Nationals Baseball: Avoiding this mistakes of last year

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Avoiding this mistakes of last year

The 2013 Nats season has been boiled down to a simple set of statements. The Nats suffered important injuries early in the year. In the starters' places, the bench, questionably remaining the same from an over-their-heads 2012, produced hideously. Rizzo was too slow to make any changes. When the team finally got healthy and made a push at season's end, it was too late. End of story.

However, this convenient cliff notes version leaves out something important. From game 115 on the Nats went on a 32-16 run, playing better than anyone in baseball, but the team was back together healthy at game 85.  What happened from game 85 through game 114?

After Bryce came back on July 1st, Ramos would return to the team on July 4th, game 85. The Nats would immediately win 4 in a row and pull within 4 of the Braves and 4 of the 2nd Wild Card. Here come the Nats, right?

Wrong. The Nats would then go 2-5 leading up to the All-Star break and would follow that up coming out of the All-Star break 6-13. That 8-18 stretch culminated in a sweep by Atlanta that left the Nats 15 1/2 games out of the NL East lead, 9 1/2 out of the 2nd Wild Card and unofficially ended the season.

Stories tended to focus on this period as if it was simply a continuation of the earlier season and whatever conclusions that they had drawn from those first three months were re-inforced by the poor record. But this was with the full team, it had to be different and it was. The starters, as good as one would expect every other month, had their worst month of the year in July, putting up a 4.53 ERA. ZNN (7.18,  next worse month 3.86), Gio (5.34), Stras (4.62, next worse month 3.24) - blame went across the board. The relievers put up their 2nd worst month by ERA (0.01 better than March/Apr) and probably their worst pitched month (1.438 WHIP, next worse was 1.328), with Stammen, Soriano, Mattheus and Storen all putting up ERAs over 4.50.

The bad pitching hurt, but it could have been mitigated by some timely hitting now that the band was back together. But while Wertth and Ramos hit well, they were cancelled out by Rendon (.556) and LaRoche (.511) completely crapping out. The remainder of the team, Bryce, Desmond, Span and Zimmerman, all produced at a average level (OPS from .732 to .786). End result a very average month hitting (7th in NL in runs scored).  The hitting wasn't the problem, but it wouldn't be the solution either.

What's the point?  The point is even though the Nats are healthy they aren't immune to long periods of bad play. If you are just assuming the Nats will take over first and coast to the playoffs, you are getting ahead of yourself.  They should do it. For one thing, you can argue that the team is slightly better with Fister, Roark, a head on straight Storen, a more seasoned Rendon. For another, they are starting from a better spot. 51-42 and tied for first rather than 47-48 and 6 games out. But should isn't will. Even without a major injury the Nats could see 30-45 days of poor play for no other reason than "it happens". Don't take anything for granted.

It's a message for the fans, but it's a message for the team too. They should make those minor improvements. They should try to maximize the team's potential, even if by just a game or so. Remember last year at this time they traded for Scott Hairston... and that's it. They did nothing for three months leading up to the Nats being healthy again, and they did next to nothing when they were healthy but struggling. They assumed when healthy the Nats would win and that would be enough. They waited... and waited... and waited for the cream to rise and quite possibly waited the team out of the playoffs. You don't know if those games will matter, even for a healthy team capable of winning 2/3rd of their games for long periods of time. It happens.


John C. said...

Is it baseball yet?

I agree with the basic thrust of "don't take anything for granted" and that the team should continue to try to make improvements where they can ... where the price is reasonable. And that's the tricky part.

For example, while I think that Hairston gets a bad rap from many Nats fans (his job is to hit LHP, and he's done all right at that - .300/.333/.367 in limited action), his role is not essential when the team has two other bench guys (Frandsen and Espinosa) who are better against LHP. While they don't offer the power potential that Hairston does, if the team could grab an impact LH hitter without giving up too much, I'd jettison Hairston in a heartbeat. How much is "too much" depends on who the player is and what his age/contract status are.

I'm not in the "get Zim off of third" camp unless the result brings enough offense to offset the addition of Espinosa to the lineup and the loss of whoever Zim or whoever he is displacing at another position. That's a hard set of boxes to check.

Given all that I don't assume that a lack of moves mean that the team is complacent. It might well just mean that there wasn't a deal out there that made sense.

Harper said...

JC - I agree as long as they don't confuse "reasonable" with "fair". Replacing a Frandsen type with a slightly better player might be worth a middling uppper A-ball prospect, but it might be reasonable to give up an ok AA ball prospect for him.

Chas R said...

You're expressing my inner anxieties and greatest nightmares, Harper. I still relive last July in my worst dreams. I am not only worried about a stretch of poor performance, but the current bench has only done marginally better than last year. I think Frandsen has been serviceable, Danny has been a good defensive substitute and SS replacement, but McLouth has been a bust and Hairston is one trick pony- pinch hitter against lefties.

Do you think we need to still upgrade the bench? I am noticing that Pierzynski was DFA's by the Bosox and is still available. He would be paid by the Bosox and would be a good PHer off the bench as well as a decent third catcher (I'm thnking we would still need the Lobaton as the primary defensive back-up). Given the Buffalo's injury history, it's probably not a bad idea to have 3 catchers anyway. I wonder what the story is behind the Bosox letting him go though- ?

Kevin Rusch said...

Well, if the biggest worry is "sometimes bad things happen", I'd say you're in a pretty good place. The team's healthy, they've got great pitching depth, and possibly a couple hitting options in the minors as well. Short of having won 10 more games already, there's not much you could realistically expect to improve at this point.

Bryan said...

The Nats had a pretty tough schedule heading into the break, while the Braves had a comparatively easy one. Like many, I figured the Braves would be in first come All-Star. And while they technically are, if you told me two weeks ago we'd be in a tie, I'd be happy with that.

Its a long haul yet, but we are ahead of where I thought we reasonably should be. We can't crap out, as you say, but I think we have to be odds on favorites, right?

Bryan said...

Harper - you've probably covered this, but honestly, what is the WAR in trading Frandson for someone who is "slightly better"?

Frandson isn't good, but is "slightly better" good, or just less bad? I'm actually OK with giving up middling A or AA prospects, but not if we are just going to get Frandson with a different name on the jersey.

Harper said...

Chaz R - I think we do. AJ was released because at his salary - his $ was too much for anyone to take on. I hate that guy though.

Kevin - Nats are in a pretty good place. Trick is staying there. Even if you are just marginally improving, you are improving.

Bryan - I would think so. let's see playoff odds... yeah we're about 2/3 to 3/4 favorites to win division.

probably neither on the Frandsen question. "slightly better" would likely be average. the real issue for those that don't want to "waste" prospects is that really we're at the mercy of SSS now in how bench players will do. Nats could trade for Adrian Beltre but if he spot starts and PHs he could concievably look bad till seasons end.

WiredHK said...

I have to know: was the typo ("this") in the headline intentional relative to the "mistakes" part of the sentiment expressed? Clever, if so.

Call me not worried (or even cautious - short term fluctuation be damned). They just dealt with a ton of critical player games missed in the first 90+ games and still put together a very solid record (8-4 with full lineup back, btw). Their run differential (NL-best, and 3rd in MLB) suggests they are better than their record states (apologies to Parcells fans). And, the Braves are about to get a whale of an August schedule to deal with (LAD for 6, Oak, Nats, Sea, Pitt, Cincy and most of the games are on the road).

Just don't tank the last two weeks of July (not an easy schedule for Nats, continued easy slate for Braves), and I think we'll be in a very good place come Sep. 1.

Donald said...

In addition to the Nats slow start after the break last year, the Braves went on a tear, including a 14-0 run at the end of July. If they replicate that, they'd finish with 94 wins. So it's not just a matter of the Nats not tanking. The Braves can't burst out, either. But as WiredHK notes, the Braves August schedule is pretty brutal. I'm hoping the Nats finish August with a 4 or 5 game lead.

Jeff Hayes said...

Also important to remember that we don't play in a vacuum. Last year, the Last year at the end of the AS break, the Braves were +80 in run differential and the Nats were -15. The Braves were a much better team last year than they are this year. Their pitchers have been much better than they should expect. Teheran's ERA, for example, is almost half a run lower than his career average. And the BABIP of hitters facing him is much lower than his career averages. Harang's ERA is 3/4 of a run higher than his career average.

The Braves have a much better record right now then you'd expect from a team that lost 3 starting pitchers. There is a good chance their replacement will regress to the mean in the second half.

This isn't to dispute any of what Harper said. The Nats should win the division. I'm just pointing out that in addition to the differences between the Nats in 2013 and 2014, you also have to look at the Braves in 2013 and 2014.

Finally, I think we should all be careful when discussing bench players. The sample sizes are so low that it can be difficult to judge. McClouth has struggled, sure, but when the Nats thought they were upgrading their backup catcher, they signed Lobaton - justifiably - only to see him struggle while Suzuki, another option, has had a career year (to date), even making the ASG. It seems to me that being a bench player might be the hardest job in baseball.

Jay said...

I'm pretty happy with where the Nats are at all things considered. You have to hope that IF the Nats stay healthy the offense will come around. Rendon looks legit and he should be ok. Werth is mashing right now and looks like last year wasn't an illusion. LaRoche is sliding back to what we expected, so that could be problematic. Zimmerman - hopefully he hits for more power. He's always been a second half guy. Harper - he won ROY just two years ago and last April was a possible MVP candidate. Nats don't need that - imagine what 90% of that could do. Desmond - still hasn't gotten truly hot, so hopefully he gets it going. Ramos - hoping he stays healthy and hits for more power. He makes a huge difference against the running game too. He is arguably the best catcher in the NL now that Molina is down for 2 months.

They've gotten a total of 9 HR from 3 of their biggest bats. Guys that you would be hoping to get 35-40 from at this point.

Plus Braves just missed their best opportunity. They have have 11 games left out of their 31 game stretch against sub .500 teams. Then they start of with LAD and go through a meat grinder of August against @LAD (JULY),@SD, @Sea, WAS, LAD, Oak,@Pit,@Cin,@Mets, and then Mia at home. If Nats can be tied or better come July 28 then things are looking up.

I'm trying to relax and enjoy it.

Froggy said...

@JH, I was just about to mention that Suzuki guy (whom I love by the way) as insurance we should have kept. Agree with your comments about small sample size and hardest job in baseball for substitutes.

You're dead on Harper about the contributions of Foster, Roark, and Rendon, I think that has been the difference for me.

I am particularly encouraged about this year's team verses 2013 due to the fact that we have done so well in spite of all the injuries we've had, contrasted with last year. So, I think this team truly 'believes' it can win with whatever line-up is out there, and that our pen is lights-out after 6 innings.

blovy8 said...

I agree that it's as easy to get misled by a bad month as as a good month in any deconstruction, but what's more important is an honest evaluation of the roster and the ability to improve it. I'm sure if a better guy for the role was available for a fair price, Frandsen would be gone. However, the evaluation at the time remains reasonable even now; he's used to being a bench player, has reasonable pinch-hitting contact numbers and can fake a bunch of positions. With Zimmerman learning 1st and the OF, that's less of an isuse, but until or unless they trade someone they might need or want for a more talented guy like Zobrist (who would get some regular playing time and not really be a bench player) you're talking about a pretty small difference as the 25th man. Now maybe that's important, maybe it's a bloop with two outs and the bases empty that goes nowhere. Maybe the new guy gives you an oh for a fortnight, boots a ball and the lead in a game late where Frandsen would have made the play or gotten the bunt down or whatever. I'd like someone better, but it's a crapshoot and I can't care that the deal has not been made yet in the abstract. The real trouble is that Espinosa hits like Frandsen now and plays frequently.

I think we all believe Strasburg will be better than a 3.46 era guy in the second half, because we've made an evaluation of his talent level and what he should produce. Should we abandon our projections of Frandsen and Lobaton because of their 1st half numbers, or were we right? Do 150 plate appearances in the first half negate the evaluation we had at the start of the season?

I think Rusch is right that there are guys in the minors like Souza and Taylor who have a better chance at being good than what we can trade for when the injury hits. Of course, in theory that should make them pretty good trading chips if we want a better 2B in 2015 so that Rendon plays 3rd and Zim goes to 1st and the whining about his arm can get softer.

Donald said...

@Harper, what do you think the best case, worst case, likeliest case is for the remainder of the Nats season?

Best case -- Harper finally breaks out while Werth and Rendon stay hot. The paltry HR numbers put up by Zim, Ramos and Harper in the first half are reversed with a new-found power surge. The Nats pull away to win the division by 10 games and end up with the best record in the NL.

Worst case -- the Nats continue to frustrate with random team slumps. Harper continues to struggle and Zim's shoulder gets worse, landing him on the DL. More injuries occur, including to Strasburg or Znn. Braves continue to dominate in head-to-head match ups. The Nats finish the last 69 games 35-34, good enough for second place but outside of the WL.

Most likely -- Nats continue to play solid baseball while the Braves succumb to their tough August schedule. The Nats win 91 games to take the division by 4 games, but end with the 3rd best record and play the Cards in the first round of the play-offs.

Anonymous said...

In 2012, the Nats got Morse back at the beginning of June, but he didn't really start hitting until after the 3rd week of that month and never really got the HRs going (only 3 in June). Zim spent the first half of the season trying to get his timing and power back and didn't hit until he got a cortisone shot in late June. From July - September, his numbers were MVP-worthy. Werth missed May - July and didn't have power until the playoffs, although he got on base a ton with a bunch of singles and walks. The only guy coming off the DL who didn't need a lot of time to get his swing back was Desi, who picked up where he left off before his 3 weeks on the DL.

In 2013, Harper came back at the beginning of July, but didn't really hit much until the last week of that month and never hit with power consistently (9 HR in April, no more than 4 in any other month).

This season, Zim's OPS for the month he returned from the DL (June) was .621. So far in July, it's .990.

It doesn't get started as soon as a player returns to the lineup - it usually takes about month to get timing back.

Kenny B. said...

“play the Cards in the first round of the play-offs.”
Lord, I don't know if my heart can take that.

In the realm of the intangible, I'm a little concerned that the real headcase on this team is Bryce. He gets angrier than just about anyone I've seen when he makes an out. That kind of reaction to failure seems like a huge liability for a big leaguer. Hopefully it is just a timing thing, but it has been bugging me the last few times I've seen him play.

Anyway, didn't have the chance to say anything on the earlier posts, but congrats on the 10 year mark. I'm a North Carolinian myself (now in Alexandria, VA), so I think it's cool that you live in the Chapel Hill area. This is a great blog that I read and comment on consistently, and I'll join in the kudos on the tenure and job well done.

Would be curious to hear your thoughts on the move from Montreal, the big changes to the organization since the move to Washington, and your reaction at the time, having just taken up the mantle of an Expos blogger. This might be better offseason editorial fodder, which is not usually your thing, but I'd be interested nevertheless.

Zimmerman11 said...

I love Gio... Don't get me wrong... but this Derek Norris kid is something else!!! The A's have to be the easiest team in the world to root for!!! It's all about the Duck Dynasty beards :)