Nationals Baseball: August 2013

Friday, August 30, 2013

Keeping on Sweeping

Swept the Marlins, as was needed, now a simple 2-1 series win at home puts the Nats where they "should be" after this homestand. Yes, yes, we'd all prefer a sweep but I don't change goals mid-stream. If they do better, great, but I'm not going to be down on the Nats if they happen to lose one game this weekend.  (Two on the other hand...)

Be forewarned, it's more of a fight that you might think this series would be. The Mets are throwing out Gee, Wheeler, and Niese, all of who have been decent recently. Niese was damned spectacular the other night. The Nats are throwing ZNN, Haren and Ohlendorf. All good pitchers, but all recently imperfect.

Why have the Nats gotten hot? The pitching has been pretty consistent (ok it looks better the past week but it's the Marlins people, their batting practice machine pitched a 2-hit shutout against them.) But the hitting has progressively gotten hotter and hotter

Past Month : .283 / .356 /. 438
Past 2 weeks : .298 / .368 / .461
Past week :  .321 / .375 / .494

There are a couple guys not doing so hot (Ramos, LaRoche) but the hot guys are suuuuuuper hot.  Desmond, Bryce, Werth, and Span (yes, Span!) in the past week combined hitting .440. Combined! They still don't really walk so the OBP isn't much higher than that, but you know what? Who cares how many times you walk when you are hitting .440? Basically half the lineup is hitting as well as they possibly could right now and you can see the difference that makes. There's no pitching around the one hot guy. No rest except at the very tail end of the lineup at 8 & 9 which is frankly par for course on most teams.

Can they keep this up? Nope. But can maybe Ramos or LaRoche or Zimm get this hot for a couple weeks when these guys cool down? Yep.  It's not full year sustainable, but it doesn't have to be.  Just a few more weeks will do.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Three opponents they can beat on the field and one they can't

The Nats won last night. The Nats also lost last night.

You see the Nats don't just need to win enough games to make the playoffs. They need to win enough games to make the playoffs in the time allotted.The Nats won their game last night, but so did the Reds. (and the Braves if you care, the D-backs didn't though)  Therefore even though the Nats won, they lost. They lost one game off the schedule that they might need to make up ground. It's the baseball equivalent of "running out the clock".  Play just good enough so your opponent doesn't catch you and you win.

The entire baseball watching nation wasn't suffering from mass delusion to start the year. The Nats, looking at their starting lineup and expected rotation, was a team that should be good enough to make the playoffs easily. This team we are seeing right now is pretty much that team. But this team doesn't have 162 games to show that their level of talent is superior to most others in the National League. It had 31 games to try to play at a level at least 7 games better than the Reds. Now it has 30 to do the same. (You see the Nats can't be in this position 24 games from now)

Don't think a game matters? Look at the fangraphs playoff odds. Yesterday it was 13.1%.  Today 11.8%.  Making the playoffs became 10% harder after a win. It matters. A lot.

OK enough depressing reality. Let's look at some happy stuff, like how bad the rest of the NL East is.

Miami is the 2nd worst team in the majors. Houston then Miami and they are both bad enough that you'd bet on them to hold their spots if there were some sort of reverse playoffs going.  Miami's pitching is decent but they can't score. 15th in the NL out of 1,2,3....oh yeah 15 teams. It's not even close really. The Marlins score 3.2 runs a game. The 14th best team in the league scores 3.79.  That distance is the same as the distance between the 14th best team and the 2nd. Their best hitter, Stanton, is pretty good. His season has been better than Desmond's not quite as good as Bryce's, and most think he can do better. Their 2nd best hitter, Morrison, is ok. His season is kind of like Zimmerman's. The next best hitter in their lineup is probably the rookie Yelich. He's kind of having a Span like year.   Their third best hitter is providing offense on a Span like level.

The Nats play the Marlins 8 more times

The Phillies are surprisingly terrible all around. Because they lack that true OMG badness of the Marlins offense they aren't going to challenge for worst in the league, but it's surprising that they aren't closer to that. 13th in runs scored, 15th in ERA. They shouldn't be this bad hitting, but they can't keep everyone healthy on this aging team. Utley has missed 30 games, Howard and Ruiz more than 50 a piece. Revere broke his foot. Brown is taking it slow with a sore Achilles. About the only healthy player has been Jimmy Rollins, but if you haven't noticed Rollins has been average in his best years since 2007. Its so bad that Bernadina has started the past 5 games for the Phillies. The pitching this seasons for the Phils boils down to if this - if you can get Hamels and Lee to get to Bastardo and Papelbon you were good. If anything else happened it was bad. That was up until Bastardo got suspended. Oops! Now Halladay is back so that's something I guess. If the rotation holds the Nats will get Hamels twice, but Martin twice too and will miss Lee.

The Nats play the Phillies 6 more times

The Mets are doing better than most people thought they would but again, most people thought they'd be avert your eyes bad. They are kind of a typical bad, mediocre in hitting and a little better in pitching. That was with with Harvey (and Mejia) though. Without them they don't collapse, they got a lot of decent arms, but they do drop to mediocre all around. Oh wait the offense lost some guys too.  Byrd and Buck. Byrd was the second best hitter on the team and thanks to the Mets OF prospects being so bad he will be replaced with whatever they can find. Right now that's 28 yr old Andrew Brown. Buck is replaced by an actual prospect in Travis d'Arnaud. Of course that is a prospect hitting .107 right now. Still they aren't a terrible offense as long as they have David Wright in there. Oh, did I forget to mention he's injured and will almost certainly miss this Nats series?

The Nats play the Mets 7 more times, (3 without Wright for sure)

The Nats play 23 games against these guys to end the year. If you like them to be about .500 against the other competition (ATL, STL, ARI) then they have to go about 19-4 against these guys. They are 2-0 so far.  Look at the above. 17-4 doable? Just maybe it is.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Other playoff questions

Because why the hell not.

What about the Pirates (6-11 in past ~3 weeks)? Can the Nats catch them? 

Now let's disregard the fact that when given the choice to make the playoffs beating out the Braves, Cardinals, Reds or Pirates the Pirates come in a distant 4th. Only a heartless bastard would wish for a Pirates collapse. Yet, let's say we're staring at one in a week, can the Nats catch them?

The good news on that front is that the Pirates have overplayed their Pythag expectation by about 4 games at this point meaning they might be playing over their heads at this point (it was worse before this recent slide). Like I said before, out of all the teams infront of the Nats, the Pirates are the most likely one to come back to earth.

The problem with the Pirates is the 10 game lead. For the Nats to catch the Pirates at 86 the Pirates would have to go 10-21 while the Nats would have to go 20-11. The whole "catch the Reds" thing is predicated on one possible, but unlikely scenario happening (the Reds playing under .500 ball for the rest of the season), with one nearly impossible miracle scenario happening (the Nats playing like the best team in baseball at the same time).  The thing that makes it feel possible is that you can say "oh the Reds can play like that".  Do you feel as good about a scenario that needs the Pirates to play like the worst team in baseball? I don't.

If Pittsburgh does collapse though it could set up a dream end of season scenario with CIN, PIT, WSN and ARI fighting for one spot, with the season ending with CIN @ PIT and ARI @ the Nats @ ARI. 

You said disregard the D-backs but they won again! Why won't they go away!?

A bunch of reasons. They played really well when we started looking at this in early August (swept a two-gamer vs TB, swept the O's, took 2 of 3 at Pittsburgh) so they were able to whether a bit of bad play and still hold their ground.

Their schedule is in the easy section. After they finish off SD today, they'll host SF and TOR for 6 more games, then 4 in SF.  As nice as it is that the Nats hit an easy stretch so have Mike Rizzo's blessed D-backs.

They are a decent hitting team with Goldschmidt growing into a legit star, and the Aaron Hill renaissance continuing. When Prado is doing well and Chavez is healthy - it's a good enough core to score runs since the rest of the line-up doesn't really have an anchor. I did warn you that prospect Adam Eaton could heat up and he has (.340 / .411 / .520 in past 2 weeks). If you're looking for a weakness, it's the pitching. Starting pitching is pretty decent 1-3 with Cahill getting over a horrific June, but bad after that.  Pen has some decent arms but nothing lights out. They still have the "ace in the hole" in Archie Bradley who may or may not get called up, but I'm guessing not.

Anyway expect the D-backs to hang around until the 9th when they play the Dodgers seven out of ten. If the Nats can't pass them then (and they might not because it's when the Nats play the Braves) it almost certainly sets up an end of the season showdown (since the Nats have STL before them to end the year)

We're expecting the Nats to catch the Reds by blasting past them. If they do it by winning 23+ games to end the year than we can probably dismiss the D-backs. But if it's more because of a Reds collapse and the Nats get back in it winning 20 or less, the D-backs should be in the hunt as well, not in the rearview.

Anything to worry about or look forward to with the batters? 

I'd worry about Span crashing and Ramos' recent slide. Span has been hitting real well which will happen but nothing about Span makes me think it's sustainable over a month. Ramos is looking and hitting tired which will happen if you spend the whole season in recovery. Moore is a little iffy too, but if they keep him facing guys they like him against I doubt he'll bottom out as bad as earlier this year.

There really isn't anyone hitting super poorly right now that demands a bounce back. Desmond, Zimm and LaRoche are all hitting ok or better recently. Only Werth, who carried the team for a month and a half, Ramos and Rendon are struggling. I can see the latter two continuing it and Werth is just a season fluctuation. He'll probably hit a little better down the stretch than in the past week or so, but someone else. like Desmond, will probably hit a little worse


Pretty easy call but keep an eye on ZNN & Haren. Dan Haren I'll admit is more of a felling. After a long stretch of pitching well he fell into the homer trap again, and I just don't trust the guy after that terrible first half. ZNN had more good pitching than bad in August but when he's off you can almost chalk up the loss.  Did you know that in the last six games he's given up a homer in, he's given up at least 2? The Nats can't afford automatic losses.

I think Roark to start is a mistake and not sure why you'd pull 'dorf to do it, but he is pitching well in his short outings so it could turn out ok. It's not like Ross is untouchable. It's an interesting gutsy move that may define the end of this season.

In the pen side, we're due for a dominant stretch from Soriano. Given how well Clippard has pitched this year and the fact that Storen's got his head back on straight that could sew up a lot of games.

You're still saying 85 games? 

Yes. Sorry. That's 19 and 12! That's still a great month. And if it's top loaded because of the schedule the Nats should be in play until the middle of September at worst. 

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Road to hell paved with good intentions and playoff chances

The Nats CAN make the playoffs.

That's just a statement of fact. There are a number of scenarios we can play out where the Nats sneak into the playoffs by a game or two. But the Nats aren't likely to do it. How unlikely? I've tried to spell it out before but let's look at some other numbers.

Some sites actually give you playoff odds. These sites run hundreds (thousands?) of simulated seasons from the current point on and basically count up the number of times teams make the playoffs. They factor in as many stats as they can and let the computers figure it out. The exact opposite of "they don't play the game on paper", but it's generally been found to be pretty accurate.

Baseball Prospects - 2.1%
Cool Standings - 4.5%

All of this is based on the WC2. Divisional chances are nil.  The big advantage of these systems is it doesn't allow your games to be played in a vacuum. Meaning, if the Reds are losing big, someone else must be winning big. The whole picture changes all the time, not just team A catching team B.  For the Nats it's almost cut and dried, but there remains the Diamondback in the room that could potentially throw a monkey wrench into the plans of passing a dying Reds team.

I said yesterday to ignore the D-backs and you should, but that's only because the Nats winning scenario is so preposterous that for the D-backs to play as well at the same time would be like Jim Bowden actually catching lightning in a bottle. Take a look at any Nats in the playoff scenario and you'll see a Nats team that needs to play as well as anyone has played all year. 24-8? 4 teams have done that. What if we make it a more reasoable 22-10? Well 10 teams have done that, but note that they are all playoff teams or contenders. That's where I feel we're missing the big picture. Not "can the Reds go 13-17" or "can the Nats go 23-9"  but what that is exactly asking of these teams.

The Reds are a team that's 16 games above .500 at 74-58.  You want that team to suddenly play baseball like the Cubs for over a month.

The Nats are a .500 ball club. You want that team to suddenly have one of the best months anyone in baseball has had this year.

There are reasons why the Reds are where they are and the Nats are where they are. It's not just injuries either as the Nats have been basically a .500 team since everyone has been healthy. You aren't asking for things to simply break the Nats way. You're asking for fundamental changes in the identity of these teams that has been forged over the first 130 games of the season, with no particular reason for such a change. There have been no massive injuries, no major player acquisitions. One team needs to just turn it on and the other turn it off basically because it's necessary for the scenario.

It's fun though, right? That's more important. The Nats aren't really in the pennant race. They are, but they aren't, not when there's as good a chance for Milwaukee to catch the Nats as there is for the Nats to catch the Reds. But it's fun to pretend that they are. The season has given fans so much disappointment that creating a race out of moonbeams is all they have left. So give it to them Nats. Don't go 2-4 here and kill the even the dream. Do it. WIN DAMMIT.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Monday Quickie - Playoffs!

Hey, I said I'd talk about them again if the Nats reached .500 and what do you know, the Nats reached .500. Even stuck their heads above water for a minute. Any way here were the standings Before the 5 game winning streak.

Nats trail ATL for NL East by 16 games
Nats trail CIN for WC2 by 10.5 games

and now?

Nats trail ATL for NL East by 13 games
Nats trail CIN for WC2 by 8.5 games

Progress! The Nats played well (5-1) and the Braves (2-4) and Reds (3-3) not as well. But again you see the hole that has been dug. If the Nats played at the same pace for the rest of the season, and the Braves and Reds played at the same pace for the rest of the season the Nats would catch both teams on the very last day of the year, give or take a game. Can the Reds go 16-13 or worse? Definitely. Can the Braves go 12-20 or worse? Sure, why not. It happens. Can the Nats go 26-6? Ummmm, ummmm, ummmmm... what can I make you say that will make you feel better?

The Reds will play the Cardinals in 7 of the next 10 games (COL in between). If one team can dominate the other, that's ground the Nats could make up. Then the Reds play the Dodgers before the schedule slackens up.

The Nats play an EASY 19 games. Nothing but NL East teams. Hahahahahaha BUT TRUE! AND SAD! So they should be able to play well. 15-3 well?  Maybe not, but they can't be too far off of that. They can't find themselves going back on the road without making up a couple more games. 

The Nats need a dominant stretch to follow that 5-1 going. Up now is three vs the Marlins, three vs the Mets. 5-1 is the Goal. 4-2 won't cut it, as it likely falls below the catch-up pace that we've already determined is kind of crazy. Nats are allowed one slip up.

Keep your head down, keep winning and go ahead and ignore the D-backs (still ahead of the Nats in the WC race) because if the Nats are somehow going to catch the Reds, they are going to be playing well enough to make the D-backs moot.

Friday, August 23, 2013

The Rebirth of Stick

Jayson Werth.  You wouldn't know it by the way he's often brought up in my blog but I really, really like Jayson Werth the player. This guy, in his prime, did everything right. He ran well. He fielded great. He hit for power. He got on base. He saw a lot of pitches and he could hit for decent average.

He never got the respect due to him because he was a jack of all trades, master of none, and we love nothing more than our masters. Give us the HR kings and the BA champs, even if that HR king is a lummox in the field hitting .240 or that BA champ is a slap hitter who can't hit a double and won't take a walk. We like it when our player's greatness is easily defined. Jayson's wasn't. In his prime, those 2008-2010 Phillies years, he was arguably one of the Top 10 players in the game, without ever being a Top 15 player over that time in any meaningful category. He was flawless but not spectacular.

Now we are seeing glimpses of the player Werth might have been the past two years if not for injuries and, let's be honest, age beginning to catch up with him. Is it real?

Well back when Werth was in his prime he was a dead-red hitter.  He punished fastballs from 2008-2010. When he got to the Nats though that skill went away. Now in 2013, that skill has returned. (fancy stat link)

Over the past two years, Werth has tried to compensate for his lost ability. In part, he's done this by making more contact. He also started swinging at some pitches he might not have before trying to make something happen. His contact rates, around 78% in Phillies days, went up to over 82% for the Nats, and his O-Swing% (swings at pitches outside the zone) bumped up from say 21% to 25%.  That's not a great combination as making contact at pitches outside the zone usually ends up with badly hit balls. Jayson saw a big increase in GB% during this time, from down near 36% in '09-'10 to over 42% in '11 & '12. He was trying hard to do something and ended up grounding out a lot on pitches outside the zone.

This year, with the ability to hit fastballs back, we've seen a combination of the skills he learned during this rough period and his previous ones. He's still swinging more and making more contact, but his high contact rate is based much more on pitches inside the zone than out. The end result is a lots more line drives this year and a lot fewer ground balls. Now that whatever ailed him is in the rearview, he's back to being a very good offensive player.

Just very good? Well remember we said he became great by being very good at everything, if that makes sense. The average is what stands out right now and that is certainly too high, a product of a .377 BABIP that would easily be the highest of his career. (yes you can argue more LDs would increase the average, but a younger faster Werth hit a lot of LDs and never had a BABIP this high) A more reasonable BABIP would have his average around the .300 mark, which history has shown to be his ceiling. The power is basically just a tick behind his prime years, understandable because of his age. His eye is still there.

Now of course this doesn't paint the full picture of Jayson's value. He is getting older. While he's still a decent baserunner, that skill is quietly eroding. He also can't field like he used to. So he's not that Top 10-esque player he was. Which brings us to the elephant in the room - that contract.

That's when I've talked about Werth in the past few years. That hideous contract. You can argue until you're blue in the face that it wasn't horrible but I'll tell you again and again it was. On a pure money level there is no real evidence that bad teams have to overpay for players. Do they have to have the highest bid out there? You bet. But, if you think that's overpaying well then every team overpays who gets a player, bad or good. The instances where a bad team has put out the most money and been rejected are few and far between. Hell, the most recent high-profile example we've seen of a player doing that is Cliff Lee who passed on the Yankees, not the Astros, to go to Philly. No, it's far more likely the player takes the most money and then justifies going to the bad team than refuses the cash to be on a winner.

I've gone over the contract timeline, the various thoughts and numbers bandied about at the time and there is no question the Nats didn't just put out the highest bid, they overpaid grossly on years and dollars. It was a ridiculous deal then and it still is now. It was only going to ever be worthwhile if Werth the player could maintain that level of play for the next 7 years. That wasn't going to happen. Even now, hitting like he has, possibly better than ever, he's not worth what he was then because the other skills have faded. Oh the intangibles? He changed the clubhouse? Ummm, so what's going on this year? He brought in free agents? Who, exactly? The only two decent FAs the Nats signed after Werth and before getting good were LaRoche and Edwin Jackson. Jackson came here because the Nats gave him the deal he wanted when he couldn't get that long-term one from anyone. LaRoche came here because he was paid the most here after other 1B, who the Nats might have liked better at the time (Carlos Pena) were picked up. 

No, what the contract did, the only thing that it did right, was it made the fans feel like the team cared. That's not meaningless and as long as the team is fine spending around Jayson's deal, well then, who cares? But let's accept these facts please.

The most important thing to me about Jayson's return to offensive form is that the Nats may not be hurt by the deal over the next couple years. Jayson is going to play. The contract dictates it (shut up about your sunk cost!) The past 2 years painted a scary picture of a decrepit old man stumbling around in the field and swinging punchless at the plate. While he might not avoid that first part, at least it looks like the last part will be delayed by a year or two. That matters. It was never going to be the perfect contract. I'm sure the Nats knew those last couple years might be rough and were paying a premium on the first few. If they can squeeze a couple more good years at the plate from Jayson, they'll be about where they expected to be with him when they signed the deal.

In the end it's going to be a question of whether they won when he was good, as winning takes care of most ill will. If that's the case, maybe Werth will get the national love he probably should have gotten all those years ago, as one of the best players of the late 2000s. (he's always been loved by the fans of the team mainly for intangible reasons, which makes me think that can be a fan reaction to knowing they are seeing a great overall player but finding that they can't point to any single stat that backs them up) Then it's going to be a question of how the team deals with the back end of a deal they knew would be trouble.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

New goals. Sad goals.

Last night I realized something depressing. All year we've been comparing the Nats to the 2012 98 win Nats. Obviously they aren't going to get there but here's the thing. Right now, if the Nats play as they have up until this point, they won't even match the 2011 Nats.  The 2011 Nats had an OF that primarily featured Laynce Nix and Rick Ankiel. Alex Cora and the corpse of Pudge played quarter seasons. Chris Marrero, who isn't ready for the majors this year, got up to the plate over 100 times. Lannan, Livan and Marquis all pitched over 120 innings. Wang started 11 games. This wasn't a good team.

And yet here are the Nats projected final standings

2011 : 80-81
2013 (projected) : 80-82

Who would have thunk that?

The Nats need to go 19-17 in order to "pass" their 2011 team in wins. Seems easy enough, but nothing's been easy for the Nats this year. The played that well to start the season, and June through early July was about that good. Every other 6 week stretch you can pull out though, the Nats couldn't play that well. It's a toss up.  I like 2013's chances but God knows they've disappointed every step of the way.

Luckily for the Nats there aren't any more past teams sitting out there to embarrass them. People have very fond memories of the 2005 squad that went 81-81 and crazily led the NL East for a good long while before reality caught up with them so a comparison to them wouldn't be terrible. The next "best" Nats team was the 2007 73-89 Nats. You might remember the immortal names in the rotation like Matt Chico, Mike "Acheived goal of being an obscure trivia answer" Bacsik, Jason Bergmann, Shawn Hill, Tim Redding, and Jason Simontacchi. To not pass them the Nats would have to go 11-25 or worse. These Nats aren't good but they're not that bad.

Ugh, what a terrible terrible season. Still baby steps are taking place. 2-1 so far only 2-2 to reach the very modest 4-3 road trip goal I set out before them. Royals are starting to play more like the Royals. Maybe just maybe they can end on a high note, instead of placing themselves behind Riggleman's Last Stand in Nats history.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Learning with Boz

So last time we went through a Boz Q&A (or was it column) we decided it wasn't to be taken as a ripping, but rather as an opportunity to learn.  I can't promise it'll stay that way if Boz drifts into the ridiculous (Don't make me bring up his 2005 Guzman opinion again! I'll do it! I swear!) but for now that seems better than picking on the minutia of someone writing macro-level columns or trying to write quickly back to a bunch of fans over the course of a morning.

One of the things we "learned" from looking at a question in his Q&A I put into yesterday's post. The Nats' arms in the minors aren't really anything special and will be of questionable help for 2014. What else can we glean?

The Nats have a poor record in close and low scoring games. So is season more "bad luck" than "bad play", an odd distributional fluke? Or maybe it is about the fundamentals?

Short answer : No, not really.

Long answer : If the Nats season was really a fluke, the first and biggest sign would be a gap between their actual record and the Pythagorean expectation. Anything in the 5+ win range is enough to give credence to the unlucky POV.  The Nats record 61-64, their Pythag expectation? 59-66.  Forget that it's a little bit better. This isn't meant to be spot on. +2 is in range.

So why are the Nats NOT unlucky? I mean a 4-12 record when giving up 3 runs seems pretty unlucky.  It comes down to two things. First, Boz is using the average scoring team to determine that the Nats should have 10 more wins when giving up 2 or 3 runs. The problem is the Nats are not an average scoring team. They are 3rd worst in the NL. They aren't going to win 65% of these games. They'll win fewer. How much fewer? For the sake of not doing regressions to link the RS of a team to WP in these type of games, let's just estimate 3 fewer.

Ok so they are still 7 under where they should be here. Why isn't that unlucky? Well it IS but it's more a product of small sample size than anything else. Look at any individual scoring result and you'll see fluky results. The Phillies are just about as bad as the Nats scoring runs. What is their record in games where they give up 3 runs? The exact opposite of the Nats, 12-4. When you look at all runs allowed scenarios for the Nats you see places they got lucky. They've never been shutout 1-0 this year. They've won 32% or so of games when giving up 5 or more runs when the average team only wins 26% or so of these. (and that's as a worse scoring team) So let's give them a 1 run loss and a 3 more 5+ losses to even out the luck there.

Now they are still 3 under where they should be and that isn't crazy.  It may be the teeniest tiniest bit unlucky but really its more about our prediction method being imperfect than the Nats getting screwed in some way.

Oh and the fundamentals? Nats have a better record in one-run games than other games. The Phillies are 12-4 in games where they give up 3 runs and no one is screaming that they get the fundamentals right. It may be true but it's noise.

The Cards were 8 1/2 out and caught the Braves for the Wild Card. Does that mean the Nats have hope, even a tiny bit? 

Sure. It's not IMpossible. Hindsight tells us that the Braves were probably a little overachieving at the time and the Cardinals a bit underachieving, making the comeback make a little more sense.  Problem is, the underachieving part might apply to the Nats (depends on how you look at it), but really the only overachieving team above the Nats is actually the Pirates, who are 13 games ahead of the Nats. They may come down, the Nats might come up, but they aren't going to make up 13 games. The Nats don't need teams to simply play to their level. They need a team to collapse in a way that would be completely unexpected.

Another thing working against the Nats is that the Cardinals, on Sept 5th, were 74-66. In other words they were playing like a GOOD team. The Nats would have to go 12-2 in their next 14 to find themselves in a similar place. I don't see it. The Cards were a good team that got hot and caught another good team that was playing above expectations. The Nats are a middling team looking up at a bunch of good teams playing as they should.

Do teams really fold under the pressure of expectations? 

I'm not going to say no. Like I've said before, pressure is one of those things that exist but can't be quantified so I'm not going to deny it. I will look for more obvious answers though. Let's look at some examples brought up.

The 2013 Giants? They lost Melky and didn't make up for that. Vogelsong got injured and Cain stopped pitching well. (Hard to see a team that won 2 WS recently folding under pressure anyway)

The 2013 Blue Jays? Every starting pitching gamble failed in someway that could have been predicted, though not expected all at once.

The 2013 Angels? Two major bats in Hamilton and Pujols underperformed due to injury and age, and kept offense from being elite. Weaver injury killed what was already a suspect rotation.

2008 Rockies? In 2007 nearly every pitcher had one of their better years of their career. Obviously couldn't keep that up. Tulo and Helton would miss major time and the bench was not good enough to compensate (sounds oddly familiar this scenario)

1990 Cubs? Again the rotation died. Sutcliffe got injured and they couldn't replace him. Bilecki had his best year in 89 and was more normal (bad) in 1990.

1987 Red Sox? In 1986 Hurst would have his best year, Schiraldi was lightning in a bottle for an otherwise bad pen, and Seaver was dependable help for a few months. In 1987 Hurst was average, Seaver was retired, and Schiraldi stopped being magic.

1971 Reds? 1970 Reds had two ROY candidates (Simpson - SP & Carbo - OF) that would basically never play that well again. Another OF contributor would get injured and another SP would fail, leaving them with gaping holes to fill. Also 1970 Reds played 11 games over Pythag.

1967 Orioles? Ok maybe! They got a little worse but played oddly well under (12 games) Pythag and were basically good before and after.

Really looking through these does tell us a few things.
  • Great years are often combinations of individuals having career years and the team as a whole outperforming expectations. 
  • Collapses are often centered around SP staff implosions, which makes sense for a number of reasons. 
  • Generally great teams who come out of nowhere, return to nowhere. 
The last couple points are interesting because the Nats problems aren't really staff related (though that hasn't helped) which makes them an outlier in that respect. As for the "out of nowhere" aspect. Well, that's something for the history books. The Orioles were a great team before that who had a one year drop. That's not the Nats. They haven't proven anything yet. The Nats are either the Reds or the others. The Red Sox, Cubs, & Rockies were all teams that popped up only to drop back down again to whence they came from. (decency for the Sox, mediocrity for the Cubs and Rockies). The Reds popped up in 1970, well above expectations, and then had a one-year blip down on the way to a dominant run. Of course the Reds did it, in large part, by fleecing the Astros in the offseason and getting Morgan, Geronimo & Billingham. Sooo... empty out the system for Kendrick, Bourjos, and Vargas?

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

What's wrong with ZNN? I don't know but I know it needs to be fixed.

My standard quick perusal of the fancy stats got me nothing substantial.  Perhaps some deep digging would find something but I'm not so sure.

July looks like the "regression" month.  BABIP went way up (.221 in June to .357). HR/FB went way up (6.3% to 21.4%). LOB% went way down (70.9% to 62.5%) Sure bad pitching could be the reason, but you don't usually turn on a dime like this, and those July values are out of whack for anything but a terrible pitcher. Just like those June values were out of whack in the other direction (well not LOB% but that was way favoring ZNN in Apr and May).  So you could, if you wanted, just write off July as bad luck, everything going wrong for ZNN to make up for 3 months of things going right.

August though, doesn't lend itself to the same narrative. All the fancy stats are back within a normal range. Nope, in August it's more about ZNN's lack of control. His walks per 9 are up to 4.09, 4.40 since the break. He hasn't had a month remotely that bad since coming back form surgery in Sept of 2010. Now it's not like he's missing the zone a ton more than he used to. He's around 35% balls in August, worse than the previous 3 months but close to April and he's had months around this before. So what is it?

Like I said I don't know. I'm assuming the Nats don't know either. Could it be an injury to ZNN? God knows this team makes a sport out of dismissing injuries and watching their players flail around like A-ball rejects on the field. Could it be a change in approach from the opponents? They are swinging a lot less overall (swing rate down from 50.7% before the break to 44% now). Perhaps Jordan has tendencies deeper in the count that other teams are noticing and taking advantage of? You'd think the Nats, who see Jordan everyday, would be the first to be on top of something like that.

Gah Gah Gah. The Nats need Jordan to be ok. Assuming Haren is allowed to walk (the right move unless he wants to come back for some super cheap one year deal). The back of the Nats rotation will be a giant question mark heading into next season. It's one thing to fill one rotation spot. You can do that with some tape and glue assuming 1 through 4 are set. Filling two is super hard though. If the Nats need to work on three? Forget it. See you in 2015.

Why so dismal? I thought the Nats had a lot of arms they liked in the minors? News flash : 25 teams have a lot of arms they like in the minors. The Nats have some pitching prospects but nothing really more exciting than you'd find elsewhere. Taylor Jordan's success is heartening and he should be given a chance in the rotation next season assuming he keeps this up. I'm not saying he'll succeed. In fact, I think I'd bet against it just like I did with Detwiler. But I think it be silly not to give him a shot at sticking on, unless something better is brought in. That's one spot. What are the other names we've heard bandied about?

Tanner Roark? Older, and it's questionable if this year is a fluke or not. Might be ok in pen, but wouldn't bet on him to be a worthwhile rotation guy, which is what we are talking about here.
Nathan Karns? No control. AAAA type guy in the mold of H-Rod. Could be very good, more likely not good enough to ever stick.
Sammy Solis? Stats aren't that impressive even if results are. Super old (25 right now) for league (A+ ball)
Lucas Giolito? Not part of any immediate solution at his age and current setting. Late 2015 at best.
AJ Cole? Ok AJ is interesting. I like what I see there, but let's not forget he wasn't that impressive in A-ball before moving to AA and we've only seen 30 innings there.
Robbie Ray? Less interesting than AJ, but on the right track. 

All in all, it's a familiar mixed bag. Like most teams you have a couple guys on top like Jordan, Caleb Clay, etc, who aren't really prospects but you could toss into a #5 slot and see if you get lucky. Then you have a couple of live arms a bit lower that you are seeing if they develop into something special. The Nats have a few arms like that but right now they don't have anything special. Without that you can't really plan on them for 2014.

The Nats have enough problems trying to figure out how to fix an offense who's main problem is having too many guys that are average to better than average but not great. They need the rotation next year to be a simple as signing one good pitcher to be #4 and letting #5 settle out between Jordan, Detwiler, whoever pops up, and whatever couple legitimate arms Rizzo brings in as depth. ZNN needs to be good.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Monday Quickie - death by a thousand cuts

Here's a nice little way to look at the Nats Braves series

Nats 2-run wins :  2
Nats 1-run wins : 2
Braves 1-run wins : 6
Braves 2- run wins : 2
Braves 3-run wins : 2
Braves 3+ run wins : 2 (7 and 9 run Brave wins, if you must know)

These teams have played some close baseball games but the Nats have found themselves on the mat when the bell rang over and over again.

Is it luck? I suppose but throw RS and RA into the Pythag expectation theorem and the Nats were expected to win... 4 to 5 games out of the 16. They've won 4.

The take away is more, once again, a failure of offense. The average O scores 4 runs a game. The Nats have scored four or more runs vs the Braves all of two times. Here's the distribution

0 : 1
1 : 5
2 : 4
3 :  4
4+ : 2

That's terrible.

Anyway the Nats play one, count 'em, one decent team from now until the next Braves series on the 16th of September and it's the Royals. Again let's forget about the WC right now and concentrate on playing some good baseball. Start with a winning road trip (4@CHC, 3@KC so let's shoot for 4-3) then we'll look up again.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Back in time for that

Since getting swept by ATL the Nats have gone 5-1. That's good. Unfortunately the Reds, the team the Nats need to catch to make the 2nd Wild Card,  have gone 6-1. That's better. And the out of the realm of possibility Braves have gone 4-2. That's not to shabby either. A week of hard work and the Nats have LOST half a game in the WC standings and cut the NL East lead all the way down to 14.5 games. THIS IS THE HOLE THEY DUG. We're about at last call. The Nats could go 30-12 to finish the year the Reds can go 21-20 and beat them out. The Nats need to be world beaters and even then the Reds only have to be a .500 team to take that last spot.

In fact I might have wrote off the Nats if it wasn't for the slumping Cardinals (only a half-game better than the Reds). Since the Nats have a 3-game series with the Cards at the end of the year (right before the season ending D-backs one) it's worth keeping one eye half-open drowsily looking in their direction before drifting off to the big sleep. Anything you can do right?  Anyway in 3 weeks we should know for sure. The Reds play the D-backs series after next. They play the Cards seven times before the first week of September is over. If there is any hope we'll know by then. (assuming the Nats don't crash and burn themselves, but I don't see it)

(I know, I know I said I wouldn't talk about the playoffs but what else is there really? We could talk about the playoffs for two more weeks and still have ALL of September and the post-season to talk about the off-season. Gotta fill the blog.)

Why are the Nats winning? They are scoring more. Like any sport, at a very base level, the game is simple to understand. Score more than you give up and you win.  Here's a fun little rolling 10 game graph of the difference between runs scored and runs allowed (blue line) and the Nats winning percentage (red line). Don't worry that it has super small numbers to read. The actual numbers aren't important as noticing the fact these lines pretty much follow each other. This isn't anything new. It's the whole basis for that Pythagorean thing. But it's nice to see the base assumptions confirmed so obviously. It's that simple. Score more than you give up = win.

The Nats haven't scored. In only 28 of 110 rolling 10 game averages has their scoring been over the current league average of 4.03. They haven't pitched super great either. Only 56 of 110 has their runs allowed been less than average.  So they lose. And since they don't usually succeed together (10 times) or fail together (36 times) you've seen a lot more middling play than crazy swings of winning and losing.

Anyway, you'll read a lot of claptrap about the type of team the Nats are and experience and proving themselves. Comparisons to other teams that made runs or didn't make runs but came back in another year and won. All that really matters to the 2014 Nats are the 2013 Nats and the changes made in the offseason.  The lessons learned shouldn't be about struggles and heart. It should be about putting together a good bench and starter depth because things never go exactly as planned. It should be about the fact a strength can become a weakness overnight (bullpen, Espy) and your ability to damage control will be tested.

The Nats, when healthy, are a pretty decent club. Good rotation now that Haren has evened out. Solid lineup with only one hole, Span, who provides them with excellent defense. Workable pen. They will win more than they lose. In the next 42 games, given the schedule, they'll probably go something like say... 23-19? 25-17? Something like that. End up 84-76 or so. Good, not good enough. But that 25-17 shows the base talents you're dealing with, a 90 win type club. That's the starting point, in my mind. Not 98. Not 84. When healthy. Work on minimizing variance when injuries do happen and you'll have a playoff team again.

And please don't get your butts kicked by the Braves again.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The perfect 85 win team

Still on vacation but wanted to note that beating PHI and SF is what you should do. PHI is bad. SF is worse. On one hand that's good. You need to beat these teams. On the other hand doing this without beating actual good teams serves to put you in your place. 

The Nats can't beat playoff teams. 4-18 vs Braves, Dodgers, and Cardinals. They did go 4-3 vs the Reds (real early in the season) and stand at 2-1 vs the Dbacks so far but all the other non-losing records are vs losing teams. 

The Nats are seemingly noticeably better than the bad but noticeably worse than the good. That sets them up to finish exactly where they feel most likely to, a few games out of the playoffs. It's something to take account into planning for next year. It's not just about getting better its about enough getting better than the good teams to make a difference 

Monday, August 12, 2013

Monday Quickie

So real quick :  Too little, too late.

It's nice to sweep, especially the Phillies (for some of us, honestly I harbor no ill will toward the Phillies) but the Nats are still behind the 8-ball.  I know I said no playoff talk until .500 but a quick note is not really talking is it? Noting, that's all. Anyway the Nats swept the Phils and made up one game on the Reds (and one on the Braves for that matter).  Again we'll revisit this if (when) the Nats get to .500.  3 more games perhaps?

Last night's game wasn't what you want to see if you are a Nats fan - bunch of singles really (3 walks, no XBH). But the previous 2 had the walks, and the XBH (11 of each in the 2 games) That's the offense that would will a bunch of games. This is the way it's supposed to work.  Desmond and Ramos have 3 straight multi-hit games, that makes up for the slumping Bryce (1 hit in series). And the slumping Bryce still got 2 walks which turns a hideous series into merely a bad one.

We'll see what happens now.  If NatsEnquirer and his Back to the Future esque Sports Almanac is right, you got 12 more wins left. (why is he using it for Twitter predictions and not gambling?  You saw what happened to Biff didn't you? What an empty existence he was leading)

Friday, August 09, 2013

Going on vacation

I'll say hi to the Nationals offense when I see it.

A couple people said they liked Boz's column and you know what, that's ok!  It was a good column. It was a right column (well most of it was). It was just at the wrong time.  If the Nats were fighting for a division crown or even a WC spot than that column works. You want to be the best team you can. The Nats disregard for stolen bases is comical and their skill in performing basic baseball tasks could be improved.  Is it something that could make a difference in more than say, 1 to 3 games?  Probably not. But when you are fighting for a specific spot then 1 or 2 or 3 games really matter. The goal of the organization should be to maximize their chances to win prior to the situation by putting together the best team & best minor league system they can, getting them to play as well as they can,  and then seeing what happens.

Problem is now the Nats aren't fighting for anything. 1 to 2 to 3 games don't matter. So the column is complaining about the location of the band-aid on the sliced artery. You can maximize it but it's still not solving the problem (unless your goal is .500)

I want to reiterate something that is just remarkable to me. One month ago the Nats were only 4 games out of first.  That's right. On the morning of  July 8th the Nats were only 4 games behind the Braves. (they were also 4 games out of the 2nd WC).  In 30 days they lost 11.5 games of ground. That is hard to do.  Even more amazing to me on July 28th the Nats were 8.5 games out. They lost 4.5 games to the Braves in three weeks. In the next 10 days they lost 7 games. SEVEN! (The Nats have actually lost "only" 6 games in this time frame but the Braves won on both the Nats days off)

It's just crazy how this season, where the Nats basically spent 10 weeks trailing the Braves by 6 games or so, suddenly ended in the span of 10 days.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Losing is FUNdamental!

The past three days have gone as badly as they possibly could have. Looking for a sweep to give hope to a miracle late season charge to the division crown, the Nats instead got swept themselves. So now they can re-focus on the Wild Card, right? Well, while they were busy losing both the Reds and D-Backs won 2 games in a row moving the Nats wild card hopes from slim to grim.

At six games under on August 8th, the game has changed.  It's now a fight for .500 and if they happen to reach that sooner than the end of the year, we can check out where they are in the WC standings. New rule. You don't get to .500 you don't get any playoff play from me. Sorry.

The Nats have been an unquestionably big disappointment and the question of why remains on everyone's mind even though we figured it out a while ago. As Boz writes in his column :
Their bench, strong last season, has been horrible, with six key players combining for an abysmal .521 on-base-plus-slugging percentage through Tuesday night in more than 1,000 trips to the plate. Their fifth starter was a disaster for 100 games. Their second baseman’s career imploded. General Manager Mike Rizzo’s biggest team-tweaking decision, trading for Denard Span, proved misconceived, subtracting offense from a team that has plummeted in scoring.
You think that would be enough, or at least it would be enough if you also realized, ZNN, Gio, Detwiler, Stammen, Mattheus, Storen, Duke, Zimm, Desmond, and LaRoche have also played worse this year, from minor setbacks (Desmond) to outright abject failures (Storen). There you go, end of story. Except of course it's not. Not when there are two months to fill and cliches to cover.

I'm not going to kill Boz for the column he wrote. It's human nature that when you are looking for something, you'll find it. Boz, and many, many others, want to see something explicit on the field they can grab on to to explain the dramatic turnaround. Yes Haren was bad for a while and Espy's career died on the surgical table he never got on, but just two players and a bench? That's not enough! So a missed bunt here and an error there becomes not the minor issues that they are, but symptoms of a larger problem that explains why a good team has gone bad.

Rather than mock Boswell for this, can we simply explain it away? Using, you know, stats and stuff? Let's go back to the column.

"The Nats can’t sacrifice bunt or execute basic situational hitting."

This is easy enough to prove, thanks to baseball-reference.  The Nats are on the low end of successful sacrifice bunts at 69%.  However they aren't far from average. It would take only 2 of those failed bunts (in 61 attempts) to be successful to get the Nats to average status. To get to an incredible success rate the Nats would need 8 failures to be successes. How many games does 8 successful bunts change? They aren't going to score in all these attempts, and certainly not win all those games. More damning is taking a look at where the other teams fall. The only two teams worse than the Nats at sac bunting? Atlanta and Los Angeles. The best teams? Philadelphia and San Francisco. 

BR also has a stat called "productive outs" which measures a mish mash of moving runners over and sacrifice flies and stuff.  The Nats are not great here either, but again are not far off the average. They sit at 30% the NL average is 31%  It would only have taken 4 or so failure to be successes (out of 366 times) for the Nats to be average. The best teams are only successful around 35% of the time. And again, two very good teams (Atlanta and St. Louis) are actually worse at this than the Nats, while San Francisco and Miami are in the Top 3.

One more thing - the 2012 Nats? Below average in both these stats. 

The take away is that even though the Nats might be a little worse than they need to at these things, they really are not far from being average at all, and success in these things does not correlate with winning. Some good teams aren't any good at this. Some bad teams are very successful. It may matter, but it's a fringe thing. It's a win here and there, but not a major swing.

"...overanxious Adam LaRoche dribbled out to first base on a 2-0 fastball that was six inches inside and would have been ball three. That’s the Nats: neglecting what’s easy or trying too hard at what’s difficult." 

But why was that at bat important? Because in the previous at bat Jayson Werth drew a walk. This doesn't seem to me to be a Nats problem. It seems to be an Adam LaRoche problem

On Monday, the Nats lost, 3-2, because Stephen Strasburg, who had fabulous stuff that night, allowed an uncontested steal of second that turned into a two-out run. 

Now on one hand this is REALLY REALLY true. The Nats are OMFG Gossip Girl XOXO terrible at keeping the other team from stealing. 13% when the average 29%. But here's the thing, it's the organization's philosophy. Ignore the runner and get the batter out. Let him steal second but don't let him disrupt your pitching. You know who was also really bad at throwing runners out at 2nd? The 2012 Nats. 17%.

Personally I think this matters a bit more than the sac bunts and situational hitting because it's completely solvable and it's, you know, actually a problem, but again it's something on the margins that unless you have a superior catcher, would only save a few runs here and there.

He should be working on his craft before bad habits become ingrained. Maybe some of those commercials or styling in home run derbies can wait.

Now this paragraph was about Bryce Harper not being able to hit lefties. Completely true. He's been awful at it this year. But it's this sentence, and one he had earlier about practicing bunting more, that miffs me. This isn't thought, it's emotion. If a talented player is disappointing in some way it MUST be because he doesn't care enough. He's not putting enough effort into it. He's worried about other things. Could it simply be that he's no good at it? Or that it's actually really really hard to do?

Some guys can't bunt. Some lefty batters can't hit lefty pitching. If you want to call Bryce out about not practicing then I want some quotes. I want a batting coach saying "We told Bryce he needs more practice vs lefties but he went off for a photo shoot" That's fair. Just pulling out a stat and saying "well must be because he participated in the HR derby while everyone else in baseball was in a batting cage working out kinks" is something an angry fan writes on a message board.

It’s time for Zimmerman to find out where his arm strength stands and stop playing shallow

Again - Yes. But again, not a huge deal in terms of Ws and Ls.  Remember how the Nats were way leading the league in errors? Not anymore. 77. Still above league average but not that far above it.

Actually there is a problem with defense but it's not a fundamentals problem (outside of Zimm maybe putting himself too shallow). LaRoche is getting old. Werth is getting old. Bryce is probably just a mediocre fielder getting by on athleticism. The best fielding player on the team was sent to the minors because he couldn't hit. The fielding is getting worse, but it's not lack of fungo drills that's causing it.

I want to wrap this up by going back to the productive out number. The Nats did allright there percentage wise but let's look at the raw number of times when they were in position to make a productive out. The Nats could have done it 366 times, last in the NL. 40 fewer times than league average, 100 fewer times than the best of the best. This is what matters. The Nats could be above average in getting these productive outs and still be 13th in the NL in the raw number. It's not a failure of executing with men on base, it's a failure to get men on base.

Boswell could find a genie and make the Nats the best bunting team, the best situational hitting team, the best team at throwing out baserunners, the team with the fewest errors and you know what? They might be .500. The Nats need to hit better and pitch better and field better across the board in order to get back to the team they were last year. Picking at the little things is fine, a game or two can matter, but worry about them when the big things are solved.