Nationals Baseball: The other side of PANIC

Friday, May 01, 2015

The other side of PANIC

There's no good reason for a Mets fan to feel bad right now. You had to know the Mets couldn't sustain a 13-3 pace (132 wins!) and that the Marlins (sitting at 5-11 when you were 13-3, projected over .500) and the Nationals (7-9, projected in the 90s) would improve. Some of that cushion was bound to go away sooner rather than later. You still finished April 4.5 games up with one of the best records in baseball.  And yet...

You've had it rough recently losing 3 in a row, and 5 of your last 7, losing series to the Yankees, who you want to beat, and the Marlins, who you want to beat, and the first game of a home series with the Nationals, who you want to beat. Meanwhile the Marlins have won 7 of their last 8 and the Nationals have won three in a row scoring 33 runs. You were hoping the Marlins were really secretly bad. You were hoping the Nationals were digging themselves a giant hole. Those hopes are fading.

If the Nationals beat you tonight and the Marlins win, you'll barely be a series ahead of your biggest competitors when you started the week more than two series ahead. You'll have just lost games started by your two best pitchers.

It's panic time.

Three straight games. That's all it takes really. Some team is always panicking because some team in relative contention is always riding a 3 game losing streak. Some team is always feeling like they've righted the ship because they've won three in a row. (Yep that includes the Nats  - who are relying on Danny Espinosa, Yunel Escobar, and some timely other hits during this small win streak to make up for important bats that don't look quite right, and starting pitching that is looking decidedly average outside of Scherzer)

Don't get too high. Don't get too low. Take the macro view. What does that tell us?  Let's take stock.

The Mets, 2015 challenger #1, have a 5 game headstart with a month in the books. They've done this with a bit of luck; such as going 5-2 in one run games, and scoring the 4th most runs in the NL with a offense that's average at best. While luck may be on their side, they are still good (13-10 pythag record) and they aren't relying on many crazy performances. Duda isn't probably this good, but he could be close. Niese is getting real lucky but the rest of the pitching staff is hitting its mark and has potential to be better. Add to that one of their better bats, David Wright, coming back and the Mets should at least hang in the conversation for a while.*

The Marlins, challenger #2, are a half-game ahead. The offense is predictably carrying the team but it still doesn't seem to be all there yet. While Dee Gordon is likely to dip, there is more underperformance than over. Yelich is out with an injury. Morse, Prado, Saltamacchia, and Ozuna all should show some degree of improvement. (Though perhaps there are things I don't know about.) The pitching staff though is not good. It could get better. Cosart has flashes of being real good. Jose Fernandez will be back at some point. But it also couldn't. Mat Latos hasn't looked good and Dan Haren can't help but give up long fly balls. Outside of the NL West that's an issue. The pen is a mess except for a couple arms. They are a question mark, with the ability to catch fire or to sputter and go out.

The Nationals are healthier but not healthy, with some issues that we're hoping, but aren't entirely sure, will clear up soon.With the outburst in the last few games the Nats have moved up the offensive ranks to 2nd in the NL. The good news is Bryce might have turned the corner and Span, if he can stay healthy, doesn't seem a strong candidate for decline in comparison to last year. But there are likely unsustainable performances from Espinosa and Escobar carrying them as well. Desmond should improve at least somewhat but the question is whether or not the underperformances of Werth, Ramos, and Zimmerman are long-term issues or not. If so even the return of a healthy Rendon won't keep this offense from being closer to average.  The pitching staff issues are more of a worry. Strasburg, Gio, and ZNN all have yet to shake off an early season funk and Fister is pushing his luck even further. The bullpen went through a real rough patch that hasn't fully cleared up. Unlike the Marlins there isn't real fizzle potential here. Neither the pitching staff or offense should be terrible,** even if they underperform, but there is a question of whether everything comes together to make them the predicted unstoppable force or if they never quite get healthy enough and spend the year taking three steps back for every four steps foward.

Based on the above worry is still around but a nice strong 6 game winning streak including sweeping the Mets would clear a lot of that right up, especially if Werth and Ramos' bats heat up and we hear good news about Rendon and Janssen. We're on the cusp of it coming together. Will it?

*they also have Syndergaard and injury returning D'Arnaud as potential mid-season game changers.   Which makes it important for the Nats to take this series while the Mets are playing poorly and not at full strength.

**assuming Rendon eventually comes back


Bote Man said...

Morse, Prado, Saltamacchia, and Ozuna all should show some degree of improvement. (Though perhaps there are things I don't know about.)

One of which might be that Salty was DFA'd earlier this week by the Marlins, so he aint comin' back.

You can look it up.

Harper said...

Cross him off, then!

(I did)

SM said...

God, I love this blog.

Chinatown Express said...

FanGraphs has the Nats back up to 70% odds of winning the NL East. A sweep of the Mets would help with that too.

I have plans all night tonight and I'm going to miss Scherzer-Harvey. I'm extremely unhappy about that.

Harper said...

CXP - a little higher than I'd put it but only a little. Based on pre-season stuff you'd expect the Nats to win 8 or so more games than Mets for rest of season. There's some cushion in there unless you start making large adjustments.

Anonymous said...

I'm not worried about Strasburg and Gio. Strasburg sports a .400 Babip and a low LOB %. His FIP is superb - 2.61 (xFIP is much higher because he hasn't given up homers, so that's concerning). The Babip is no doubt affected by the Nats atrocious defense, which has to improve (there's only one way for it to go). Velo is there. K% is a down quite a bit but I expect improvement given all the other indicators. Strasburg had an insanely high Babip in April-May last year and ended up on the high end of the normal range (normal range is .290-.310 and he was .315 in 2014). He was good last night, too, which is promising. Same general story with Gio (Babip in the .390s). I think Gio's stuff has looked very sharp - good curve, good changeup - but the eyes can be deceiving so take it with a grain of salt.

Zimmermann concerns me though. The FIP is right in line with his career average, 3.23. He sports a high but not insanely high Babip (.344), which suggests less improvement is forthcoming for him compared to Stras and Gio. And of course the velo issues that we've discussed. It looked better in his last start, so there's hope for a rebound. K/9 innings is way down, but K% is not nearly as low as I expected given the K/9 numbers. Low but not super far below career average. Still a concern.

Fister is the biggest concern though. His Babip is actually low - .279 - which suggests amazing batted ball luck given the putrid Nats defense in April. Ks way down, BBs way up. Given the batted ball tightrope he walks, there's real potential for him to be bad.

I'm confident that Strasburg and Gio will have seasons that approximate their career norms. I have mild to medium concern about Zimmermann, though it looks like he's trending better compared to the beginning of the season. I'm really worried that Fister may be bad, though, which is a shame because he's such a pleasure to watch when he's going well because he works so quickly and does all the little things very well.

Sherzer is awesome. This requires no analysis.

Robot said...

18 free McNuggets in 3 days! Hellz yeah!

Chaz R said...

Harper has a great knack for clearly articulating what everyone is feeling.

WiredHK said...

Any shot that, if Fister stays bad through, say, May, they would give him a DL trip (Haren-style) with a phantom injury and get Roark back in there? I really do think he is hitting the end of the road and, for a guy with his velocity, that gets to look severely ugly.

On the bright side, Solis looked very promising last night. Can we get some more looks at him? And Stras definitely had strong velocity last night -- he is going to be just fine (as he always is).

Bjd1207 said...

@Anon - Very good analysis, thanks for doing that work.

My concerns are flipped, a little more concern for ZNN than for Fister. Fister's problems look to be all control-driven, as you've indicated. But he's been spectacular with control in seasons past, and I don't know that pitchers lose that much in control as they age. If he's truly lost his touch then it would mean big problems for him, but his pitch-movement is spot on from years past, velo a tick down but we'll probably see that creep up as the summer comes. Get the ball down and in the zone and you'll see fewer walks and way less doubles to the gap off his sinker.

ZNN doesn't have the sinker to fall back on, however, so if his velo is really down from past seasons I think he may be in trouble. Coupled with his control problems too, there's a HUGE gap between 94 on the black and 91 down the pipe. If he gets the control back without the velo he can probably last for another long while (or maybe develop a cutter or split). If he gets both back, well then it's smooth sailing.

Jeden said...

My dad (huge Tigers fan) persists that Fister is typically a slow starter, but eventually finds his groove to become his normal workhorse self. Any evidence to support this?

Bjd1207 said...

@Jeden - Not a whole lot of evidence I don't think, not to call your dad a liar because he was certainly watching him much closer than I was during that stretch.

But 2014 of course he had the injury. Had a rough first start but then went 6 starts in a row with no more that 2 runs.

2013 - Took until his 7th start to give up more than 3 runs in a game

2012 - Took until his 6th start to give up more than 3.

Also doesn't look like he was issuing more walks early in the season either, numbers seem about average.

Anthony Rendon said...

I don't care who is panicking as long as it is not us.

Stras looked good struck out 7 in 5.1 so that improved as anon said Babip is high but I have no worry. ZNN I believe is partly velocity partly mental, and Fister has been better than AJ Cole so that is a positive.

Bryce has been amazing so far. Escobar better than expected but he ain't keeping it up. Werth needs to swing the bat. Ramos is going down and so is Desi.

Donald said...

I'm definitely trying not to let one or two games swing my perceptions too much at this point. I definitely feel better about this club than I did a few days ago, but we need to wait until these next few series are over before making big conclusions. After NY, we are home against Miami and Atlanta. If we are in second place at the end of that stretch and have narrowed the Mets' lead, I'll be happy. If we're still stuck in the middle of the pack with the Mets up by 5 or so, I'll be worried. The Braves, Marlins and Mets all get to play the Phillies during this timeframe, though.

What's your prediction? Where will the Nats be in the standings after May 10th?

Lee said...

RE: "the question is whether or not the underperformances of Werth, Ramos, and Zimmerman are long-term issues or not."

I'm not too worried about Werth yet. He just probably needs the reps he didn't get over the spring. But maybe he's just getting old. Don't know.

Ramos couldn't hit to start the season, but he's quietly gotten his average up to .274. Until the last few games, he's just mostly been getting hits when no one else around him is. I do worry a little about his lack of power though. Only 3 extra base hits all season so far. Perhaps he just wasn't seeing the ball and now he is. The power could be on its way. Or not. We'll see.

Zim, however, has me concerned. Plantar fasciitis sucks. I've been dealing with it personally off and on for a year or so. It can really change the way you move through the world. And with his injury history...hold your breath.

Froggy said...

No comments on how Spugglenosa are carrying the team? (Outside Harper's amazing maturation and production of course!)

Harper said...

anon #1 - I agree on Stras I think he'll be fine (and by that I mean at least good - not going to predict anything more) but I'm not sure about Gio. His walk rate concerns me. More BBs = more pitches = shorter outings or worse results in 5th/6th. Last game was better but he might have gotten bombed because he was trying to pitch in the zone more. There might be a balance but I think we'll see an overall slide this year.

WiredHK - probably not that soon. He's giving them 5-6 inning of 4 runs ball the last couple games. That both seems right and not enough for the Nats to do anything about.

Solis ... I'll wait until appearance #2 (see Martin, Rafael)

BJD - I think you can go either way ZNN or Fister more concerning. I worry more about Fister. I think ZNN can learn to pitch a diff't way if he's lost some stuff. I don't see an out with Fister if it's not just a couple of bad games.

Jeden - there isn't anything in his career (or DET) stats to suggest a slow starter, but he does usually finish very strong in September. But August/July not really any better than April/May/June

AR - you playing today or what?

Donald - after May 10th? ...
16-16 tied with the Marlins 3.5 games behind the Mets, maybe 2.5.

Lee - A this point though you figure he's gotten those reps, right? He's not typically a fast starter so I wouldn't write him off until well into the season, but I'd rather hope we aren't looking for him to get hot to hit .250.

Ramos doesn't walk or run so if he doesn't hit for power... It's like Lombo behind the plate. LOMBO POWER!

Zimm - yeah you can play through it (and you can't necessarily rest it away with any speed) but it's going to cut you down. I hope not this much though. Some strategic resting maybe?

Froggy - I said they were unsustainable. Is that not enough?

Anonymous said...

Is there any way to look at whether 2b or 3b is tougher to play from an injury standpoint.

I ask because I'm scared rendon shouldn't be playing 2b.

Ryan said...

I'm glad somebody brought up Ramos, because he is looking a lot more like hand-injury Ramos from the second half last year than the Buffalo we saw even in his hamstring-injury-marred 2013 (15 HRs in 228 PA!). Also, his platoon splits have been very pronounced so far this season, unlike in years past.

Assuming that he is at 100% right now, our presumption--or at least MY presumption--that all he needed to be a top-10 catcher was a full season of health to turn those beautiful rate stats into counting numbers is looking very misguided. Hopefully once the weather heats up, the bat will as well.

I'm too lazy to do it, but I'm curious if anyone has looked into the batted-ball data to see what's going on with him.

Donald said...

So, sure, I'm glad the Nats won the series in NYC and head home only 4 games back. But think about it. After opening up with a decisive win in a critical series at this point of the season, the Nats proceed to score only 2 runs over the next three games. Today, they failed to score with guys on first and third and no outs, as well as with the bases loaded and no outs. They very easily could have lost the last three games in this series and been 8 games behind the Mets.

Kenny B. said...

First: Massive credit to Gio & Fister, and the oft-maligned bullpen for putting together back-to-back shut outs, and credit to the oft-maligned Matt Williams as well.

You can't be too upset about losing the Harvey game, and winning the other three is what you're supposed to do if you're the Nats we hoped for before the season (that close game luck had to come around eventually). All very good.

The continuing bad "situational hitting" is a bit disconcerting. I always understood that "situational hitting" is not really very effectively measurable, but I'd be interested in seeing a post on the Nats RISP woes, whether they seem likely to continue, and what can be done to improve RISP hitting.