Nationals Baseball: Opposite Directions

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Opposite Directions

I tweeted something yesterday that encapsulates exactly why I would call the Nats season with so many games (at the time) left to play. Here is an expanded version.

After the games of August 5th, the Nats had won their 4th game in a row and had opened up a large lead over their closest rivals for the NL East title. They were 7 games ahead of the Marlins and had a 9 game lead on the Mets. In the 17 games since then the Nats have gone a middling 8-9. But they are in no worse position after the games of August 24th then they were then. The Marlins are still 7 games back and the Mets have even lost ground, now down by 10.

You can take negatives from this. This isn't how a winning team plays*  The NL East sucks**  I prefer to take a positive. The Nats will make the playoffs.

Now let's talk about a couple of guys going in opposite directions.  Do you want the bad news or the good news first? How about the Danny Espinosa, I mean "bad news", first. Sorry, slip of the tongue.

Danny is hitting .220 / .318 / .400. As it stands now he is holding on to the "good enough" level that we've talked about with Danny at the beginning of his career. If he can walk ok and hit homers ok then the low average doesn't matter as much. But he's only holding onto it by the skin of his teeth.  .235 is ok. .215 is not.  You could say the trend is not good, that he's flailing recently but that's not really the truth.  Here's the truth.

Danny's first 57 games : .196 / .289 / .348
Danny's next 26 games : .357 / .455 / .762
Danny's last 39 games : .168 / .269 / .248

Danny had one great month and almost 100 games of offense so bad you'd have to sit him. Being streaky is fine, but that word suggests you go on and off streaks all year. You run hot and cold. Danny... he isn't doing this. This is more fluky that streaky. It's more 2014, where he started with a good month and that was it, than 2015, where he played well for most of the first half and had a decent 3 week stretch right around now.

Even if you are inclined to like Danny and think he's more of the pre-injury guy (hovering in the 90-100 OPS+ range) than the post-injury guy (somewhere from worse than that to "if I played baseball"), there isn't much to hang your hat on. There's no unfortunate BABIP (it's .286)  His K rate, the bane of his offensive existence, which had dropped to a reasonable mid 20s% is back up well over 30%. The crazy HR/FB rate that helped power June went away, as expected. He's hitting a lot of balls softly. He tanked the end of the last two years. While you can excuse that last one (circumstances differed) you can't deny it and hope for a late season explosion.

This is basically Danny. If he hits a little better you can take it. If the team as a whole is pretty good offensively, you can accept his flaws in the 8 hole. But at some point he won't hit enough, or the team will struggle too much, and it just won't be worth it to keep the slick fielding around. This is why Trea Turner was brought here and Daniel Murphy signed. Danny is short term. Let's hope that doesn't mean "last year"

But now good news and one Mr. Anthony Micelli Rendon. Wait. Nope. The "M" stands for Michael. How disappointing. And Boring. But knowing the Nats it's pronounced MY-CHEY-EL

Like Danny is Danny, Rendon is Rendon. He will hit if he's healthy. The problem was it was taking a long time for him to get healthy. It was a very slow April (.242 / .310 / .286). May was ok but June seemed to be a half-step back from that. Given that we were half-way through the year at that point, it was reasonable to ask if he'd ever get it going in 2016, or if fans would have to wait until next year.

But right around that half-way point he began to heat up and he hasn't slowed down since. .312 / .386 / .584 starting with game 82. Rendon does have a little high BABIP recently but for the 2nd half it's a reasonably high .327. His K-rate, up in the 23% range, has dropped like a rock under 12% in the second half.  He's stopped hitting ground balls (down to 28% from over 40% earlier). He's probably a little lucky but the question isn't if he can be hit like he's hit post-break. That'd be great but it would be a Murphy like transition to MVP favorite type. No, the question is can he hit like the .287 / .351 / .473 line from 2014? I think it's safe to say yes. That guy had a .314 BABIP a K rate around 15%, similar hit patterns and fancy stats. I can't promise you Rendon is better than that (though he might be - he's still youngish) but I feel pretty good saying I don't think he'll be worse.

The Nats aren't a perfect offensive team by any means, but there enough good pieces here when everyone's healthy to make a very good offense. While guys like Zimm and Rendon got their feet under them other guys have picked it up. Ramos, Drew, Turner.  For a month Danny put the team on his back, but that's probably all he can do. It is time for the injury guys to step up and they have. Rendon is back to being Rendon.

*Not true.  Did you know the Royals went 8-16 in September last year? In 2014 the Giants finished the year 6-9?  In 2012 the Giants spent the end of July and first half of August going 11-13? The 2011 Cardinals spent most of the month before Labor Day going 12-14? The 2010 Giants went 12-16 for a stretch in August. The 200... I hope you get the point. Middling, even bad stretches, late in the year don't mean you can't win in the playoffs. In fact August and September cover a third of a season. It's more likely that you have a middling stretch in there than you don't.

**Now this has some teeth. The Nats lost only a half-game to the Phillies and gained ground on the Braves which means that since August 5th the NL East as a whole has played like garbage. The Marlins have the worst record of a second place team right now. The Mets are 5 out of 6 for third place teams. The Phillies - hey the Phillies are ok! I mean in terms of rating 4th place teams. And the Braves are the worst team in baseball.


Kenny B. said...

Yeah, but it always sucks to get beat up by the Orioles. We have to live with those people.

Mythra said...

@Kenny B - True. I hate Angelos with a passion, especially as one of those NOVA people who used to go to his team's games when we had no team. So I always want to beat his teams whenever we face them.

However, the Nats can coast to the playoffs as Harper pointed out, while the Orioles are in a 3 or 4 team fight for what might come down to 2 playoff spots. They have a whole lot more to play for right now than the Nats.

Chas R said...

Thanks for the positive upbeat post in an otherwise depressing week. I don't think any of us can say we are surprised at Danny's hitting. Most here accepted he would hit poorly but that would be offset by his defense. Well, lately that isn't the case. Danny the K is morphing into Danny the E&K. If that continues, I don't see the upside in starting him everyday.

Harper seems to be coming around a bit. But, Zim is another BIG question mark. He showed some signs of life when he first came back, but now seems to be regressing again.

PotomacFan said...

Wilson Ramos is in a terrible slump, and rapidly reverting to his mean. Bryce Harper is doing better since returning from his sore neck, but he's not exactly getting clutch hits. Trea Turner is a beast. I think he might be more valuable in CF than at SS, but it should be easier and less expensive to pick up a decent CF in the off-season than a decent SS.

elchupinazo said...

@Kenny B I feel like this is the only time I'm not... mad that the Nats dropped 3/4? I mean yeah the volume of Orioles fans is annoying, and the Nats can't afford a total nosedive, but the Orioles are playing for a lot more right now than the Nats. I think it'd be great to see a Nats/Os WS (however unlikely that may be, though I guess no less likely than any other outcome), so my thinking is enjoy the 3-game gift, beat the snot out of them with Max on the mound to show 'em who's boss, and hope to see you again in October.

Robot said...

The recent losses have all felt pretty devastating, I think largely because it's been in no small part due to pitching. I think the particular teams that the Nats are losing to (Atlanta, Baltimore) are just salt in the wound.

Also, I'd like to see Ramos getting some more days off between now and the end of the season. The guy has been slumping lately, and we'll need him at his best in October.

Carl said...

I had a minor Twitter rant this morning, because too many Nats fans have this football mentality that every loss spells doom. One guy (who I've actually met IRL and he's otherwise an OK dude) actually argued that it was better to be terrible than to be sort of good but not great. Man, I sat through those 100-loss seasons when The Onion regularly made jokes about the team, and man that was freaking terrible. Obviously the solution is to avoid social media forever.

mike k said...

Carl - I think the argument that "it's better to be horrible than mediocre" has some credibility, but not here. First, the Nats aren't "sort of good." That's means 85-88 wins and fighting for a wild card spot. The Nats are the 2nd best team in the NL, even after a 4 game losing streak. They have holes, but no team in the MLB right now doesn't have glaring holes, except for maybe the Cubs.

I also don't think that argument holds a lot of water in baseball in general, unless your "sort of good" is the beginning of a long, slow decline with aging players, like the Phillies of a few years ago. Baseball has a longer turn-around than other sports, and while a top draft position is preferable, it doesn't make as large a difference as other sports. It's pretty rare a team will go from bad to very good in only 1-2 years. Nats did it, and IMO it was pretty incredible.

mike k said...

Also, I find it humorous that Nats fans seemed to be on board with giving players extra rest, seeing what we have with young guys, and being cautious with dinged up players like Strasberg, because the Nats have a big lead and can afford to absorb some losses in exchange for making sure guys are healthy during the playoff run. But now that the Nats actually have a few losses due to the above, the sky is falling!

Then again, I'm 100% totally straw-manning. I don't even know if there are a lot of fans who believe both of what I just wrote. But in my head, they exist.

Anonymous said...

I don't like the fact that it looks like Danny might be taking his struggles at the plate out into the field with him now.

I can tolerate his weak bat if he plays the kind of defense he did most of the year, but if he's going to play Ian Desmond caliber shortstop defense like he has recently, he unquestionably becomes a sub-replacement level player.

Jay said...

Nats traded for Mark Rzepcyzynski - lefty specialist was with Oakland. Good move in my opinion.

I'm ok with Danny at SS this year. I hope not next year. Having stated that however, I fully expect him at SS next year too. He has hit 2 HR this week. Hopefully, he gets hot down the stretch.

I worry more about Ramos. He looks like he has run out of gas.

Carl said...

Mike K - also worth noting that by making the playoffs in MLB, even if you're not a GREAT team, you have a reasonable chance of winning a championship. Couple guys get hot, you pitch well, who knows. Compare this to the NBA, where maybe four teams truly had a shot at the title last year.

coelacanth said...

It's the defense I'm worried about. Not just Espinosa's either.

Ole PBN said...

Not sure I agree with the move to get Marc Rzepzxqvpswrfski (sp?). Schrock, who is having a stellar year at the plate and a top prospect of ours, is traded for a guy who is nothing more than poor man's Oliver Perez. If all we needed was a LOOGY then why didnt they give Bryan Harper a call? Marc is sporting a 1.7 WHIP and seems to be a shaky reliever at best, just ask any Cards fan. Plus he's a rental. Hard to predict where some of these prospects will end up, but if we were going to trade Schrock, we should have gotten a better return than this bum. But, like a mindless drone, I'll be cheering "Let's go Scrabble!!" when he's on the hill for us. Oh boy...

G Cracka X said...

Completely off topic, but the Nats had a surprisingly good off-season, judging by in season results so far. Remember all the guys the Nats 'missed out' on? Darren ODay has zero Fangraphs WAR. Jason Heyward hasn't lived up to his contract so far. Ben Zobrist has been quite good, but the Nats signed a younger guy who has 1 more fWAR than him. And Murphs been way better than Brandon Phillips overall. Mike Leake has a higher ERA than any of the Nats Top 5 starters. Ben Revere hasn't done well, but he is still with the team, unlike Drew Storen. Ben could be a good bounce back candidate for next year. Petit hasn't been great, but has filled in well for the hole left by Stammen. Perez has faltered after a strong start to the year. All and all, not every move has worked, but it has been more productive than what it felt like at the time

Jay said...

Bryan Harper has been on the DL for a bit with the dreaded forearm tightness. He may not pitch again this year is what I read. He was doing pretty well at AAA before that. I am hopeful that Burnett may be called up as well. I prefer having 2 lefties. I'm thinking Perez ends up on DL. Strasburg supposedly playing catch at the moment per the tweeter (as Davey used to call it). Hopefully, that is a good sign.

Ole PBN said...

Jay - I just noticed that on Bryan Harper, I stand corrected. Looking at our AAA roster, we have some intriguing pieces there. I agree, I'd like to see Burnett get the call up. With a spot in the rotation up for grabs at the moment, any thoughts on Latos? Surprised to see we got him - must have missed that. Trevor Gott has looked good since returning from injury. Matt Grace is having a decent year, although I wasn't impressed last time I saw him up. Side note, DeFratus line suggests he might be running up to home plate, putting the ball on a tee and running back to field his position. He should stop doing that.

Will said...

@ Ole PBN: I was at the Chiefs game last night and DeFratus was just as bad as his line suggests. They weren't seeing eye singles or bloops that were dropping in. He was getting drilled - basically just line drive after line drive into the gaps. Grace really wasn't much better.

Froggy said...

Bryce finally batting .250 again...yay?

Josh Higham said...

Froggy, definitely yay. Doesn't matter how poorly a player has been hitting, bumping a batting average up by 20ish points in two weeks is a great thing, although it's obviously easier to do when your average looks like Danny's and ought to be around .300.

Bjd1207 said...

Can we re-tread for a second back to the Danny/Trea debate and realize once and for all how much offense trumps defense in terms of player value? All other things equal, if my choice is between Trea's offense and Danny's defense at SS, I'm picking Trea 10 times out of 10

Andrew said...

@Bjd, that's fair enough. But the reality is it's a choice between Danny + Trea, Danny + Revere, or Trea + Revere. Of those three, I like Danny + Trea best.

Anonymous said...

I'd rather see Trea + Difo. He can't possibly be worse than Danny if given the opportunity to play full-time. And why why why did we have to go back to Lobaton as the back-up C. I don't care if he got a hit last night, that guy is terrible at the plate. Please give that spot to Severino.

Sammy Kent said...

Opposite Directions Part 2 should document the convergent paths of Ryan Zimmerman and Trea Turner. At this point I'm all for replacing Danny with Wilmer Difo and Zimmerman with Clint Robinson. Or let Difo and Turner play the middle infield and put Ben in center and Murphy on first.

Bjd1207 said...

@Andrew & Sammy - You're right, it's not a straight up replacement in our current situation, that's just what the discussion focused on previously.

I think we can all agree that our sore spots right now are CF, SS, 1B. And the question in front of us is which combination of these is optimal (with Murphy moving to 1B where necessary):

Trea (CF), Danny (SS), Zim (1B)
Trea (2B), Danny (SS), Revere (CF)
Trea (SS), Revere (CF), Zim (1B)

I think option number 2 is probably the best defensive alignment, but includes both Danny and Revere which is dangerous offensively. I think Zim's bat (currently) is better than Revere's. Adding Clint into the equation complicates things further, but I don't think he's shown enough that we should be calling for him to start over Zim regularly. Could maybe play the splits and try:

Vs. Righties - Trea (SS), Revere (CF), Robinson (1B)
Vs. Lefties - Trea (CF), Danny (SS), Zimmerman (1B)

DezoPenguin said...

@Bjd1207: I have to say, I don't understand your faith in Zimmerman. He's basically been Bad Danny all year with the bat. Robinson's been the same. I mean, yes, Danny's a streak hitter. He basically had a good month (fun with arbitrary endpoints and all that). The people we're comparing him to, well, they didn't even have that. Nor can they field.

The stats pretty much speak for themselves:

Espinosa -- +1.9 rWAR, +2.1 fWAR
Robinson -- -0.2/-0.6
Zimmerman -- -0.8/-0.6
Revere -- -0.9/-1.0

We have one player who's good enough at one aspect of the game to be a league-average starter. (Werth is +0.7/+1.3, thanks to his lack of defense.) We have three players playing two positions that are worse than a hypothetical "replacement-level" player, the standard "AAAA" guy who's supposed to be available more or less at will to any organization. Chris Heisey, basically.

Obviously, Trea Turner replaces one of those guys, because Turner is an actually good player. That requires no brainpower. You have faith that Wilmer Difo is an average major-leaguer (or hell, that he's replacement level)? Fine, then start Difo at 2B and Turner in CF, with Murphy at 1B and Revere, Robinson and Zim riding the pine. But Espinosa is no worse than the third biggest problem in the lineup. Should we look to upgrade from him in the offseason? Sure! We can definitely do better than a glove-first shortstop. But there's nobody on the roster we have right now who's doing anything well enough to justify benching Espinosa.