Nationals Baseball: Season in Review : In-season

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Season in Review : In-season

So far, as a fanbase, Nats fans/media were one for two in setting expectations. When the Giants beat the Nats in the playoffs and they started to think "ok we'll be here next year, what do we have to do to make the NLCS or WS" that was actually fine. Objectively looking at the Nats did produce, at that moment, a favorite to return to the playoffs. When they were still thinking that at season's start though, that was a problem. The Nats offseason of injury and getting rid of nearly every bullpen arm had created a Nats team that still should win the NL East, but had much greater potential for losing it as well.

Now we get to the the third expectation point. This one actually is not confined to a single date but would end up encompassing the time from the start of the season until July 28th. This expectation was that "the Nats would put the Mets in the rearview mirror when everyone got back healthy".

Initially it didn't have to be the Mets, but initially the expectation didn't have to exist at all either. We understood the possibility of a slow start, but anything can happen in a couple weeks so the Nats might instead start out hot and never cool down. Didn't happen. The Nats minus Rendon/Werth/Span started out cold. Meanwhile, rather than the Mets and Marlins (and ok maybe the Braves but they went into rebuild mode in the offseason) fighting it out for the lead, the Mets took control from Game...ok not 1, Game 6.  At that point the Mets would start an 11-0 streak and set themselves up as the team for the Nats to catch in the NL East. (The Marlins would go 5-11 and never really be in the race).

At this point that expectation I noted kicked in, and to be honest the problem with it wasn't in the assumption of talent, but the assumption of health. It should have been phrased "the Nats would put the Mets in the rearview mirror IF everyone got back healthy".  The idea that in a couple weeks Rendon and Werth would be back and then Span, who was recovering quickly, would follow and everything would be fine turned out to be way off.

4/6 :  -Span, -Rendon, -Werth
4/13 : -Span, -Rendon
(4/15 : Stammen out for year)
4/19 : -Rendon
5/16 : -Rendon, -Werth
(5/19 : Fister goes out)
(6/3 : Strasburg goes out) 
6/10 :  -Rendon, -Werth, -Zimmerman
(6/18 : Fister back)
(6/23 : Strasburg back)
7/7 : -Rendon, -Werth, -Zimmerman, -Span
(7/9 : Strasburg out again)

Rendon's injury would linger seemingly forever, never allowing the Nats to have everyone back. They almost had it for about a month and that time would closely correspond with the Nats best run of the year. They'd go 18-10 with "all but Rendon" specifically and from 4/28 to 5/27 the Nats would go 21-6.

The injuries would keep the Nats from having a consistent line-up. Not only that, injuries would do the same to the rotation, and Stammen going out early meaning the Nats had almost a whole new bullpen to find. This inconsistency would show up in the Nats performances where they would alternate playing well and playing terribly : 7-13, 21-6, 6-14, 12-3

Still the expectation seemed fair based on the assumption of talent. Despite playing middling baseball for 90 games the Nats found themselves 49-41 heading into the Mets series on Jul 20th and holding a 2 game lead. They'd win 2 of 3 and it seemed very clear that this Mets team just couldn't catch this Nats team. Their offense was too anemic. Their bullpen had too many questions. Yes, the Mets would have a couple key players returning from injury in Wright and d'Arnaud, but the Nats had four key players returning all of who hit better than those two in 2014. It seemed pretty safe to assume the Nats would widen their lead.

Then something happened.

On July 24th the Mets traded for Kelly Johnson and Juan Uribe. Then on July 27th the Mets traded for Tyler Clippard. Then on Jul 31st the Mets traded for Yoenis Cespedes.

On offense, the conceit was all the Mets did was add players that were at best only as good as the ones coming back from injury for the Nats, and probably not even that. This might have been true, but this ignored the fact that the guys for the Nats were coming back from injury. You had no idea how they would perform. Johnson, Uribe, and Cespedes you could be fairly sure they would perform around as they performed up until this point in the season. But Werth, Rendon, Zimm, and Span? It was completely possible that they could give you nothing. Yet the fans, fed by the team (it's like we're making 3 deadline deals!), ignored that fact* and assumed they would play as they had in previous years. Based on those now flawed assumption, Nats fans still expected to go right by the Mets once everyone came back on July 28th.
So to recap - the expectation of putting distance between the Nats and the Mets made sense on July 22nd, was questionable on July 24th and even more so on the 27th as the Mets addressed their issues with fixes of more certainty than injury returnees. On July 30th Papelbon would join the Nats giving fans and that expectation a boost, but on July 31st the Mets added Cespedes and that expectation was arguably no longer valid. The next 62 games would be decided with teams who had roughly the same chances of performing well.  The Nats may have had the better on-paper talent, but the Mets had far more certainty in their talent. They did not have to rely on four bats (and one arm - Strasburg) performing when they returned, only two.

At that point the expectation should have switched to a dogfight to the end of the season. That would have been fair. Why didn't that actually happen? Well if two teams are of equal standing, anything unexpected could derail (or propel) one team's chances. We ended up getting three of those things.
  1. We can talk about this in more detail later but the Nats pitching unexpectedly blew up. The relief pitching, which had been pick and choose bad, became across the board bad. Gio and shockingly Max also threw up terrible game after terrible game.
  2. When the injury returnees for both teams started to hit again in late August, the Nats should have had an advantage, but the Mets had several players really outperform expectations and wiped out that expected advantage
  3. The Mets swept the Nats in two head to head series. Admittedly, the Mets played better than the Nats this season, especially down the stretch, but you'd expect even the worst team playing the best team to take 1 or 2 games of 6. The Nats go 2-4 in those series and it's a 3 game lead after Sept 9th, not 7.
Even the adjusted expectation is just an expectation. If something unexpected happens, it won't hold.

You ever hear about how people want to get rid of the college football pre-season poll because it sets an expectation that may not reflect reality? That it takes a few games into the season to really get an idea of who is the good and who is the bad but once set, voters are reluctant to really move these teams? How pre-conceived notions influence our thoughts all the way down the line? Yeah, that's kind of what happened here.

We started at a place I'd argue was the right place. A Nats team primed to repeat as NL East champs. But rather than re-evaluate when injuries and bullpen issues came to the fore, both during the pre-season and in-season, we simply adjusted. Oh the Nats were a 95 win team before, so they'll just win a few fewer games. Oh the Nats were a 93 win team entering the season, clearly they'll be a 93 win team when everyone comes back. At any point in the season though we should really evaluate from the ground up. Take a fresh look at the team as it is and for god's sake understand the variability of injuries and old veterans/young players. If we did that we would have been more wary to start the year and we would have seen the coin-flip situation at the end of the year as it truly was. 

*I'll note I did try to warn you that things had changed both before and after the Mets series.


Anonymous said...

Hind sight is 20-20. No one knows what restrictions the Lerners placed upon Rizzo in limiting what additions he could bring to the team. The one glaring hole throughout the year was the bull pen and trying to find multiple quality relievers at the trade deadline would have cost a pretty penny. I suppose management had to weigh past experiences in the playoffs when they had a much better performing team during the year against whether to sacrifice the future by trading for rentals or praying that the returning starters would turn things around.

Clip&Store said...

Hire Charlie manual! Thoughts Harper?

ProphetNAT said...

As much as I agree that a lot of our failures were based on injuries, some of this - if not, a great deal of our losses this season came down to poor coaching/in-game management by Williams and his staff. See this article on Jeremy Affeldt's retirement:

To summarize, Affeldt, who's postseason numbers (0.86 ERA, career) rank only behind Mariano Rivera and Harry Brecheen, gives his reason for his success in crunch-time: "Most people don’t believe me, but I really didn't do anything different on the mound in the postseason than I did during the regular season. My success in the most critical of situations was just as easily attributable to my managers putting me in good positions to succeed and my defense making plays behind me as it was because of anything I did out there."

A lot about great coaching is setting up your players for success. So when we hear Williams say, "we are sticking by with what got us here," - he's partially correct. But know the situation at had. Perfect Example: The Xavier Cedeno experiment earlier this season. No one mentions this, but it is largely to one of MW's worst blunders. Cedeno, who came into this season with lefties hitting .253/.358 and righties hitting .343/.520 - was placed into the following scenarios in the span of a week: Williams brought him in/or left him in to face 9 righties and 6 lefties. The result? Cedeno was cut, and we lost 3 games because of his poor performance. But was it all him? Well, the Padres picked him up shortly after, where he finished the season with a 2.09 ERA, 43 SO, 12 BB, and 1.14 WHIP. This kind of stuff CANNOT be ignored.

Go back to all the games that we trailed or led by 1-2 runs after the 6th (there were a ton). How many of those were winnable, but we failed. Not only failed - but BLEW UP IN OUR FACES. Poor managerial decision making. This isn't because of the benefit of hindsight, but the necessity of knowing your players WELL, and placing a particular guy in the situation where HE can best succeed. If HE succeeds, WE succeed - Williams never understood that and his peanut gallery of a coaching staff (yes you Randy Knorr), didn't have the knowledge or balls to say otherwise.

Not to beat a dead horse - but we NEED a manager who gets this concept and can demonstrate it throughout the season. Because with that, comes culture change, and before you know it - the Nats start to weather injuries like STL does. Starts to find random relievers who step right in like SF does. All of the sudden - its a winning formula. Look at Joe Maddon and the Cubs! Tell me an organization who wins year in and year out - despite their manager?

SM said...

Extraordinarily interesting reviews over the past two days. (Another way, I suppose, of saying, "Thanks for ripping off the scab again.")

On a another topic, I'm kind of curious why several posters--or is it just @ProphetNAT?--have championed 71-year-old Charlie Manuel as MW's replacement. Is it because he won a World Series?

Cito Gaston's the same age and won 2. So did Tom Kelly, and he's 6 years younger than Manuel.
(Maybe I should be asking @ProphetNat.)

In any case, Harper, I'm certain you'll eventually address managerial candidates/qualifications. (However, beware the firestorm that'll follow.)

Continued exceptional work.

SM said...

Check that: My apologies @ProphetNAT. @Clip&Store inquired about Charlie Manuel.

SM said...

Now apologies for misprinting Clip&Store.

God, what a day . . .

SM said...


JE34 said...

It's a shame that Felipe Alou is 80 years old... his old franchise needs him. Somebody call Jim Leyland.

Anonymous said...

People are citing Charlie Manuel because Werth said in 2013 that Manuel was his favorite manager ever. Presumably Werth wouldn't rip down a lineup card written by Charlie Manuel.

No disrespect to Werth, but at this point, I think the higher priority is finding a manager who can cultivate a good relationship with Bryce and is not a complete moron when it comes to managing a pitching staff.

ProphetNAT said...

No worries SM, definitely wasn't me who thinks highly of Charlie Manuel. Also not sure why Jim Leyland is brought up as a replacement? The guy finished with one WS ring and .500 record - with decent teams like Florida, Pittsburg and Detroit. Plus he's older than a bag of bones. My pick would be a like Bud Black or Tito Francona (if he's available).

SM said...

@Anonymous 11:47

I didn't know that. Thanks.

Let's hope Jim Riggleman wasn't any of the current Nats' favourite manager.

Bryceroni said...

Terry francona or bud black

Jay said...

I agree with Francona and Black. I mentioned in a previous post that the last former Pads manager to be hired by another team was Bochy. Anyway, I would be ok with Martinez - the Cubs bench coach as well. I think it is all not MW's fault, but man what a moron that guy was. Anybody want to go back and think about the fact that he hit Harper 6th or 7th pretty much all of last year. He did this to "take pressure off of him". If anything it increased pressure bc Harper is used to playing under a microscope. Now all of the sudden he wasn't good enough to hit higher in the order. Is that a recipe for pressing or what. I knew MW had to go when I heard Desmond say that he started hitting better when Ripken saw him in the parking lot after a game and gave him a pep talk. Doesn't say much for old MW does it. A guy who isn't even in the organization helped Desmond play better. It is that very reason that I think Knorr shouldn't be the guy either. He was part of the trainwreck that was this year.

Anonymous said...

"Matt's mentor" Dusty Baker is interested in the Nats job:

Zimmerman11 said...

Did you sneak an "I told you so" in there Harper? For shame! LOL.

Though I also remember you highlighting the importance of winning the division and not subjecting your postseason hopes to the vageries of a one game playoff. Go 'Stros!

Now if we can just get the Cards outta there... this might be a really great postseason.

Houston, KC, Chicago/Pittsburgh, Toronto, Please let's don't wind up with STL/LAD in the LCS!

Anonymous said...

Sorry about the Yankees, Harper. At least Dusty Baker might be on his way to the Nats. More chances for Rendon to learn how to sacrifice bunt.

BxJaycobb said...

Harper: I disagree entirely with your distinction between expectations for players returning from injuries versus trade deadline acquisitions. The thing is, whether acquisitions are deadline deals or players returning from injury, given the small sample size window, there's a chance those players will play very well or play very poorly; certainty is incredibly low either way. The Mets had guys returning from injuries with question marks about their return play just like the nats did (D'Arnaud, hand injury which often saps power, Wright, serious back injury), but those guys played great--particularly D'Arnaud who was the best hitting catcher this year when he played. Werth and Rendon did NOT play well. Ryan Zimmerman DID play well after returning. Likewise, trade acquisitions can play well or not play well with dramatic variations...the Mets landed on Cespedes after going after Gomez, Bruce, AND Justin Upton. Three of those players were bad down the stretch. Cespedes was Bryce Harper level. The notion that players returning from injury are quite different re certainty of level of play from trade pieces playing for a 2 month window just isn't correct. The fact is, the Mets had the chips fall their way. The Nats really didn't. Expecting production from Werth and Rendon and Zimmerman to exceed production from Cespedes, Uribe, and Kelly Johnson isn't just rational---it's substantiated by the injury vs. trade piece production this year.

Harper said...

BX - D'Arnaud stats look good in comparison to Werth/Rendon because he hit before his injury - that's pretty much it. They all had about two/three weeks of bad hitting followed by 3 weeks of good hitting, followed by a crash out. But D'Arnauds starting point was much higher.

I understand your 2 months is too variable line of thinking but I can't agree. Let's put it this way - over the course of a season who do you trust more to hit expectations? An injury returnee or an non-injury returnee? I hope you say the latter. So while cutting any time period down increases variability it increases variabilty across the board. The distribution flattens for both but the injury returness distribution is already flat. SO a healthy guy might be bad 25%, normal 50%, great 25% which is higher than if given a full year but a injury returnee those numbers might be 50%, 33%, 17%. I'm just throwing number out here but I hope you get my thinking. Yes 2 months is short cuts down on certainty for healthy players but it basically removes all certainty for injury returnees.

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