Nationals Baseball: Monday Quickie : On the Job Training

Monday, August 11, 2014

Monday Quickie : On the Job Training

On some level it must be tough to be Matt Williams.  The Nats are a team everyone predicted to win the division (particularly post-ATL injuries) so simply winning the mediocre-team filled NL East is not going to prove to anyone that he is particularly adept at his job. Winning a playoff series also may not be enough to prove to people that he's the right man for the job as the playoffs are often seen as a luck-driven (or at least as the "residue of design" driven). The simple truth is it's hard for Matt Williams to walk out of this season as a success. One could feel sorry for the guy... if he didn't seem to bring so much of this on himself.

Last night was another night of questionable decisions. The big one being why the hell Jerry Blevins was allowed to pitch the entirety of the 9th. Of course, if you follow Matt-logic the reasoning is simple. Tyler Clippard, who pitched in each of the last 3 games, was obviously not pitching last night. Any manager would do the same. But Matt Williams also has a mostly-followed edict that guys that pitch two of the last three nights are also to be avoided, especially the back of the pen if the Nats aren't winning. This meant Thorton, Soriano, and Storen were all removed from his set of first choices and it left him, in a one-run game with the team's closest rival, with essentially Stammen, Blevins, and Detwiler as his bullpen arms.  Despite there being a day-off for the Nats today, he was going into battle with the Nats pitcher most likely to blow up and arguably his three weakest bullpen arms.

It's not necessarily a bad plan to go into a game with, and if the Nats blew out the Braves or vice-versa you can see sticking with it. But life gave Matt Williams a close game and you have to be able to adjust in these circumstances. Stammen in the 5th and 6th made some measure of sense* and then, yes you have to pinch hit for him. So Blevins to start the 7th, with two lefties up to start, made a lot of sense. However, letting Blevins face Justin Upton, who homered earlier, to end the inning,was pushing it. I could sort of justify it in a "Heyward is up next" way but still I wouldn't have done it. Blevins did K Upton, though

Letting Blevins face Heyward to start the next inning was an easy decision but then letting him face Chris Johnson, who earlier you didn't let Gio face presumably because you know he hits lefties better? Mistake. Letting him face the righty Laird with nothing but righties coming up? Mistake. Letting him face Pena? Mistake. Neither of the last two were BIG mistakes because... well both Laird and Pena stink despite being RHB. But with a man on, in a one-run game, you shouldn't be pushing your luck, you should be optimizing your chances of winning. In other words you should be working to give up no more runs. He got away with it for Laird but not for Pena. This set up the real bald head-slapper, letting Blevins face Gattis.

Blevins had run a gauntlet of questionable match-ups; Upton, Johnson, Laird, Pena and has escaped so far. For each one you could come up with a reason it was ok. Nobody on, next guy a lefty, these guys stink . But now, 29 pitches in, you came to the absolute no-brainer. Blevins does not face Gattis here. Gattis is good. Gattis KILLS lefties. There are men in base and in scoring position. There is a righty on deck. No manager lets Blevins face Gattis. But Matty did.

Ballgame.

Does he treat the playoffs differently? I sure as hell hope so.

Other notes:

Since the All-Star break the offense has been mediocre but not terrible. Rendon is the lowest regular with a .666 OPS and LaRoche is the highest non-Span regular at .787.  (Asdrubal hasn't come around yet either .614). Span is killing it (.447 / .505 / .511) but you can kind of see having a slap-hitter get hot, even extremely so, doesn't carry a team.

Meanwhile the bench continues to be awful. Lobaton (.582), Hairston (.464) and Frandsen (.455) just aren't doing anything. Frandsen has to be the biggest Rizzo mistake of the year. No one thought bringing him in was a good idea and he's been terrible. Yet here we are in August with Frandsen getting key ABs. If Rizzo could admit mistakes and cut bait mid-season, I think he'd be in my personal Top GMs (3? 5? I'd have to think). But this stubborness to prove he's right is a big issue.

Speaking of bad managers - why did it matter when we were calling for Span to be moved down in the lineup? Becuase you never know when that extra AB is going to be important. Case in point : BJ Upton batting first.The Braves do this and what do you know, 9th inning tie game two-out and two-on, and who gets his 5th AB before anyone else? BJ Upton. What does he do? Get out like he normally does. Then they lose in extras.

*I would have liked to see Storen in the 5th - it seemed like a game hinging AB for Chris Johnson. But I understand no manager would have done that. It was "long relief" time still.

29 comments:

JE34 said...

I knew this post HAD to be coming... which is why I steered clear of posting "WHY MATT WHYYYY" (Yoko Ono style) to the comments section of the last post, as Blevins was left out there so long in the 8th last night.

Harper, you're very kind to sympathize with MW's position, but even Charlie and Dave were saying "...and no one is up in the Nationals bullpen..." followed by a pregnant pause, which helpfully gave everyone at home time to yell in outrage. Makes you wonder what sort of relationship McCatty and Knorr have with MW. How can they be on board with this craziness? How can the obvious be missed so regularly?

DezoPenguin said...

I agree that leaving Blevins to face Gattis was ridiculous, not when he could have brought in Storen. More to the point, I'm not entirely sure why Williams seems to love Blevins so much. It's not even his 2014 LOOGY-ness; after all, as we all know, relievers are made of small sample sizes on a season-by-season basis and throughout his career Blevins has not had particularly notable splits. It's that also throughout his career Blevins has not been particularly good. He's functional, sure, but is he that much better than Detweiler? Last night Stammen got the call first, which was nice, but for most of the year Stammen's been Williams's sixth or seventh choice despite having a considerably better career line as a reliever.

That said, I'm not sure how I feel about the outcome of the Braves series. On the one hand, this was a great chance to put a stake in them. On the other hand, going in I figured, "as long as we win one game, we're okay," since the difference between 3.5 and 1.5 games is huge (okay, the difference is "2," but you know what I mean). 1-2 against a quality division rival on the road isn't bad, presuming that we can duplicate it in reverse in Washington...

And yet the nature of the games...First Strasburg blows up, to the extent that I'm starting to wonder if Atlanta is somehow in his head, and yet we almost somehow pull that game out. Then we go to extras and actually win, and then we get utterly shut down by Alex Wood (right after getting equally shut down by Aaron-freaking-Harang) and feature some shaky pitching and managing, leaving the series with a bad taste. So I'm not entirely sure what to think, here...

Harper said...

JE34 - I think McCatty/Knorr are in full support mode. You just kind of have to be with a new manager. You don't want to undermine or hurt their confidence. Assume they'll learn through nights like these.

DezoPenguin - I feel... eh? Closer to bad than good, given how the Braves were reeling coming in. But still you can't walk out of ATL with a 3.5 game lead and feel bad. You didn't create a problem, you just didn't solve it. Letting it linger, fester, which is why I feel bad, but it's still not worrying just yet

Kenny B. said...

The thing that bugs me is the continued struggle of Strasburg and Gio. It's great that Roark, Fister, and Zimmermann are doing well, but Gio and Strasburg are better than they've pitched. Both a re struggling with command. Not sure what's going on there.

I'm also concerned at the offensive slump. Nat have a tendency to go ice cold for stretches, and it feels like we're getting there against mediocre pitching.

Jimmy said...

Harper did you see the bench rankings onFangraphs? I was surprised by how middle of the pack it is.

JWLumley said...

@Dezo Atlanta isn't in Strasburg's head, Strasburg's fastball isn't good and on nights when the curveball isn't crisp he's bad. If there's another team out there this offseason that still looks at Strasburg as a phenom/Ace they should deal him. How bad is it? Opponents have an OPS over .900 against his 2 seam fastball or rather, opponents are first ballot Hall of Famers against a pitch he throws over 18% of the time. Against his regular fastball, they only have an .801 OPS, so just perennial All-Stars against a pitch he throws over 40% of the time. So that means that on almost 60% of his pitches, opponents are somewhere between All-Star and HOF caliber. This is really, really, really bad. Compare that with Jordan Zimmermann who gives up a .661 OPS against his fastball or Jerry Blevins who gave up a .833 OPS against his fastball until he stopped throwing it and went exclusively to a cutter.

Strasburg is the reason I don't feel good about the Atlanta series. Matt Williams is a terrible manager who doesn't seem to be getting better. Frandsen doesn't belong on the team, but he gets twice as many PA's as Jerry Hairston who has a much better track record. But we knew MW wasn't good going in. In the series, he made bad moves, but they were his typical bad moves and were offset by Fredi Gonzalez' bad moves. Don't get me wrong, Strasburg isn't a bad #4 or #5 starter, my fear is that MW will use him as a #1. Which means 2 Strasburg starts per series in the postseason.

JWLumley said...

@Jimmy The way the bench rankings were calculated (using all players after the top 8 PA's) Ryan Zimmerman was included in the Nats bench, so not very accurate representation of the Nats bench.

Anonymous said...

It's weird how cold the lineup went after zim got hurt. I imagine you lose a good hitter and it's going to have ripple effects, but any thoughts into how much of this is coincedence and how much is losing zim? The boards last night and this morning seem to miss the significant of Gattis' splits specifically and generally are just searching for a scapegoat. Rough series but the braves are stil desperate. Hopefully the mets can provide us a little swagger this week.

Anonymous said...

Kenny B - couldn't agree more. Stras and Gio are such hothouse flowers...they don't seem to know how to battle when they don't have all their pitches working or when things aren't cutting their way.

Stras seems to be a bit better at it this year compared to last year, but he still folds like laundry when he starts giving up hits.

I'll take the grit and determination of Fister and Roark in a playoff series any day of the week.

Harper said...

Jimmy / JW - actually I think they were using Ramos since he just caught Zimm in PA last night. But if you didn't catch that a simple Ramos/Espy swap put the Nats just outside Bottom 5. And there are some fielding stats that seem a little too good to be true. - basically a few balls in the right places making the bench D look better than it probably is. I'd say it's not the worst but probably in that group behind Mariners & Phillies.

Anonymous said...

I think the NL West is much worse than the NL East.

Zimmerman11 said...

Multi-installment article on the GM Rankings is called for now. I don't know if I can name more than five GMs :)



Eric said...

I agree with everything said about Blevins. I couldn't believe Blevins was left in to face Upton, let alone actually pitch to him. But, he got him. Awesome.

I was amazed he came back. By the time Gattis came up, I was almost suffering from Stockholm syndrome. "Oh, well, he's done great so far. I see where MW is coming from! Let's do this!"

Whomp whomp.

The thing is, though, wasn't Blevins supposed to be able to go two innings and get out righties? If so, now is the time to let him work back into that form. So, maybe that's it? Perhaps coupled with a desire not to burn out the pen? You never know when we'll truly need all these guys both fully on their game and at full stamina.

I dunno. I find it hard to believe that MW does these things simply because he doesn't "get" what's so obvious to so many fans, especially relative neophytes like myself. I feel like there have to be larger arches in play that he's tending to.

JWLumley said...

Yeah, I'd agree on Rizzo as a GM. Even though he doesn't seem to value advanced metrics, he still gets good talent and has done a decent job through the draft, but a great job in trades. His biggest weaknesses as far as I can see is in sticking with mistakes and not cutting ties when it's apparent they've made a mistake and hiring coaches/managers. Riggleman and Williams have been varying degrees of tire fires. DJ was great, but even he had stopped being the innovator he once was when he took over. Then there's Epstein and McCatty who both seemed flawed philosophically. I'd probably put Rizzo at #5 if he would admit mistakes sooner. But he doesn't, so my top 5 would be: Beane, Friedman, Mozeliak, Epstein and Wren

JWLumley said...

@Eric I understand what you're saying about Williams having other designs that we don't know about, but to me it seems like he's either a)Looking at statistics, but the wrong ones, like micro-splits. Perhaps OPSBI's is in there somewhere. b) Is operating on gut and things like warmups and demeanor etc. c) Is operating based on what some guys are supposed to be, not necessarily what they are. or d)Some combination of all 3. Whatever he's doing, decisions like leaving Blevins in to face Upton indicate a flawed process, regardless of the outcome.

Jay said...

I think he left Blevins in bc he figured the game was likely over. He figured one run or two runs against Kimbrel doesn't matter. He said that at the end of the game down a run he wasn't going to use the back end of his pen. The Nats only have 3 righties - Storen, Clippard, and Soriano (not counting Stammen who is obviously only a long reliever). Storen was the only one who might have come into the game in that situation. MW didn't want to "waste" Storen down a run. It almost worked too.

I am now more worried about the offense and Strasburg and Gio. The pen for the most part is ok. Strasburg seems to be a total basket case. "I don't know I guess I'll try to miss down next time". Really? Gio took a 100+ pitches to go 4 2/3 innings. If those guys are going good then our rotation is unbelievable. Who would have thought at the beginning of the year that we would face the Braves in August and the Braves would be lucky enough to get 2 of our worst pitchers - Strasburg and Gio???

Also, with Werth essentially Zim pre-cortisone injection now I am worried the Nats will struggle to score 3-4 runs.

The only comfort is that Atl has good old Freddi running the show. Talk about unbelievable. BJ batting leadoff. We go crazy about Span. Braves fans would murder someone to get Span in place of BJ. Plus BJ is signed through 2017 at 5 yrs/75 million. Hahaha. Even leaving Alex Wood in to throw 125 pitches last night. Just bc it worked doesn't make it the right decision. Walden is fantastic in the 8th. Wow. Just wow. Come on Freddi just a few more losing streaks and the Nats should be great.

JE34 said...

Only explanation I can think of is that MW is managing for September, not for now... keeping mileage down on his better guys for the stretch run. Not that it's a good explanation against your main divisional threat. Maybe Blevins has compromising photos...

JWLumley said...

@Jay Strasburg is not a basket case, a head case or any other kind of case. He doesn't need to get mentally tougher, gain an edge or learn to pitch in inclement weather. Strasburg's fastball is super duper hittable, that's his problem.

JWLumley said...

Read this today about MW, " Before the game, Washington manager Matt Williams talked about how losses have been excruciating, sleep-robbing, and causing him to second-guess himself. Some managers like to have someone they can talk with to review decisions, and Williams indicated that he can reach out to Dusty Baker. Haven't been able to stop the blood from shooting out of my eyes since.

Kenny B. said...

Interesting that the big team-altering phenoms for the Nats, Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg, have basically been non-factors this season, and the team still has a reasonably comfortable lead in the division. It says a lot about the peripheral work the management has done around these guys. Agree with others that Rizzo does seem to do a good job of finding talent.

Not that SS/BH have been outright bad, just not the nightly fireworks show we expected a few years ago. I'd like to chalk it up as an off year for Strasburg and an injury issue for Bryce. The latter is easier to swallow than the former.

I also think McCatty has done or said something to Strasburg that has impacted his development. I don't know what it is, but the guy is really struggling this year, especially early in games, and it seems (without checking fancy stats) increasingly so each year. Maybe we just expect more out of him each year, but the trend is not a good one.

I'm actually less worried about Gio, because my (again, uninformed by numbers) sense is that he tends to be all or nothing by nature. I think he'll get it together again. He still makes me nervous on the mound though.

JWLumley said...

@Kenny B Fancy stats say that Strasburg's fastball has been bad, like worse than Jerry Blevins bad. Also, he's been bad with runners on base to the tune of a .343 wOBA (that includes pitchers). I think Harper is just regaining hand strength. The ball he hit off Wood after Desmond's homerun last night he thought he got and it didn't even reach the warning track. Hand strength is extremely important in hitting.

Froggy said...

Bryce Harper is not a hitter, he is a masher. Same with Strasburg who isn't a pitcher, he is a thrower. The League has figured both of them out and now it's time for them to do the same...adapt in some way. I look for the coaches (not the manager) tostep in and help out in these situations . But maybe it is all about matching the right type of coach with your players. Or vice versa?

I've always liked Steve McCatty and that '81 season where he only started 22 games but completed 16 of them is pretty damn amazing. But other than that season where he went 14-7, he was a .500 pitcher or below his whole career. Basically he was the A's version of Tanner Roark. Maybe because he never had great stuff, he knows what right stuff looks like and that makes him a good pitching coach? I dunno. I just wonder if the grit and thick skin he was used to having to complete his career as a pitcher is the right match for today's fragile ego, chinadoll, moaping starters who really think they are some sort of iron man when they pitch every 5 days and barely crack 100 pitches per.

This team didn't need coaching, it needs a manager. MLB managers main rule should be 'first, do no harm' and I'm not confident that MW gets that.

Eric said...

I think Stras needs an effective two seamer. His biggest weakness seems to be the inability to induce weak contact when a team is out there hacking against him successfully.

Max David said...

The AB to Upton I didn't like but I least he struck him out and had Heyward on deck so I can live with it. Having him pitch to Heyward to start the 8th was a no brainer but he should've had Storen warming up at that point: either to pitch to Chris Johnson or to pitch to Gattis whenever he went up to pinch hit. The fact he actually not only pitched the entire 8th inning but actually threw one pitch to Gattis was completely maddening, I think even more maddening then when he pitched to Baker (the LH killer) that first game in Miami. And MW still had 2 chances to put an end to it too after Gattis just missed those 2 pitches before his single (the foul behind the plate & the one down left field).
And don't even get me started on Storen not even getting loose in the bullpen. As I said on twitter "Does Williams realize the team has an off-day tomorrow."

Anonymous said...

Is Strasburg's fastball bad? The advanced metrics Lumley cherry picks actually think Strasburg is elite, not ok, fair, or poor. He's 3rd in the league behind Kershaw and Felix in xFip, which is one of the two most reliable ERA predictors. He's 4th in SIERA (behind Sale), which is the other best ERA predictor.

Has Strasburg given up a lot of hits on his fastball this year? Yes, absolutely. But giving up hits is not the best way to evaluate a pitcher. Generating "weak contact" - the ability of a pitcher to convert batted balls into outs at a rate better than league average - is not something a pitcher has the ability to control. Pitcher BABIP fluctuates wildly year-to-year but tends to normalize at .290-.300 over the course of a career.

Strasburg's BABIP is .340 this year. His career mark is .302. Last year it was .263. He's been unlucky this year by almost the same amount he was lucky last year.

Almost all of this variation shows up in his fastball because batters rarely make contact with the change or the curve. His overall batted ball profile looks strikingly similar this year to his prior years.

If we believe that this is the new normal for Strasburg - a very hittable fastball - then what's the reason? A .5 mph drop in velocity makes an above average pitch every year prior to this one all of a sudden become one of the worst fastballs in baseball? What's the basis for that conclusion? OPS against relies on hits, which is a function of BABIP.

Strasburg's fastball is probably getting worse and almost certainly has seen it's peak. But it's far too early to say he has a fastball problem. I bet his ERA for the rest of the year is much closer to his xFip (2.53) than his ERA (3.68).

Mitch said...

Nice post, Anonymous. We need a new metric for Strasburg. Something along the lines of "Pitches well until two baserunners reach via walk/hit/error then gives up the inevitable 3-run HR."

In all seriousness though, I wonder if there is a metric for pitchers giving this stuff up in bunches, instead of relying on the old "bad luck" explanation.

Mitch said...

A quick addendum: Stras also has one of the worst HR/9 rates in the NL. Nice to see good old Homerun Haren at the top of the list :)

Froggy said...

@Anon, great points. Have you taken a look at Strasburg's heat map? I think his problem is less about a drop in velocity and more attributable to predictable location of his FB being right where hitters are looking for it. Or maybe it's unpredictable in that he just can't hit his spots. I am baffled as to why he doesn't throw his curve or slider more as it seems he has hitters looking stupid when they miss it.

Also, curious if anyone has thoughts on performance difference depending on who is behind the plate. In essence who is waving off whom during the game.

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