see the one above) but the Nats exploded for 4 runs to give him a nice lead. All Gio had to do was get through the Top of the 3rd without giving up a run and the Cubs would be headed toward a bad spot, where soon half-innings where they HAD to score would follow half-innings where they HAD to keep the Nats from doing the same.  He couldn't do it.

Rizzo would get a hit and he'd walk two guys. After getting Russell to ground out, Gio would then unleash the wild pitch I talked about in Wieters thing. It wasn't all Gio's fault, unlike the first inning wild pitch, but certainly he has at least half the blame if not more.

Not only did this inning get the Cubs immediately back into the game when they could have felt out of it, it pushed Gio out in favor of Matt Albers, a move that would cost the Nats a reliever down the road and set in motion the pitching moves for the rest of the game.

This is the second time Gio has been tasked with a 5th game and a lead and all he had to do was not not blow it early. This time he was even worse than last time, when he would give up 3 runs over the course of the 4th and 5th, walking four and uncorking a wild pitch in those two innings to get himself removed.

Also noteworthy

There is this feeling that if you are going to lose in a game this big, you want to lose with your best arms on the mound. You may ask them for too much, but you'd rather lose on a Chapman or Jansen stretched out to the limit, than a Baez or failing Betances fresh and rested. Since, the data really isn't there to support either strategy (you don't usually stretch out relievers that long so there's little to look at on that end for comparison) it's a bar room argument but one where most fans would side with the original sentiment.

This is the same feeling that puts Max on the mound, despite being on short rest, not having relieving experience and having Roark ready. So anyone wanting to call Dusty out here is pretty much calling out every manager and most fans of the game in an argument based in feelings not fact.

But if the above is the case, if you want to lose with your best on the mound, then why would in the 7th inning, Dusty use Sammy Solis? Solis was a decent reliever this year with a good finish, but arguably the 2nd to last man out of the pen coming into the series. During it he had been good during a game 2 showing, but in game 3 gave up 2 hits and didn't get an out before being pulled.

More curious was the first batter of the inning was a righty, Javy Baez. Perhaps bringing in Solis to face a lefty would make sense but a free swigning righty with pop like Baez? That was asking for trouble. The most sensible thing would be to let Kintzler start the inning. Get the out or not and see who was brought on to PH for the pitcher. Circumstances would tell you if you needed a lefty or a new righty and then you go with Doolittle or Madson or stick with Kintzler.

It just didn't make any sense at the time and doesn't now unless you believe you have to save Doolittle but in a game 5, in what was now a two-run ball-game, every at bat was important even those in the 7th.  Hell in an ANY run ball-game it's important in a game 5. But Solis got the call and after getting Baez out (he tried to bunt for some reason) he gave up back to back singles. Madson would come on and get the ground ball they needed but it was just too far over, the Nats arms just not strong enough, and Bryant was just fast enough to avoid the DP. Another run, what ended up being the deciding run was scored.

We can talk more about the game some more there are a million things to talk about. I'll list them here but won't go into it

Lobaton getting picked off
The interference call on Baez that should have been made

Oh hell let's try to go in order...
  • What the Nats were doing wasting that challenge in the first
  • The amazing difference between 1st-2nd-3rd inning Gio.
  • The inability to score Turner in the bottom of the first
  • Wieters' bunt
  • Zimmerman coming up repeatedly small with 2 outs and leaving 6 men on base
  • The strike zone with no low strikes
  • Maddon not only not pulling Hendricks in 2nd but letting him bat in the 4th
  • The odd use of Robles as an early pinch hitter
  • The lack of use of anyone as a pinch runner
  • Max's inability to put anyone away. 
  • Kris Bryant dying after G2 of the series. 
  • The Nats not bothering to try to manufacture a run after Murphy walked
  • Kintzler failing again
  • Werth not scoring on Bryce's double
  • Zimm not scoring on Murphy's double
  • Why Dusty didn't pinch hit for Wieters with Kendrick in the 6th
  • Maddon using Schwarber as a PH vs Solis with no one on
  • Dusty's double switch strategy leaving Nats with Wieters - Lobaton at bats rather than likely Kendrick - Lind at bats in the 6th and 7th 
  • Dusty going with Madson and not Doolittle in an have-to get an out situation
  • The challenge on Jay's DP slide
  • Maddon using Carl Edwards AGAIN and then pulling him immediately
  • Bryce just missing that pitch with the bases loaded
  • Maddon going with Wade Davis for a 7-out save
  • How the hell Contreras let the pitch go and hit the ump square in the face  
  • The umps subsequent harder than necessary "playful" punch of Contreras
  • Why after two straight walks, Lind swings at the first pitch from Wade Davis
  • Why after two straight walks, and one pitch to Lind, on a 1-0 count MAT swings at the second pitch from Davis
  • The fact Lobaton got a hit
  • Why Turner swings at the first pitch from Davis, despite him throwing 4 out of 5 first pitch balls in the inning 
  • The challenge on Lobaton's pick-off being super questionable from what we could see
  • Why Turner swings at the first pitch from Davis in the ninth
  • The fact that Werth wanting to play, gets a chance to do something in the ninth and strikes out
  • The fact that Bryce wanting the chance to be the hero, gets a chance to do something in the ninth and strikes out
Did I get them all? I probably didn't.  The Nats ended every inning but the 9th with a man on base! The Cubs went 1-11 with RISP! The Cubs walked 18 men in the last two games! The Nats had 14 hits in this game after having 16 in the first four games of the series. The Cubs scored 9 runs after scoring 8 in the first four games. OMG I actually did totally forget Werth missing that soft liner! How could I forget that? I could go on and on.

Thursday, October 12, 2017


In 2012 the Washington Nationals informed the sporting world that Stephen Strasburg, the youngest and most talented of their three aces, would not be pitching in the playoffs. It was an understandable  precautionary measure designed to keep their most important pitching piece healthy for the remainder of his time with the team. But in protecting his arm, the team left his reputation open to attack. Over the next 5 years, that reputation would face many slings and arrows, both fair and unfair, until it was left in tatters and the narrative was set. Strasburg was a player who would never live up to his potential because he was too fragile. He was too fragile physically and too fragile mentally.

But last night Strasburg, put an end to the attacks, repaired the reputation, and destroyed the narrative. Last night Strasburg delivered a masterful performance facing poor conditions both internal and external when his team needed him most. Last night, Strasburg became the star he had never quite managed to be seen as before.

I'm not sure exactly when the narrative took hold for good. My guess is early in 2013. Strasburg's first two years were a shooting comet, spectacular but fleeting because of the TJ surgery he would need. 2012 was a year for recovery but the Nats management messed up. They didn't expect the NL East title and the playoffs so they didn't keep Strasburg limited early in the year. When it came to the end they had no choice, really. Allowing Strasburg to pitch down the stretch and in the playoffs would have opened him up to up to 70 more innings than they had planned for, or the possibility of a random infuriating stoppage during the playoffs.

Even though stopping him made sense the fans would only accept it if Strasburg then reached his potential and/or the Nationals won in the playoffs soon after. Neither of those things happened. In 2013 Strasburg had a rough start, had another minor injury midseason, and couldn't get wins. The team that was supposed to bounce back into the playoffs with a stud pitcher leading the way was instead being left in the dust by Atlanta with Strasburg sitting at 5-9. No matter that he was actually pitching well. Now the shutdown looked like it was for nothing. No playoffs, no ace.

2014 would be better but by this time it was clear that the generational pitching talent was not Strasburg but Clayton Kershaw putting up sub 2.00 ERAs and going 21-3 in LA. At the same time Jordan Zimmermann, his own teammate, was pitching just as well and more importantly, winning games. A strong playoff performance could have helped but the Nats offense died on the vine and there would be no opportunities for a defining run. 2015 was the nail in the coffin as Strasburg would miss a couple months and the team would again miss the playoffs that they were sure they were going to make before the season started.

It wasn't just the performance, nor was it just the emergence of Kershaw, but it was also Strasburg's penchant for giving reasons for his poor performances. These were not meant to be complete explanations for his rough outings but fair responses to the questions raised. Why didn't he have great command of my curve? It was too humid and he was sweating a lot. Why did he give up those big early runs? Well it's cold out and it took a while to warm up. These are fair statements but fans don't see reasons, they see excuses.

In the end, Strasburg became seen as the guy who wasn't the best pitcher in baseball, who might not be the best pitcher on his own team, who made excuses for everything, and couldn't stay healthy despite having a whole playoff series ruined for his sake. Of course that is all nonsense. Well not the "wasn't the best pitcher in baseball" part, that was true, but he was a very very good pitcher, close to great if not there for 4 years. He was a guy who if not for some niggling injuries here and there (he averaged about 170 IP per season) would have been a Top 10, maybe a Top 5 pitcher in baseball over that time frame.  But enough fans couldn't see that that his performances became a joyless slog into nitpickery as opposed to a fun watch. The struggle for Strasburg's baseball reputation seemed to be eternal.

That is until yesterday. 24 hours ago it looked like these negative fans would have the ultimate validation and that narrative would be set in stone. Strasburg wasn't pitching. He was coming up small again. He could never live this down, skipping out on a elimination game, when he still had the strength to get up out of bed and come down to the park. But that didn't happen and now we live in a world where Strasburg can be enjoyed again. Strasmas is saved.

Other notes

We can talk about the "how" he came to start later. It is its own long post. No, I still don't buy the official story being fed out there, what seemed like nonsense yesterday still seems like nonsense today but why have that argument before a Game 5 (and probably not the day after either - because we'll be recapping at the very least)? There's time later.

To wit though- the Nats who HAD to name Tanner Roark starter Tuesday afternoon, did not name a starter after last night's game (or by this time this morning) I think it'll be Gio. Why go with Tanner? I don't see the reasoning.

Did MAT come into his own last night? Ehhhh I mean that was a carrying flyball that just got over into the net. Tyler Moore got a big hit in a series, remember? MAT is much better than Moore, but next season is going to define his future far more than that one swing. The question of course is where he will play... and it's a good one. For the offseason.

The Nats as a whole swung the bat a lot better last night it seemed. A lot more line drives, if not base hits. Still everybody but MAT (and 2-2 Lind) is below .200 in their batting averages. Wieters is a big fat 0. Does Dusty do anything different? Lind for Werth is an obvious move versus the righty Hendricks but can he do it? He did (finally) pull Werth for defense last night, however it was after what would likely be his last AB of the game. I'm not sure it happens otherwise. Maybe in 9th. If you do put Lind in - well he's not better than Werth in the field. Prepare for that.

Going along with the above the Nats still need help to score. A wild pitch and an error helped bring in the first run. A trio of walks were needed to load the bases for the grandslam, two of them may have involved a total of one ball thrown in the zone combined.

It's time for more narratives to die. It's time for the Nats offense to perform big in the playoffs. It's time for the Nats to win a division series.


Wednesday, October 11, 2017

You gotta know when to hold them, know when to mold them

Yesterday at this time Nats fans were universally praying for rain. Rain would set up a scenario where Strasburg, the hottest pitcher in baseball, could go on normal rest today in G4 and Gio, who's having a remarkable year, could go on normal rest in G5. It would by no means guarantee anything but it would give the Nats a better shot and that's all you can ask for down 2 games to 1.

Then insanity happened. For those of you that went to bed at 6PM last night here's Castillo's recap and Boz's take.  Strasburg would not pitch Game 4.

Immediately the focus was on Dusty making a stupid move but it soon became apparent that it wasn't Dusty's gut, but Strasburg's body that was driving this choice. Word got out that he was sick and would not be able to pitch. As Boz points out, it got out in the most confusing way, as Dusty - one of the smoother managers in front of the mic - bumbled his way through a couple explanations at one point insinuating that Strasburg took his bullpen session* that morning. That both didn't make sense strategically and informationally as no one reported a Strasburg bullpen session that morning. Dusty ended up blaming mold in the hotels for making the team sick and we were left with more questions and no answers. 

Boz's piece attempts to fill in the blanks. It paints Strasburg again as the warrior, willing to throw through pain for the team. However the team decided it was best to give Strasburg another day and that the miscommunication on Dusty's end had to be all Dusty.

The immediate question you ask yourself when presented a story is - does it pass on first glance. This one doesn't.

Strasburg's reputation aside, there is next to no reason to announce Strasburg wouldn't start on 5:00PM Wednesday at 5:00PM Tuesday. Baseball is a tough sport because of the length and grind** of the season. It's an almost everyday sport that covers half a year. Players will get sick. That isn't unusual. But sickness is typically taken as a day by day injury. Whether you can play tonight is not decided the day before but upon coming to the field the day of and evaluating then. Perhaps a morning decision in cases where the decision is an obvious one.

A decision the day before hints at two things. Either a pitcher who chose not to rise to the occasion, or an illness of such strength that no re-evaluation the next morning would change their feelings. But the latter would suggest an illness that may keep Strasburg from pitching for more than just one day, yet the team had very firmly stated that Strasburg would go in Game 5, with no equivocation about health.

So it's unlikely that it IS that type of illness.

The other thing that is bothersome is Dusty's reaction. His meandering responses are not the responses of a man who has come face to face with a deathbed ill player and now has to deliver that bad news to the press. They are the responses of a man who is faced with a decision that caught him off-guard and doesn't know how to present that to the press. Does he take the blame (Roark was slated), does he blame it on the illness effecting today's preparation (creatures of habit), does he run with a given excuse fed to him (bullpen today), or does he just say "He's sick" for some reason and have that be the end of it (mold). We've seen Dusty for 2 years out in front of the cameras. If he saw a super ill Strasburg earlier that day, if he thought that might keep him from pitching and then was in on the decision - this is not the Dusty we would have seen.What is that Dusty? Something that makes sense - like the responses to the Max injury pushing him out to Game 3.

So it's doubtful again that this was an illness so debilitating that it could be judged to be start altering the day before.

Add to this Bob Nightengale's story from an unnamed source that Strasburg said he couldn't go and you have all the facts reaching the same conclusion. Which is the story that is presented to us by Boz is not the unvarnished truth.

What we are left now with is speculation. I don't think Boz or Rizzo would flat out lie. I don't see that in any past work. But feeding you half facts to try to paint a different picture? I'd buy that.What are the likely facts then.

Strasburg is sick, perhaps strongly
During activities Strasburg did not feel right, not completing a pen on Monday and not feeling right on his run on Tuesday
Strasburg told Rizzo "I'll give you what I got"
A group decided Strasburg would not pitch.
The group didn't communicate to Dusty the exact way they wanted him to present this
Dusty talked about players being "creatures of habit"

What we can put together is a more likely picture then the one painted by Boz. In this one an ill-Strasburg comes to the park on Tuesday and is unable to prepare like he prefers to before a game. He couldn't do his pen on Monday as he liked and now he can't do whatever it is he does on the day before a game to his satisfaction. Because of that he tells the Nats he doesn't want to pitch. He's a creature of habit and simply doesn't feel like he can pitch tomorrow if he can't get his exact prep in the day before. The Nats press him and ask him if he can go to which Strasburg answers "I'll give you what I got" not in a defiant scream against the illness, but in an matter of fact statement of the situation. He'll pitch if the Nats make him, and he'll do his best, but he'd rather have things in the way he likes them. The team defers and tells Dusty he's gotta go with Tanner. Dusty who either wasn't in on this decision or was just coming from the meeting where it was decided, is taken aback, used to the idea if an athlete can stand, they are going to go out there and try. To fly the white flag a day before an elimination game is unthinkable and now he's gotta explain something to the media that he can't really expalin to himself.

Is that really what happened? I don't know. It's a story. But it's a story I think that fit the facts better than what the Nats want us to believe.  

So today it's Tanner vs Arrieta. Good luck and WIN GODDAMMIT WIN.

*Longer throwing sessions off the mound in the pen, usually done Day 2 but sometimes Day 3 of 4 day off-period. Day 4 is universally for rest of the arm.

**Available in paperback - Christmas is coming up! 

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The mistakes that are made

The brink of elimination.  For the fourth time in four tries the Nationals find themselves a loss away from a long cold (well eventually cold) off-season of wondering what went wrong this time. If it's any consolation the Nats have fared pretty well in first elimination games, winning them in 2012 (down 1-2) and 2014 (down 0-2) but losing in 2016 (tied 2-2). Will they play today? Depends on the weather but baseball is determined to try to make it happen, the schedule being more important than the possibility of a prime-time showcase with no competition. Keep your eyes on the skies because a rain out changes everything by putting a Strasburg / Gio back to back scenario on the table.

But does that even matter- having these two pitchers having great years on the mound? This series it hasn't. But we'll get back to that.

Last night we saw Dusty* make his first really bad strategical move. It was NOT, repeat, it was NOT taking out Max. Taking out Max at that point was a 50/50 call. He was tiring. The previous inning he gave up a very hard and deep lineout to Jon Jay and followed it with a 5 pitch walk to Bryant. Some say he was squeezed on the walk, but the calls were all technically correct (according to the Gameday app) and what it appeared to me was that Max was just a little off where he wanted to be. That is fine when he's aiming for a corner and misses a few inches outside or low. It's not fine once he aims for the edge and the ball trails into the zone a few inches.

Presented with an extremely similar situation last year, Dusty chose to keep Max in and Joc Pederson would take him deep to tie Game 5. This year he chose what I would recommend, batter by batter usage until he lets a man on. I like this because sometimes a pitcher's effectiveness is not just because of the sharpness or speed of his stuff but because of his feel that day or how he is reading the opponent. As well, there is likely a psychological advantage where the line-up feels like they cannot hit an opposing pitcher and creates a tension that works against the batter. As long as that tension remains, as long as it appears that the feel/reading can overcome any physical slippage, why not keep him in?

That is what Dusty did and after Contreras was stuck out Ben Zobrist crushed a ball into the outfield. It not only broke up the no-no - it was the second high speed 300+ ft shot over the last two innings. It was time for Max to go. With Schwarber up next you can't take the chance of the same type of mistake now because he won't hit a 300ft line drive with it, he'll hit a 400 ft home run. But who to put in? Schwarber is a lefty and has definitive splits, which is another reason to remove Scherzer, and it figures to put in a lefty. Thing is the Nats don't have a shut them down LOOGY. You can't use Enny. He's never in his career been able to get out lefties despite being one. Perez was a LOOGY but then couldn't get the job done in 2016. He's been better this year though not dominant. About the same this year has been Solis, who was also good last year. Finally there was Doolittle. He's been good against lefties in the past two years but in very limited at bats with the Nats lefties have 6 hits in 18 ABs.

At the time I thought they should go to Kintzler. Historically Kintzler has been very effective against lefties, more so than righties in fact. Kintzler is also probably your best bet to keep the ball in the park, important against a bat like Schwarber. It would be counter-intuitive though and it wouldn't take advantage of Schwarber's splits. You could also walk Schwarber to get to Heyward - but you'd want a lefty to face Heyward who is a bad hitter either way but worse against lefties.

Of course you have to also factor in what the opponent will do and if you bring in a lefty to face Schwarber they are likely to counter with a righty bat, probably Almora. You likely aren't going to get the LvL or RvR match-up you want at first. So the question is - what is the match-up you want?  If I were to rank them I'd say

Kintzler vs Schwarber - Kintzler does well vs lefties and doesn't give up the homers.
Doolittle vs Almora - Not ideal but Doolittle is one of the guys you brought in for this and you can pitch around Almora if need be, to get to the more favorable Heyward match-up (although he may pinch hit for him too with Happ)
Solis vs Almora - not great, when he's been hit by RHP he's been hit hard but like Doolittle you could try to pitch around Almora to get to Heyward. Though same PH rules apply.
Scherzer vs Schwarber - no, the HR chances too high, imo
Madson vs Schwarber - I haven't liked what I've seen from Madson this post-season.

Perez vs Almora - God no, he's terrible against righties

Dusty went with Solis, didn't have him pitch around Almora and Almora punished him, knocking in the tying run. Letting Solis pitch to Heyward was the right move after that but Solis couldn't put Heyward away either meaning Kintzler would have to pitch across innings.

This was the game changing because of a bad move by Dusty. There's no denying it. This late in the game you have to turn to your best pitchers and Solis is not one of those guys. Even if you try to say the two most important goals were avoiding Schwarber's bat and saving Doolittle, you still don't let Solis take on Almora. He should have been pitched around or just intentionally walked. Setting up Solis vs Heyward or Kintzler vs Happ.

In the 8th Kintzler, who issued one walk in the past month, did the inexcusable and walked the leadoff batter. He still got out Jay (who was fine for Kintzler to face bc he'd be bunting) and Bryant. That set up Rizzo. As I noted before Kintzler is good versus lefties. I'll add that Rizzo's splits are basically very good vs lefties and great vs righties so there is an advantage but you aren't going to shut Rizzo down here by bringing in Doolittle. Kintzler was as good a choice as any to face Rizzo. But Dusty went to Perez. That's fine too - see everything we talked about above. They aren't pinch hitting for Rizzo so you aren't going to get to Perez vs a RHB.

Now should you face Rizzo? I wouldn't, not with a base open. I'd rather take my chances with Contreras. Again there aren't great splits here. He hits righties fine but if my choice is Rizzo vs LHP or Contreras vs RHP I take Contreras. Dusty chose to face Rizzo, which wasn't the garbage choice everyone thinks, but was probably not the best choice and Rizzo just blooped one into the OF. Rizzo then acts like an ass acting like he did something other than get lucky but you get to do that when you win. Don't want to see that? Don't lose.

So that was that. Dusty made three decisions but only one was an outright mistake at the time. You can pull Scherzer. He was probably lambasted by the same people last year for keeping him in. You can pitch to Rizzo. I wouldn't but you can. You can't go with Solis.

But the above is just a bunch of paragraphs talking about the positioning of the china in the shop and ignoring the bull you let in. The problem is not that the Nats pen and Dusty's choices have allowed them to score a couple runs late in the game. The problem is that all it takes is a couple runs to win these games. The problem is Trea Turner is pressing so hard that he can't get on base at all. The problem is that the one guy that seems to be hitting as he would during the season is batting 8th. The problem is Wieters or some other terrible hitting catcher has to play. The problem is Daniel Murphy is doing nothing. The problem is outside of one swing apiece so are Bryce and Rendon. The problem is Werth is old and hurt.

What can you do about that? Very little. Do you pull Werth, the emotional leader of the team in a win or go home game? I don't know that you can. But if you don't Lind, who kills righties, is wasting away on the bench (Zimm hasn't been great either but he's basically been the best of the worst, so you can't replace him). Can you switch MAT with Turner in the lineup? Maybe you can but then again maybe Taylor is having the success he is because of how he's being pitched with a pitcher behind him. Nothing guarantees success.

However I do know that we have to see something today. We have to see some line-up change. Three times Dusty's put out this line-up and it hasn't worked. He has to change something.

Other notes :
Does a better LF get to Zobrist's fly ball? I looked at it and my guess is... maybe. That's a ball that is caught a step in front of the wall and is coming in fast. A better LF may get there but you are almost certainly looking at a jump and crash into the wall situation. Do I think some come down with it? Sure. Do I think some miss it? Yes. Do I think some catch it for a moment only to have it jarred loose by impact? Yeah, probably that too.

Does a better LF get to Rizzo's bloop? I think so. If you watch the replay Werth pulls up about when we first see him. This is fair. Taylor is about same distance and in a full sprint and Turner is closer. Werth isn't going to catch this ball. But a faster LF would be closer to the ball at that point and probably is able to get to it on the fly on a full sprint. Of course Werth is Werth and we all know that and so do the guys in the field so it's hard to blame Werth here for just being him. Especially when (1) Taylor could have reached it . I don't know if he would have caught it. It's a full sprint slide/dive combo but it deserves a try (2) Turner really could have gotten there but he totally misreads it taking a path almost straight out from short. It's a hard play but one he didn't even put himself in position for.


*Is Dusty not the oddest manager in terms of public opinion we've seen in a long while? Some people, re: the Washington sports media, absolutely love him and seem to turn everything he says into wisdom handed down from the mount. In interviews and articles he's the coolest, smartest guy to ever put out a line-up. On the other hand, some how the 2003 series loss to the Marlins while managing the Cubs turned a whole legion of fans against him. I will accept the Cubs fan hate because fans aren't rational. But how did random people not associated with the Cubs come to think so poorly of Dusty? The truth is Dusty is a winner. The regular season numbers back that up. Can he manage a strategic playoff game? Eh - I mean he's not a savant but from what I see he's does as well as average manager in the playoffs. But soulless automatons are soulless automatons. 

Monday, October 09, 2017

The first 16.5 innings and the last 1

The truth is there aren't two separate games to look at when we look at the series so far. There are 16.5 innings that were on thing and 1 inning that was something else. 16.5 innings of great pitching and no hitting leading to an explosion and release the Nats and their fanbase desperately needed.

Game 1

I mentioned this a couple days ago but Strasburg was great. You can't have watched that game and thought otherwise. Well, I guess you can because there are people complaining about him not being able to finish the job, but it's hard for me to watch that game and think that he could have reasonably done better.  His stuff was basically unhittable and ridiculously sharp. His "failure" of an inning was an inning where he gave up two singles to two of the best hitters in baseball. An inning that should have yielded no runs (if Rendon fielded the ball cleanly) or one run (if Bryce had kept Bryant on first rather than overthrow the cut-off man). If you only judge greatness on results I can see your point, but I also think that's a terrible first way to judge greatness. Performance first, then circumstance, and the performance to me was undeniable.

On the other side the Nats couldn't piece together anything. Bryce singled in the 1st. Wieters was HBP and then Taylor singled and that was it base hit wise for the game. The Nats would walk a few times but never threaten. Dusty felt their approach was too patient. Were they? It didn't feel like it at the time but the did average almost 4 pitcher per AB which is on the patient side. On the other hand only 7 of the 27 guys Hendricks faced ended the at bat on an 0-2 or 1-2 count. So the Nats weren't forced into their bad hitting by a lot of pitcher counts*

Regardless of the reason though the Nats couldnt' get pressure on Hendricks. They only had two men in scoring position all night and none before there were two outs. They had one leadoff man get on (Murphy with a walk) and that was erased by a double play from the next batter. Hendricks had no very stressful batters and a handful with any stress at all. With only Rendon and MAT getting on base after the 4th Dusty couldn't do much either.

The only other thing to be said about Game 1 is Madson didn't get the job done, giving a leadoff double and then a 2-out double to drive in another run. Ultimately it's water under the bridge for the game but it's something that'll come back the next time we see him in the series.

Game 2

A game is still just a game. Maybe Hendricks was just at his best. That is part of what you accept in baseball playoffs. One hot or cold pitcher can dominate the outcome of a game and potentially change a series. But Hendricks was a very good pitcher all year. Jon Lester was not so continued failure against him would signal that the problem could very well be on the Nats side.

The Nats did seem to be a bit more aggressive, but I'm not sure that was a good idea. Lester is a wilder pitcher than Hendricks. Regardless of whether than mattered the Nats saw their issues continue. It seemed like things might have changed when a Rendon flyball carried over the RF fence but the next 10 Nats got out. Once again the Cubs starter was completely comfortable as the Nats couldn't get a man on base or do anything else to force some pressure on Lester. I add the "anything else" because here I do feel Dusty could have done more. He could have called for some bunts (Lester is a notorious for his throwing issues to the bag) or, when Zim led off the 5th or especially when Wieters got HBP in the 7th, he could have used a pinch runner to try to bother the Cubs starter with steal. He may have even gotten more creative, having batters drag out at bats with time called and the like. Anything to disrupt what had been an too easy half-game but Dusty didn't do it.

Gio on the mound pitched well enough to win, victimized a couple times by the HR favorable weather. There was a moment of worry when he opened up the 4th Double, Homer, Walk but he got out of it and got through the fifth without too much trouble.

Then came the Nats best chance for a big inning of the series so far. Zimm hit a seeing eye single up the middle and after two fly ball outs he started to do something. He stole 2nd. This seemed to unnerve Lester who uncorked a wild pitch sending Zimm to 3rd. Even more off his game he would walk MAT and then Dusty would choose to send up Kendrick rather than Lind, who had hit much better down the stretch than Howie, to face Lester. Dusty would get the righty on lefty match-up or he'd force the Cubs to make a move and then perhaps bring in Lind. The Cubs decided to stick with Lester and he'd walk the bases loaded. Now it was Lester vs Trea and again, with a two-run lead behind him, Maddon kept Lester on the mound and he wiped out Turner.

It felt like the end but as long as the game was 2 runs apart, a bloop and a blast, there was still hope.  The 6th would give the Nats nothing but the 7th would give them a Wieters HBP and really Dusty's only glaring mistake of the game, not pinch running here to do something.

Albers, Solis, Madson, and Perez would keep the Cubs off the board for the next three (Madson would concerningly give up another hit) and the Nats were down to their final 6 outs. When Maddon brought in Carl Edwards he knew he'd get Adam Lind. That was the choice he made and Lind made him pay with a nice piece of hitting singling down the third base line. Trea would K and then Maddon made the curious decision of letting Edwards face Bryce. Bryce is fine against lefites but he KILLS righties to the tune of .322 / .433 / .654.  But Edwards did well against lefties all year so Maddon took that chance.

We know what happened.

Edwards would walk Rendon and then Maddon brought in Montgomery to face Murphy. He singled setting up a lefty on righty match-up. Montgomery, like Edwards did well against batters from the opposite side. But while Zimm hit RHP fine, he hit LHP much better.  .331 / .385 / .654 Still Maddon didn't learn from relying on how his guys did and Zimm skied one that just got over the fence. Tie game became a three run lead and that was that.

Looking back on the two games these are the overall take-away

The Nats pitching has been great. There's a little shakiness in the pen here and there but they got through it and that's pretty much how I'd describe this pen especially the underbelly.

Corollary to that only Bryant and Rizzo have really hit the first two games, and Contreras, who bats after them, has worked himself on. There's a lot of empty at bats coming from the other side.

If you must be concerned about a pitcher - Madson has given up 3 hits in 6 batters, I think.

Bryce does have the pop still in him and he's the only man on the team with 2 hits. He's fine. Werth on the other hand is 0-7 with a walk and looks like he shouldn't be out there. My prediction (Cubs in 5) was based on these guys not being right. Bryce is. Werth isn't. So it'll come down to Scherzer. Of course that's pretty obvious at this point.

Even worse than Werth is Turner who is 0-8 with 4Ks. He looks lost and at the top of the line-up is constantly giving Bryce and Rendon, who look ok, nothing to work with. No batters on base. No pressure on the pitcher. I doubt Dusty will mix it up but a MAT / Trea flip wouldn't be a bad idea.

Could Werth come out? Maybe. If he's 0fer today and is terrible I could see somehow working Lind into the line-up for Arrieta G4 (assumptions made here) but I'm only giving that a slight chance. 10%.  Dusty will live and die by what got him here.It's why players love him. It might also be why he's died so much.

I'd love to see more aggression from the Nats. Not necessarily in when to swing, but what they do. I think Dusty DID want to be aggressive on the paths when guys got on, but guys aren't getting on. This means Dusty has to get more creative. I'm sure he'll let things go for 3-4 inning today to see if the 8th inning has any carryover. But if the Nats get to the 5th with nothing I'll be upset if I don't see something from Dusty.

It's been a pretty clean series. The mistakes haven't been egregious. There haven't been a lot of "should have"s or "could have"s. Just a lot of solid pitching and bad hitting. 
*Strasburg had 11 bats out of 27 end with an 0-2 or 1-2 count.