Nationals Baseball

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Papelbon

Three important things to know
  • You don't have to be good to save a lot of games. (see Jones, Todd). It's getting three people out in a situation where you can have as large a lead as three runs and starting at a random point in the batting order.
  • You don't have to have a good closer to win a lot of games. (see 2014 Tigers).  While they will blow a couple games the truth is a good team usually wins games by a bunch of runs. Closers impact say 20-25 games within 2-runs? If they blow 25% of those that's 5-6 games and 25% is a ridiculous "replace me" percentage. More likely for them to stay at closer they blow 3-4 of those, 1-2 other games if they are bad. But probably 1-2 of those would have been blown by closer X and it's not like they wouldn't pitch at other times if relieved of closing duties, and it's not like if they were replaced entirely that the other pitcher coming in would be perfect. All in all the end result is maybe you blow 2-3 games you wouldn't have? Maybe? That doesn't turn a good team bad.
  • You don't have to have a great closer to win a World Series. See 2012 Giants (Casilla was good but nothing special.) or 2006 Cardinals (Isringhausen was not on his game that year and would be done in 2008). It's 7 games at most. It may not even come up that you need a closer.  Not saying it doesn't help. But you don't NEED it.

Papelbon is not pitching well.  Mainly he's not missing bats. He's striking out a lot fewer batters (K/9 down to 6.75 and trending down since 11.83 in 2012). This is backed up by a big drop in swinging strikes, a big drop in batters swinging at pitches outside the zone, and a big increase in batter contact. His fastball speed is down (and like K/9 on a long trend down though since 2011 - though to be fair this is what happens to every pitcher. Time gets all the arms except for Nolan Ryan). And batters are squaring up on him. This is backed up by a drop in opposite field hits and an almost non-existent percentage of soft hits off him (7.3%! You may not know that but that's crazy) This is why we see the percentage of line drives and fly balls that are being hit off him go up.

He's not going to get the big strikeouts anymore, but his control was pretty good before and might be better now (BB/9 rate is at a career low) and despite the hard hits he isn't prone to giving up the home runs and that hasn't changed. So scoring runs off Papelbon still will take a few hits in a row. In a game where generally only 30% of balls in play drop for hits that's going to be hard to do, even if you can hit it decently.

So will guys hit him? Probably. Will he still be able to save say 80-85% of his games? Probably. Is that good enough? Probably.


Hey what do you want from me? I always hated the guy and never wanted him here and root for blowout wins so I don't see him or for him to blow saves and have the Nats win in extras. This is the best I can, and will, do for the guy.

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Wins wins wins wins winwinsinasdfhkla

The Nats keep winning, though unlike the Cardinals sweep, last night was more in keeping in form with the rest of the month. Fantastic starting pitching. Well managed relief pitching coming through. No real offense to speak of.

The Nats can win the East like they did the Cardinals series. They can't win the East with the above. Not unless you think the starters can keep up an ERA just over 2.00 for the season. So the lingering question is when will the offense come around. Oh, don't kid yourself it's still not right. Even looking at the past week, which takes into account the STL series, It's been struggling. The big hits have come from the bench; Heisey, Robinson, den Dekker. The only guy that's consistently hit (other than Murphy) is the guy you all want to replace, Danny Espinosa (and admittedly he hasn't hit that much). Surely it can get better though. Revere is injured. Werth, Zimm, and Rendon are coming back from injuries. Turner is waiting out time in AAA* It would only take a couple of these guys hitting to expectations to make the offense ok (as we saw in STL). But it would be nice to turn this idea of "it can" into "it is".

Baseball is about timing. Not just at the plate but over the course of the season. Hitting and pitching get hot and cold back and forth. What you hope for is things to line up in a way such that the hitting covers the pitching and the pitching covers the hitting. Right now it has lined up for the Nats and we're seeing the fruits of that. How good has the Nats starting pitching been? By ERA the Nats have 4 of the Top 19 starters. Basically 4 guys getting #1 results. By WHIP they have 3 of the Top 19 and all 5 in Top 54 (basically where the 1s and 2s would end up). They've been good. Sustainably THIS good? No (FIP and xFIP tell us Ross and Gio are among the "luckiest" starters and Roark isn't too far behind) but who could be?

From the outside looking in I like where the Nats are. Yes, there is kind of a sword dangling over the Nats head with this pitching staff (and with Murphy) but at the same time there's a shield waiting to be deployed with the rest of the batting order (and with Max).  This isn't a team firing on all cylinders where a crash has to happen. It's a team firing on half cylinders. Those guys can stop performing and other guys can pick it up. They won't maintain an 18-7 run (no the Nats aren't winning 120 games) but they can keep the Nats winning. Meanwhile the Nats are picking up wins against decent competition that count just as much as any win down the line. 

Side note :

I am annoyed by one thing with the Nats from the outside; the cult of Dusty. I've maintained that I think Dusty is a good manager. To look at his history and think otherwise is kind of fooling yourself. I've also said that any "ruins arms" talk is pretty much nonsense that hasn't been true in years (and probably wasn't even that true then)**  But you know what? My thinking isn't that special. Pretty much most of the outside (85%?) says the same thing about Dusty. When the Nats bungled the hiring of Bud Black and used Dusty's "last chance" eagerness to get him here, most everyone said "Hey, Dusty's good too. Maybe better"  Yet a month into the season and somehow the narrative has spun into "YOU GUYS WANTED BLACK AND SAID DUSTY SUCKS AND YOU STILL SAY DUSTY SUCKS AND DUSTY IS THE BEST MANAGER EVER!!!"

Ok it's not fully there quite yet, but this is the rumblings I feel from the outside. That there was some sort of massive show of disrespect for Dusty when really there never was outside of a few haters that maintain their hate. I'm fine picking on those guys, but making it out as if the world is against you is one of my least favorite sports tropes. The media, the baseball world, they all in general, really like Dusty. You don't need to have an enemy.


*Trea Turner's stats in AAA are good (.333 / 402 / .478) but after starting .500 in the first 8 games he's been a more pedestrian .258 / .299 / .371 in the next 15. You can't dismiss the first 8 games anymore than any other 8, but you can hold off and see what is happenining now. Just saying you might want to hold your horses here. 

As for other studs - Lucas Giolito has not been particularly impressive in AA. In his last 3 starts he's given up 18 hits and 7 walks in 11 and 2/3 innings and opponents are hitting .360 against him. The good news here is Lucas is 21 so if it doesn't come together in 2016 that's perfectly ok. 

If the two above updates get you a little down, Victor Robles is killing low A-ball. .357 / .471 / .571 with no caveats to give you. Expect him in Potomac soon. 

**and honestly I don't care much if it was true. Ride these arms till they break is a better scenario than be ultra careful with arms to protect a future that may not play out like you are hoping it will.

Monday, May 02, 2016

Monday Quickie - Better than the Cards

I told you to stay calm.

This series was meant to be a proving ground for not only the Nats, but the Cardinals too.  They too feasted on the dregs of the NL early. They won 7 of their 10 wins going into a series with the D-Backs against ATL (currently 6-18), MIL (9-15), and SDP (9-16) and two more came against the questionable but probably bad Reds (started 5-1, 5-5 to start STL series, now 10-15).  They lost the first game in Arizona to the "jury's still out" Diamondbacks to fall back within one game of .500 then stormed back to crush them in the last two games of the series by a combined 19-6. At 12-10 and seemingly on the right track (4-2 little road trip, 5-2 in last 7) this homestand would set everything right again.

Seemingly the narratives for this team and the Nats would begin to settle after this series. If the Cardinals took 2 of 3 the teams would probably be seen on equal footing, the Nats able to take a game from a good team on the road, and the Cardinals able to defend their home against a good team. If the Nats took 2 of 3 then the Nats would be seen as a good team that slipped up against the Phillies, while the Cardinals would maintain a sense of a good team that just isn't finding their way, a team that might remain a step behind the league leaders. If the Cardinals swept that reverses. St. Louis would be the good team that was struggling a bit to find their way but now was on track, while the Natst would be a good team still needing to prove they could hang with the best in the league.

But the Nats sweeping the Cardinals? What exactly does that mean?

Are the Nats really good? That seems to be the most likely scenario. They did shut down a potent offense limiting them to 6 runs. The Phillies sweep didn't make sense but they are rolling now sitting at 15-10. Perhaps they really are a decent squad and well, sometimes the breaks don't go your way against a decent squad - even at home. 

Are the Cardinals really not good? This though throws a monkey wrench into the Nats ascendant narrative. Not even winning one against the Nats, while being swept by the Pirates (scoring 7 runs) and losing 2 of 3 at home to the Cubs (scoring 6 runs), set the Cardinals up as no better than a middling team. Rather than prove something against a good team the Nats might just have beaten up another bad squad.

The latter is certainly not a bad thing. You want to beat up bad squads. You NEED to beat up bad squads.  But I think what we really wanted from this weekend was clarity and I don't think we got any, though I'll take strong hints in the "Nats are great" direction.

The good news though is that clarity is likely just around the corner. Kansas City may not be a division winner this year, but they shouldn't be worse than .500 and are notably defending champs. Chicago is legit great.

What's the worst case going forward? Nats win no more than 2 games, Cards flounder. Phillies flounder (though they do play eachother right now). Nats look like the not good enough team we worried they might be.

Best case? Nats win at least 4, Cards do well, Phillies do well. Nats look like a contender for best team in majors

So Nats win 3? Cards flounder and Phillies do well? Maybe followed up with a series loss at home to Detroit, who's ok? That would keep things nice and murky

Friday, April 29, 2016

I said stay calm

It's a good rule of thumb to say you want to win 2/3rds of your games versus the "bad teams" and 1/2 of your games versus the "good teams".* This amounts to winning every series against the dregs of the league (with an occasional sweep thrown in there to compensate for the occasional lost series) and winning every series at home and grabbing a game on the road versus quality opponents.  If your schedule breaks down evenly between the bad and good this is a 94/95 win pace. That's usually good enough to challenge for a division title, and almost certainly good enough to make the playoffs.

The Nats didn't get to 15-6 but they are 14-7 against the "bad teams" and that's 2/3rds. They remain on target. It's a little disappointing given that at various times they were 9-1, 11-3, and 14-4 but such is a baseball season. It ebbs and flows. It does not follow a strict pattern.

So do the Nats need to go .500 in this road trip? No, they need to go .500 in these games and say the DET series at home after it and the STL series at home in late May and the Cubs series at home in mid June combined. The better they do on this trip the easier that will be. A good goal would be a 4-6 record. That means they either won a series or they took a game from everyone and two from the Cubs.  3-7 would also be acceptable. Anything less would be trouble. Anything more than 4-6 would be a success.

3-7 is not a big hurdle, no. But let's reiterate - this is the hardest stretch the Nats will likely play this year. It is 3 quality teams, including 4 games against the best team in baseball right now, all away, with no days off leading up to it or during it. They may not have a stretch again where 3-7 is ok. In fact let me check... no probably not. There's a CLE/SFG/ARI road trip at the end of July where 3-6 might be a goal if those teams keep their heads above water. I suppose PHI/CIN/CHW might also fit that at the start of June but you'd have to assume the Phillies stay around .500 and the Reds stop crashing. And still 3-6 is better than 3-7 so they still aren't getting to that level. This is the lowest acceptable stand a good Nats team will have all year.

Just as important as winning 3 games though, will be scoring runs. The Nats haven't scored in 22 innings and have only scored 11 runs in their last 5 games, which includes an extra 7 innings so it's almost like 6. They have an OPS as a team of .553 over the past week, which means the team is hitting like 2015 Dan Uggla. They are still only 9th in R/G which doesn't seem that bad but they are a full half-run behind 8th place which is a HUGE gap. Better to say there is no difference right now between the Nats and middling offensive teams like the Reds, Brewers, Padres, and Marlins that make up #s 10 through 13.  The Nats have 5 starters with OPSs under .670 (if you prefer BAs under .235).

We keep grasping for someone to heat up. Maybe Zimm... no. Maybe Werth... no. Now it might be MAT (4-7 with 2 walks over the course of Sunday and Tuesday)... but probably not. The Nats had survived these guys not hitting earlier. What's killing the Nats now is Murphy has cooled off a bit. The pressure now is completely on Bryce and you can see him taking it in. A bit to anxious at the plate in a big spot. A bit too slow in the field on a big hit.

This first two games of this trip are crucial in my mind. Right now the Nats are on a slide but a new series is a fresh start, especially in a different location. The Cardinals, unlike the Royals (very good) or the Cubs (great) are only good pitching wise and the Nats catch the consistently mediocre Mike Leake and the inconsistent Jamie Garcia to start the series. If they are going to hit anyone in St. Louis it'll be these two. They match up against Stras and Ross who should provide the Nats with their best chance of winning assuming they can score some runs. Lose both of these and all of a sudden you are leaning on the struggling Max to beat the fantastic Carlos Martinez in the last game to avoid a sweep. You don't want that.

OK, let's get this party started. 

*Basically if you hear anyone say the Nats "should have" gone say 16-5 or 17-4 to start the year versus these teams that person is an idiot and you shouldn't listen to their opinion on this subject.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Everyone remain calm

When I first noticed the "Road Trip of Dooooooom" coming I noted that I wanted the Nats to be at least 13-9 when they started it. That's a 96 win pace - a pretty good place to be against the dregs of the league if you want to make the playoffs. After the burning down of Atlanta I amended it to 15-6 (there was a rain-out if you are wondering what happened to that other game). That's a 116 game pace against the worst. That's the sign of a dominant team if kept up for the season.

The Nats could still be at 15-6 with a win today.

There are a couple things going on at the same time that make things feel worse than they probably are. They are 5-5 in their last 10. They are losing at home going into the road trip. It's apparent that the offense has some issues. The Mets are streaking and now sit only a game behind. But 15-6 (or 14-7) after 21 games is still a great place to be.

Could the Nats be in trouble? Could they match up poorly against the better teams in the league? Sure. But we can't tell that today. We'll get a good feel of where the Nats sit in the MLB pecking order from this road trip. Could the Mets be better than them? Perhaps. But two back to back losses at home to the Phillies isn't a big clue. A week after the "RTOD" they'll play 6 games against the Mets in 9 days. We'll get a better feel about that then.

All we know right now is that the Nats are a much better team that the likes of the Braves (6-0), Twins (3-0), Marlins (3-2) and yes Phillies (2-3). Did you know two years ago when the Nats won 96 games they had a losing record vs the 73 win Phillies? Yep. Killed the Marlins. Killed the Mets. But the Phillies won 10 of the 19 H2H games against them. It happens. Doesn't mean the Phillies were better. and 2-3 doesn't mean the Phillies are better.

This is all we know and it's a good thing to know. 

Now, still you don't want to go into a road trip reeling. Win today. Ok?

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Hey. It's the Mets!

This season had been defined very simply at the start of the season. Beat the Mets. The Phillies, Marlins, and most certainly Braves, were not going to challenge for the NL East. They would probably not even be in the Wild Card picture. The division race was going to come down to one of two teams, the reigning champion NY Mets or the champion of the year before, Wasington Nationals. So beat the Mets and the Nats are in the playoffs and out of the Wild Card. Simple as that.

10 games in and there was a little bit of hope that the Mets were going to stumble for a while. The Nats were 9-1, the Mets were 4-6, and the Nats had a nice little 5 games lead. Early? For sure. But the easiest way to get to a nice lead halfway through the year is to get to a nice lead a quarterway through the year and the easiest way to get to a nice lead a quarterway through the year is... you get my point. Since then though the Nats have gone 5-4* and the Mets have gone 8-2. Suddenly a 5 game lead is a 2 game lead.

All this means is if the Nats are to win the East, it's probably not going to fall in their lap. They'll have to beat the Mets. Nothing has changed from pre-season expectations. We hoped they might have. They didn't.

Even if the Nats struggle in the "Toughest Road Trip Ever" the two teams will almost certainly still be close come their first meeting. So circle that date. Tell the spouses and kids you need the those nights off. May 17th-19th and then May 23rd-25th could go a long way to deciding who's on top in October and who's at best playing in a one-game winner take all Wild Card game.

Notes

The offense again fails to impress. They aren't terrible but they are below average for the league. This is with the best offensive player in the majors remember. Last night we saw what that could mean as the Phillies chose to walk Bryce three times last night, and clearly were ok with walking him in his final at bat**. When they pitched to him, he came through. He's going to get fewer and fewer at bats that matter. That means they'll need someone behind him to pick it up. Werth, who I was hoping might be on the rise, went 0-4 with a K. Zimm had a big hit, and also a big K. Can they go Bryce / Murphy back to back?

What's up with Max? I talked about it yesterday here, in the comments, and on Twitter. But let's review as there are two things going on. 1) Last year's master of control was unlike Max historically. While it's possible to change, what we are seeing now - the increase in walks, the missed spots - is in line with past performances. 2) He's likely missing up more (I'll have to check on that) the result being more HRs given up (I don't have to check on that). He's gave up more HRs than anyone last year after the All-Star break and that isn't counting the 3 in two games he gave up right before that. He's on a HR a game pace this year. Either #1 or #2 by themselves isn't too bad because Max can dial it up when needed and get a big strikeout. You can deal with that and still be pretty damn good (see Max last year where he was only dealing with #2 for half the year) But 1 & 2 together present problems. We'll just have to keep watching.

You know who's good? Felipe Rivero. You know who's been ridden pretty hard so far? Felipe Rivero. 10 appearance in 19 games and 11 and 2/3 innings. That's an 85 appearances and 99.5 innings of work pace. Now before you get all "Dusty!" I don't see any evidence he rides his best relievers any harder than anyone else. I expect under 80 appearances and a lot fewer innings pitched per game. In other words, I expect Clippard usage. Heavy, but not an burden. But even if he wants to overuse Rivero, I'm ok with that. This is the new normal. Minors filled with high 90s arms ticking like time bombs. Bring them up, use them up. It's ok with me.

*This is more a fluke of where we're picking the Nats schedule up than anything. You get the L in the last game of a series that they won 2 games to 1 and the L to start this new series. It's not meant to represent how the Nats are playing right now, (they still haven't lost a series) but just to illustrate how the ground was made up.

**Bryce totally tried to come through swinging at borderline pitches in the 9th that he'd probably take otherwise. Unwise? Perhaps, but the way he's hitting I'll take Bryce trying to make something happen on tough pitches than these other guys. Now, I just assume the situation dictated his approach. If instead it's frustration and he starts doing this with no one on in the 4th, that'll be a problem.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Eight-Ninths to go

The Nats have played 18 games, or 1/9th of the season. While we wait patiently for the big away trip coming up (just win the Phillies series) to see exactly where we should rank the Nats on the list of NL teams (right now - probably a tentative runaway 2nd), are there any other things we can watch for?

Is Ramos for real? He's cut his K-rate down from last years career high of 20% to 12.5%. His swinging strike rate is at an all-time low (7.8%) It seems too like he's more discerning as his swings at pitches outside the zone are at an all-time low too (26.6%)  On the other hand he's not walking anymore - in fact that's a career low too (1.7%), and pitchers are challenging him in the zone. He's seen more pitches in the zone than he ever has, and that could explain some of the above. He's also not necessarily hitting the ball harder according to his LD% and speed of the ball off the bat. So is he a more discerning hitter able to make more contact? Or are other teams just daring him to beat them and for now he's getting lucky with balls dropping in?

Has Werth turned a corner? Someone else has to hit in this lineup. Sure they scored 8 and 6 runs versus the Twins but that 6 was in almost 2 games worth of innings. In the last 8 games they've scored 3 or fewer 5 times. Werth has hit three homers in the past 2 weeks, and has gotten on base 6 times in the last 4 games, only striking out 3 times. Given that Rendon and Zimm have yet to really show anything, Werth may be the best chance right now at getting another bat going and maybe getting some consistent output from the offense.

Can Danny get his power back? Danny's offensive worth was never in batting average so a ~.200 BA you may be able to live with. But to do that you need him to be patient and have pop.  Espinosa isn't actually hitting that bad, or at least he shouldn't be. He's striking out a lot less (still a lot but a lot less too) and walking a lot more which is helpful. But he's hitting a ton of flyballs... which are all staying in the park. No homers yet this year. If he can't start getting a couple of those to go over the fence Trea Turner can tell the moving trucks the exact date he'll need them.

Is Max ok? As we noted last time he seems to be a little off. The walks are explainable - that's probably who he is more than last year's control master. But he's been a little too hittable, given up a few too many homers.  A bad game from any other Nats starter would be a throw away - Ross, Stras, Gio it's going to happen at some point. Roark - well jury's still out but it's not a surprise. But a bad game again for Max and the worry continues to grow. It's not really a worry about 2016 either - as the Nats look strong rotationally and should be able to weather an off-year from Scherzer. But it is a worry for the future as Max is here for years and was expected to help cement the rotation with Giolito and now Ross.

Is this already the end for MAT? He's still not hitting. He's still striking out a ton. And Chris Heisey seems perfectly decent to play the few games between now and whenever Revere comes back. Does Taylor get shifted to the bench?