Nationals Baseball: May 2014

Thursday, May 29, 2014

It's everything

Quick one today -

The Nats have had the worst NL offense in May easily.  (OPS in May is .639.  Cincinnati is 2nd worst at .651).  One very simple reason is that they can't hit.  Their average is 3rd lowest in the NL (.231 tied with CIN, slightly above CHC at .226).  When you can't get hits - you can't get enough XBH and you can't get on base enough.

So if they get more hits everything would be ok, right? Well... there are two other problems. They don't get on base enough regardless of hits and they don't hit for power when they do hit.

May BB% : 7.3% 10th in the NL

May ISO* : .110 14th in the NL.

(*SLG-BA : taking the singles out of your slugging percentage to see how you really "slug")

Even if the Nats were to have had a league average batting average in May they wouldn't be hitting with enough power or taking enough walks to have a good offense.

This is where the injuries really hurt.  LaRoche (out a big chunk of May) had an walk rate of  14.2% (projected in the 11% range) and an ISO of .190 (proj : .175ish).  Bryce 8.8% (proj: 10.5%) and .133 (proj: .210). Zimm 8.1% (proj : 9.2%) and .273 (proj : .195).   

(I put the projections just because small sample size is skewing those actual numbers - Ryan Zimmerman doesn't have Ruthian power. )

As far as the back-ups go, McLouth might walk enough. Moore might hit for enough power. Frandsen might hit for average. But that's it. You lost 2 of your best hitters for average in Bryce and Zimm and maybe replaced it with 1 guy who can match that. You lost 3 of your best power hitters and maybe replaced it with 1 guy who can match that. You lost 3 of your most patient batters (and the Nats may only have 4 "patient batters") and maybe replaced it with 1 guy who can match that.

You brought in Greg Dobbs.

This isn't terribly odd when moving from starters to back-ups. They are back-ups for a reason.  The Nats had a lineup coming in with 4 good-great hitters (Werth, Desmond, Bryce, Zimm), 1 good hitter (LaRoche), 2 could be good hitters (Ramos, Rendon) and one defense first guy (Span).

In May the Nats :
Lost 2 good-great hitters for whole month
Saw the other 2 good-great hitters struggle to be good**
Lost the 1 good hitter for a big chunk of time
Saw neither could be good hitters even be average (ramos has been bad, Rendon worse)

Well at least the defense first guy is hitting about average!

**Oh you thought it was just Ian? What if I told you Ian had a better May than Werth? OPS .783 to .702.  Werth is hitting and getting on-base but only has 3 XBH - 2 doubles and a homer. Desmond isn't hitting but is getting on-base ok (same # of walks as Werth) and hitting for power - 2 doubles, a triple and 5 homers.

What's gone wrong in May offensively?  Everything. 

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Why we fight

The Braves aren't that good either.

I posited (big word!) yesterday that we might have already given up on the Nats NL East chances if the Braves hadn't lost so many starts this year to injury. It's an interesting alternate universe theory to discuss, but in the end it's still an alternate universe theory. The Braves DID lose those arms. They are not as good as they would have looked last November. They are a team that would be at least 2 games back in any other division. A team who is in first place because they managed to go a "blistering" 11-9 in their last 20.  A team who facing at home a reeling Red Sox team who just lost 10 in a row have lost two in a row.  They are ok. The Nats can beat ok... if they are healthy and if they don't fall too far behind.

The Braves can't score runs, not like they should. They have to carry around the dead weight of Dan Uggla and BJ Upton. Chris Johnson, who why in the hell did they extend this guy, is hitting as if he wants to even out last year's performance. He's not this bad but he's not that good either. Heyward is their own personal headcase. Simmons is still learning to be an effective offensive player. (fun fact : Simmons is less than a month younger than Heyward).  The bench, as benches are wont to do, is disappointing. That's a lot of baggage. So even though Justin Upton is living up to his potential and Freeman is a star the offense can't get going. Could it? Sure if Gattis can stay healthy and Heyward can get his head on straight and Simmons can even out a bit. The bench should bounce back. It can be ok. This gives the Nats hope.

What gives the Nats worries is the Braves pitching (or it should) - best ERA in the NL right now. Some people have issues with the Braves staff but there isn't a reason why it can't keep something like this up.  Obviously Teheran's not ending the year with an ERA under 2.00 but he's great, Minor is very good. You know I like Santana in the NL. The Nats best hope when it comes to the pitching, funny as it sounds, lies in the fact that both Harang and Floyd are pitching well. This means guys like Wood and Hale, who might develop into something special (probably not for Hale, maybe for Wood) are relegated to the pen. This makes the pen really strong again but it also means that there may come a time where Harang and Floyd come back to Earth and the Braves, like any team would, stick with the veterans longer than they should. Not much of a hope mind you but it's something to hang a hat on, especially trying to come back later in the year when those older arms might be getting tired.  (Now could they pitch well all season? I kind of doubt it, but it's not impossible. Could they pitch well enough for long enough to put the Nats in a big hole? That's the more substantial worry.)

And then there's always Fredi.

So the Nats have hope, and the fans are able to still look at this team a game UNDER .500, (which should be unacceptable at this point), and think they can still easily make the playoffs because of the Braves. But remember - it works both ways. The Braves fans have confidence and are able to look at their team 5 games OVER .500 and think they can easily hold the lead because of the Nats. The Nats offense is struggling too and carrying if not dead, then dying weight, Espy, Span. The Nats have guys underperforming (Desmond, Ramos) and young guys still learning (Rendon). The Nats one true offensive presence right now is also one that unlike Freeman and Upton, you don't think can hold up at this lievel for the whole season (LaRoche). The pitching, like the Braves, is strong, but the relief pitching has been so good that it seems prime for a little mid-season correction.

The Nats ace in the hole is that they, unlike the Braves, have good players coming back to fix the offense but they aren't here now. Until that happens the Braves have the edge. The question is whether they can capitalize. The fact that it's a question is good enough to keep the Nats fans hopes alive.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Damage Control

.275 / .345 / .465 
.280 / .370 / .520

.220 / .275 / .345
.255 / .325 / .385

The first two numbers are the projections going into the year for Ryan Zimmerman and Bryce Harper.  The second two are the projections going into the year for Danny Espinosa and Nate McLouth.


One of the absolute truths in baseball is that you are going to have injuries. You put enough effort into the game, and the season is just so damn long, that it is unavoidable. Nearly every player is going to miss a few games with dings and scrapes. The plan you put in place to replace these guys is what I like to call "Disaster Prep".  The actions you have to take when you didn't plan well, or you did but the plan goes awry anyway, is what I like to call "Damage Control".

The Nats didn't plan for a 3B replacement, despite Zimmerman's issues fielding and history of injury. Instead they figured Rendon could slide over and Espinosa could take second. That is not a terrible short term solution and if you remember Espy started red hot. (That can happen. It's part of the reason GMs don't like to disaster prep. The only way you can really see the difference between good and bad prepping is having a player out for a very long time.) But over time Espinosa hit like Espinosa and the loss of Zimmerman's bat has been felt.

The Nats DID plan for a loss in the OF (though I bet if you held their feet to the fire they'd admit that McLouth was first and foremost a struggling Span replacement) by bringing in Nate McLouth. It was a tough job for McLouth, as the bats of Bryce and Werth are almost irreplaceable. However, he should have at least held his own.  He hasn't. He is hitting .143 with 4 XBH in over 100 plate appearances.

Bryce is out at least another month. Zimmerman is up in the air. The Nats offense is struggling without them. You could wait for the Nats bats to turn around.  Desmond is hitting a lot better, and LaRoche is back right?  Ramos has to turn it around eventually. Rendon can't keep struggling like this. Werth can turn it on. It's easy to think like that and see a light at the end of the tunnel. But let's throw some numbers out there. Let's say Desmond hits better (80% chance) and LaRoche's return makes an impact (95%) and Ramos turns it around (75% - I'm being generous for the sake of argument) and Rendon stops struggling (60%) and Werth turns it back on (90%) well then THEN the team can have a potent offense without Bryce or Zimm.

Even being pretty generous you just gave the Nats a 30% chance at a good offense. LaRoche helps, the offense will get better, but without Zimm and Bryce it won't be good for any long period of time. 

Unless you think Zimm's return in imminent (and you feel ok about Ramos and Rendon who haven't exactly proven anything yet), It's time for a damage control.

One of the downsides to 'just blogging' is that when you get something right you don't get a million dollar contract extension, a TV spot and national praise. One of the upsides is that you don't have to have all the answers.  That's good because I don't have an answer on what the solution to the issue is.

I'll repeat what I said in the comments the other day. The Nats maybe could deal with the Astros, Cubs or Padres right now.  What can you get from those guys? Someone you hope to be a little above average in the OF for a month like Fowler or Parra? Or someone like Prado who you hope wakes up and fills that 3B/1B void that is Frandsen's role now? Or maybe some other "get on the cheap" guy like Alonso or Venable who should be better? I don't know. I just know that in less that two weeks the Nats will begin a pretty brutal stretch that could easily put them behind the 8-ball for the remainder of the season, just like they were heading into the post All-Star time frame last season.

Rizzo can sit on his hands like last year and hope things work out.  So far the season hasn't gotten away from the Nats as they play in the terribly mediocre NL East who's best team wouldn't lead any other division in baseball. So maybe it might. But if he does nothing and things don't work out again, I expect hellfire and brimstone to reign down on him. A GM is supposed to build a winning major league team, not a strong minor league system and a major league team that should win in theory.  

Thursday, May 22, 2014


The question right now is not one of "Can a healthy Nats team win the pennant".  Everyone thought so last year, everyone thinks so this year, everything we've seen when the Nats are healthy suggests its possible. The question is whether an injured Nats team can hang close enough to the rest of the playoff teams to come back. 

The first test was this time frame between May 12th and May 25th. Over that stretch the Nats would play an easy schedule and the Marlins and Braves would play hard ones. Even an injured Nats team should make up games in this scenario. They have made up one so far. The Nats have gone 5-4, while the Marlins and Braves have both gone 4-5. Disappointing but at least it's something. The next 4 games (Nats @ Pirates, Braves v Rockies, Marlins v Brewers) will end this set of games. The Nats could gain another half-game. If they lose ground though... be worried.

And by be worried, I mean exactly that. Don't panic, but be concerned that when the Nats had a golden chance to make up ground they failed to do so. That hints that when these injured Nats face a tough stretch things could go horribly wrong. In about 2 weeks they'll begin that tough stretch @SF @STL v HOU! vATL @ MIL where it's likely they'll lose ground. Bryce won't be there. What if Zimm isn't? What if Gio isn't? Based on what we've seen so far, they'll probably lose several games in the standings. If it's 4 or 5 games to fall back 6+ games, if the Braves take 3 or more of those head to heads... well then you can panic.

Why is this happening? In Nats Theory 101, the Nats should be able to be carried through stretches by their pitching. That was the idea. Build one of the best pitching staffs, top to bottom, and watch it carry the offense through trying times.

It isn't happening but it's not because the pitching is failing.

For example in the last 8 games the Nats have an ERA of 2.69.  That includes Gio's game. Their record during this time? 4-4. Take out the Gio game and the ERA drops to 2.38. So in 7 of the last 8 games the team has collectively pitched like a Top 15 starter (at this point in the year where ERAs are still a little skewed) and to show for it they have 4 wins and 3 losses.

You might pass that off on the teams they faced. The Reds without Votto and Bruce might be the worst offense in the NL. The D-backs are below average. The Mets are average. But then you have to consider the reverse. The D-backs have the worst pitching staff in the league. The Mets' arms are below average. The Reds better than average but with real relief issues that are still being worked out. How did the offense do?

.232 / .283 / .329

It's a team of Kevin Frandsens.

And that was facing mediocre pitching for the most part. What happens when they face good pitching? You might be fooled by the "5th in Runs Scored" stat, but that's just a quirk of variance. Look at R/G (better than runs for obvious reasons) and they are 6th. They are .17 runs worse then 4th place. They are .17 runs better than 10th. They are closer to 12th place then 3rd.  In other words for the season as a whole - these guys are nothing special.

Is it injuries? Yes, of course. Having Bryce, LaRoche and Zimmerman back in the lineup will help. I'd imagine that lineup would be a "real" Top 5 team. But when exactly will that be? LaRoche might be back Sunday (though Monday makes a lot more sense). Regardless it'll be soon. Bryce looks good, but his early July timetable hasn't changed and Zimm is taking the slow road to recovery. It's one thing to beat the Braves and those Wild Card teams straight up over 162 games. It's another to spot them a 7 game lead and try to do it in 90 games.

Also, at that point the hitting will be better and the pitching will be healthy (one hopes) but there are three aspects of baseball. What about the fielding. It takes a team that would be among the best in the league in runs scored and makes it pretty much average. While some of the numbers look funny (Espy & Rendon especially) what about the returning guys makes you think this is getting better anytime soon? Zimm can be very good, but can easily be awful. LaRoche wasn't great before, with hammy issues he'll be even more of a statue.  Bryce has yet to click and likely McLouth is better out there.

This is a long-winded way of saying - I really hope the Nats make up a few games this weekend. If not, as crazy as it may sound, a deal for a bat might be in order, just to keep the Nats in it for the time being. Unfortunate it has to come to that but it just might.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Busy Busy Busy

I always find the "quality start" idea absurd. 3 ER in 6IP translates into a 4.50 ERA which means you are praising pitchers for pitching like the best 5th starter in baseball.  Whoopee. bang zoom.

Give up 3 runs in 6 innings and it's very likely the other team will score at least 1 more, meaning your team will have to score 5 runs to win. Teams score 5 runs about 40% of the time so basically you are happy that your starter has decreased your chances of winning from the get go (almost certainly higher than 40% when game starts). Granted it's about accumulated games under this goal, but the goal is still way to broadly defined. 3 runs in 6 innings is not a quality start, certainly not in this day and age of decreased scoring.

Yesterday I set the base goal for Strasburg to be 2ER in 7IP and he hit that. (Arguably could have been 1 if not for Ramos' ill-advised throw to 2nd on the pitch in the dirt) This is a bit more than a quality start.  Pitching to an 2.57 ERA and making it less likely that extra run comes home (3 fewer outs for the opponent and unlikely to be working through bad relievers in only 2 innings) means your team can win with 3 (which teams score ~66% of the time) or 4 runs (~53%).  I think that makes a nice goal for a #1. He hit it. Team's fault the Nats lost. End of story.

Fun Fact to ruminate over

NO TEAM gets on base less often from the leadoff spot than the Nats. 

Monday, May 19, 2014

Monday Quickie - Down goes Gio

I've noted this in a couple places (and in this blog before) but the Nats have been incredibly lucky when it comes to starter health. In 2012 their starters basically missed no starts because of injury.  Strasburg missed a few because he was shutdown and Detwiler didn't pitch a full season because Mike Rizzo wanted to prove how smart he was re-signing Chien Ming-Wang, but while in the rotation they pitched every time out. 2013 wasn't quite as remarkable but they were still pretty healthy. Detwiler missed most of the season as #5, but Strasburg & Haren both only missed a couple of June starts.

Overall that means for the Nats Top 4 starters in 2012 and 2013, they started something like 246 of 250 possible starts. (something like that)

Of course this season, Fister already blew that out of the water missing his first 6 or so starts. Now Gio will miss at least one (I'd bet two).  With the Nats fighting to stay near the top of the NL East, with big bats out of their lineup, this is a loss they can't afford. That's why the cleared MRI makes you feel a little better.  One or two missed starts? Ok, you might throw in a Treinen or Jordan (looks like Treinen right now) and get a lucky couple starts. But in the long run it's going to cost you.

How much will it cost? Hard to say but Gio was (roughly) the 13th most valuable pitcher over the last couple of years. (Looking at fWAR to get an idea). More valuable than Strasburg (mainly because Strasburg pitched 50 fewer innings), more valuable than ZNN.  The latter might not seem right to the brigade of people who have made ZNN the Nats bestest starter in their head, but Gio's 2012 was a good deal better than ZNN's despite having similar ERAs (2.89 for Gio, 2.94 for ZNN) which puts him over the top.

We can look at that a little deeper :

Gio 2012 :  207 Ks, 1.129 WHIP, 9 HRs
ZNN 2012 : 153 Ks, 1.170 WHIP, 18 HRs

Both have very good stats, butwhat makes Gio's 2012 noticeably better is in the details. Gio had much better numbers in two of the three things all on the pitcher (HRs and Ks).  ZNN did have much better numbers in the third thing (BBs) but that matters mostly in terms of putting runners on base. ZNN managed to keep guys off the basepaths by not walking them (2.0 BB/9 to Gio's 3.4) but Gio did the same by not giving up hits (6.7 H/9 to ZNN's 8.6). You don't need fancy stats to tell you you'd rather have a guy give up two walks in an inning than two hits. Overall Gio was at least a step better than ZNN in 2012, so despite ZNN being a little better than Gio in 2013 (people seem to forget ZNNs 2nd half slide back from awesomeness) take the two years together and Gio's been the most valuable.

If you are looking for a silver lining, the pitcher who was 14th in fWAR the past 2 years was Doug Fister. So the Nats aren't losing a step with Fister coming in and Gio going out. Of course the problem was the Nats wanted to pick up the pace - not maintain it.


Strasburg vs Cueto is not happening. The Reds threw in Tony Cigrani YESTERDAY for reasons I can't quite understand. (why press him to come back in Citizens Bank park where a mistake is a HR?) but anyway it pushes their rotation down. Strasburg vs Leake, Cueto vs Fister, Simon vs Roark.

Personally I'd really like to see Strasburg WIN this game tonight. I've felt he's only done that once this year (2nd start of the year vs Marlins - Padres start might have been better but Nats had big lead by end of 3rd). With Votto out this offense should be dead. They've scored more than 4 runs once since May 3rd. They strike out more than any team in the NL but one.They don't hit the long ball particularly well. They DO walk but the pitcher, especially one like Strasburg who has good control, can cover that. All the pieces are there for a gem. Make it happen. 

Friday, May 16, 2014

Five out of Six

Series previews!

Three games vs the Mets

The Mets are a 19-21 team that feel exactly like they should be a 19-21 team. There isn't anything they do particularly well. Dillon Gee and Jon Neise have been very good, but the other starters (Colon, Wheeler and whoever) haven't, making the rotation fair at best. The bullpen, despite not being able to nail down a closer (they'll be on #4 whenever they decide who that will be), is not as terrible as you might think, but it is filled with mediocre arms that could give up runs in any outing. Jenrry Mejia has moved there and might provide a shut-down arm. Maybe. The Nats only face Neise (v Roark tonight) so they should be able to score some runs in this series.  (Colon v Gio, Wheeler v ZNN in other 2)

The Mets offense is only 14th in OPS (terrible) but is 5th in runs scored which does not compute.  Part of it is good hitting with RISP. Another part is an odd tendency to hit HR with men on base.

In the NL 56.8% of all PA happen with no one on base. Unsurprisingly, home runs are hit with no one on base about the same amount of time (57.8%). You might expect a higher percentage of HRs to be hit with men-on because of typical line-up construction putting OBP guys ahead of power guys but given the vagaries of that (SPEEDY GUYS FIRST! SPAN!) the percentage is only slightly higher. Anyway for the Mets this year? Fully 2/3rd of their home runs have been hit with men on base.  The end result is an offense that looks better than it is, unless for some reason you believe the Mets are clutch.

Muprhy is underrated and hot since coming back and Granderson has been picking up (and Wright is Wright) but if you get through those guys the line-up should be a breeze. Guys like Ruben Tejada (hot recently but terrible) and d'Arnaud (might never come around) give the Mets a 7-8-9 as bad as you'll face in the majors.

The Nats should win 2 out of 3 and if Roark wins tonight over Neise, I'd want a sweep.

Three games versus the Reds.

The Reds are 18-21 but as you might think they are a bit better than that, going 6-12 in one-run games so far this year. The offense has been mediocre. Votto, Todd Frazier, and the catching duo of Mesoraco (out with hammy) then Pena have been good but the rest of the team is nothing special. Phillips is aging. Hamilton hasn't matured. Cozart is defense first. Ryan Ludwick.  Losing Jay Bruce hurts as he should be their 4th good bat. Instead they are playing guys like, ugh, Roger Bernadina.

But the offense has been propped up by the pitching. Johnny Cueto has been as good as anyone this year. Homer Bailey is off a bit but in his place Mike Leake has stepped up. Alfredo Simon had a hot start (but is struggling a bit now). Tony Cigrani is more than a solid 4/5 (who might slip back in the rotation in time to face the Nats). The bullpen does have a ridiculously soft middle. The relievers with the 3rd-7th most IP have ERAs of 4.05, 5.54, 6.00, 6.30 and 9.24 and they earned those. But the back end is very strong with Sam LeClure, a revived Jonathon Broxton, and the returned Aroldis Chapman. If the Nats expect to come back late versus the Reds they'll be in for a rude awakening.

Before I forget to mention - something else about the Reds keeping them in games - they have arguably the best defense in the majors. No terrible gloves out there and when they play Heisey, you could argue 5 out of their 7 non-catcher fielders are above average. The Nats should watch and learn.

The Nats will definitely get Cueto, almost certainly in Game 1 setting up a Cueto vs Strasburg match-up that writes itself (Strasburg pitches well enough to win but Cueto shuts Nats out, Strasburg haters and defenders line-up once again). If the Nats are lucky the Reds will want to re-insert Cingrani back into the rotation where he was before, meaning the Nats would get Jeff Francis and Alfredo Simon. If they don't care about that then the Nats will get Cingrani then Simon.

The Cueto game will be tough regardless but the other two (Fister and Roark) should be winnable. Again 2 out of 3.

The Nats are lucky to be in the position they are in. They caught bad breaks off the field but not on it and none of the NL East teams have pulled away.  As I said earlier in the week, now's the time schedule wise to make a move before they hit a hard spell potentially still lacking LaRoche, Zimm and Bryce's bats. I want to see a 5-1 homestand, 4-2 is acceptable.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The easy part

It wasn't that easy though, was it.

The D-backs are not good. Hell, right now they could be the worst. Record wise they are in the bottom three teams with the expected duo of Houston and Chicago. By Runs scored / allowed they are the worst. The Nats should beat them two out of three in Arizona and they did.

Of course in neither game that the Nats won were they winning going into the 9th. The Nats continued their record of being pretty damn terrible against starting pitching.

Here's a fun fact about the Nats

Innings 1-3 : .238 / .296 / .390, 11th (out of 15) in the NL OPS
Innings 4-6 : .234 / .298 / .345, 15th in OPS
Innings 7-9 : .274 / .344 / .448, 1st in OPS

It's not so much "Never stop watching a Nats game, because they could come back!" it's more "Don't start watching a Nats game until the starter is out and it's close. There's no point!"

At this point I would do analysis but you know what. I got nothing. Of course the pitching is worse but that doesn't explain the terribleness in innings 1-6.  It's not the pinch hitting (decent pop and OBP but nothing crazy). Different approach maybe?

Notes : 
  • Doug Fister looked good. Now let's see start #3. Then maybe some evaluation
  • Ian Desmond might, just might, be turning a corner. 5-15 with a 3B and HR in his last 4 games. 
  • Another guy who might be rounding back into form? Clippard. No ERs given up since April 11th, lowering his ERA from 5.40 to 2.08, though that's a little misleading. More impressive : 3 hits, 4 walks, 10 Ks  in last 9 appearances (7.2 IP), no hits or walks and 4 Ks in his last 4 appearances.
  • Guys who aren't hitting? Wilson Ramos (.143 / .250 / .143 in past week), Anthony Rendon (.208 / .200 / .250) and Danny Espinosa (.091 / .091 / .364 with NINE strikeouts).  Wilson can be forgiven but Rendon and Danny should teach you yet another lesson about coming to judgements too soon. Maybe Rendon IS better than Bryce! Maybe Danny is a better hitter than before! Nope and Nope.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Lenticular Strasburg

Type in "Strasburg" in google right now and the news for the name pops out three articles.
#1  "Arroyo outpitches Strasburg, D-Backs top Nationals"
#2  "Strasburg good, Arroyo better in Nationals' loss"
#3  "Stephen Strasburg makes two key mistakes in Nationals ..."

Guess which one is from the local paper? 

Looking from the outside-in Strasburg is a successful very good pitcher. He's capable of having special nights and there is still a bit of an aura around him, thanks to the fact he still strikes people out and his peripheral stats look good, but it's not news if he gives up 3 runs.  

Looking from the inside-out Strasburg is a failed great pitcher. The special nights only highlight the kind of pitcher he has the talent to be, and giving up 3 runs is just another outing that shows he's not living up to that potential. 

Unfair? Completely and not at all. 

It's completely unfair in the sense that he is being compared to a standard that is near impossible to reach. Set the bar that high and he's set up to disappoint.

It's not at all unfair because this is baseball and this is the scrutiny talented players have to go through. That "the feelings of the fans should match in direction and intensity the production output a player brings to the team" is not something in a contract.

If the Nats were 4 games up as of today, it probably wouldn't matter. If the Nats had made the WS last year, it probably wouldn't matter. 

Neither of those things happened. 

The Nats fans are on the cusp of desperation. Failure to make the playoffs this season would likely start an implosion of sorts, fair or not. The anger is going to be directed at anyone not matching where fans think they should be; where they were told these guys should be. 

Strasburg should be a Top 5 pitcher. Bryce should be a Top 5 player. They are the biggest targets and if they don't come close to those levels, they will receive the biggest share of criticism if/when the Nats fail. Werth (biggest contract. most in your face) is out on that limb. Fister (savior-esque 4th starter) could hear it. So will anyone that outright crashes and burns. (why is my head involuntarily turning toward Denard Span?). It's not fair and it is.

Don't confuse how the game works with how fandom works. Strasburg is very good. He'll get paid very well for being very good. That's how the game works.  Strasburg is not great. He'll get criticized for not being great because that was the expectation set for his time with this franchise. That's how fandom works (for some-most).

Outside a few idiot wackos who might scream "TRADE HIM!!! SHOULD HAVE KEPT LOMBO INSTEAD!!" the Strasburg debate is one of at what level a "could be great" player deserves what type criticism.  Does he deserve to be called out  whenever he fails to put up a certain level of great performances? Or is it when he stops being a really helpful productive team member?

It's not a debate about Strasburg's actual performance, he is what he is, it's a debate about how to respond to it. From the outside, where expectations for Strasburg are much more tempered by a history of failed pitching prospects and his near immediate TJ injury, the view is more consistent and lenient*. From the inside, where expectations are rarely managed as well (SKOLE IS GOING TO TAKE OVER FOR LAROCHE!!!), the view are all over the place. But saying someone is wrong for getting on Strasburg** (or not) is like saying someone is "not a true fan". There isn't a right time to be disappointed.

*Bryce though did not have expecations managed on any level. Which is why you see wildly different takes on him all over the place.

** Now someone can be wrong for saying he stinks, but don't confuse an outburst with an outlook. If someone really thinks Strasburg is bad, he's wrong. If he screams for a minute because he gave up an ill-timedHR, he's just angry.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Monday Quickie - what I said

Last week :
"In fact I fully expect the Nats to be in 2nd (or 3rd - since the division is so tight) by the time May 11th rolls around What I also expect is the Nats to be within a game or two of first"
What genius said that? Oh it was me! 

I wasn't quite right, the Cubbies rolled over for the Braves giving them a sweep when I expected the Braves to simply win the series, and the Nats rolled over for the A's when I expected them to take at least one game, but a half-game doesn't change the point. The Nats are close enough to first place to take it back in the next two weeks.

They have a golden opportunity to do schedule wise.

Over the next 13, the Nats play :
D-backs (15-25)
Mets (17-19)
Reds (17-19)
Pirates (16-21) .

The Braves play
Giants (24-14)
Cardinals (19-19)
Brewers (24-14)
Rockies (23-17) (when did that happen?)

The Marlins play
Dodgers (20-19)
Giants (24-14)
Phillies (17-19)
Brewers (24-14)

In short the Braves and Marlins should struggle to go .500 over the next two weeks. The Nats should easily go a couple games over. Those scenarios would have an end result of the Nats in first place.  I set 8-5 as the low bar for these 13 games and really want a 9-4 or 10-3 stretch, injuries be damned. It's time for the Nats to pitch their way to the playoffs.

First place on Memorial Day is no reason to celebrate. The script flips on the Nats and in Mid June they face all the good teams. Unless the Braves and Marlins both tank over the next two weeks while the Nats soar, chances are June would be a dog fight to hold onto that spot. First place is simply where they should be if they want ito be in good position for a post-season run.

NOT first place on Memorial Day though IS reason to worry.  I'd expect given the schedules for the Nats to lose a few games to the Braves (easy stretch end of June through AS Break), and Marlins (easy stretch the middle of June) before the All-Star game. If the Nats sit in 2nd down a couple on Memorial Day, that would put them 4-5 or more games out come the break. While certainly a comeback from there is a possibility It's not where you want to be. One streak in the wrong direction at this point ends your year.

Now's the time Nats.

Friday, May 09, 2014


No baseball today and limited Internet right now so why not cover some topics that are worth that sort of limited in multiple ways attention?

On Frandsen

The guy is right. Rendon deserves unqualified praise. The problem is that Frandsen, without prompting, started the qualifying. By saying "he's the best young guy we got" or whatever instead of "a gray young guy" he's setting up the comparison between Rendon and the Nats name YOUNG GUY, Bryce. It'd be like someone on LA saying Greinke was the best starter.  The Dodgers have a BEST STARTER. It's Kershaw. On some teams it might not matter. On the Nats it does. 

The silly part is that of course Frandsen would say this. He's been on the team for 10 minutes and in those 10 min Rendon has been better than Bryce. His problem wasn't qualifying, but the amount he did. Do no qualifying and it's ok. Qualifying that this is what you feel because this is all you've seen. It's passable.  But sit in the middle and it comes out bad 

Whatever it's over now and Frandsen got the minor day-long annoyance he deserved for not thinking about what he said.  Can't so that as a major leaguer

On Boswell and Law

I can't speak on this directly because I ain't paying for ESPN Insider to read Law's article (yes I could get it for free for the whole SweetSpot thing but as I've explained before I take nothing for blogging for fear of the Tax Man). But the gist of it seems to be Law thinks Boz is out of touch because he misuses stats.

I don't think that's really fair though. Biz does misuse stats occasionally but it's ancillary to his point. In the Bryce example its not like he said "Look Bryce hasn't driven in or scored enough runs yet! That's why he needed to be sat!"  It was "Bryce needed to be sat, because he still has to grow. Oh yeah here are some stats that show that". The stats he used were silly and proved nothing (at least how he framed it) and that's a problem but they weren't his argument. To me, that seems a long way from "out of touch" 

Thursday, May 08, 2014

The right way

Yesterday Wilson Ramos came back. He had a big double in the first that should have scored a run if Adam LaRoche wasn't a statue right now. He had the sacrifice fly that drove in what would be the winning run. It's great to have him back in the lineup.

But let's take this moment to tip the hat to Rizzo for doing something right. Prior to the season starting we screamed that Jhonatan Solano and Sandy Leon were not good enough right now to back up Wilson Ramos. This wasn't because they weren't good enough to be your typical major league back-up catcher. Those guys stink, of course they could do that. It was because Ramos is a huge injury risk and neither of these guys could be an every day player. Rizzo saw the same thing presumably and he went out and dealt a fair AAA SP prospect in Nate Karns for Jose Lobaton, a guy who could be an everyday player, albiet not a particularly good one.

To nobody's surprise Wilson Ramos did go down and the back-up did have to play everyday. How did Jose Lobaton do? .250 / .325 / .375.  Not particularly good, but you know what? Not bad either. It was pretty much what he was brought in to do. Compare that to Leon (.177 / .291 / .252 in AA this year) or Solano (.146 / .180 / .188 in 50 PAs in the majors), and think about what the Nats could have had. You don't even have to think about it, just look at last year's stats. Suzuki and Solano combined to be a black hole at the bottom of the order.

Lobaton is a guy you have to put some effort into pitching to. Maybe not a lot but as a pitcher you can't take the at bat off.  Leon and Solano are basically good-hitting pitchers at the plate.

It's something that can be overlooked but it matters. A potential problem was seen, it was addressed about as well as it could be, and when the potential problem became an actual one, the solution worked as expected. For a team that wants to be a contender this is how it's supposed to work.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Second Place!

Great run there! "Wire to wire" if that wire extended from about 12:30AM to 10:00PM, May 6th.

Really the loss isn't a surprise. I'd bet on the Nats losing to Kershaw regardless of who's pitching. Make it Blake Treinen and there you go. Easy money. In fact I fully expect the Nats to be in 2nd (or 3rd - since the division is so tight) by the time May 11th rolls around. What I also expect is the Nats to be within a game or two of first and staring down a 25 game stretch where they play only one "good" team (Texas visits at the very end of May). Quibble if you want about who is "good" or not, but it's by the end of that run where I'd like to see the Nats with a couple game lead on the rest of the East. (Braves will start that same stretch with 11 games vs the Giants, Cards, and Brewers).Don't get too worked up over losses over the rest of this week/weekend.

One of the big questions brought up yesterday was "Is this run of losses by the Braves telling?"  Good teams go through losing streaks all the time, even ones that go 7+ games. Of course bad teams do to, and they do it more often. So what does this mean about the Braves?

Is the offense an issue for the Braves? Yes

Freddie Freeman is the best offensive player in the NL East. I don't trust your age Utley. I don't trust your "you" Stanton. And there's no reason Justin Upton (26) couldn't be having a "best year" type season. But beyond that things are shaky. The problem is no one gets on base for these guys to drive in. a .296 OBP for the team. Of the other guys doing ok, Gattis and Simmons are POP guys (I know you probably think Simmons is a singly Joe because that's what SS are but no - he's a decent POP guy) but neither gets on base (Gattis .290 OBP, Simmons .300) and nothing in their history suggest major improvements are coming. BJ Upton and Uggla (at least in the past) are a little more patient but it really seems like hitting this bad is their new normal. There's only so much you can do with an average hovering around .220.  The above taken for what it is, leaves the Braves in a bit of a problem spot. That's not enough offense to win.

The offense, then in effect, comes down to two guys - Heyward and Chris Johnson. Johnson is hard to read. The .321 average he put up last year was obviously a fluke, but the guy looked ok for .275 and 15 homers. If he gets back to that he's ok but if this year is a "correction" for 2013 then it's trouble (think Nats bench 2012 to 2013) His age (29) puts a drop in production, even one pretty large, a possibility.  Heyward is even harder to read. The guy has talent and has shown it but he'll slump and it'll feel like he'll never come out of it. These arent your normal 2-3 weeks slumps either, his seem to last a long time, even season long. In 2011 he never really did bounce back after crashing in May.  This has kept him from having that break-out year everyone, including me, thought he would soon after that rookie campaign.

If both these guys right the ship the Braves should have a passable offense. Good whenever Heyward is hot, struggling when he's not, but overall good enough. If either of these guys doesn't turn it around though... and well you're seeing what it looks like right now.

Is the pitching a fluke? Not like you probably hoped

Let's start with the bullpen. It's good. Not top to bottom good like the Nats but top to a floor or two above street level. Kimbrel, of course, and Walden shut down in the 8th and 9th. Avilan might be broken and Carpenter a bit over his head but Varvaro has good stuff and Schlosser's unlucky self was optioned out and replaced by Hale, who could really flourish. I'm not really seeing a weakness here.

The starting rotation's crazy good start was a fluke but that doesn't matter now with Minor and Floyd set to join the rotation. Minor is very good. Teheran is great. Santana could put up a 3.00 ERA moving AL-> NL. Wood at the very least can hang, if not thrive. Sure Harang will come back down to Earth and Floyd may not be good anymore but if those things happen, there's Hale ready to hold down a #5 spot.  Are we willing to bet they are all going to do poorly? And even if they do that's just the 5th starter.

So the pitching being THIS good is a fluke, but the pitching being good is not. The rotation isn't going to carry a 2.50 ERA for the season but could it lead the NL? Certainly.

The Braves are either going to SF Giants 2010 and pitch their way to 90+ wins with just enough offense, or they are going to SF Giants 2011 and watch their offense keep the team just out of the playoffs. Either way they aren't a bad team in hiding. They are a good team that could be very good if Heyward and Johnson come around.

What I'm saying is that you shouldn't be hoping the Braves are in for a collapse. I don't see it happening. As bad as it is to lose 7 in a row the last 5 losses were by 1, 1, 2, 3, and 1 runs. A couple bloops fall in here and there and they go 2-5 and we're not even thinking about if they are in trouble. 

And as a side note : The pitching is this good without Beachy and Medlen. Their aggressive re-signing policy might come back to haunt them later in the decade but that, and the one-year deals they've got on the books, means a lot of flexibility for the next couple years. At the very least it gives them an opportunity to attack this window and it could give them time to restock a thinned minor league system. You know what they say, to be the man you got to beat the man. The Braves remain the man in the NL East and will be until the Nats put up a couple pennants in a row.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

First Place!

San Diego has a relief ERA of 1.76.  San Francisco 1.88.  The Nationals 1.89.  No one else has an ERA under 2.70.

Rafeal Soriano has an ERA of 0.00.
Drew Storen has a WHIP of 0.469
Aaron Barrett has struck out 14 men in 9.2 innings.
Tyler Clippard has struck out 21 in 14.2.
Jerry Blevins is holding lefties to a .120 / .185 / .160 line.

It never seems like Matt Williams is using these guys correctly but when they are putting up numbers like this that doesn't matter. It's like watching someone use a spotlight to search under the bed.

With a pen this good (and it probably is something close to this good) & starting pitching this good (ditto) the Nats will have a chance in most games. The offense might seem poor but it isn't. a .325 OBP and a .411 SLG are both going to be near the top of the NL in a given season.

And this has been a team without Fister, Ramos, and missing Zimm for a good chunk (and now Bryce for a few games)

Everyone wasn't wrong.  This team is good. Those things I talked about yesterday? They aren't going to keep the Nats from the playoffs. They are division / league issues.  The only thing keeping the Nats down is going to be more injuries.

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.

Friday, May 02, 2014

Calvinist Sports

Boswell wrote a column yesterday that of course made me mad. But it didn't make me mad because of some sort of terrible uniqueness. Instead it was the banality of it that angered me. It's a column you'll see in a couple dozen cities every year always saying a variation of the same thing:
We won before because we played like winners. We are losing now because we aren't.  It was because we cared more... or maybe less. Or because we had more adversity... or had time to gel under some fortunate circumstances. Or because we were veterans who knew how to play... or youngsters who didn't know any better... or the perfect balance of the two.  Regardless of the reason, one thing is clear, the team could play that well again, if only they got over whatever mental hang-ups are currently holding them back. 
That's not a direct quote from any one of those, but it is the subtext of all of them. It's nothing special to Boz to write a column like this. It's human nature. While I can tell you the "on the field why" of where the success of the 2012 Nats came from (career-type performances from all the bench players and the Top 4 starters) I can't give you the "off the field why". Why did Lombo, Moore, Bernadina, Tracy, Solano, Suzuki, Leon hit like they did all in the same year? Why did Gio and ZNN and Stras and Detwiler all have arguably their best seasons in that same season (well actually the standard performance aging curve would predict that pretty much for Gio and ZNN... but I'm getting off track). I can't tell you for sure. And in the absence of concrete rational explanation, we make up ones that very well could be irrational. That's how our mind works. We need answers.

Dumb luck is probably the right one but there's enough doubt about that, that things like spirit, heart, momentum, leadership, and grit, things we all agree DO effect games (we just can't quantify it), seem like just as good of answers. The problem is when you go in that direction for your explanation it can force you into some logical arguments that aren't fair to the team. If the Nats won in 2012 because they were mentally tough, well then, if they don't win now, it must be because they are no longer mentally tough, right? That does a disservice to the players on the field, as if they could take the World Series if only they had bigger balls and bigger hearts. It also does a disservice by letting management off the hook.

The 2013 Nats didn't lose out because of bad leadership or toughness. They didn't make the playoffs because Rizzo built a terrible bench and never corrected the problem. But to those that believe the former, Rizzo skates. What are the ramifications of that sort of public attitude? Does it cause Rizzo to feel ok building an adequate bench, but not the best one possible? Does it make the Lerners feel enough money was spent to win and it was only because the players didn't try hard enough that they didn't win? Don't know. But in a game where 25-28 teams are honestly trying to make the playoffs in a given year little things like that may matter.

Anyway, here's to sweeping the Phillies and a column after it saying they've won 5 in a row because they are a good team with excellent starting pitching that's beating some mediocre to bad opponents. 

Thursday, May 01, 2014

catch-up day

At work, not here! Until you pay my salary, you guys have to wait on line like everyone else (I'm lookin' at you gramma! You'll get your thank you card when I have the time to write it!). Also will you pay my salary? What's rich these days? 250K? That'll do it.

As for the Nats - woo! That's what they should do and they did it. Now all they need to do is not get swept by the Phillies for an acceptable road trip. Shouldn't be too hard... should it?

It looks good for the Nats, they've been injured and yet they aren't too far behind the Braves. This isn't anything like last year when the Braves ran away with the division early.  Except... 

Through 28 games last year the Nats were 14-14.  This year they are 16-12.  Looks better but I'll note that the Nats were just about to start a little run. Through 35 games in 2013 the Nats would be 20-15. (They then wouldn't get to 5 games over again until Sept 9th) I don't say "I'll take that" but given that the next 7 games are 3 @ PHI, 3 v LAD, and 1@ OAK, 4-3 wouldn't be a terrible run.

The Braves when the Nats were 14-14? 17-10.  3.5 games up. 
The Braves when the Nats were 20-15? 21-14. 1 games up.

As late as May 17th the Braves would hold a slim half-game lead on the 23-19 Nats before the Nats would crash. (Almost literally - it's around now Bryce hits the wall in LA) The Nats would go 6-12 while the Braves would go 15-6 to put the division... well not out of reach, but put the Braves comfortably enough ahead that figuring the teams were of close to equal talent you had a hard time seeing the Nats overtaking them.

The fact that it's ok now is better than if it was NOT ok now, but I'm not going to feel better until the Nats are only nursing one major injury and are still right there. Things can turn on a dime. With the Nats not at full strength I'm not enthused on which way that turn will be.