Nationals Baseball

Friday, May 27, 2016

Bryce Harper HR edition

Well that was needed. That was a home run. Now let Bryce turn back into BRYCE and let the Nats roll. That's what I want to see. If he and Murphy could keep a team winning basically by themselves (ok Ramos too), imagine what they can do with a couple more bats going.

The Nats now extend their 2016 dominance over the Cardinals to 4 games. Most impressively is how they are doing it, limiting a potent offense to next to nothing. In the past 3 games they've given up 3 runs. Whatever I write asking if this is a great team or just a good one, I do not doubt they have a great starting pitching staff. The starter questions are merely "Oh right now the guys are pitching like 1-1-2-2-3 types perhaps they are only really 1-1-3-3-4 types"

Other notes :

Joe Ross pitched well. I think. I didn't feel like he got hit particularly hard, but I also didn't feel like he was dominating the Cardinals in a "fluke home run is only run" sense. It was more a case where the potentially damaging XBH balls were being hit at the OF while the less damaging single balls were getting through. He also got three DPs behind him which always helps. It was a 3-4 run outing with breaks.

I'll be honest do worry about his pitch counts. I'm not usually a pitch count worrier. I think we cut starters off too early confusing tiredness and decreasing pitch speed with effectiveness. Those things are correlated sure but you should react to the game in front of you, not the game that theoretically exists. If a guy is still getting outs then let him pitch. Maybe his stuff just works for that team on that day. Maybe the fact it's worked for 6 innings gives him a psychological advantage in the next couple. It should be judged then and there and not by some hard and fast rule... most of the time.

See I think for the most part once your body is done setting into place so to speak that you should just be set loose for a few years, to be reigned in at a more advanced age if injuries start to happen. But for me that's about age 23-24 to say... well usually 30ish when players start breaking down. This is when managers can go out there and let you throw 120 pitches if they like, in my opinion. Ross just turned 23 a couple days ago so maybe he's not ready? It's tough to say from the outside. But the fact that every single start of his this year, excluding the one he left after 2, would qualify in his Top 3 starts in pitches thrown last year... that bothers me. Let Stras, Gio, Max, and Tanner go until they look like they can't anymore. But maybe hold Ross back a little for another year.

I really like a rested Felipe Rivero. Keep working in those 2-days off breaks in there if you please.

There's really a gap between the guys hitting; Murphy, Ramos, Revere and Rendon - all above .925 in OPS in past week - and the guys who are not; Zimm, Bryce, Espy, Werth - all below .625 in OPS in past week.  Thanks to the homers last night both Bryce (.561 - he had stopped walking along with hitting and you didn't even notice) and Espinosa (.516) pass Werth (.455) in OPS for the past week.  Werth has hit better in the 2nd spot but more accurately he's had one really good game (2-2 double, 3 walks) that's pushing up a mediocre run in the other 10 (8-34, 2 doubles, 4 walks). If the Nats need another bat replacing Turner for Espinosa is the easiest move. But that has very little guarantee of success. Replacing Werth for someone else is far more likely to make an impact. 

Thursday, May 26, 2016

I'm obsessed

I don't know why I am obsessed with trying to define the Nationals position in baseball's pecking order but I am. I know they are good. The record says it. The runs scored and runs allowed say it. Just watching the team conveys that. But HOW good? 95 ish wins, normally an easy division winning total? 85 wins, normally a fighting for Wild Card total? I'd like to believe the former but I don't fully not yet.

There are two things working against the easy defining of the Nats. First is simply where we are time wise. At this point some teams define themselves by beating everyone in their path (Cubs) and others define themselves the opposite way (Twins, Braves). But for everyone else it's not that simple and how you are defined is in large part how you do against specific teams. Who are you beating? Who are you losing to?

The problem is though, if you are not defined, how exactly can we define the teams you are playing? Teams get lucky. Teams get unlucky. Sometimes you face all the good pitchers, sometimes you face all the bad ones. Sometimes you play teams when they are hot, sometimes you play them when they are cold. You expect that all to even out over a season, (you expect...) but over 50 games? It remains a question.

The other issue is that the league this year has several teams playing truly terrible baseball, but only one playing true great baseball. Three teams are currently playing at a 50 win pace and only one is winning at a 110 plus win pace* This is skewing the data to create more over .500 teams. Going into yesterday we had 18 teams .500 or better (17 today). So simply saying "Look at all the .500 teams we've played" doesn't necessarily mean you are playing teams better than average. The average has shifted up.

Bringing it back to the Nats the Nats have played roughly .500 ball (19-18) after they started the season 9-1. Some have noted that this is against a tough schedule that features one team under .500 (Twins). But what does that really mean?  When we look at records, the Cubs, as mentioned before are clearly great. The Twins clearly terrible. The Mets are very good. The rest? PHI, KC, MIA, STL, and DET are 12th - 17th (with LA sneaking in at 15th) in winning percentage. So that would suggest the Nats are doing ok (13-11) against ... good? above average? C+ B-?  teams

But is record the best indicator? What if we look at the pythag record that tries to estimate a teams wins and losses purely looking at runs? Nothing you can imagine changes about Cubs, Mets, or Twins. But the Cardinals look better, while Miami and KC drop a little and the Phillies (14-4 in one run games) look much worse. So the Nats would be doing ok against a mix that comes out as decidedly average.

What about SRS which tries to take into account strength of schedule with all the flaws noted so far? The Mets are no longer very good, merely good. However, STL is now a Top 5 team. But none of the other teams are above average so the Nats are beating up on not an average schedule but a below average one.

Of course during this whole time the Nats are being ranked too and that's what I keep coming back to. They are 5th in winning percentage, 3rd in pythagorean winning percentage, t3rd for strength of schedule. All of it agrees that the Nats are very very good.

Now what I want is that to translate to a nice long winning streak. Of course that isn't likely to happen soon. They face one across the board bad team between now and June 15th. They also play those darn Cubbies again. The other games are 6 vs the Phillies** (probably much worse than record), 4 vs STL (probably better than record), and 3 vs White Sox (probably at record - which would be like the Mets).  All in all... I guess .500 during this time would actually probably be ok?

I said earlier that not being bad mixed with the occasional hot streak makes a very good baseball team. That's true. But Nats have a schedule as a whole that really doesn't clump the good or the bad together. And right now are in a weird place with a super long stretch with no gimmes. A place where not being bad is all that is really asked for, and yet going say 55 games (a third of the season) playing .500 ball can't help but feel like... well like playing 55 games of .500 ball.

Other Notes

Just an aside but I noted yesterday on the Twitters that for May Bryce is hitting like 35% of his balls in play softly. That's bad. Like one of the worst for the month out of anyone with enough ABs. Like no one does that for a season bad. So it's not just bad luck with BABIP. The balls he's hitting shouldn't be hits a lot of the time.

*in another sense the Cubs winning percentage, if kept up for a year would be 15th best since 1900. The Red Sox, currently with the 2nd best W% in baseball, would be t 96th.  In contrast the Twins and Braves would be 6th and 7th worst and the Reds would be 39th worst. 

**You know what I blame the Phillies. If they were just losing like they should we could really hold that 2-4 record against them against the Nats. Stupid lucky Phillies.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

3-2, 1 game to go

House money. In a very literal sense too as the worst the Nats can do now is break even. Good.

Last night was a bit worrying a couple innings in if only because the Nats should win that game. Strasburg's been very good. Harvey's been very bad. The game is in DC. There really isn't a good reason the Nats should lose. Yet sometimes you do and this would have been a bad time for sometimes.

It was a power explosion, but after watching Harvey two times now I don't want to say anything about the team's offense. He's bad. Let's see what happens versus Matz. Hopefully this tee-ball session gets the bats back in a hitting mood after Colon kept them quiet.

So if we aren't talking about the offense, how about dem Strasburgs?

Another solid outing in a season literally full of them.  His worst game was probably that first game of the DH vs Miami where he gave up 3 runs over 6 innings while walking three and "only" striking out 7.  That's certainly acceptable, in fact better than acceptable in my opinion. He has yet to have a bad game this year, or even a mediocre one. He has 8 wins and no losses. He is second in the league in K/9 and second in Ks.

Now given that you might wonder why he isn't chasing down the likes of Kershaw for Cy Young. Well he hasn't had anything but good games this year but he's also only had one great one. One dominant game where he went into the 8th. But as you can tell from his results good games are winners most of the time too. He hasn't been cheated out of a win yet. Seven times he's held the other team to 2 or fewer runs over at least 6 innings. Seven times he's won. The only games he hasn't won are the two games where he's given up 4 runs.  Keep giving the team these "high-quality starts" and hello 20 wins.

I'll maintain the key to Strasburg's resurgence is just letting him go. He's had 10 double digit strikeout games since coming back form the DL last August, as many as he had from basically the 3 season period from mid year 2012 though July of 2015. The Nats wanted to make all their pitchers Greg Madduxes, contact pitchers who could get the K when needed, but all pitchers aren't the same. Perhpas it was bringing in Max that changed things. Not for Strasburg in a psychological sense. Get that nonsense out of here. But for the Nats in terms of "Why are we letting this guy do what he wants and be successful and trying to tell Strasburg not to do the same thing when he might even be better at it?"

One thing connected to the swings and misses, is that Strasburg has stopped trying to pound the bottom of the zone. From 2013 to DL 2015 Strasburg was throwing just over half of his pitches at either the bottom of the zone or below.* Since then he's under 42%. As you can imagine it has a effect on the converse. He was only throwing about a quarter of his pitches up in the zone 2013 to DL 2015, but now is throwing about a third. "Get the ground ball" has been replaced with "Get the out" and trusting Strasburg can do it.

Now as much as I know some people want to scream MIKE MADDUX! BESTEST! the facts are this started last August. The Nats changed something then and it's continued into this season. Good for Maddux for not changing what's working I guess but he wasn't really the cause of this improvement.

So Stras is Strasburg again, to some degree. The Strasburg he was in 2010-2012 that electrified DC. The one free to strikeout a dozen guys if he feels like he has the stuff that day. He's still a half-step away from dominance sitting in the very very good camp, but if we're lucky dominance is coming.

*thinking about the zone as a grid with top, middle, bottom.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

2-2, 2 games to go

Gio wasn't going to be in the Cy Young conversation. At least that's what five of six of his full seasons tell us. So a game like this was going to happen. It's just bad timing that it had to happen against the Mets. It's not all bad timing mind you. The Mets are good. But Gio did manage to keep them in check just 5 days ago, so hoping for one more good start wasn't asking for much.

It is notable to point out that the Nats have not faced many good offensive teams this year. The Braves, Phillies, and Twins are terrible offensive teams. The Royals are surprisingly bad so far.  And Miami and the Mets aren't particularly good.  That accounts for 35 of the Nats 45 games. I'm not making a point about the quality of the wins the Nats have*. But I am noting that if you are a Nats starter and things fall right for you, you might have racked up some nice numbers with only a game against top competition.

This brings it back to Gio. He had only faced one good offensive squad so far, the Cubs.** He got hit pretty hard. So maybe Gio's early success was a bit misleading. We'll see as the Nats face better bats as the schedule moves along.

The loss itself isn't very meaningful. I mean, you want a win sure but they don't need it. Just one win in the next two would break the 6 game set into a 3-3 tie, perfectly acceptable for two teams of roughly equal talent going H2H home and away for 6 games. They are favored today and assuming it goes to plan then tomorrow's game, where they won't be, becomes a "house money" game. They can do no worse than split and they can't lose 1st place. So make it happen Strasburg.

Other notes

Now that's more the Colon we've seen over the past few years. The "have all the singles you want", Colon. He's not a scatterer, as much as he relies on the fact you won't be able to put a lot of them together and with no walks there isn't anyone to drive in other than other single hitters. Of course it's only moderately successful, he has had an ERA over 4.00 the past two seasons. But it keeps a career going in the back of a rotation.

Bryce hti before the game. Bryce hit after the game. Bryce is starting to press. Looking at zone maps from before the 3 walk game and after isn't very telling, in part because there's only so many pitches in each little box. But he is seeing far fewer pitches in the zone and opposing pitchers are really focusing on low and away. It looks like that effort has made him over eager to swing at pitches off the plate INSIDE. He's also swinging and missing more at low pitches although that might be attributed to the mix of what he's seeing there. I'd have to look into that more. Hard to tell the guy to swing less but that may be the best plan. Look for something over the plate and up, or else take.

Is it Trea Turner time? Sure. (Well when service time dictates)  But don't expect anything.

*They are 5-5 in those other 10 so it's not like they are struggling there. 

**Since you must know, Ross and Max have faced all 3 good offensive teams (STL, CHC, DET), Stras missed the Cubs. Roark and Gio only faced the Cubs.  So on the flipside of Gio, Ross' struggles might be related to the effort of going STL, CHC, DET in consecutive outings. Even though he pitched well there, maybe the stress of doing so effected him in some way? I don't know. We're all guessing here.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Round 2... FIGHT!

It's versus Blanka.

In the first 40 games the Nats started hot (9-1) then played middling ball for the remainder of time. (15-15). This sounds bad but it's actually not. If you have one really hot streak followed with .500 ball for a quarter of a season, and manage to repeat that 4 times you find yourself going into the penultimate game of the year 32 games over .500 (96-64 for those bad at math).  That's not a good team, that's a great team.

It seems odd that avoiding being terrible is the hallmark of a great team but it is. The season is long and being terrible for a stretch is something that happens to most teams. If you don't get it under control quickly it can break your season. Take for example, the greatest team ever, the New York Yankees.  They have been one of the best teams in baseball in May going 13-8 since the month started. However, they were one of the worst teams in baseball in April going 8-14 during the opening month. If they manage to keep up their play for the remainder of May, they are going to find themselves playing the best baseball in the majors... and also just a game or two above .500. Their margin for error has been mostly wiped clean. Another long round of bad baseball likely would sink the season.

So the Nats may have not played great baseball going into that first Mets series, but as important, they weren't playing bad baseball either. If the Nats' floor ends up being a month close to .500 then the season will be a breeze.

So that's the question of the moment, are the Nats a .500ish team that happened to have a hot streak at the exact right time to make us think otherwise? Or are the Nats a 90+ win team who will potentially fight for best record in baseball? Well, since the Mets series started the Nats have won 4 of 6 on the road versus a good Mets team and a capable Marlins squad. They seem to be answering the question in the latter direction. This next homestand, 7 games versus those same Mets and the not-clicking but still dangerous Cardinals, can get us further away from the idea that great play from this team is a fluke.

This series with the Mets is also important in the micro sense because the Nats can continue to force the Mets to play catch-up for a while with another win. Playing catch-up can be hard psychologically because you have to maintain your high level of play long enough not only to get to the team ahead of you but to pass them. Often you may accomplish the former only to slide a few games back soon after. It just happened in fact as the Mets took the division lead for 4 days two weeks ago. Or think of the Nats last season who twice climbed hills with runs of 18-4 and 11-3, only to see those leads slip away. The season becomes a bit easier for the team ahead because a loss or two isn't the end of the world. You are still ahead. And since losing the lead is often because of an extended period of good play by the other team it can be spun as "ok they had their hot streak, now it's our turn", rather than worrying if they are pulling away or you are fading. It begins to feel like the team ahead is the better team that must be beaten.

On the other hand if the Mets win the series then they set up the dogfight scenario we expected from the season. The Mets a half game up or up by 1.5 would be the rival the Nats would have to scoreboard watch nightly. A loss or two here would be a big deal and an extended run by them or crash by you sets up a chase scenario.  The teams feel more equal in this scenario as they fight to stay close to eachother hoping to catch a hot run or for the other team to stumble.

This is all just feelings more than facts, especially at this point in the year. What feels like an insurmountable lead can disappear in a week in baseball even when we feel sure we know what these teams are. However, I've been looking to define the Nats all year and after a couple of false starts I might find myself with a good sense of what this team really is.

Other notes :

Ben Revere is finally having balls in play break his way as pretty much everyone said would happen. 7-14 in last few games and the average is up to .182. As long as you don't expect more than a bunch of singles from Ben Revere you'll be happy. Rendon too is having things go his way as expected 10-20 in past week, with 4 XBH, and 5 walks.

Scherzer had another good outing. So if for some reasons you were still on the edge of despair with him, get away from that edge. He did of course give up a home run but the walks were down again. He's not 2015 Max, but 2012-2014 Max were great pitchers too.

If you're looking for something new to worry about. Joe Ross might be the next thing up. His May has been decidedly blah (4.50 ERA, 1.50 WHIP) and his last three starts especially have been unimpressive. Not that this is too big a worry. Roark looks fine and even these numbers are ok for a 5th starter. But for those looking at Ross as a #2 type it'd be nice to see a good start in one of his next two outings. He'll have STL next - who still have a great offense. After that will be Philly, who struggle to score even at home.

The Nats schedule isn't hard coming up but it isn't easy. They'll play 4 versus a Cardinals team I maintain is dangerous to finish up the homestand. Then they'll go away to the lucky Phillies, and terrible Reds, before ending the road trip with a tough White Sox team. Back home they'll get the Phillies again and then the Cubs. It's an overall stretch where if they beat the Mets .500 will probably be ok.  The Nats schedule went easy - hard - but for the rest of the year it's pretty even assuming the NL East teams hold up. If the Mets are on their tail, they'll have their best chance to get separation, in late June as a @SD, @LA, @MIL road trip flows into an NYM, CIN, MIL homestand. Although I don't like to count on west coast trips for anything.

How is the Mets schedule after this series? They get the disappointing Dodgers and the White Sox at home then go on the road to play Miami, Pittsburgh and Milwaukee.  About the same. The Mets schedule for the rest of the year probably skews a bit tougher overall but they also have an easy stretch in Sept (@CIN, @ATL, @WSN, MIN, ATL). If things are close past the Nats/Mets series around Labor Day you probably give the Mets an edge down the home stretch. But a lot of baseball between then and now.

Friday, May 20, 2016

2-1, 3 games to go

Some games are given to you. Some games are taken. Two nights ago, the Mets gave the Nats a win putting thirteen men on base without making them get a hit, while barely working the staff to the tune of 131 pitches over 9. Last night, the Nats took the win, pounding out 8 hits in 2 2/3 innings while Strasburg & company struck out 14 Mets and allowed no XBH. Last night was the type of win you want to see. A complete victory full of hard hit balls and dominant pitching. Now the Nats have a solid lead on the Mets and have a chance to put even more space between the two teams with a series at home coming up after this weekend. For the moment the pressure is all on the Mets.

Strasburg again came up strong with a solid game. Personally I think the change we've seen in the past 120 innings of his career is about accepting the type of pitcher he is. Strasburg strikes out a lot of guys. That's who he is. The Nats wanted to change that a bit. They wanted him to tone down on the K's a little, get more weak contact, last longer into games. That's great in theory but in practice it took away Strasburg's strength. While by no means bad, his performances in 2013, 2014 and the first four months of 2015 were to me a step behind what he did in 2010, 2012, the last two months of 2015, and what he's doing now. Maybe this means he doesn't go 8 innings. That's up to the Nats. But I'll take 6 innings of this guy every day.

But god forbid we take anything about Strasburg and not make it a memorandum on something bigger. Last night and today we're hearing more and more "shutdown" talk, as Strasburg, who was shutdown, looked great while Harvey, who wasn't, looked terrible.  I don't like repeating myself but when the world does not listen, or understands but willfully ignores for the sake of a story, I have to keep yelling.


If Strasburg wasn't shutdown maybe the Nats win the series, maybe they lose the DS in 3. Maybe he pitches the same as he is now, maybe worse, maybe better. WE DON'T KNOW

If Harvey was shutdown maybe the Mets get knocked out earlier, or maybe they win it all. Maybe he pitches the same as he is now, maybe worse, maybe better. WE DON'T KNOW

Let me repeat


The GMs with their gut don't know. The agents with their binders don't know. The players, the very people who's arms we are talking about, don't know. And the media and us? HAHAHAHAHA. We REALLY don't know. 

Arrgh. It's so frustrating. In part because those talking on either side of the shutdown talk with such conviction, be it the two-thirds who say "keep pitching" or the one-third who say "protect the arm". They are so sure of themselves, that their way is the right way, when assuredness should be nowhere near this conversation.

All you can do is make a guess on what's the best course of action and hope it works out. There isn't even a good chance for being right in hindsight here. You pinch hit Tyler Moore and he comes up with the winning hit, while it might not have been the optimal choice at the time, in reality it was "a" right choice. It worked. Nothing else matters for that team in that moment. Well for the shutdown "it worked" boils down to winning the World Series and having the pitcher be healthy for years. Good luck getting that to happen.

Even more annoying is the sense that the one-third are changing the way to look at shutdowns entirely. Strasburg is pitching better than Harvey. Therefore the shutdown worked. Harvey's playoff performance somehow becomes inconsequential. That's just luck. The long term performance is what really comes from the shutdown. Not only then do people who say this think the decision to shutdown was right, they think the decision to shutdown CAN'T BE WRONG. In essence, they are infallible. It's insanity.

I'm angering up the blood over here. Look I was for the shutdown. Made sense at the time. Glad to see he's stayed healthy and pitched well. THE END.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

1-1, 4 games to go

And just like that the pressure is on the Mets. They don't HAVE to win tonight, but if they don't they'll find themselves 2.5 games out with a 3 game set in DC on the near horizon. If they couldn't beat the Nats 2 out of 3 in NY, how could they expect to beat them 2 out of 3 in Washington just a few days later? Of course they pretty easily could

Last night was a good night, though it was obvious that Colon was off. The man who hasn't walked more than 30 men in a season the past four years gave 5 guys free passes last night. As much as I'd like to credit the Nats amazing patience that's probably not the truth. And so just like I can't go too much into evaluating an offense that fails to score against one of the best pitchers on a day that he's dealing, I can't do much evaluation for an offense that scores against a meh pitcher having an off day. I will say you NEED to score on such days and the Nats did so they didn't blow their shot.

Now it's Strasburg's turn versus Matt Harvey.  I'm not sure we'll hear many "Harvey's better" chants today.  He's been a mess this year. His ERA (4.93) is bad and his WHIP (1.533) shows it isn't much of an accident of timing. He's peaked at "decent" this year with more bad games than ok ones. He's walking more and striking out fewer but the real issue is he's become incredibly hittable. Supposedly it's just a mechanics thing but we'll see for ourselves tonight .

Strasburg's historically been pretty good versus the Mets and in a crucial game last year went toe to toe with the Mets' best pitcher of 2015 Jacob DeGrom before getting forced out and watching Storen serve up a gopher ball to Cespedes. He's pitching better in 2016 than he has in the past couple years and that's saying something because at worst you'd say he pitched good in those years (and that's selling his performance short IMO).  He still hasn't broken out - no Kershaw like dominance - tonight would be a good night to have that start.

Even if the Nats lost tonight it's fine. They are playing in Queens. They needed one win and they got it.

Hey Harper how are the prospects doing?

Trea Turner - finally got hot again after a nearly month log slog (.250 / .302 / .344 from April 17th through May 11th) dulled the excitement of his fast start. He's got a little 8 game hitting streak right now, though the prudent move is to keep an eye on him. The strikeouts aren't bad but he's stopped walking even while heating back up. Right now I don't think I'd move him up today but he's close. He might actually time a reasonable call-up with what service time would dictate.

Lucas Giolito - the good news - only 3 hits in 5 innings last time out! the bad news - 5 walks and only 4 Ks. He did have a couple errors behind him.  The short of it is that they are starting to stretch him out now and we have to see how he reacts to that while trying to pick up his game.

Victor Robles - He's slowed down a bit but he still hasn't gone hitless in 3 straight games yet. Unless the Nats are trying to teach him patience (he does not wallk - 1 walk in the past month) there's no reason he shouldn't be moved up soon.

Catch All of names you heard of at some point - Lopez is doing ok in AA, better recently. Cole is scuffling along in AAA. Fedde is struggling big time in High-A. Difo is trying to pull himself back up after a painfully slow start.

Other guys in upper majors - Severino holding his own at AAA which is great since he's 22. Not major league ready yet but gives you hope he will be in a year or two. Goodwin is doing ok in same place, though fading recently. In AAA you have some of the usual maybe useful relief arms but nothing exciting. Voth has probably claimed the "first up" if there is a rotation hole. He's been good, not great. In AA there isn't much to excite. De los Santos was interesting and got bumped up and has done poorly in AAA.