Nationals Baseball: Monday Quickie - Trends into Concerns

Monday, May 05, 2014

Monday Quickie - Trends into Concerns

We're now a month into the season and almost 20% of the way through with 2014 (Time flies doesn't it?) While April was all about patience, seeing if there were any interesting trends and keeping an eye on them, May is about planning.  In May you need to stop casually watching things and start really focusing on them. You need to have an idea of what's an issue and what's not by the time May ends so you are ready to make moves in June if need be. Yes, even two months in is early to decide on things strictly speaking. But the baseball season does not last forever and if problems need to be addressed, the earlier this is done the better for your chances. Dragging your feet until the All-Star break only serves to waste over half your games. When one game could matter that's unacceptable.

So what are the problems (or any bright spots) that the Nats should be looking at addressing as we play through May?

Nate McLouth may not be able to shoulder burden of replacing Bryce.  

Nate McLouth is hitting .091 / .273 / .182.  Nate McLouth is your main "Bryce Harper replacement" while he is out injured. The Nats will make do versus lefties with Frandsen and Moore and Hairston getting at bats but against righties the job is McLouth's and he's not doing it.  This is an immediate issue because, assuming Bryce heals as expected, Nate is only needed in this capacity until about the All-Star break. You wait until June then you've waited half the time.

Bad luck maybe part of it.  His BABIP is .088 which is basically "Hit it where they is" batting. However a big part of that is the fact he's hitting weak GBs and lazy flies. His FB% is high (48.6%) and his HR%, which was never great, is low (5.9%). His LD% is down to 11.4%. You may not follow these things but that's LOW low. That means he's hitting nothing square. This is somewhat a product of small sample size right now. That LD% should come up. But will it come up enough?

Do you replace now? Can you replace now?

Ian Desmond isn't the All-Star version he's been the past 2 years. 

The good news is that Ian hasn't had an error in 11 games. The bad news is that he still leads the league in them. While that might be an early season hiccup his early fielding numbers (range, zone rating) aren't so hot either. It's REAL early to judge these things (it's basically like judging batting stats after 2 weeks) but you do have to remember that prior to 2012 & 2013 Ian was not a great shortstop. That may seem inconsequential but often guys come into the league slick fielding. To play 2 years and go from ok to very good seemingly overnight is unusual. We have to consider that the 2 years were a bit of a fluke.

That wouldn't normally be a concern. You'd accept slightly below average fielding for having Ian's bat at SS. The problem is... Ian's bat.  . 234 / .273 / .371 in 2014 so far. BABIP is a little low but nothing crazy. Remember when I talked about McLouth's LD%? Ian's is right there with him at 11.2%. (this would be 237th out of 247 qualified major leaguers). Whereas Nate just seemingly can't hit, Ian is more getting on top of balls. GB rate up to highest of his career (55.1%).

Combine the two issues and Ian is no longer in the "Well, not couting Tulo" conversations, he's in the "Well, not counting Ruben Tejada" ones.  He's 26th out of 29 SS with at least 70 PAs in fWAR (stat way of saying - if I look at enough SS to get about one per team, Ian is among the worst of them).  This is a real tough one to address is if continues through the end of May, though. Danny is already coming down to earth and without him killing the ball there isn't an easy answer for a replacement. And you probably wouldn't replace Ian anyway given how well he's done for 2 years. You can't let 2 months supersede that. Maybe a "DL" stint to give him a break? Or more time off? DHing him rather than Ramos to get him going? There just isn't an easy answer to the "a star is playing terribly" problem. Let's just hope he gets hot.

Denard Span can't hit. 

He's not as bad as his season stats have him at now (.232 / .287 / .313) I think he's more like his past week stats (.273 / .304 / .409). Of course that isn't good either. He's a good fielder so with the Nats expected lineup they figured to carry him even with mediocre stats. With Bryce out and Zimm out and Ian struggling, however, Span's limitations at the plate are even more apparent.

The Nats gambled on Span being like 2012 Span. He's not. He's like 2013 Span or 2011 Span or 2010 Span. But for Span this is less about finding a replacement for this season. It's about auditioning guys to see if you want to keep his below average bat, above average glove for another year or cut him loose. You hoped it wouldn't be an issue while contending. It is. Now you've got to work these guys in.  Bryce's injury and McLouth's struggles offer the perfect way to do it... if you are ready to gamble that one of those guys will be ok enough to help keep the team afloat. 

Adam LaRoche looks refreshed. 

Some good news! Maybe it was the sickness / weight loss / whatever. He's the opposite of McLouth and Desmond. He's hitting everything square (LD% up around 32% which is high). This is backing his high .370 BABIP. Like it should come up for McLouth and Desmond it should go down for LaRoche. History tells us that. But even with a decline you like what you are seeing from Adam. The walk-rate is up. The k-rate is down. The power is there. He won't hit 30+ homers but he's setting himself up for a year hitting .280ish with 25-30 homers, with a bunch more walks that usual. It's looking so far that this could be a year like 2012 in terms of production.

This causes an interesting dilemma for year's end. It was expected that LaRoche would struggle, the Nats would cut him loose and go with Zimm at 1st or something like that. But with LaRoche raking the ball do you try to extend him for a season? I doubt he'd do it - at 34 he's probably looking for that one last multi-year deal. But maybe if you give it to him early? Moore is almost certainly, as we've been thinking for years (at least us smarties), a low .200s guy with pop. Not really 1B worthy for a contender. Skole is crashing in the minors. With no easy replacement, with Zimm being the injury risk he always is, it's something you have to think about.

None of this has to be (or should be) decided today. But the next 3 weeks should be about planning with the above scenarios continuing in mind. If they turn around GREAT. Throw out the plans and move on. But if they don't turn around you have to be ready to act in some way or another.


Donald said...

To some extent, getting Ramos and Fister back within a week, while only being 1/2 game out of first buys the Nats some time. There's certainly no need to panic yet. I think they give McLouth more time -- he has to get better, right? And to a degree you can convince yourself that Ramos is replacing Harpers bat while McLouth is replacing Loboton's, which doesn't feel quite as bad.

As for Ian, I think you touch on two different issues. It's entirely possible his D is reverting to a more natural state, but his hitting has always been better than he's doing now. I have to believe that will improve as well. And if he gets hot, it would certainly outweigh the D. In any case, you have no options other than what you mention.

The hard part is that it's easy to say the Nats shouldn't wait to make a correction, and if they under perform between now and July it's even easier to look back and say I told you so. But what are the real options? Who's selling a really good CF or 1B right now and would you pay the price if it included Giolitto or Cole for a half year rental?

Harper said...

Didn't mean for this to play out as negatively as it did. Basically if things are going well (Werth looks to be keeping up his hitting, Rendon is adjusting fine) there isn't any planning necessary. Team moves on. For most part this is picking out what seems wrong, plan for it, then act on it (if you can & if you need to)

As for targets... really isn't obvious ones. Colby Rasmus? AJ Pollock? Jordan Danks? Nothing worth the cost they'd probably take. Too many teams still in contention.

Maybe you throw Cole/Giolito at D-backs for Goldschmidt. Come on! It's not about 2014, Arizona. It's not even about 2016. You're going to have to rework this deal anyway. Plan for the future Arizona!

Eric said...

How much of Ian's woes have to do with the fact that he's standing right at the edge of the abyss? He's regularly 6th, and is usually followed by scant protection, particularly with RISP. Espi and lately Lobi have been hitting well enough, but almost exclusively in low leverage situations. TyMo, McLouth, Leon, Souza, and Walters, are all but automatic outs under any circumstances. Only Frandsen is any kind of "threat," and even there, it's moderate at best.

So, Desi, AKA The-One-Who-Swings, is fed a steady diet of junk balls and...there you have it...? Maybe?

John C. said...

Also in the "good news" category is that Rendon seems like the Real Deal - as in the most accomplished college bat in years. It's fun to watch him hit, with his simple stroke and amazingly quick hands.

On LaRoche, the good news is that the Nats have a (mutual) option on him for next year - they can either pick him up for one year, $15M or pay $2M to buy out ALR's side of the option. That might buy you a year if Zim can play a respectable third base while Desmond and/or Espinosa struggles.

Span is fine hitting in the #7 or 8 spot in the lineup; his bat only really hurts you if he continues to struggle in the leadoff spot. Managers tend to be stubborn about this sort of thing (see, e.g., Fredi Gonzalez continuing to put B.J. Upton in the #2 spot).

McLouth really seems lost at the plate, although at least he's drawing a ton of walks. The options against RHP aren't much better in the short term, so he's going to get another couple of weeks to try to work out of it. After that you may well see an injury discovered and a phantom DL trip so that he can work out his issues in a place where it isn't hurting the ballclub.

Bjd1207 said...

@Eric - I think your right that his pitching profile has changed this year, but I'm not sure it has to do with who's hitting behind him. It would take a closer analysis of what state of game his at bats have been in.

But just using the eye-test you're correct that he's getting nothing but offspeed away. Bob Carpenter loves talking about this, but in this case he's right. Desmonds got to serve a couple of those through the 1-2 gap or double down the line (or heaven forbid take some walks) to get them to come back farther inside on him. He's an instinct hitter so he's looking for fastballs or hanging breakers. Problem is he's gotta show the league he knows what to do with GOOD breakers (leave them alone or serve to right field)

Jay said...

McClouth's swing is just plain ugly right now. His head doesn't stay on the ball. His batting avg is what he deserves based on the AB's he is having. Ian on the other hand is starting to have better at bats. I agree he has to go the other way some more. He has been doing this the last couple of days - that double to right field the other night.

I agree that the big problem is you can't carry 2 guys in the outfield who both can't hit. We traded our best pitching prospect for a 4th outfielder, but that is a story for another day. I like Span a lot - great guy. He can't hit. Anyway, I guess we are stuck waiting for McClouth to figure it out. He was good for Baltimore the last two years, or try the two younger guys - Souza or Walters.

I'd keep LaRoche next year. His left handed bat balances out the lineup.

Just my 2 cents.

Wally said...

I think that they can keep ALR if they want. If they slap an arb tag on him, it is highly doubtful someone signs him and gives up a pick, so he is likely to agree to the mutual option.

The other plus is that the pitching looks pretty strong. Tied for 5th in WAR, and #2 in FIP.

Werth is hitting but looks tired, to my eye. One question for Rizzo is, from a bench acquisition standpoint, can he find a backup for Werth/ALR that Williams will actually use, so that they don't have to play every day while the others are on the DL. This may have to be addressed now, not later, since there is a chance that one or both will get injured due to no rest. They are older guys and should probably be getting a day off a week. It is pretty clear to me that McLouth, Moore and Souza do not have Williams' confidence right now. Hard to blame him.

Bjd1207 said...

@Jay - What's the trade you're talking about? We signed McLouth out of free agency. We traded our best pitching prospect for Doug Fister

Wally said...

I thought he meant Alex Meyer for Span

Jay said...

Alex Meyer for Span. Love the guy but he's a defensive replacement at thi point. Doesn't hit well. Doesn't get on base. Rarely steals. All that equals a really good 4th OF.

Matty said...

I'm still on the bandwagon, but the depressing thing is that the Braves have lost their last 6 and the Nats are still .5 games behind! These are the opportunities that teams need to capitalize on in order to make up some ground in the standings, and the Nats just can't seem to strike with the iron is hot!

Bjd1207 said...

OK i guess nominating him as the 4th outfielder is what threw me off. To me CF has always been a place where you're willing to sacrifice some offensive for the better defensive metrics (people like Trout & Ellsbury have broken the curve in recent years). He was traded for and expected to be a starter. And in the team's current state he's a better fielder and better hitter than McLouth, so it'd take a major signing for me to consider Span anywhere close to a 4th outfielder. It would have to be someone with roughly equal defensive metrics, and obviously better offensive stats. Don't know that anyone like that is available, or has been available, at a reasonable price (could have gone for Ellsbury in FA or something I guess)

JES said...

I love Span for his defense. His bat wouldn't be so much of a liability if we could bury him at 7th or 8th in the lineup. Problem is, who do we have that would thrive in the leadoff spot? I know Werth's done it before, but his power doesn't really belong there. Rendon, maybe?

Kenny B. said...

Agree that it is immensely frustrating to see the Nats miss out on a 6-game Atlanta losing streak. Especially when it entails a series loss to the Phillies. The Nats made some progress in the standings, but so did everyone else.

I also have this awful feeling like Sunday's game portends another one of these everyone-goes-cold stints where the best we can hope for is a garbage solo homer in the 8th.

Honestly, I'm a fan of ALR, but to the extent you get a good 2014 out of him (and remember, when he goes cold it gets ugly quick so a good 2014 is far from guaranteed), I think you have to consider moving on. Not sure what you do, but I just don't see back to back good years from him given his age and general streakiness. That's kind of a scoutish gut-feel thing though, so I get if others are not on board.

We are also rapidly approaching peak Jayson Werth. He's holding up okay now, but it won't be long before you at least need a real high quality 4th outfielder to take significant playing time. Bryce's injury has shown that we don't really have that.

I think there are plenty of options in the infield unless Espinosa craters again or Desmond never un-craters, and the pitching is all pretty young and consistent. If you're looking down the line at a refresh, I think you look to the outfield. Bryce presumably still has a ton of incredible baseball left in him if he can avoid the injury bug (which is starting to concern me, a lot). The other two spots are pretty big question marks for the fairly near future.

Anyhou, that's all longer-term thinking as we watch the window close. Meanwhile, let's fire the entire training staff and get a new one. When you can't keep a 20-year-old kid healthy, you're doing your job poorly.

Anonymous said...

Regarding Desi, something seemed off, but he's had rough spots before at shortstop. He has one more error than he had last year before he went 59 games without one and I would bet that his range and ZR numbers just before the errorless streak looked just like they did 11 games ago and probably still do - those things need bigger sample sizes to be meaningful.

At the plate, he's had bad months before too, but he hasn't had two in a row since June-July of 2011. He's starting to hit line drives to right and right center, which is what he always does on his way out of a slump. He'll have a good May.

DezoPenguin said...

The lineup question is hard with the injuries, but there's no excuse for not having the best hitters bat 1-2. With the current lineup, I'd go with something like this:

Lobaton (he bats 6th if he's playing)
Leon (he bats 8th if he's playing)

Ramos and Zim's return can change some of this, and there's no way around the fact that that's a lot of bad hitters, but...

McLouth is having a horrid season so far, but on the other hand, he also has had, what, half a month of PAs? Three weeks? And those intermittently? His performance is so out of line with his recent numbers that I can't think it's meaningful.

Span probably should play. It's like Bourjos in St. Louis: Yes, his offense is poor, but a run saved defensively is just as good as a run scored offensively when it comes to the final score, and there's just no meaningful replacement whose offense is good enough to overcome the drop in defense. Jacoby Ellsbury is not walking through the door to take his place.

Actually, that's the main problem--the Nats have three plus-grade starters on the DL. Any attempt to replace any of them is just going to result in overpaying for a short-term fix, and the guys who are going to be firmly better than the current bench are generally starting for someone already. I mean...maybe John Jaso from the A's could be available since Norris is kind of locking up that job right now, and Beane and Rizzo pretty much have each other on speed-dial for trades that end up beneficial for both sides, but then what do you do when Ramos returns?

I don't really follow the Nats' minor leagues, so Harper's idea of trying out some of the youngsters, particularly in place of Frandsen, sounds okay, but I don't really know who there is to try out, and getting Moore the heck out of the rotation is a good plan on general principles.

Nattydread said...

Pitching, Rendon, Werth and LaRoche are carrying the team. I'll take that.

With LaRoche, consider that he's sorted out the medication issues. He's looking good.

Span is not as bad as made out to be. He's a good #7 hitter, which he should be.

Espinosa has come back to earth, but he is not dismal. His power has returned, so you've got an excellent fielder who K's and hits 2B's & dingers. Take it.

Fister, Ramos, Zimmerman & Hairston are all coming back --- their return is better than making deals.

Rizzo just needs to stand watch. Fiddling deals to get minor pieces is as risky as waiting for bench investments to pan out. You lose less when you wait on what you have.

Donald said...

It's almost surreal with all the introspection about the Nats flaws that we wake up today in first place.

What's up with the Braves? Just a streak of bad luck and then they'll bounce back to a .650 / .700 pace? Or a bit of reverting to the mean where they'll stay as a .565 team? Or have major issues been exposed and they will continue to slide down to .500?

blovy8 said...

Zimmerman is not coming back any time soon, the x-rays still show a fracture. Ramos will be a big help, The best thing about LaRoche's surge is that he's also hitting lefties so he's everyday once again. Maybe when Ramos is back, they could rest Werth once a week and still have a Rendon/Desmond/LaRoche/Ramos/Espy core of hitters that day that won't be awful. Souza really hasn't gotten a fair shot but once Zim is back, I'd rather have him on the bench than Moore unless Cliff Lee is pitching. I'm beginning to think he's the kind of guy who won't get consistent enough atbats to find out what he can do on a contending club. McLouth has been leaving that door wide open however.

John C. said...

Kenny, how are the Nats "missing out" on the Braves' (now seven) game losing streak? The Braves last won on Sunday, April 27 (even that was a 1-0 win). The Nats were four games out. Since then the Nats have gone 4-2 and picked up 4.5 games in the standings. Even before yesterday they had picked up 3.5 games in a week. Expressing frustration because they didn't pick up more is being pretty harsh.

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