Nationals Baseball

Monday, July 28, 2014

There's no "sensible way to manage your star player" in TEAM

Told you not to worry about Cincy. They can't hit. Can't. As good as the pitching can be (see Cueto, Jonny) it hardly matters when they can't score more than three runs, which should be the case versus a good pitching team (which the Nats are). Seriously - here are their runs scored since the All-Star break. 3, 1, 2, 2, 3, 1, 1, 1, 2.  This is a team that could find itself in last place by the end of August. Most likely not (the Cubs have gotten themselves a great "lead") but I'm not betting against it.

Anyway, the Nats will have to sweep the Marlins to go 7-2, like I demanded they do.  Don't they listen to me? They are better than the Marlins. They should win the series. 6-3 is fine. 5-4 is not ok.

The bigger story over the weekend is how the management has treated Bryce Harper and how the fans are turning on him.  He has not hit particularly well since coming back (.209 / .329 / .328). He seemed to have something going for a few games there but has gone back to slumping. During that time there was a questionable non-start versus Franklin Morales (not exactly a lefty who dominates lefties), an odd "fake bunt" call in a key point, and a few overly aggressive baserunning moves which everyone loved so much last year, and now everyone hates because... ummm...  Well, there's the stated reason why they hate these moves, because they cause outs. But you know what? They caused outs before too. The turn can be caused by a team losing when they should be winning, but the Nats have taken 1st place and don't look to be slowing down. No, the big reason why they hate the moves now, something that has changed from previous years is the team (and the media - Hi, Boz!) have told them they should hate it now.

Now you have people throwing out trades for Bryce, or suggesting he go down to Syracuse for Souza.  It's created this weird ironic situation where in order to show that Bryce is not more important than the team, that the team's success is paramount, the Nats are doing things that most likely will hurt the team's success.  So I guess send the management down too?

Bryce is arguably the most important piece for the future success of the Nats. Everyone else is either too old, to injury prone, or too unproven to take that title from him. The only possible challenger to Bryce is Rendon, but here's a fun fact; in Bryce's 2nd year (last year), he got on base more and hit for more power than Rendon is doing now in his second year. He was also four years younger than Rendon. Bryce's potential to be a team carrying star cannot be ignored. He doesn't have to be coddled, but he does have to be used properly.  Preferably that would be batting higher in the line-up but hey, if they just set-him and forget-him for 2014 in the 6 hole I'd be fine with that. Sit him versus tough lefties, otherwise he plays everyday. Don't ask him to do things you wouldn't ask other players of his talent to do. It's not that difficult.

Sigh. What a stupid thing to be talking about.

In other news - Denard Span. You all know I'm not a big fan of Denard Span. It's pretty much all about him batting leadoff, as I don't think he should be sat and certainly not traded. Recently he's made the leadoff question moot, getting on base at a crazy clip. Of course a lot of that is just luck (please someone tell me his .441 July BABIP is sustainable) which happens with speedy slap hitters, but he did increase his walk totals in each of the past three months. Six in May, eight in June, twelve so far in July. If he keeps it up he might not be terrible leading off when the batting average cools down. That's important because like it or not, he's leading off for this team.

I'm one to think that Span's option year should be picked up. Does that mean Souza (or whoever) doesn't get there chance? Maybe. But the Nats OF D is pretty shaky and Souza is still learning the position. Bryce hasn't been able to turn his athleticism into good OF play and Werth can't get around out there anymore (sorry Werth fans).  They need Span in CF.  If he happens to hit like crap (or if Souza shows himself to be an unstoppable force in the majors when he plays) then you can bench him - he would make a great 4th OF / defensive replacement / pinch runner in that case.An expensive one yes, but the Nats should be able to afford it without affecting their future plans.

Friday, July 25, 2014

For Rizzo, the time is never now

There is one quote in the story that Kilgore wrote about Rizzo that stands out to me, a dangerous quote for Nats fans who want the Nats to go all-in
"You can’t do things for short-term gains that are going to harm you long term.”
The rumor mill suggests this isn't just talk. Despite losing Zimm potentially for the remainder of the season, the Nats appear to be only looking at upgrading their LH relief pitching. It makes sense to do that, Jerry Blevins' complete LOOGYness this season limits his usefulness, but it would seem like the Nats should do more. One more bat or one more big arm could likely guarantee a NL East pennant and the advantages that come with that.

It makes sense to go all in now. The iron is hot and it seems very likely to grow colder by 2016. Ian Desmond, Jordan Zimmermann, and Doug Fister all could be gone after the 2015 season. Adam Laroche, Denard Span, Rafael Soriano, and Tyler Clippard are also up for FA after 2015 and not all of them will be back*. If LaRoche does come back he'll be 36 in 2016. Werth will be here and he'll be 37. Zimmerman and Ramos are both high-injury risks. It's clear that this particular window, with these particular players playing leading roles, has another 2 years tops.

That's not to say the future is grim. You can see where the Nats' plan is going. In 2016 Rendon and Bryce will anchor the offense while Gio and Strasburg anchor the rotation. Storen re-takes his closer role and a guy like Barrett moves into a set-up role. Filling in the gaps will be Taylor or Goodwin or Souza in the OF. Cole and Giolito will take their places in the rotation. I imagine a trade will be made for a MI and maybe a SP.  Who exactly I can't tell you . You're probably looking for a guy who is becoming a FA after the 2017 season at least (the Nats don't deal for 1 year players) and may not have gotten on the radar yet. (twist my arm and I'll say Starlin Casto)

But you can see that alot has to go right. Giolito and Cole (or whoever but these are the likely two) have to be as good as ZNN and Fister. Strasburg and Gio have to be as good as they are now. Along with Zimmerman and Ramos, Rendon and Bryce also have to remain healthy. Storen can't go head-case again. They have to be able to make a trade for positions other teams value highly. If the Nats want to keep position as NL East favorite a couple years from now, it'll take some good GM skill AND some good luck.

I understand the impulse to protect the future and I get that making deals for now are no guarantee of success, but here's the truth :
  • If you sacrifice the future to try to win now, you'll probably lose now and your future will be a question mark.
  • If you don't sacrifice the future to try to win now, you'll probably lose now and your future will be a question mark. 
These things only change by degree. There are no guarantees, not of current success AND not of future success.

Rizzo wants to focus on the future because that's what the owners most likely want. A stable, winning franchise. That builds the fanbase and makes the franchise more valuable. Trading for now could darken a future that is already cloudy. Focus on winning games, not championships, because winning games is an accomplishment that's far less up to the fickle hands of fate. One bounce, one bad start, won't take you from winning 90 games to 75, but it can take you from winning a playoff series to losing one.

Is that what you want though? A series of half-measures on whatever is going on in the current year? A tweak here and there every 2 out of 3 summers when the Nats are still in it? Or do you want the big move, knowing full well the team still could, and probably will, fail at obtaining the ultimate goal?

*My early guess. I think LaRoche will resign on another 2-year deal. So Zimm plays LF / platoons with LaRoche. I think Clippard and Soriano walk for greener pastures. I think the Nats let Span go because they just don't have room. I think they manage to sign Fister but not ZNN (who let's face it, doesn't want to be here) or Desmond (who will get more money elsewhere)

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Don't give away games

Yesterday Matt Williams gave away a game.  With Zimmerman out "days off" become a commodity that must be handed out carefully. Does Werth need another day to rest his ankle? Fine. But then Ramos needs to play.  It wasn't even asking too much of him.  He didn't play Sunday. Rockies night games start a little earlier (6:40 local) which lessens the day-night issue a little bit. (which really is just a made up thing anyway - like 5 more hours would make all the difference. You sit catchers on day after night games not because they can't handle such a crazy act of fortitude, but because you should give catchers more rest and day after night games are spread out enough that they make convenient places to remember to do that). But Williams had his set rules and he had to go ahead with them.

Then there's the line-up. You can understand putting Desmond 5th, sort of. Williams seems to have an unnatural fear of having lefties back to back in the lineup, and a desire to put Bryce in his place, so Bryce won't get the chance to bat in Zimm's spot. Desmond getting it makes the most sense I guess. So be it. That's the hand Nats fans have been dealt. But switching Rendon to the 3rd spot so Hairston can bat 2nd? What the hell is that? I'd rather see Hairston bat 3rd - at least you can use the "we are keeping guys in their usual spots" excuse.  There are optimal lineups but given the way Matt coaches we'll never get those. Even taking that into account, why can't we see a lineup that's Span-Rendon-LaRoche-Werth-Bryce-Desmond-Ramos-Espy? Doesn't that make sense with Zimm out for say a month? Arrgh

Look, the Nats should be good enough to lose a game they should win here and there and still take the NL East, but you want to minimize the number of these losses because you never know.  Maybe Werth needs a DL stint too. Maybe ZNN goes out and blows out his arm next start. Then what? Then you are fighting for a WC spot and you get to the end, you lose out by a game and you say "Well, that's baseball!" No. That's you screwing around in games you should win costing the Nats a playoff spot. 

Meanwhile Strasburg remains an enigma in 2014.  You can say nothing is wrong and it's just bad luck and hey, maybe it is. These things can last a while, even a season. But when it's going into a 2nd half you really have to start to look at a player. There are a lot of theories being bandied about (My least favorite one - "He needs another pitch!" Like pitchers haven't gotten by on 3 or fewer pitches before) My personal take - when you have an elite fastball, like in the upper 90s, it doesn't matter where you throw it. Guys can't hit that. But when you start drifting into the mid to low 90s location starts to matter. That's where Strasburg is moving into. It's still a good enough fastball not to get killed, but it's not good enough to be dominant on speed alone. Of course the caveat is that I can't really tell how much he's missing his targets. I can tell you prior to 2014 he was keeping the fastball away from righties and in to lefties and he's giving both more pitches to the middle. But is that by design? Going for contact? Command statistics exist but as far as I know are not out there for you and me so it's just eyeballing and guesswork unless someone wants to chart all of his games.

Here's the highlights from last game.  By watching Ramos you can see  he missed badly on the Dickerson hit. He might have missed a little low on the Paulsen hit. He missed on the DP ball, it was supposed to be outside and low - perfect for inducing DPs - but it went inside. It was still low and Stubbs isn't a great hitter so they got what they wanted but it could have been worse.

Here's the Brewer's game.  He misses down to Gennett on the HR, arguably in a lefties wheelhouse. Misses in to Davis on his HR. Misses at least out over the plate (maybe a little up too) on the lazy pop-up that the Nats' movers couldn't bring the statue that is Jayson Werth in to catch fast enough.

These hits seem to agree with the idea that he's having an issue hitting spots, especially cross his body (in to lefties, outside to righties). Of course there is a huge bias problem here when we're looking at only the other teams hitting the ball. I'd be shocked if we didn't see a lot of missed spots. We'd see the same thing if we looked at all the hits versus Kershaw, King Felix, or old video of Jason Simontacchi. What we really want to know is how often this happens. Pitchers miss spots every game. You miss a few times in 7 innings you are dominant. You miss a few times to each batter and you are toast.

Anyone have hours and hours free?

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Back to the edge

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


Zimmerman went down yesterday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Best team in baseball?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 21, 2014

Monday Quickie - Rested Roark

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 18, 2014

Up, Down, All around

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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