Nationals Baseball: Tuesday Quickie : Calling it

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Tuesday Quickie : Calling it

Is it premature to call the NL East for the Nats? Yes. Am I doing it? Yes.  Well more accurately I'm saying right now that if the Nats and Mets rosters don't significantly change the Nats will win the division. The Nats have expanded their lead to 2.5 games. While they keep playing well and catching breaks (two more one-run wins over the weekend), the Mets don't have the offensive players to keep up with the Nats (it's almost like they had to make one additional off-season move after getting Cuddyer.  Strange that no one ever thought of or mentioned that).

Is it silly to say in May "if the rosters don't significantly change"? Yes, one more time. But it highlights the talent gap that is apparent now. We saw that gap to start the season (which is why we all had the Nats winning the East by 8-10 games or so) but at the beginning of the season there are the lingering "what will happen really when we get going?" questions. We've gotten going now. There isn't likely to be a surprise flop or breakout anymore. We see Strasbrug, Gio, platoon Danny, Bryce breakout and we can account for all that. We see Plawecki, not Wright, Familia and we can account for that. Unless we see a huge trade or injury I don't see the Nats losing their grip on first.

So while the Nats potentially skate to their title and playoff run let's go over some things I've heard over the weekend that I want to voice an opinion on :

Strasburg is hurt. That's what I said. That's what I believe.  Here are your options. 1) Strasburg was always bad! 2) Strasburg is a head case! 3) Strasburg is injured.  #1 is the intelligent design of arguments. Nothing backs it up.  #2 is fun but this would be the first time I ever saw a guy being not right in the head proven by a lack of bite in the curve and a fastball missing by a few inches. #3 isn't backed up by anything either if you believe the Nats doctors but why would you do that?  Where is Rendon now? Didn't they say Danny didn't need surgery - only rest? I suppose that is true but I think you'd usually bite on the surgery if the "rest period" turns out to be almost 3 years. And beyond that who am I supposed to believe? Bloggers looking at video and data points and making (slightly) educated guesses? Uhhhh, no. That's not statistics, that's witchcraft. He's pitching worse than he ever has by far. I'm sticking with injury.

Please don't declare a trade or contract a winner/loser before it is complete. Even the Fister deal, which was apparently a very good starter for three AAAA pieces, I wouldn't call right now. The Werth deal, still two seasons from completion, is still up in the air. You have to see how the whole thing, WHOLE thing, plays out and then make a judgment. Does that mean maybe waiting a decade? Yeah, yeah it does.

Don't use D stats for anything but "it looks like" talk. This is for both good and bad views. I don't know how we all got to this point. It was pretty clear a year or so ago that defensive stats were questionable to the point it was recommended you kind of use a rolling 3 year average to get a better feel for the abilities of a player. Then it was pointed out that that made WAR very flawed as a single season measure and so the response was "I guess it's ok to use defensive stats for a season, then".  It feels like when push came to shove the people pushing these stats were more interested in protecting the stat then standing by the work. I guess they feel that eventually with all the data someone will come up soon with a good way of measuring annual defense and therefore if they hole up, protect the stat, and ride out the storm, that they'll emerge on the other side with the same level of influence? I don't know. I'm digressing.

It'll be nice to look at the team over the next 4 months and see the good performances shine. But understand that for probably I'd say 75%-80% of the fanbase what really matters is how they perform in October. Harsh but true. I've said it before but if they win 105 games and Storen saves 55 and then they lose in the NLDS and Storen blows a game, that's not ok! They failed! It doesn't mean they are a bad team or that they are bad players, but it does mean that they started the season with a goal and they did not achieve that. And that matters! A lot! Especially this season because next season (no ZNN, no Desmond, no Thornton, no Fister?, no Span?) begins the 2-season exodus that will reshape the team. It may not be as sure a winner when we wake up on Opening Day 2017. The time is now, not to have a really good season, but to win in the playoffs.

36 comments:

WiredHK said...

I don't totally disagree with you (re: anything short of playoff success right now is failure), but I still have an issue with that line of thinking when it comes to MLB. It's really hard to control for the post-season (are there really a lot of GM moves that make you better specifically in the post-season that you wouldn't just make for the regular season, too?). As we always say, bad teams can beat good teams 2 our of 3 times pretty easily in baseball. I still view the playoffs as a highly random set of events, even in a 7 game series. The goal of a GM is to build a long-term winner that makes the post-season a lot (more chances!) -- beyond that, we let the small sample size tourney play out each year and it can mess with our hearts a lot.

But I recognize human nature doesn't work this way - a lot of people view (or used to view) those 90s Bills teams as "failures" because they could never win it all. But man, looking at their achievements in the rear view mirror, they were pretty damn impressive and I'm sure provided that fan-base a lot of fun over a good amount of time. I know this sounds like "loser mentality" justification but...

cass said...

The season will be a disappointment if the Nats aren't in the World Series. That's the way it goes. A pennant needs to be added above Nats Park that has a year starting with a '2'. Winning the World Series would be really nice but making it to the World Series is a requite for a season that isn't a failure. Two playoff series must be won.

I'm not sure Strasburg is hurt. We know for a fact he was hurt. It seems quite possible that his mechanics got out of whack compensating for that injury. That was the official story, I believe, and it makes sense to me. It's possible he sustained another injury in the process. But his velo is great. It's just that he has inconsistent (often terrible) command. So I'd say it's a mechanical issue, maybe a new injury. It sucks.

Should I fear that Scherzer is being overworked and will be worn out by the playoffs or by the NLCS? It's nice to set the Nats record for most consecutive 7-inning starts, but....

On the other hand, bullpens are hugely important in the postseason and it should mean our bullpen is rested. But relievers are fungible. Best-pitchers-in-the-league are not.

A Fly Moses said...

@cass - Scherzer's averaging fewer pitches per start than in any season since his rookie year, so I don't think there's anything to worry about.

Harper said...

WiredHK - I think my opinion will play out as the season does. If we get to the trade deadline as is and the pen is still up and down in the middle and the last guy on the bench is Moore hitting .200... I'll be bothered. To me it's "all in" time. If you go all-in and lose, well hats off. You tried. If you go 95% and lose... I know that's probably the smart move long term because the diff between going 95% and 100% in will be marginal (if that) in the playoffs, but what's the point then if not to try to win as hard as you can when you have your best chance?

cass - I thought that was possible but at this point I don't. I'm not a pitcher and never was so my opinion is meaningless.

cass/AFM - yeah don't worry about Scherzer. NL has been good to him. If he does get tired in Sept I think it'll be the culmination of years of heavy work and there would be little the Nats could have done this year to have avoided it. (but I don't think that'll happen this year. Now in 2017....)

SM said...

Whitey Herzog once argued that the best way to measure--and reward--a team that dominates during the regular season is to play the World Series in a neutral stadium, and schedule 7 games on 7 consecutive days.

Neutral stadium because. according to Herzog, regular fans rarely get World Series tickets; celebrities and executives do. And 7 consecutive games, obviously, because what got you through the grind of 162 games should apply to the playoffs, too.

But it won't happen.

John C. said...

I am skeptical that Strasburg is hurt. I think the unspoken part of the Stras discussion (that people would clearly rather talk about instead of all this success that the team has had - because, really, who wants to talk about good news?) is that Strasburg is a pitcher in transition because his stuff just isn't as good as it used to be. A few weeks ago I caught a replay of the debut game and the difference was obvious. Strasburg threw two pitches clocked at 103mph in the seventh inning. That's nuts - it's like seven innings of Aroldis Chapman velocity. No wonder his elbow blew out. And the overwhelming fastball made his curve and change that much deadlier. Even when his velocity is "on" these days he's "only" throwing about 94-95, occasionally touching 97. Don't get me wrong; his stuff is still very, very good - but well short of what it used to be.

So my hypothesis is that it's a totality of the circumstances thing. His stuff isn't as good as used to be. He had to battle through an ankle injury in Spring Training and his mechanics got out of whack, so that his command and sharpness aren't quite there yet. The resulting struggle may quite possibly have rattled his confidence a bit, too. And here we are.

As long as he isn't hurt (and I don't believe that he is; the Nationals have made care and maintenance of their pitchers especially a very high priority), none of these problems are likely to be solved by benching or demoting him. It's not that he's never struggled before - late high school and his first year in college he was regarded as an underachiever. While his stuff isn't what it was, it's certainly good enough. Let him work through it, certainly until the ASB.

WiredHK said...

I'm cool with a deal if there is something out there that can be done and it will really help fill a gap for this team. The balance (as always) will be the cost vs the near-term gain. I think Rizzo has shown he is averse to giving up a lot for a splashy short-term move, so I'm guessing we shouldn't expect any huge deals for this team. With Escobar playing so well, looks like once they get Rendon back, the position players will be all set.

The bullpen is where I would think about a big move, though. If there is a chance to add a very good, veteran piece there, that would be a spot to think about when debating 95% vs All-In for October 2015 (RG3 style? Ugh). A steady stream of 2-1 and 3-2 games this post-season will require some steel nerves in those late inning spots....

Mitch said...

I'm with John C. on Strasburg. I mentioned a while ago on this blog (I'm sure everyone remembers!) that you should go back and watch his debut game. I acquired it on DVD at some point - and hey, Rob Dibble! His stuff just doesn't have the *life* that it did then, velocity notwithstanding. Yes he was a new toy, but those "oohs" and "ahhs" were real reactions to amazing pitches. It is what it is, and he still has great stuff, and it happens all the time, etc. But he's not the same. (Contrast with Matt Harvey who seems to have suffered no ill effects, and we'll see on Jose Fernandez.)

cass said...

Strasburg had lessened velocity in 2012 and was still very successful. Arguably the best pitcher in baseball.

On the other hand, it's gone down a tick or two since 2012 and, at the same time, the rest of the league's velocity has gone up. When Strasburg debuted, other pitchers weren't throwing that hard. Now, every team has several pitchers throwing in the mid-to-high 90's. Might be something to that.

Jay said...

Couldn't it be that Strasburg is struggling to maintain his focus--for whatever reason--without the pejorative "he's a head case"? I don't think his stuff is noticeably lesser than what we've seen the past 2-3 years. Sure, he doesn't sit 97 like he did before the surgery. But he's been effective at this velocity for several years now.

We know that his ankle's been hurt, but his velocity looks fine. His command seems to be a continuing issue. For me, that could just as easily be from lack of mental focus as from his ankle. Or some combination of the two.

I hate that people label Strasburg a head case, as if it's some character flaw he can't shake. But, as they say, half the game is 90% mental. Everyone in every job struggles with focus. I'm posting this, for instance, instead of focusing. I'm not sure what good it does to keep that possibility open with respect to Strasburg. I guess I'd like to think this is something that he can learn from, and come back stronger.

Andrew said...

John C and Mitch: The debut game wasn't last month. A lot of time has passed since then, of course most of it since TJ. And in that time Strasburg has been very good (sure, not the best in baseball everyone hoped for). Compare him now to just last year and the difference is much bigger in his control and fastball movement, change-up location, etc. is much greater between 2014 and 2015 than it was pre- and post-TJ.

Did TJ have an effect? Very possibly. But he has a 3.28 career ERA with a 2.89 career FIP, and 106 of his 118 career starts came after the surgery. You can't just look at surgery that took place almost five years ago to explain what's going on this year.

John C. said...

I hate the "all in" meme. So many times we've seen that the team that goes "all in" (no doubt pleasing their fans at the time) craps out - hello 2014 Athletics. And on the flip side dark horse/wild card teams get on a roll. Over and over and over again we see that the real ticket is to get invited to the dance and that after that it's essentially a crap shoot - and that loading up doesn't really weight the dice much if at all. And yet every season the drumbeat of "all in" starts all over again. Yes, let's cripple future seasons in return for a vague hope of changing the odds!

Really, the Nats are as close to "all in" as they need to be already by not trading any of their pending free agents (except for Clippard). To me that doesn't make the team more all in at this point - they are still hedged by the prospect of compensation picks in what is regarded in most prospect circles that I've seen as a much better draft class than was in the 2014 draft. Rather, where the team is positioned now makes further moves hit the point of diminishing returns (if any).

JE34 said...

@WiredHK - as a long suffering fan of the Buffalo Bills, I can say that it was awesome to experience those dominant years, but because there's no title, they're generally considered "losers." Their sad-sack status over the past 2 decades certainly hasn't helped. (Bill Polian made those dominant teams btw. and Marv Levy knew how to coach while staying out of the way. Leadership without those two has been a mess ever since.)

So yeah...the Nats really do have to make it to the World Series. That likely means figuring out how to beat the Cardinals in close games.

Speaking of winning close games... I saw some very encouraging things this weekend:

--> Ian Desmond poked a low-and-away, two-strike pitch into right field for a base hit. It is possible!
--> The Nats got em on-over-in on a few occasions... moving runners over with productive outs and whatnot, scoring without the longball.
--> Drew Storen's save of Monday's game was great. He got into a little trouble but worked through it and got a big K to end it... against a good team.

As for Strasburg... it'll be interesting to see how long they give him to figure out his issues with location consistency. To me, he's always been like an Italian supercar: capable of mind blowing performance, and thus very disappointing when (not if) it breaks down. It'll become clear soon enough if he can pitch his way out of it.

Eric said...

During one of Stras' recent outings -- can't remember which -- I noticed that batters were fairly regularly watching his curve ball fall out of the zone for a ball. It happened often enough, and the batters were still enough (i.e., not remotely fooled), that I got the distinct impression they knew exactly what was coming.

Is is possible that Stras simply has "tells" and he's having a very difficult time adjusting to that while recovering from the ankle injury?

Also, how bad was his ankle sprain? I sprained my ankle last September, and it still feels a little weird at times. Granted, it was a REALLY bad sprain in my case (with possible bone "bruise" and Achilles strain involved?), but it seems possible he's still not feeling right -- even if he's pain free -- when he lands. Might be the difference between throwing it in a thimble vs. a red cup.

Pescado said...

The most plausible explanation for Strasburg's poor performance, based on advanced metrics, is bad luck. His opp BABIP is nearly .400 and his LOB% is just over 50%. These numbers are totally unsustainable, as I'm sure you know. FIP ERA is 3.60.

Look, I'm not even much of a fan of the guy, but it's hard for me to draw any conclusion other than he's had a fairly unlucky 44IP and this will correct over the next 150IP this season.

KW said...

Billy Beane was quoted in the "Moneyball" book as saying that the playoffs are a crapshoot, and in general, I think he's right. You can build a team for the regular season, but it's much harder to find the right magic pixie dust for the playoffs. Just look at the Braves, with but one title to show for basically two decades of regular-season dominance. Their best squad during that whole run may have been 1993, when the won 104 games (don't remind Matt Williams, whose Giants won 103), but they didn't even make the World Series.

With Stras, no, he's no longer throwing 103, but he's still been a dominant pitcher at times between 2012 and 2014. He's not now, so something is wrong. The scuttlebutt seems to be that the ankle injury in the spring messed up his mechanics and particularly affected the snap on his breaking pitches. We'll see. As the Nats pull away from the pack, there should be several months of relatively low pressure to try and get him dialed back in.

As for midseason reinforcements, the fast-sinking A's are likely to have a couple of expiring contracts widely available, the long-desired Ben Zobrist and . . . wait for it . . . one Mr. Tyler Clippard.

Bjd1207 said...

I'm just as confused as everyone else on Stras. My only two cents is that PitchF/X indicates that the velo and movement (to KW's point) are both typical. As pointed out by earlier responses the problem is the location. I'm not sure what physically or mental impacts your location. However, perhaps some historical context? Can we find someone (or better yet a sample) who has previously lost their command like this? Does it come back?

@KW - Clippard I'm in, Zobrist I don't think we have room for if Escobar/Espinosa remain around their current production.

@Harper - What prompted the defensive stats rant? I don't recall us dwelling on them too much in the recent past?

HammerAce said...

@Bjd1207 - Rick Ankiel comes to mind. He should make a stop in Washington in between stops at the minor league affiliates.

Donald said...

I'm with John C on the whole 'all-in' meme. I think it's mostly defined more by who you give up than who you get. Despite keeping Desmond, Znn and Fister and also getting Scherzer, the Nats won't be considered to be all-in until they give up a top prospect. It wouldn't matter if the trade were to get Melvin Upton. Until they give up Cole or Difo or Giolitto, they haven't proven their dedication to winning THIS year.

Also, who would the Nats even target as a pick-up? It was mentioned they could add a veteran arm in the pen -- that's Janssen, right? Do they need another starting pitcher to compensate for Fister and/or Strasburg -- they just added one of the best starters in the NL over the last year in Roark. A big bat? That would be Rendon.

Kenny B. said...

I really, really hope Strasburg can figure it out. A lack of command seems out of step with him as a pitcher (as opposed to Gio, where you know it's part of the package), so it should be something that can be coached/pitched through unless it really is injury. All we can do is watch and read between the lines. If he struggles through the ASB, I think we might see him do another stint out of the rotation, especially if the division lead is intact and Fister comes back.

Also, can we all just marvel in a focused way at the phenomenal value of Tanner Roark?

WiredHK said...

Donald - I agree, I was just searching for one area on this team where maybe -- maybe -- one could make a case to go further "all in" ish (Barrett and Treinen will just flat have me nervous in big games, I can't help it). Janssen may be the answer, we'll see.

But I'm with you and John C on this one, they're pretty much all-in as is (if we're "calling" the race in May, that would seem to indicate we all like this team a lot). The rest is just tinkering in the vague hopes of helping marginally in October (be careful with that one, Billy Beane!).

As for Stras, I got nuthin'...he looks like he should be fine, but he's so far from fine. Does he tip his pitches? Is it bad luck? Is his pitch sequence utterly predictable? Is he hurt? I may like the "bad luck" explanation from Pescado the most, really. It's not Ankiel-levels - guys like that can't even be near the plate when the lose it all at once. Stras "looks" ok, but...he's not. Weird.

J. Henry Waugh said...

Everyone was wringing their hands before a string of seemingly easy games for the Mets and difficult games for the Nats. When we first began the discussion, the Nats were 3.5 out of first and many people in this comments section were hoping they could just hold their place or not lose more than a game or two during the stretch.

Here are the series: WAS : @SD, NYY, PHI, @CHC, @CIN, TOR, CHC, @NYY

Harper predicted that we SHOULD win the series against the Phillies and MAYBE Toronto. Well, so far he is correct in one of those predictions but has failed miserably in two and is looking bad in a third.

Harper also wrote a rather negative post about Drew Storen a few weeks ago, something along the lines of how he couldn't be trusted in high-leverage situations. Interesting.

Fries said...

@Donald, 1000% agree. I was literally about to type the same

Bjd1207 said...

@J. Henry - Lol coming hard at our gracious host. You're right about his predictions for the series, but his comment about Storen (which I 100% agree with) is that he's had success in the regular season before. He's a closer so he's always in high-leverage situations, it was more that he couldn't be trusted in the HIGHEST leverage situations (closing in the playoffs). And so we wait...

WiredHK said...

J Wow - "Everyone was wringing their hands" - huh? So, if Harper (and a few others) take measured approaches to guesses about stretches of games vs decent teams, this pisses you off and you come on here to gloat if they do well? Guess what? Everyone is thrilled (including Harper)! Your tone seems odd to me. Perhaps you'd be happier if everyone predicted an undefeated season (boy that seems fun). Btw, he didn't really even predict much - just said let's see how they do, more or less (and, right now, it looks great!)

As for the Storen post, I think you missed the entire point there, too (hint: the focus was on Drew in the playoffs and relative confidence levels). Drew is having an All-Star season right now. I think we're all hoping this is the Drew we also get in October. Not really a problem to say that out loud...

blovy8 said...

While Strasburg is pretty much doing worse across the board, he's really getting killed with guys on base. He didn't have that issue last year. Do they give him enough reps on the side from the stretch to know that those mechanics are sound? I guess I'll have to hunt around to see pitch usage to see if there's a different pattern. I thought and still think that he needs to throw inside more. He just gets too many hits off "pitcher's" pitches to suit me. There's tipping your cap, and tipping your approach. Since he doesn't throw 100 anymore, he should stop worrying about hurting someone.

Froggy said...

Thanks Harper for 'calling it' on May 26th...now you've done (jinxed) it!

As for the whole Strasburg conversation has anyone done any digging into if there is any correlation / coincidence to his performance and who is behind the plate calling pitches? I'd be curious to know as it (insert italics since I dont know how) seems like he does better with Lobaton behind the dish.

Also, I too hate the 'all in' talk every year...as it seems like the Cardinals manage to be make it to the playoffs without the corresponding 'sky is falling if we don't make the big trade' now conversation.

Eric said...

It's so nice of you guys to humor Mr. Waugh, he seems so badly to need entertaining!

KW said...

I agree that a *healthy* Rendon would be the best midseason acquisition possible. We'll see how the bench starts shaking out when he and Werth get back. The thought with Zobrist is that he could play pretty much anywhere - INF, OF, 1B.

I'm also on board with seeing what we've got in Janssen before making a move like Clippard. The jury is still out on Treinen as a late-innings guy as well. Grace looks solid. Solis flashed brilliance and disappeared soon thereafter, keeping with his career MO. My point was more that Clippard is very likely going to be available . . . for someone.

Anonymous said...

More than anything stras needs time to pitch through whatever is going on with him... However, doesn't he profile as a truly monster bullpen ace?

If fister comes back OK and roark keeps cooking why not use stras as a fireman in high leverage as well as a multi inning guy to get to the closer (or even as a 2-3 inning finisher).

If stras pitched 120-130 innings a year out of the bullpen (right in line with what Rollie fingers pitched) he is still a very valuable player.

Froggy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
J. Henry Waugh said...

Yes, we shall never stir up the pot! Anyway, after the great young pitcher Damon Rutherford died, things just haven't been the same for me.

J. Henry Waugh said...

@bjd @wiredhk. If Harper were trying to make a point about Storen's effectiveness in the playoff's, why would he have written a column about it in late April? My point is that he's been ice cold since. Including plenty of one-run games he's easily the NL's dominant reliever right now. Hey, I love Harper, but I love to give a genius sh** every now and then. I find his statistics fascinating and enlightening, but sometimes you just have to sit back an realize that the cream always rises to the top.

WiredHK said...

J. Henry Waugh, Prop. - Fair, you disliked the timing of the piece. But I think the point in the writing was pretty spot on. I don't have any issue with giving Harper some sh** now and then - just looked like your tone was over the top compared to what he actually wrote...

Also (not related to you, Waugh), Barrett...bullpen...that felt a lot like an October preview. I realize they just won several close games in a row so I don't want to overreact but Barrett in critical spots just makes me nervous.

Anonymous said...

It's amazing how the Nats have staged such a nifty rise out the April depths without Werth and Rendon in the lineup. Measured by OPS, they were our two best hitters last year. So who goes back to the minors when they come up? And who sits?

Difo goes back, of course. Taylor needs ABs in AAA, lest too much time on the bench sap his confidence. He can come back in Sept. Escobar sits.

Is it too early to ask what is going on with Zimm?

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