Nationals Baseball

Friday, August 22, 2014

Another great start and great finish

The former is what excites me more. Sorry walk-off fans.

Gio seemingly finding his way is going to set-up a very interesting situation if it continues. Remember, the Nats need a playoff rotation.  They don't have to throw just 3 or 4 guys out there. They could go with 5. But the days off that are sprinkled throughout the playoffs lend themselves better to a shorter rotation, probably a 3+1 would be the best way to describe it.  While Gio is the most... volatile Nats pitcher he's also the only left-handed one and for a guy who seemingly isn't interested in treading new ground as a manager Matt Williams will be very tempted to bring in a "new look" for the opposition. That would mean someone sits. And there are no easy answers to which of the other 4 sits unless one of them blows up in the next 6 weeks.

Oh well, these are first baseball world problems.

Is anyone not doing well recently? Danny. That's about it. You could say Michael Taylor is being looked at for induction to the Nats AAAA Club (hopefully temporarily) of guys that kill it in AAA and get killed in the majors.  Tyler Moore is reviewing his credentials as we speak. But bench players, you know. And the Nats have a bench player hot right now in Frandsen, 9 for his last 22 PA, with a walk. Granted they are all singles but like we said when Span was hot - you hit .450 no one cares if you walk.

How is Span doing.?  Arguably the worst of any regular Nats, .280 with minimal power and few walks over the last two weeks. Let's call it standard Span. But he's had all his walks recently so we'll see. And when a guy hitting .280 is your "worst" you're in a damn good stretch.  No guy you expect to start is close to being slumping.

Can the Nats keep up this during their last hard stretch? SF, then @PHI, @LA, @SEA? The reality is that they don't have to. Just keep from going 2-10 and they should be set up to finish the Braves off in that 6 faceoffs in 10 games that follow. And if they happen to roll through this stretch - even better. The only thing that is keeping the division alive is the Braves being hot. One team has to cool down. If it's the Braves first that'll put an official end to what I'm so close to wanting to call over, but just can't not yet. Just... Can I... no.  Not yet.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Placeholder

I'm all busy with work and stuff but figured you kids would like a fresh place to discuss things like why the Nats bullpen can't get anyone out.  Why the Nats offense keeps scoring late runs to win these games the bullpen blows.  What shirt you are wearing to the NLDS home opener.

Really this is how I see things is this

The comebacks are fun but of spotty meaning.  You love a never say die attitude and more importantly you love a win but this is more a function of timing and having a good offense.

The relief pitching is worrisome but not that much. Not yet anyway. Almost. If you accept up and down times you need to ride out the downs

The starting pitching is so good.  Ok Gio can be rough but the last bad nonGio start was two weeks ago.  This is why the Nats win. Not because of 9th inning heroics but because the starter set them up to win from innings 1-7.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Monday Redux

You might not read the ESPN power rankings so here's a tidbit for you : The Nats have won 5 one-run games in this 7 game winning streak. However, don't consider the team lucky. This only brings their record in one-run games to .500.

Anyway about yesterday

J' Refuse to take back my comment that the faces of the Nats are Bryce, Strasburg, and Werth. Sorry long-timers but it's true. It's true for the national media. It's true for Joe Q Baseball Fan. It's true for the more recent, perhaps bandwagon fans. It's probably even true for local sports fans who casually follow the Nats. This isn't a statement on who it should be. It's a statement on who it is. I would liquidate my assets and bet it all on Werth being more associated with the Nats than Zimm.

As for the rest of the column. Yeah, you could read it as "the Nats have a good chance in the future because the GM is good".  That's fair. And I don't necessarily disagree. I think Rizzo is good. How good? Well I think the next few years are telling. I've gone over the issues I had with 2013 Rizzo and I think he's improved in both bench building and mid-season course correcting. However, I still don't see him making all the moves I think he should. More importantly there was a lot of things that came together, not necessarily because of Rizzo's genius, that created this mini-run from 2012-2015. What he does as this run draws to a close will really define his tenure.

A lot of you said something to the effect of "it's too hard to predict that far out" and you're absolutely right. 2015 is fair game, but 2016 is iffy, and 2017 might as well be a coin flip. But remember that works both ways. We can't say "doom and gloom are coming" but we can't say "blue skies ahead!" either. At best you get general impressions (like everyone had for the Phillies let's say) but they don't always work out (how long ago did Boz say the Yankees were bottoming out? No not that time, the other one.) The general impression for the Nats is good. They have a couple good young players who will be here for a while and a decent minor league system. That's all you can say, but it's better than what you can say for most teams.

This also plays into the "now or later" argument. Obviously it's never that cut and dried. Dealing for immediate success has to be judged based on how much help it brings versus the cost you give up. But looking at it as if you were trading a future playoff season for a slightly better chance at winning the whole thing now is a dangerous point of view to take. The slightly better chance isn't guaranteed but it's as close as you'll come. You know these players, how they've done recently, how they've done this season in fact. You can be fairly sure on how they'll do for the remainder. Small sample size creates the issue of not living up to expectations, but it also creates possibility of getting a crazy good run. On a whole its a fair gamble.

Saying that trading a way a prospect will cost you a future playoff season though is fantasy. It could, sure. But it just as easily could not. You can't say "we don't know what 2017 will bring... except if we trade away this guy we're doomed!"  Of course there are always exceptions. Massive sell-offs of prospects would indeed hurt your future chances.  But take a look back at any trade deadline and you'll see a massive amount of prospects that the media "couldn't believe were traded!" that ended up as replacement parts at best.  You get the John Smoltz, Jeff Bagwells, stuck in your head but they are the exception, not the rule. The rule is Brett Wallace, Justin Smoak, Matt LaPorta. The very best (like Giolito) don't get moved any more. The rest are nothing you can rely on.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Monday Quickie - these aren't open windows! They're paintings!

Oh Boz, Boz, Boz. Someone forgot to take his medicine

The crux of the article is that the Nats are good, and they are good despite their "best-known faces" Strasburg, Bryce, and Zimmerman having off years so obviously that must mean they are going to be good forever right? That their 3-pronged approach of smart trades, smart drafts, and smart FA signings have set the team up for years upon years of success.

Of course the first thing you'd say is Strasburg, Bryce, and Zimmerman aren't their best known faces. That would be Strasburg, Bryce, and Werth. But Werth has had a good year so that doesn't fit the narrative. You could also say "young stars" and go with Strasburg, Bryce, and Rendon, but again - good year - doesn't fit narrative. So I guess you just say whatever?

But let's get down to brass tacks here - are the Nats set up for future success, like long-term future success? The easiest (and arguably best and obvious and why didn't Boz do it like this) way of looking at it is seeing who is doing well and looking at their ages and contract situations. Where do these players stand in terms of helping the Nats in 2016/2017? Here are the players who have given the Nats at least a half-win of WAR this year, which is basically saying "not a bit player". I've ordered on roughly this year's importance but don't take this as definitive. 

Rendon : 24; FA after 2020. Rendon is the best thing the Nats have going in regards to future success. Good, young, cheap and in team control forever.  He could get better. He can play important, harder to fill positions. Big win right here

Fister : 30; FA after 2015.  Fister is great. Fister is also unsigned after 2015, and has made it somewhat clear like ZNN there isn't a discount coming. Could be helpful in those years, if signed, but can't be counted on to do that.

Roark : 27; FA after 2020. Roark has been great. He doesn't have the history of the other guys you like but it's hard to argue with results and another year like this one will force everyone to say "ok this is who he is". Given the team control of Roark that would be another big win. Of course that caveat still hangs out there.

Span : 30: FA after 2015 if the Nats decide to pick-up his option.  Span is a 30 year old having maybe the best year of his career. You can like him but the chances he's on the team and helping them 3 years down the road have to be considered slim.

LaRoche : 34; FA after 2015 again option based.  See Span. change 30 to 34 and "best year of career" to "surprisngly good year".

Werth : 35; FA after 2017.  The increased fragility and declining production peg Werth as a iffy contributer for 2016 and beyond. That he's bounced back to give the Nats what he has after the horriffic 2011 has to be a big win but leaning on Werth at 37 would be a mistake.

ZNN : 28; FA after 2015. ZNN has been a rock for the Nats the past few years. He's also almost certainly gone after next season. Age makes him a little more likely than Fister to be helpful in 2016+ but he's also probably not as good. But again, almost certainly gone.

Desmond : 28; FA after 2015. Desmond has anchored the infield as a power hitting, good fielding SS. That's a tough find. That's why it'll cost an arm and a leg to keep him. Peripherals (high K's, low BB's) make his long-term impact uncertain but for the 2016-2017 time frame I'm looking at he should be better than your average SS. Unfortunately, no promises he'll be here.

Stras : 25; FA after 2016.  You could argue at this point that Strasburg is the player you could count on 2nd most (behind Rendon) to (1) be here in 2016 and (2) be contributing at a higher level. Think about that. Not sure of his long-term commitment to DC over his home on the west coast.

Ramos : 26; FA after 2016. A key figure for the long-term Nats as age, position and talent all combine to be a big-time part of the 2016 team if not further. But can he stay healthy? As a catcher and getting older? Hard to bet on that.

Zimm : 29; FA after 2019. See Ramos but remove position. Should still be an impt piece a few years from now but has same injury issues. 

Bryce : 21; FA after 2018. Definitely should be a big part of 2016-2017. Should be starting peaking in fact. Whatever that means though, superstar or very good offensive force, remains to be seen.

Clipp : 29; FA after 2015. Hard to see the Nats spending the money on Clip he'll get on the FA market but maybe he'll stay here for a bit of a discount. He certainly has blossomed here.

Storen : 26; FA after 2016. Will very well be closer for 2016 team. After that who knows. Wouldn't be surprised to see the Nats make a good budget play for him long-term after this season.

Soriano : 34; FA after 2014. Gone right? Can get more than the Nats would likely give him. Do the Nats even want him?

Gio : 28; FA after 2016 if the Nats so want. After 2018 definitely. Tough to rely on Gio as more than a back-end starter in a few years. I mean he SHOULD be better than that but I'm talking something you consider a safe bet. I don't consider Gio a Top 3 starter on this team's rotation in 2016-2017 that.

Ok so let's wrap this up. What do we have here?

Likely gone before the 2016 season : Fister, ZNN, Desmond, Clippard, Soriano, Span, LaRoche.  They don't all have to be gone but age, cost, and talent suggest most will be, if not all. You could stretch and see two staying here. I'm thinking one (Desmond or Fister) at best.
 
Likely here but of questionable contribution : Roark, Werth, Ramos, Zimm, Gio.  A combination of injury, age, and general question marks lead to unreliability. The odds for any single one of these to be a replacement level contributer in 2016 isn't that low. (Roark is the biggest stretch here so if you want to shift him to the next category feel free)

Likely here and contributing : Rendon, Storen, Strasburg, Bryce.  Why does it matter that those guys are not performing to their capabilities? Here's why.

So that's 2016 - just two years from now. After 2016 Storen, Ramos, and Stras could all walk, which would leave 2017 a mess.

What about the minor leauges? I'll say this - it's very likely the Nats could develop a rotation ready starter and a major league outfielder by 2016.  How good can they be? Potentially very good, with the starter (likely Giolito, but maybe Cole) looking like a better bet to be impactful. As for anything more, I'm sure they'll find a decent bullpen arm. Those aren't hard to get if you have any competence as a GM.  Other than that there is nothing I would bet on. So if you don't lose both ZNN & Fister and if Stras/Gio/Roark are all ok and if the Nats young guy hits roughly his potential the rotation should still be top notch. If. The OF should be able to handle the eventual loss of Span. But the pen? 1B? SS? There's nothing certain here.

I'm not saying the Nats future is grim. To look two years down the road and say you've got Rendon, Stras, Bryce, and Storen as a core is a future most teams would like to have. The Nats shouldn't be a bad team. But the perennial contender Boz makes them out to be?  I can't be as sure. The rest of the Nats team is on the way out either because of age or contract. The Mets and Marlins are improving and the Braves are always decent (Wood, Minor, Teheran, Beachy and Hale would all still be under contract in 2016 and at oldest 30) With some injury luck and a slow aging star the Nats could stay in it up through 2016 and 2017 isn't a "doom and gloom" year as much as a big fat question mark. But a new machine that has no real down cycle? That's a stretch considering they haven't passed their first run at that.

This is why I like the Nats to play for now. At the end of 2012 you could take a 3 more years of contending as a given. Gio, ZNN, Stras, Zimm, Bryce, Danny, Ian, Detwiler, Clippard, Storen; all good, all 27 or younger, all except for Zimm sure to be here for a while. If Werth could hang on and if Ramos could stay healthy the holes needing to be filled were extremely limited.  Now in 2014 you don't see the same thing. There isn't as much youth. There aren't nearly as many guarantees to be around in 3 years. You are still hoping for Werth to hang on and Ramos to be healthy. This isn't the time to be looking rosily in the distance. It's time for looking hard at what's in front of you.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Random stuff

Want to rate the superhunks? Because we're almost at that time. Basically the only thing standing between the Nats and total and absolute control of the NL East is... well the Nats. They have gone 4-9 versus the Braves this year.  Even going 6-7 would put the Nats now at 8 10 games ahead, the kind of lead where you start saying "well if everything breaks right for the Braves" If the Nats could have pulled a winning record versus the Braves we're looking at a double digit lead.

The Braves are close to being toast - but don't buy into the whole "since going 17-7" thing that makes them look like a bad team. They aren't. They just aren't good. If you look at their schedule a more accurate breakdown would probably read : 17-7 / 1-8 / 40-33 / 3-12.  They spent the majority of the season playing like a high 80s win team. Makes more sense right based on what you think of them, or at least is does to me. 

So here to end the week just a random assortment of pitcher facts/ thoughts.

So what IS the playoff rotation? With 40+ games to go it's a tough call. The rotation based on stats/results would probably go something like Fister, ZNN, Roark, Stras, Gio. I'd say Gio in the 5th spot is the most obvious slotting and thus would be the first guy out but he's the only lefty and everything about Matt Williams tells me he'll want to mix a lefty in there. So do you take out Strasburg then? Oh god, I'm already having nightmares about the media play that would get. Roark? That can't be justified in anyway other than "veteran status".  What do I think? Well hopefully the Nats catch Milwuakee so you can push Gio out and it makes sense. Otherwise, how about this - don't move anyone to the pen. You don't have to. You have 5 good arms. Just a thought.

Don't think positioning matters? Here is what has happened to the BA associated with line drives since 2009 (in the NL). .728 -> .727 -> .718 -> .716 -> .665 -> .654.  Meanwhile the isoSLG (slugging taking out the singles) has gone up so guys aren't hitting it softer, teams are just getting better at putting defenders in the right spot.

Roark :  The opposing team has hit Roark better in DC. Better average, higher slugging, gotten on base more. They've struck out a lot less, walked more, better BABIP. Yet his ERA is almost a run better in DC. A little bit can be associated with actually more power away when they hit the ball (better isoSLG) but almost a run? Quirky.

Fister : Speaking of BA associated with LDs, Fister's is .586, that's why things like FIP, xFIP, fWAR don't love the guy. He's getting A LOT of hits where they is, as opposed to where they ain't.

Gio : This 2012 nugget still amazes me. Against the pitcher in 57 PAs Gio got 41 strikeouts. 41! For comparison Strasburg might lead the league in K's this year, he has gotten 23K in 56 PAs. Kerhsaw has 14 in 31. (when you're Kershaw good you don't face the P a lot)

OK as for this year - he's not getting lefties out. They are actually hitting him better than righties. Seem strange? It shouldn't. Lefties hit Gio better in 2012 and 2011 too.

ZNN :Remember that amazing "no-walk" run the Nats pitcher's had? For ZNN it's back. In his past six starts he's struck out 34 guys and walked 1. He actually has gotten hit so it's not like he's dominating out there, but he's certainly got his control in order.

Stras : We went over a lot of his splits that were menaingful the other day. One that probably isn't but who knows? His OPS against goes WAY down on pitches 51-75.  .518 for these, .733 for next best group of 25. Need time to warm up? Need arm to get tired to stop overthrowing? Need arm to get tired to change approach? I can come up with literally dozens of ideas that I have no clue if it's really happening or not!

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Preparing to fight a different beast

  • The Nats are better than the Braves (or anyone else in the NL East) 
  • The Nats have an easier schedule than the Braves 
  • The Nats have a 5 games lead on the Braves with 42-44 games to go. 
The Nats are making the playoffs
  • The Nats playoff odds are 97.8% here, and 95.1% here, better than everyone but the A's and Dodgers (and maybe Angels)
  • Their division winning odds are 95.2% and 92.1%, better than everyone. 
Again, see the first three sentences of this post. That's why the Nats are making the playoffs.They are near locks for their division.

So what are we doing? Watching to see if the Nats somehow blow it? Hit those 1 in 25 or so odds that a team set up in this situation somehow crashes and burns so completely that their very flawed competitor can catch up and pass? I suppose that you can think of the next few weeks that way, if you like. Not me. I'm watching to see how the Nats handle games, how they prepare themselves for the playoffs.

Can Williams use Drew Storen in a big spot before the 7th? (Yet to happen this year) Or Clippard in a big spot before the 8th? (Never has happened - used once in 7th when Nats were down 11) Can he quickly move on from a Soriano who doesn't have it?

Can he understand that bunting is generally a trade off that slightly increases your chances to score a single run at the cost of decreasing your chances to score multiple ones, thus needs to be used judiciously? Who's the first man off the bench as a PH? Who's the first man in line for an emergency injury start?

How healthy are the Nats? Is Werth ok? Will Zimm be back? Can Stras/Gio settle themselves? 

That's what I'm watching these games for, with only a half-glance at the standings.  Cocky? Not really. See above.

The first point won't change unless the Nats injuries become permanent (and maybe they get one more). The Braves had too many season long injuries and too many bats fail to be considered on equal ground for 2014.

The second point will briefly favor the Braves once we get to the end of August but then bounce back the Nats way for most of September.  The Nats should be able to use that for a game or two in their favor.

As long as the third point remains mostly true there is no reason to worry. 4 games w/ 38 to go. 6 with 35. Something like that. When you get past 6 the situation becomes dire for the Braves. Not only would they have to sweep the Nats in the mutual games versus eachother, but they would have to play better in the rest of their games as well. That's a tall order for a team struggling to maintain .500 for much of ths season. And for each game they don't take versus the Nats the mission gets that much impossbler.

I won't go as far as to say the division race is over... not yet. With 6 head to head left, and that little SEA/LAD schedule bump for the Nats still to overcome you can't do that unless things get out of hand. I'd say Sept 3rd is the first date I'm likely to call the race. Let's see where we are then. 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Fragile Strasburg or fragile arguments?

The role of stats, when used properly, is to provide an unbiased look at a player. Over time, we all become subject to our own prejudices, and thus we can reach conclusions that do not conform with reality. This is how the Lombos become Lombos. We decide something then form our opinions around that decision. We reinforce when we really should be questioning, constantly poking at our conclusion to make sure it's solid from all sides. The numbers can help you do that but only if you use them the right way.

One of the common refrains heard over the past couple years and especially this season is that Strasburg is a "hothouse flower". We've seen him break down after errors. We've heard him complain about mound conditions, about weather. He wilts. He collapses under pressure.

Ok that's the conclusion. But we got there the same way we've gotten to many places before, our own raw observation backed up by feelings and conjecture. What do the numbers say, or more precicsely what numbers would you like to look at to prove that there is an issue? Decide that first - see if the argument holds up.

If he wilts under pressure surely he'd collapse with runners in scoring position or in low-scoring games or in tight pressure situations late in games? Do we see that?  Do we see a significantly worse performance post errors or do we not? Is this consistent over years or just this year? If we do see an issue, are we sure it's because of what we think or could it perhaps be about something else?

The latter question - one of confounding - is important. One of the current questions about Strasburg is why is he pitching worse away than at home. The numbers bear this out - looking at raw stats (2.41 ERA home, 5.25 away - corresponding fancy stats agree) or looking at patterns. (sort by game score and see the home and away games segregate). But is there something else afoot? Well yes, if you note Strasburg has pitched terribly with Sandy Leon as his catcher. Sandy Leon was catching for his two worst performances, both away games. This doesn't resolve the home/away question but it moderates it. Make Sandy Leon the issue and if you pull him out of the equation and the home away splits are closer; 2.50 to 4.09.  The closer you get to even the more it becomes about random variation. This would make sense for a pitcher who's previous home/road splits show a very normal, very slight preference to home instead of a major issue.

This doesn't mean SOLVED! but it means what we were taking as a given requires a closer look. Frankly I do think the gap in the ERA and the segregation when you look at performance indicates something.

Ok so what about the OrKid?  Well he's dead-on with RISP (.712 opponent OPS) compared to overall (.711), and great when there are 2-outs with RISP (.606).  He's bad when the Nats don't score for him (.802), and hideous when it's "late and close" (.927), but scarily even worse when it's high leverage (.945). So maybe there's something here...

Yet last year he was worse with RISP and great "late and close". And that issue this year when the Nats don't score for him? Turns out this year it's this way for the entire team, making it seem like we're looking at the issue backwards. It's likely not that the Nats pitchers pitch worse when the Nats don't score, but the Nats stop scoring when staked to a big deficit. High leverage was also an issue for Strasburg in 2013, but not in 2012. It's tough to say there's a pattern of issues (or successes) here.

What about the error thing? His ERA in games where men reached base is 2.32. It certainly hasn't effected him in later innings. What about in the moment? Guys batting in the same inning post error this year have hit .278 with one XBH. Nothing at all strange here. But yet it persists.

The work I've just done is admittedly cursory but trying to be objective we've found little to suggest some sort of internal weakness. I suppose you could work it as - ok THIS YEAR he's mentally fragile and it may not show in all standard high-pressure sitiations but when they pressure is REALLY on he breaks - but that strikes me as fitting the data to your conclusion, rather than seeing what conclusions can be reached with the data.

Strasburg may in fact have an issue - but you don't know, can't prove, and can't even really see when looking at these past few years as a whole outside of "well I can read his body language". There is a disconnect between the talent and the result but trying to pin down a mental "fragility" issue does no one any good. If it is a fastball issue (speed? location? more likely a combination of both?) then that's what the focus should be on because the speed isn't coming back, not fixing his head. Especially not when the diagnosis is based on little more than what you've seen while lounging on your armchair.

 *Some more interesting Strasburg stat diversions for those inclined - following up the stuff I was looking at earlier in the season with his 2-strike issues (damn that target data isn't readily available). - what has changed about the Nats' pitching approach? Renewed focus on keeping runners honest. What's new in Strasburg's stats this year? An issue with men on first. How do we prove/disprove this? some sort of speed of runner adjustment combined with if the SB would matter score wise? Would the subsequent PAs be enough to really make a judgment?