Nationals Baseball: The flip side

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The flip side

Yesterday I said I thought the Nats were in a good spot. I still do. But the fact remains they are one game over .500 and one game out of the cellar in the surprisingly competitive NL East. (You'd think at least one of the Mets/Marlins/Phillies would be a burning heap of rubble by now). How about a quick looksie at what's gone "wrong"*.

#1  - Ramos got injured Opening Day. Replacements have been terrible. 

Hard to fault anyone here. We all knew Ramos was an injury risk and that the Nats needed a quality back-up.  Rizzo went out and got one. What we didn't know is Ramos would be down before the first curly anything was in the book. Sandy Leon, as we all expected, has been useless (.172 / .226 / .310) but Lobaton hasn't done what he's needed to. (.238 / .333 / .310). It's not a gaping wound but its an empty lineup spot.

#2 - Bad defense

The 23 errors, most in the majors, stick out like a sore thumb that a ball just bounced off of. You might forgive Rendon his 3 being a 2nd year player shifted around, but Desmond has 8 already, more than 3 teams. They've seemingly come in a bunch lately with the Nats allowing 15 of their 18 unearned runs since April 13th. The Nats have allowed 4.29 runs per game, 3rd worst in the NL.  Take out the unearned runs and it would be 3.43 - 2nd best. You aren't going to get 0 unearned runs but even league average (10) would have them in Top 5 in NL (tied with ATL)

Of course it's more than just the errors. Last in defensive efficiency in the NL (turning balls in play into outs), near the bottom in range. They have old guys on the way down on the right side of the field, head cases on the left side of the infield, and young hitters who look like they'll end up being more "passable" than "plus" defensive players in Rendon and Bryce. Span back should help as he is honestly a good defender but that brings up another problem.

#3 - Denard Span has been terrible in the leadoff spot

I know Desmond hasn't been hitting and Bryce isn't doing what he should, but guys slump. This is usually countered by other guys hitting better than they should. Do you think LaRoche will hit .294 with 100 walks? Or that Rendon will finish the year in the Top 10 in XBH? But Span is special because he is doing so poorly and he's getting up so often.  A .208 / .283 / .302  shows no discernable offensive skill doing anything. Yet he bats first and is averaging almost 5 at bats per game when he starts, around a half an at bat more than any other National (thanks to Williams tinkering so much in the #2 hole)

#4 - The bench, again, has been mostly a failure

The rebirth of Danny Espinosa has been a very pleasant surprise, but as noted above Lobaton hasn't which kind of cancels out as far as the Nats' injury replacements go. As for everyone else who has gotten 10 PAs or more.

McLouth : .074 / .265 / .111 (welcome back to 2010)
Frandsen : .280 / 357 / .320 (Yes Lombo could have done this)
Moore : .188 / .235 / .438 (stop selling, we ain't buying)

Zack Walters, with one more PA would pop up here and look decent but the guy is all or nothing and those tend to drift toward "nothing" real fast in the majors.

Yes, yes small sample size, etc. And you can't fault anyone for McLouth's slow start. It's just funny how a half-measure once again looks to be a failure.

#5 - Taylor Jordan has failed

This isn't a big surprise. It could happen and then it did. But it did very conclusively and quickly. After a good first start scattering some Braves hits over 6 and a third, Jordan has delivered three awful games in a row. ERA of 8.22 in 3 games, players are hitting .338 / .388 / .554 against him. In all three games the Nats were down at least 3 before their second time at bat. First inning jitters? Perhaps, but the Nats offense** isn't able to handle those right now. They need a new 5th starter. If not Detwiler than someone else.

*A bounce here and there and the Nats could be 13-8 and no one is batting an eyelash. Of course that goes the other way too. 9-12 PANIC could also have happened. In fact pythag has the Nats at 10-11 so it's unlikely they've been unlucky once play has started. Now off the field, sure.

**Zimmerman's last full game was April 11th. In that time the Nats have played 11 games. They've scored: 
0 runs : 1 time
2 : 4 times
3 : 4 times
6 : 1 time
9 : 1 time
That averages out to be 3.2 runs a game. That's bad.


cass said...

Amazing how much the eyes can lie - I hadn't checked his stats, but I was under the impression that Frandsen had been a good pinch hitter.

Also, someone brought up swing% versus Clip's change which was mentioned on the broadcast a couple nights ago. I looked it up on Brooks and it's not the explanation. Was only a bit higher last year and basically the same two years ago.

Carl said...

One thing that I find encouraging, compared to last year, is that the Nats have come from behind (sometimes from significant deficits) this year a lot more than they did early last year. Not sure if that truly means anything, but it feels a lot less like "that's it!" once they get behind.

I seriously don't know what to do about the defense; can't point to anyone and say the Nats would be better off benching them. Everything else should get better with time as guys come back from injury, and/or with managerial forte (though Williams has shown no signs of not hitting Span leadoff thus far).

Carl said...

Not to be too gloomy about Span, but worth noting: five of his hits came in the first three games. Arbitrarily take those games out and he's hitting .146 since. Bleah.

Kenny B. said...

2.5 back is no problem at all if you have the sense that the team is underperforming or that help is on the way. Last year Desmond sorted out his error problems after awhile, and maybe Rendon cuts down after getting used to 3B. That could be a source of improvement.

We've also got Fister, Zimmerman, and Ramos coming back at some point, which will hopefully plug a couple of the holes you described in the post.

So injury returns, defensive improvement that seems likely, and some better managing could close a 2.5 game gap pretty quickly in the coming months (especially if the Braves pitchers stop all pitching like Greg freaking Maddux—they can't keep this up, can they?). The name of the game, as we've discussed here before, is just try not to put yourself in too big a hole before these things come to pass.

Of course, you also need nothing else to happen that will harm the team, like more injuries. I'm looking at you, Werth.

Sidenote: We need a full post on the rebirth of Danny Espinosa, whether it's sustainable, and what it means for the Nats' infield options upon Zim's return (and future years, if you're so inclined)

Harper said...

Frandsen - 2 singles, 1 BB in 9 PAs as a PH... meh. His real problem is none of that pop that was expected.

Carl - the problem with the defense is that the defense is a problem. If Desmond can stop being THE WORST it'll get better but it's not going to be a positive for this squad.

Jay said...

It's impossible to believe the defense will remain this bad. Bad, maybe, but this level of terrible is unsustainable. I think it's safe to assume that Fister's return in 10 days or so will fix the Taylor Jordan problem. I'm comfortable with Lobaton's line. That's basically who he is, and it's nowhere near as terrible as the backup catchers last year. So that's three problems that I think are temporary/minor. (Not to say more problems can't arise.)

The obvious solution for Span, to me, is to bat Rendon first and Span 8th. It's absurd that he's stayed in the leadoff spot, but who knows if and when Williams will change that. That is a serious problem, because Span needs to be in center for his defense, which still seems excellent.

As for the bench, McLouth is a problem, because he isn't going anywhere. Frandsen has been OK (and Lombo would never post his .357 OBP). I'd rather have Walters than Moore when the time comes to choose. So I think the bench looks a little better when injuries subside, but I'm worried about McLouth and Hairston.

Mitch said...

Oh God, I forgot about Hairston. Can't wait for MW to pencil them in hitting 1-2.

Mitch said...

Edit last: meant to say Span and Hairston hitting 1-2.

NatsVA said...

This team is starting to remind me a bit of the Caps. Such high expectations after 2012, such a big window, but ever since a near constant disappointment.

Seriously, I haven't been excited, really excited about this team since Opening Day last season-and we all know how things turned out after that.

On another note someone should tell Nats fans that while it's cool to see history and applaud the feat (Pujols hitting 500), giving an opposing player a full out curtain call when your team is about to go down 0-2 to a mediocre team that likely won't make the playoffs is not exactly the way to do it. Sometimes the amateur-hour fanbase of some Nats fans is so glaring. Case in point.

John C. said...

I've been a Nats fan since before the first game; I bought my first Nats jersey at the trailer in the RFK parking lot that December. But I've been a baseball fan for 40+ years. I have no problem at all with acknowledging the accomplishments of a sure fire HoF player who has been the best offensive player of his generation and a decent defensive player as well. I profoundly disagree that this is "amateur hour." Amateur hour would be littering the field with debris or booing the player for wearing a different jersey. The Nats fans' actions last night (and I wasn't at the game) were the opposite of amateur. One can be a knowledgeable, passionate fan without being a [jerk].

Wally said...

Agree with virtually all of the post.

I'd put defense as the #1 problem because, as I said yesterday, I think that there can be a hard-to-quantify aspect to lousy D that gets into a pitcher's mindset about the way they pitch, which then makes them pitch worse, too. Fister is a GB guy, so if they don't start improving, his impact will be less. It seems like virtually all posters, including me, feel like the D shouldn't be this bad, but yet it has been this bad all of last year and this year so far, so maybe it was never that good? I dunno how to fix it, but I am not sure it is a coaching problem.

Jordan has been bad. There are some reasons to think that he has also been unlucky (BABIP, HR%, LOB% way off: K/9 significantly improved but BB/9 also worse), but he has also gotten hit hard. I am either too lazy or incompetent to compare scattershot graphs from last year to this one, but I'd bet his primary culprit is that he is leaving his pitches up. He doesn't have the stuff to live up in the zone. This is why he is giving up the HRs. Could he also subconsciously be trying to avoid grounders based on how the D has played? That is what is hard to know, and it would hurt a guy like Jordan much more than Stras or Gio. He seems like a clear case for a month or two in the minors to work out his command issues.

Let me add one other reason for 'what is going wrong'.

6. Matt Williams is kind of in-over-his-head so far. Not as clear cut as the others, but he has made some odd moves, from lineup, to bullpen use (among other things, count me in the camp of 'what exactly is the plan for Detwiler?'. What happened to the whole 'he can be a force down there'?). He just doesn't seem like he has a good plan, and that could trickle down to how confident the players are in him. I can't prove that, of course, so maybe it is just bunk. He may turn out to be a great manager, but I am not impressed so far.

Harper said...

KB - Yeah, I'm not giving up on this team yet. It could easily win 4 out of the next 5 and then we're all happy again.

noted on Espy.

Jay - This bad... not this many errors no, but terrible efficiency and range? That's possible.

Rendon 1st, Werth, Bryce, whoever - just not Span.

I'm hoping McLouth will come around. Is there another option other than this?

Mitch - As crazy as Matt Williams' lineups have seen - I can't see that.

NatsVA - that's a common comparison. I'd say Nats are clearly better overall team (won't drop as far as fast as Caps) but MLB is harder place to play (Caps still almost made playoffs)

I don't mind curtain call - that's at least acknowledging the game. Let's start by making sure the wave never happens again first.

John C - Difference in opinion. I side with you but I can see NatsVA side. Applaud for others, laud your own. I think though if say Zimm got there they'd stop game and have a little ceremony. That's the difference.

Wally - it was going to be an order but didn't end up being. I'd put defense first too. I think the defense is just this poor. A lot of the "good D" from the past couple years has been over rated. They have been mediocre during this winning few years and that's with high quality up the middle Flores, Ramos, Desmond, Espy, Span. If Desmond though is a fluke & Espy sits back down then it's just Ramos and Span left. That's not going to cut it.

I think Jordan might just be up early in the game (hence the bad first innings). Amped? I'm lazy too so haven't looked at that yet.

Can't argue with #6.

NatsVA said...

Well, the fanbase definitely showed more class than Albert did by pimping both his no doubter home runs against our sh*tty pitcher. The half-full stadium was too busy watching the ball sail onto Half Street.

cass said...

One of the greatest (top 50 already, at least) players of all time hit his 500th home run. A long ovation in the only choice if you don't want to be a [jerk]. I don't think you can really overdo it. Wouldn't you expect the same for a great Nats player in another stadium?

To be honest, watching cricket for the first time this offseason has been eye-opening. In cricket, quality performances are always applauded, whether they are for the home team or not. Someone who gets 100 runs (a single counts as one run, a ball over the fence as six) in a game always gets an ovation. I found it strange when I went with a friend from India to his first baseball game and he clapped when an visiting player hit a home run, but more and more I wonder if that's a better mindset.

In all sports, though, you applaud historic performances.

Chaz R said...

I'm not giving up on these guys either Harper. But, here we are almost one month through the season and this team is making constant defensive mistakes, the hitting has done a nose dive, the starting pitching has been erratic at best, Werth looks unsteady and lost, Span can’t hit his weight, the bullpen management has been questionable, and three of the projected key members of the team are on the DL. Other than that, things look awesome. We have tickets for the next 3 games. Ugh.

Jay said...

Braves have their rough stretch of games in mid-May. They play Giants, then Cards, and then Giants and Cards again with Cubs thrown in the middle. Nats have to try to stay close till then. It does look disturbingly like last year. If they lose tonight (with Weaver going they might) they will be 3.5 back of Atl. Not the end of the world, but not what we were hoping for.

Big question if this continues - was 2012 the lucky year and the last 13-14 months a truer picture of what this team is?? If so, what to do?

Anonymous said...

Harper I'm intrigued by your dislike for Span this year - I feel like the Stats guy in you would say he's not so much slumping as he is just unlucky right now (his BABIP is 100 points lower than his career average). I was as scared of him leading off as the next person but since coming back from the concussion he's making great contact and seeing the ball fantastically. I agree with the rest of your points here, but I think you're letting old biases here persuade...

JWLumley said...

@Anon Even if Span's BABIP returns to career norms he's still the worst hitter in the Nationals everyday lineup besides the pitcher and Jose Lobaton. The Nats are giving their worst hitter the most PA's on the team. That's not old bias, that's the truth. At his pre-concussion best (which he isn't returning to) Span is still the Nats 7th or 8th best hitter. Williams is a manager cut in the same mold of Kurt Gibson and Dusty Baker who he studied under and who are two of the worst managers in baseball in the last 20 years. Both guys openly despise stat nerds and math in general, don't trust rookies and build lineups like it's still 1927. If the Nats were a well run company, they would admit their mistake and cut their losses before it got too far. Williams is in over his head and they should have never let Bo Porter get away, but they'd be better off promoting Randy Knorr.

JWLumley said...

@Jay I don't think 2012 is lucky. I think this is a mismanaged club. They have a ton of talent that they aren't able to extract from guys like Strasburg and Harper. Some of this is silly philosophies like pitching to contact and batting the fast guy first. Davey was too lax, but he allowed guys the room to be himself, instead of finding someone who would bring a bit more discipline, the Nats ran to the other side of the ship and brought in Kurt Gibson type. This team has the talent to win and it's the manager and coaching staff's job to extract that talent.

Anonymous said...

@JWLumley admittedly I would love to have Werth as the leadoff guy - I'm a big fan of someone who will work a count off a first pitcher and take a walk to get on base, but Span gets a worse wrap at this point than he should. adjusting for BABIP he's near .250 which isn't stellar, but he also has the best walk rate of our team and is a .300 hitter with runners on base (i.e. when the order comes back around, though small sample size of 20 ABs). I would be happy with Rendon first too, though with more power consistent line-drive ability I really just want him 2-3.

Froggy said...

Matt Williams is trending toward reminding me of Manny Acta.

...and WTF kind of dirt does Tyler Moore have on Rizzo? There just is no other explanation why he is still playing.

Nick said...

I agree with your larger points, but I don't think it's fair to say Rendon's ceiling at 3b is "passable." The guy was a highly touted defensive player and got plus plus defensive ratings from scouting reports. 2b is a tougher position, and judging by his arm strength and range, he seems to be project as an above average defensive 3b. Not to mention that he's been at 2b the last few years and defensive metrics take a while to hold weight anyways.

The defense is a concern, yes, but Espinosa has a track record of being a good 2b, Desmond has shown slightly below average to slightly above average defense in the past, and Span is still a good CF. This is never going to be an elite defense, but it can be average and maybe even above average crew.

Kenny B. said...

When do we get to play the Marlins again?

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Bjd1207 said...

Holy Crap what a game. I was one of like 17 fans left in the stands for that comeback, I'm going to have a coronary by the time this season's over.

Also - as our gracious host always admits when his predictions haven't turned out, I should face the music as well. Espi's been spectacular so far

JE34 said...

@Wally: speaking of your #6, here's a good indicator:

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