Nationals Baseball

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Takes!

The Hot Take

It's all about hubris. The Nats had too much pride. "Mike Rizzo's Nationals" "Where's my ring?" maybe even "hitting a baseball is the hardest thing in the universe" They didn't learn from 2013 and they still expect things handed to them. Of course the problem with this take is that the biggest egos are the guys actually getting things done. Rizzo did put together a team that's been one of the best in baseball the past three years. Bryce is doing well.  So it may not make the most sense but it is the one fans may relate to the most. They are angry. Give them a target.

The Optimist

It's all about the injuries. All those offensive ones. Stammen. Zimm looks hurt. The Nats just need time to get Werth and Span and Rendon all back healthy. Then the offense will click and away they go! The question is merely if they can weather the time until that happens. It's certainly the optimistic take and it does have some merit. Werth and Span aren't quite right yet. Rendon was that important last year. But this team shouldn't be this bad should it?

The Pattern

In 2013 the Nats spent 4 months struggling to get over .500.  In 2014 they couldn't get out of their own way until June. They are 72-38 in August & September. What is it about the Nats that they can't start well and how do we fix it? This is a good one if you don't like Matt Williams because it places some blame on the manager unlike the first two. You can easily spin this into a questioning piece on the rookie manager (check out that bullpen usage) however 2013 was under Davey so the pattern extends beyond just Matt. If it's even a pattern.

My Take

The Nats are not built for this year. They are built for no year. Steven Souza looked to be a very good 4th OF option for 2015... but he could be turned into a SS for the future. Tyler Clippard was going to be an indispensible 8th inning guy in 2015... but he could be turned into a bridge SS. Jerry Blevins was a useful LOOGY type for 2015... but he could be turned into some cash. Despite a team full of injury issues and actual injuries the bench was not strengthened. Despite a pen that looked shaky the relief arms were not supplemented. That's money not in 2 or 3 year deals that the Nats are now able to save for better players next season. If the Nats just go 90% in then 2016 and beyond looks that much better. 90% is good enough right?

The Nats aren't being specific. They aren't trying to win in 2015. They are being general. They are trying to win constantly. That's good if you like a good team constantly, but unless you spend a ton it leads to a team that is not great top to bottom. It will have some holes. For the Nats it's a team with a great surface offense but a questionable bench, a great rotation but a bad middle relief. It's a team that if the surface gets scratched too much the flaws really show. Maybe this is the team Mike Rizzo wants, maybe it's the team Lerner makes him build, but it's the team you have.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Close and Late

It may surprise you (it did me) that the Nats bullpen has an ERA of 2.82. It's actually 4th best in the National League. Say what?! Yeah I know. So I went digging.

Part of it is that they haven't been great at keeping inherited runners from scoring, but they haven't been terrible at that for the season. Part of it is the ER vs R difference, but that is a much bigger thing for the starters. (also all 3 UER for the relievers came in one Boston game) No, these things may make the Nats pen look worse but not that much worse, I doubt below average if we worked it out. No one here I hope, thinks the Nats pen has been average or better. So it's not just a trick of whose runners are coming home or a couple errors leading to runs not being counted for them. It must be in the when and where.

Let's start after the first two games of the Mets series when honestly the pen did a good job.  The held the first game close after errors dropped the Nats in a hole, and helped close out a 1-run win for Zimmermann. What are the circumstances the pen faced in each of the games after that and how did they do?

Game 3 - Came in down 6 runs. Allowed 0 runs
Game 4 - Came in up 1 with bases loaded. Allowed 4 runners to score.
Game 5 - Came in up 1, got two outs to get out of inning, Nats extend lead to 2, pen blows lead
Game 6 - Came in up 1, gives up run
Game 7 - Came in down 7 runs very early, let's one more run score rest of game, never close
Game 8 - Came in up 2, got two outs to get out of inning, next inning, in part due to errors, blows lead
Game 9 - Came in up 5. Allowed 0 runs.
Game 10 - Came in up 3. Allowed 0 runs. 
Game 11 - Came in up 6. Allowed 1 run in 1 inning.
Game 12 - Came in tied, gives up run that inning (to be fair, man on 3rd with 1 out), gives up insurance run two innings later
Game 13 -  Came in up 3. Allowed 0 runs
Game 14 - Came in up 1, holds lead for 2 innings before blowing it in 9th
Game 15 - Came in tied, holds lead for 1 inning before blowing it, gives up insurance run inning later
Game 16 - Came in down 1, gives up 2 runs in that inning.

Let's reorder these puppies:
Down 7 - GOOD performance (5.2 IP of 1 run ball)
Down 6 - GOOD
Down 1 - BAD
Tied - BAD
Tied - BAD
Up 1 - BAD
Up 1 - BAD
Up 1 - BAD
Up 1 - BAD
Up 2 - BAD* (Error game)
Up 3 - GOOD
Up 3 - GOOD
Up 5 - GOOD
Up 6 - BAD

The Nats pen has come into a game in what I would call a close situation (plus-or-minus 2 runs) 8 times. Eight times they've failed to do their job.  The best they've been able to do is arguably give the Nats two decent innings of pitching. We should see this reflected in those close and late numbers (defined as within a run, or with tying run on deck, in 7th or later) and we do.  .272 / .362 / .404 in close & late situations, and before you say that doesn't seem bad understand the NL average is .244 / .308 / .379.  It's not your slightly older brother's MLB.

So there you go, that's how the Nats pen can have a decent ERA while killing the team. The crazy optimist says the Nats offense will solve the issues by winning games by more runs when it gets healthy.I suppose that may be true. But how long will that be, until Werth and Span and Rendon are all here and all in full swing? And how is that ok? The Nats will lose close games but don't worry they'll win enough big ones to make it not matter?

I'm not telling you anything here you don't already know, though, am I? The Nats pen needs fixing, either through time and sifting things out, or through bringing in some ringers. 

Thursday, April 23, 2015

How good are the Mets? How "not great" are the Nats?

The Nats lost. No big deal.

The Mets won. No big deal.

The Nats lost and the Mets won. Big deal?

The Nats now sit 5 games out of first place. That may not seem like a big deal but the Nats never were 5 games out last year. They had a middling record at the start of June but their pace matched the Braves. Both had fast starts, though the Braves' start was faster. Both had bad Mays, though the Braves wasn't quite as bad.  The Nats basically hung around despite themselves, and when the Braves wilted away starting in June the Nats took over just by playing good, not great. (Eventually the Nats would pop the clutch and play great baseball from mid August on to make the "race" seem non-existant looking back at 2014.)

The last time the Nats were 5 games out was in fact the last day of 2013. Five games is not a ton of games if you assume that the Nats are underperforming (decent guess) and the Mets are overperforming (even better guess) but let's understand a few points.

(1) Regressing to expectations does not mean radically performing in the other direction to get to the expected level in the time alloted.

Say you thought the Nats were a 95 win team to start the year. And say the Nats started, oh I don't know, 7-8.  And let's say you still believe the Nats are a 95 win team. regressing to the mean does not mean the Nats will go 88-59 so they finish exactly 95-67. Instead it means that if the Nats play at a 95 win pace for the rest of the games they will be closer to expectations than they are now.

Current Pace : 76-86
Expected Pace (full season) : 95-67
Final Record assuming play at expected pace from here on : 93-69

See! Much closer to the expectation. If we had infinite games evenutally the difference between the expected pace and the last record would be close enough to be negligible. However the baseball season isn't infinite, so these slow starts matter.

The Nats have started slowly - you should adjust your expectations down a game or two. Conversely the Mets have started quickly - you have adjust your expectations up a game or two (or three - it's a pretty fast start). So if you had the Nats at 95 and the Mets at 85, maybe today you should have it as the Nats at 93 and the Mets at 88. This isn't an exact science but regardless whatever you thought about these two teams there should be no doubt the gap has closed to some degree.

(2) We have data now. Your expectations should be reevaluated.

We're in the real season now. These data are small sample sizes, true, but they are getting bigger every day and they are the data we currently have for the year.  You have to now at least take into account things that have happened this season so far. For the Nats - maybe the pen is going to be a mess for a while, maybe ZNN isn't right, maybe Ramos will never hit*.  For the Mets -  maybe Lucas Duda is an All-Star type hitter, maybe Wilmer Flores has put it together, maybe Colon has figured out how to be good to very good at 42.

You can't say anything is set in stone just yet but you have to look at what's happened and adjust accordingly. Maybe you do nothing. Maybe you think the Mets injuries and guys obviously overperforming (like Neise - a perfectly ok back of rotation guy getting some luck) will keep them at expectations. Maybe you think the injury returns will bring the Nats back up to their level for the rest of the year. That's fine. However you can't just dismiss what's gone on. you have to look at it.

(Me - I think the Nats bullpen flaws are worth knocking them a win. I'll hold off on giving the Mets any more props until we see how these injury replacements hold up. So Nats around 92, Mets around 86... I had them as kind of an 83-84 win to start the year)

(3) The season is not static. Injuries and break-outs and runs of bad/good luck can and will happen.

Those expectation I put out there - those are just best guesses based on what I know of the guys who are playing now. But there is a 100% chance someone on the Nats and someone on the Mets will go down to injury from here to the end of the season. Who? I got no clue. But it will happen which means that what you want to have is a cushion in case it's an important guy for a long time for you, and a secondary guy for a couple weeks for them. Breakouts will likely happen too. What if it's a middle relief guy for you and a starting SS for them? And just general luck will swing. Say you go 10-11 in one-run games and they go 15-5 (hey 2012 Orioles!).  Most likely the bad and good will cancel themselves out (mostly), but you don't know that for sure so you like to have some games to play with in case you get some bad luck, rather than good.

By spotting the Mets 5 games the Nats have given the Mets a cushion. If we're wrong about expectations, (possible - this is an ongoing analysis) and the Nats and Mets are closer than we think, then the Mets now have 5 games to lose that can cover some bad breaks for them or some good breaks for the Nats.

Last year the Nats did play mediocre ball for a long time and managed to still win the division in a walk. But last year was last year. If the Nats go a couple more games back 4-5 games (or more) you can say things were never this bad for the Nats last year (as "bad" as such a hole really is this early). The Mets may not be great but a few more wins in the pocket and you have to doubt they'll finish below .500 like the Braves did.  The Nats may not be bad, but can you expect them to go 33-13 again to finish the year and run away with the division? This year will almost certainly be different and the Nats can't just expect to end up on top.

A lot of this worry is just remnants from that 2-6 start. The Nats are actually playing pretty well right now, 5-2 in last seven. There have been no blowout losses, some nice wins, and the offense has scored runs. They need to keep this going. Win the series today. Win the MIA and ATL series away (at least win 3 games really). Don't revert back to the bad baseball we saw early on. You may not have things work out for you like they did last year.

* there are also good things - maybe Yunel is going to have a bounce back, maybe Bryce is taking a step forward, maybe Danny can be useful - and things yet to fall in any direction - maybe Strasburg isn't right, maybe the injury returnees will have rough seasons. Same goes for Mets, they have bad things and question marks

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Drew Storen is a problem

Drew Storen is not a bad closer. Drew Storen is definitely not a bad pitcher. He is not going to hurt the Nats if they stick him in the 9th and let him go the whole season saving games. He'll be at least decent, at best All-Star level great, and will save the vast majority of the games handed over to him to save.

That doesn't mean he's not a problem.

Drew Storen blew another game versus the Cardinals and no one, not even soulless automaton me, can feel good about Storen coming in to an important and close game.

I've been on the side of defending Storen because I truly believe Davey screwed him. Go back and read this if you want the full take, but basically Davey made a tired Storen face familiar batters. It was asking Storen to fail. After that he got replaced by Soriano, and we all watched him fail, putting up an ERA that nearly reached 6 before he was demoted to get his head back on straight.

He did work things out and since that demotion had been one of the best relievers in the game, finishing the 2013 season strong and carrying that over into 2014 where eventually in the last month, Storen earned back the closer role. He looked great.

But the eyes of  Nats fans weren't really on Drew yet. When he earned back the closer role the Nats had a 7 game lead on a fading Atlanta with about 20 games left. The pressue was minimal. When the pressure was back on Storen in the playoffs, he floundered.  Only needing to get one out in Game 2 he gave up two straight hits and almost gave up the lead (Posey got nailed at home remember). He was better in game 4 but even staked to a four run lead he gave up two quick hits, then went 2-0 on Brandon Belt before getting out of things* just allowing one run.

Here's the thing about closing. For 95% of relievers, maybe more, literally almost ANY reliever, closing doesn't matter. Pitching the 9th as opposed to the 8th or getting a big out in the 6th will produce no difference in performance. But logic dictates that for a few guys it will matter. That they will perform fine in pressure situations in college, in the minors, and in the majors, but being the last guy out there in important games in the majors, that will be their breaking point. It'd be ridiculous to think that was the case for a lot of guys (which is kind of the basis for most of the dumb "proven closer" talk) but to think it's the case for none is probably just as silly. Some one has to be like this, probably just a handful (my guess is maybe 5-10 guys out of the dozens upon dozens of relievers used each year), but some precious few.  Is Drew one of those few?

Things may be different if Drew Storen had a long and established pattern of closing important games but he has just the opposite. I want you to take a guess at the number of saves Drew Storen has had since 2011. That's 3+ seasons. Got an idea?  Ok the answer is 22. Injuries and Soriano has made it so Drew Storen has had somewhat less than half a year of closing responsibility since running away with the role in 2011. 

Since those couple of playoffs saves we've seen Storen fail in important spots again and again. He might be fine. It is just a couple games over the course of several seasons, so small sample size warnings all apply. He deserves a shot to close all year. But he also deserves to go into any late season or playoff scenario with no confidence from the fans. He has to prove that he's not one of those few and unfortunately he'll likely have to prove it with the Nats playoff on the line.**

* I re-watched that ending and Storen was more on a tight rope than you think. Sandoval lucked into a hit but then Pence ripped his double. Belt had a great pitch to hit on 2-0 but just got around on it too early and smoked it foul. He then chased Ball 3 up, fouling it off, and let a completely hittable 2-2 slider pass. Crawford was next and got a decent pitch to hit himself but turned it into a lazy flyball. Ishikawa fouled off the first pitch, then had decent contact with the last pitch

** Of course that being said, anyone taking the role from Storen who hasn't shown himself to be fine in super high pressure situations would carry the same burden of proof. However, given my 95%+ estimation, you'd have to feel pretty good pressure wouldn't be an issue. I'd be more worried about a drop in talent than finding a guy who couldn't handle pressure, because Storen does have great stuff when he's on.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Monday Quickie - Phillies stink.

The Nats did what they needed to, taking 3 of 4 from the Phillies. Anything less would have started the season not only a depressing 5-8, but with a losing record against a team the Nats, injured or not,  should roll over. It would have also increased the Mets lead to 5 games. Every game counts.

A lot of other things happened - here's my quick takes

Span is back!  Great! I've never been convinced Span was a good offensive player. Last year strikes me far more as a lucky peak year than a transformation to a bat you want in your line-up. But still Span is not a bad bat and I like him much better in the field. Even if Taylor is a great fielder Span has advantages it would take Taylor at least months to catch up to. He knows the speed of the major league game. He knows the opponents. He knows the different parks. Most importantly, he knows what Bryce and Werth can and can't do (and they know the same about him).  We've seen that lack of familiarity cause break downs in the outfield. That shouldn't keep happening now.

Taylor goes down! To me this is another "future" move when a present one would make more sense. The best 4th OF the Nats have is Michael Taylor. There should be no doubt about that. You can make a case that you want him to get regular at bats, but to me regular AAA bats hold no value for Taylor anymore. Keep him up. Get Werth (injury risk) and Span (injury risk) a day off every 4th game or so. Give Bryce (injury risk) a game off every couple weeks. In the end Taylor would be playing every other/every third game. Make this team as good as possible. Don't worry about making 2016 maybe a tiny tiny bit better (and probably not)

Yuney goes down (in another sense)! Yunel Escobar has been fluky good early on. That wasn't going to last. But he could be average or very slightly above. Why not? He hopes to be back on Tuesday and he very well might be. MRI showed no issues other than slight inflammation and for everyone but Anthony Rendon that usually works out pretty quickly. But let this be another warning shot across the bow for you. This entire offense, save Ian Desmond, is an injury risk. It's hard for me to consider any of these guys "mild" risks either. It's a precarious situation that makes winning when they are mostly healthy (like now) paramount.

Strasburg pitched great. This should not surprise you. He's a very good pitcher.

Zimmermann pitched poorly again. Is it velocity (it's down a bunch after years of stability)? Is it location (issues throwing strikes past two games)? Is it stuff failing (K's are down a ton)? I don't know. I'd give it one more start.  The Red Sox game was a game where he didn't have it - he was hit hard. The Phillies game? That was more control issues and some bad luck. Desmond doesn't boot another one, Galvis' broken bat flare doesn't fall in and it's 2 runs in 6 1/3 despite the walks and no one is really concerned.

The Mets suffer two big injuries. Jerry Blevins caught a ball on the arm and broke it. Catcher D'Arnaud broke his hand. The latter could be a quick recovery - depends on the break. The former will be a couple months at least. Wright is already out. So the Nats got 'em right? Well we only have to look back to the 2012 Nats to see that isn't the case. Morse missed 60 games. Werth half a season. Ramos barely played at all. Storen missed half the season. The Nats still managed to win 98 games. If the Mets rotation stays intact and they get some luck with injury replacements, they'll be fine... meaning they could be trouble.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Worry worry worry. Too much worry.

How do we feel now? Better? 4-6 isn't good, but 2-8 would have been... well don't sound the alarm, but good teams have like one run like that a season. (Neither the 2012 or 2014 teams ever went 2-8, though last years team had a run in mid to late May that flirted with 2-8 several times) Put your hand on the alarm and watch the next two-three games.

As much as I'd like to say the Nats are turning the corner, I don't have any faith that the Phillies are a good team. Losing two games to them previously was terrible. Ruiz and Howard are over the hill. They are starting Ruf, Francoeur, and Sizemore at times. While you could expect Utley and Revere to hit a lot better, you have to expect Galvis and Asche to hit a lot worse. This team won't score. David Buchanan, is a bad team's 5th and he's their 4th. Jerome Williams is done. Once Harang's arm tires out this team won't pitch. If the Nats are going to be any good they have to fatten up on the weaklings they play. The Braves may or may not be weak (I'll go with "may") but the Phillies definitely are. You play this team 19 times, you better get 12+ wins. One loss this series is the limit.

It's also important because what follows. After the Phillies come the Cardinals at home, then the Marlins, Braves, and Mets away, then the Marlins and Braves at home. That's a lot of games, 22 more to be precise, that will set up the rest of the Nats 1st half. If they do well during this stretch, even after this slow start, it's likely that they'll have put separation between them and the other NL East teams, with the possible exception of the Mets (since the Mets have the best record right now and play the Nats the fewest times in this stretch). The first half will be about either keeping the Mets at bay, or widening the gap between the Nats and their closest competitor. If the Nats do poorly they'll likely have allowed a couple NL East teams to be right there with them (if not have a slight lead). The first half will be about keeping pace with whoever is in front, and fixing whatever is "wrong". Taking at least 3 from the Phillies will keep the first couple series from feeling apocalyptic if they go badly.

I told you a couple days ago you should let worry sit until they played another 8 games or so. Get 10% into the season, then see what you think. If you aren't seeing horrendous or amazing baseball it's what you have to do (Nats were close but not quite at horrendous). That's especially true with a team that has injury returns in it's pocket. But really it's about how good the teams are you think the Nats are competing against.

If you think the Nats are 10 games or so better than the Mets over the course of the season, then falling a game or two behind early is no big deal. It'll work itself out over the next 154. Worrying is kind of silly because your most likely scenario still has the Nats winning the division, but by around 8 games instead of 10. Falling 9 games behind in the first 16 though (tough to do) and you've set up a situation where the most likely situation to play out from this point, based on preseason expectations, is a neck and neck finish. Worry is valid. (plus your preseason expectations were probably off)  Of course the season is too long and variable to take that in anything but the broadest sense but the take away is worry is not only based on how a team is doing, but how you expect them to do going forward and how you expect everyone else to do. 2-6? There just isn't enough separation there to really matter unless a team you think will be as good or better than yours has gone 7-1 or 8-0.*

Since the Nats were such big favorites and have guys returning there's a nice big cushion to work with. Watch the Nats, watch the Mets, watch the Braves & Marlins a little. Enjoy (as much as the Nats play allows you to).  Try not to worry needlessly. 

*Does that mean Minnesota can consider it's season lost already? I won't go that far but I'd probably already write them off for an AL Central title. Harsh but true. You'd expect they were the worst and they are. Anyone want to be that they play at least a half-game better than CLE and CHW AND at least 4 games better than the Royals AND at least 5 games better than the Tigers? 

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Busy!

But here, let's quickly talk about yesterday.

Is the Nats offense back or is it a function of facing a team with terrible pitching who play in a bandbox, lyric or not?  Doesn't matter. Even if it is the latter if you're a good team you should score a bunch versus a team like that. Plus sometimes a team like that is exactly what you need to get back on track.  Normally I wouldn't consider a series versus the Phillies telling since they don't have a killer pitching staff either, but the Nats will catch both Hamels and April Aaron Harang who sports like a 2.50 ERA in the month over the past two years. We'll see if the bats continue to be hot.

Is Rafael Martin that good? Of course not. But he's not Xavier Cedeno, a journeyman with no major league track record of success, so it's better that he's here and we see what he can do.

Like I said yesterday 2-6 isn't good but let's see where the Nats are 16 games in. If they are around 4-12 then go ahead worry. If they are closer to 8-8 just go with it. The Mets play the Marlins for four starting tonight. The Mets have a small lead on the Marlins, if they can expand it with 3 wins or a sweep then the Nats have a clear idea of who their challenger will be, at least for the first couple months. (The Braves no one really liked, they started 5-0 and already are 6-3 and Fredi Gonzalez is their manager.)

Ok a sweep at Fenway might have been too tall an order. How about a series win at home vs the Phillies? That's gotta be doable.