Nationals Baseball: The sneaky worries

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

The sneaky worries

Looking back at yesterday's post (and comments - I'll get to that in a minute) got me thinking. What would my cursory description of the Nats be? If I were trying to sum them up in three short paragraphs and some notes to see if I wanted to face them, what would I say? Sure I know a lot more and can talk in depth, but sometimes you miss the forest for the trees so I decided to try it.

Offense -  Well rounded line-up with very good power and patience, good batting and acceptable speed. Surprise MVP candidate Murphy backed by a great young power hitter in Bryce and a super speedy ROY-type in Turner. However the lineup does have two real holes at first and SS which could lead to some easy innings for pitchers. Bench is thin with Heisey and Drew providing pop and that's about it.

Starting Pitching - If Strasburg returns to his season form, Scherzer, Strasburg and the underrated Roark form as good a three as any team. Scherzer is in argument for best non-Kershaw starter. Roark's numbers may not seem sustainable but given this is his 2nd excellent season as a starter he should get the benefit of the doubt now. Nats also have more potential to find a decent fourth than most other teams, although the good Joe Ross is injured and Gio Gonzalez is merely ok. Like Dodgers alot hinges on returns from injury but they have more healthy quality to work with.

Relief Pitching - Melancon provides the closer they were looking for. Rest of the pen is getting best in NL results from fancy stats that suggest more Top 5. Most likely some combination of luck and usage, and that can be worrying in a playoff setting where you have more difficult decisions and more talented opponents. Still a lot of decent arms to work with here, with very few duds, that's why it would still be Top 5. Rookie Koda Glover might be the key.

Etc - Both manager and team have had recent failures in playoffs.  Competition in NL East weaker than other divisions yet Nats are putting up more Dodger like win totals than Cubs.

Would I want to face the Nats over the Dodgers or Giants? I'd probably say this - if Kershaw and Hill pitch great in September I may actually want to face the Nats. Kershaw - Maeda - Hill can match up with Sherzer - Strasbrug - Roark. But otherwise assuming health but not great Sept performances from Strasburg, Kershaw, or Hill I'd go with facing the Dodgers. Offenses aren't terribly dissimilar. No discernible "won before" or "championship manager" advantage for either. (Giants have that but I'd still face them over either of these two - because that's the bulk of what they have)


Ok so take that for what you will. Obviously I follow the team so could get way more indepth. In fact let's do that now!

So the pessimists among us still look at the Nats and feel that there are problems. They haven't beat good teams recently and they don't seem to do much against good pitching. But of course good teams are hard to beat and good pitching is hard to score against - so is it just a case of seeing a problem that doesn't exist or are the Nats really deificient?

We can look at "good team" records first. Here are the .500+ teams the Nats have played since the break and how the series went : Mets (1-2), Baltimore (1-3), Cleveland (1-1, 1-1), San Francisco (2-2, 2-1) LA (1-2), Pit (at time 2-1).  You can easily argue that the Nats have not done well. Counting the four games v Baltimore and Cleveland together, they've gone 2-4-2 in series against good teams and the one of those series wins is against the worst performing NL team in the second half. (Hi Giants!)

But what does that mean? Sure the Cubs are doing well versus good team and the Dodgers are doing the same recently. But STL, another good performing 2nd half playoff contender, is 2-2-1 versus good teams since the break and one of those series wins was against the Mets at their lowest. All the other playoff teams? Mets, Marlins, Pirates, Giants? Not even .500 since the break. Maybe if I looked at them they'd be ok vs good teams during that stretch but if so what does it say when you can't beat the bad ones too? These teams all need all the wins they can get. Also, why does it not matter, if the teams aren't all that different, that the Nats were 3-1-1 vs good teams leading up to the break while say the Dodgers were 1-4?

Seasons have ups and downs and sometimes your downs are going to be pronounced. But good teams, over the course of the season, get the job done versus good teams. Not always, more like about half the time. This is what the Nats have done. This is what the Dodgers have done. If you did it closer to all the time well then you are a 100+ win team. That is maybe where the Cubs end up. For the course of the year the Nats have beaten good teams more often than not when playing hot and lost to good teams more often than not when playing mediocre. This isn't telling to me. It's baseball. The Nats aren't going to get away winning a playoff series playing mediocre baseball*. They have to play well. That shouldn't be a surprise. You can worry that they haven't been hot recently but baseball turns on a dime. They weren't 0-6-1 and getting swept a bunch. They just lost competitve series while not playing their best. As long as they aren't crashing into the playoffs going like 5-19 and squeaking by the Mets I have faith that they can win in the DS. What more can I ask for?

So what about the good pitching thing. Do I also think this is nothing? Well...

Ok here's the thing. The Nats are one of the better hitting teams in the league and when we peruse the situational stats that's generally what we see. If we look at how they rank in a certain situations we generally find them safely in the Top 5 or spitting distance from it, as long as there is enough sample size to keep the funniness at bay.  But this fails to be the case in two important splits. The first is "High Leverage" splits which attempts to best isolate the potential game changing at bats. You get a sense of this with RISP (Nats 5th in OPS), 2-out RISP (Nats 3rd), Late & Close (Nats 4th), etc. but leverage really gets down into what at bats are important and not. How do the Nats do? 8th. And not a rank driven 8th where they could be 5th with a couple good games but a true little below average 8th. The 8th itself isn't troubling. I mean it's average. That's ok. But it also means since they are an above average offensive team that they are underperforming in these circumstances. It's not as much as they are really hurting themselves as it is something is going on that you might pick up on in the back of your head. 

The other place the Nats fail to be around their normal Top 5 ish location is against power pitchers. Power pitchers (guys who strike out a lot but may walk alot) tend to do a better job against teams than average or finesse pitchers. Keeping the ball out of play is important - especially when you get an out while doing it. How do the Nats rank here? 13th in OPS. Yeah. Now to be fair this one is rank driven they aren't anywhere near 14th*** and could easily move up a couple spots with a good couple of games. But a couple of spots is still only 11th. It could be just luck. The BABIP is low and it's not like these guys are mowing the Nats down. But still how much can luck account for really? Especially since the Nats have had similar issues with power pitchers since 2013? What's the reason? I don't know. This is a multiple year regression problem that may or may not have an answer.  Is it an organizational thing? An organizational thing specific to facing strike-out pitchers? Is it because of the type of players they draft and sign? Is it just a multi-year fluke? Is it just facing the wrong set of power pitchers - maybe the teams in the NL East develop them differently?

All I can say is that for 2016 it's been real this year. If I were to guess I'd say there isn't a guy that challenges a great pitcher. Murphy and Ramos may not strike out much but won't walk and don't have the speed to run out bad contact. Other players do strikeout a lot. There's always an out for a good pitcher. Of course last year Bryce was a monster and that didn't help. They were even worse against power pitching. So I'm telling you I don't know. Really.

Beating good teams for me isn't much of an issue. The Nats will if they play well, they won't if they don't. End of story. But beating good pitchers? In tough spots? For whatever reasons that is a problem for the Nats and those are the types they'll be seeing a lot of in the playoffs.

FWIW : Kershaw Maeda and Hill all probably fit the bill for power pitchers. Kasmir too. For the Giants Bumgarner yes, but Cueto has dropped off and Samardzjia is not. Another reason to root for the Giants over the Dodgers. Of course all that matters is the result of the NLDS. If Nats lose, well then, we should have hoped to face the other one, right?



*though the Pirates didn't really tank until recently.

 **Well I suppose the other team could play horribly.

***The Phillies are 14th and the Nats are as close to them currently as they are to 6th place San Francisco.

36 comments:

W. Patterson said...

Thanks for the write-up, Harper. I was going to suggest that you do the cursory piece on the Nats yesterday but figured that your in-depth knowledge might introduce bias.

You done good.

Mythra said...

This is as good a piece as a person following the Nats can get to a 10,000 foot view. Thanks for the great post, Harper.

I think there is some observer bias in the recent sentiments some of us have posted. If the Nats were 3 games up on the Mets or Marlins, would the record recently be better? I think so. Certainly the Baltimore games would have been more competitive. Remember, the Nats were 7 games up and Baltimore was fighting, and still are, for a wild card and AL East pennant. The Os had every reason to fight tooth and nail for wins.

Would Stras have been on the DL? Rizzo already went on the record to say initially that if it was Playoff baseball, he'd have pitched through the discomfort. Stras said as much as well. Half the Lopez, Giolito, and Cole outings for the past few weeks has to be worth 1 or 2 wins, right?

I still don't like to bet against Bochy in the playoffs. He's always got his teams playing well when it counts most. It's like Izzo or Coach K in March. Don't bet against Izzo in March, don't bet against Bochy in October. Give me the Dodgers on the East Coast.

BxJaycobb said...

Harper: good post. I guess I would say this. Even if this is the case, failure against power pitching is not the reason the Nats have been at time offensively anemic in playoffs. In 2014, the Nats actually beat bumgarner but couldn't hit (check out this murderers row of finesse arms): peavy, Hudson, and vogelsong. In 2012, we actually handled wainwright, and couldn't hit Jaime Garcia, Kyle losche, and on his last legs pitching to contact Chris Carpenter. So this theory is plausible. But it doesn't explain last couple postseason failures.

Dusty's Toothpick said...

Seeing them fight back against the Braves last night and utilizing speed definitely eased some worry. I'm starting to notice that the bad and terrible teams (Braves, Rockies and Yankees etc.) are all playing very tough down the stretch. They bail on some of the starters and vets from the start of the season because they give prospects and "up and comers" a real chance to play and these teams play really scrappy so even though it was a pretty close game last night Inciarte, Swanson and Kemp are all pro hitters and not from the Braves of April. Just saying.

G Cracka X said...

What are the chances the Dodgers pass the Nats for HFA? They have the tiebreaker, so it isn't inconceivable that they catch the Nats. Of course, they have to play the Giants six more times, so there's that.

Fries said...

I don't like either NL West option. I hate the Dodgers lefty lineup and pitching, but I hate Bochy. I just have so much pessimism about the playoffs right now ugh

Froggy said...

Harper- question regarding this comment:

"Especially since the Nats have had similar issues with power pitchers since 2013? What's the reason? I don't know. This is a multiple year regression problem that may or may not have an answer."

Could there be a partial answer found where there have been a couple consistent holes with Espinosa, last year's Desmond, and Ramos strikeouts / BABIP?

Zach said...

@GCracka

I think the Nats are more likely than not gonna beat the Dodgers for HFA. While the Dodgers aren't exactly facing a murderer's row of opponents, the 6 against the Giants and the 3 on the road against the Yanks are arguably tougher than anything the Nats have left. The Nats schedule is essentially a cakewalk, with a potentially tough series or two against the Mets (@ home) and in Pittsburgh. The 6 games against the ice-cold Marlins don't worry me as much as they would have last month either. With 3 games in hand, that should be enough even if the Dodgers pick it up even more with Kershaw coming back.

cass said...

The Nats do not have just "acceptance speed". They have phenomenal speed. They currently sit at third in the majors in base-running runs above average, which includes stolen bases, advancing extra bases, and grounding into double plays. This despite starting Wilson Ramos, the fifth-worst base-runner in baseball.

http://www.fangraphs.com/leaders.aspx?pos=all&stats=bat&lg=all&qual=0&type=8&season=2016&month=0&season1=2016&ind=0&team=0,ts&rost=0&age=0&filter=&players=0&sort=17,d

Overall, the Nats this year are 3rd in the NL in position player WAR and 2nd in pitching WAR. They are second in the league in win percentage, run differential, and baseruns. The Nats are the second best team in the league, period. This is a well-rounded, very good team.

Harper said...

BxJaycobb - yeah that's the problem when you are dealing with 3-19 games. All it really takes in a series is one game to swing the other way for those stats not to matter. One bad day. One game with a couple lucky bounces and a timely bloop. But still let's ride with the best chance in theory.

Dt - Yankees! Eh. Braves and Yankees really only added one young impact bat. (If Swanson is even that). It's more about teams playing to talent. Braves are not THE WORST ever - merely a bad team so they are winning some series vs other bad teams and not rolling over vs the good ones. Yankees always had 85 win potential but started out terrible and have been fighting it since. A little over their heads now (27-19 playing only 3 series out of 14 versus under .500 teams) but again it's not rookies. Less about scrappiness more about returns to form

Froggy - maybe but I have to imagine that's something other teams have too?

WiredHK said...

I feel like having: A) Trea Turner and B) Dusty Baker are two core differences in this year's Nats that give me more hope for the playoffs. We have a guy that nobody can catch and a manager that is willing to constantly pressure opposing pitchers with speed (and fear of speed). He lets guys run that can run (no, still not you, Wilson).

This is a strong difference from the last two Nats playoff teams that preferred to sit around and wait for the big bomb to win us games. I don't think that works when you're facing the quality of pitching you get in the playoffs. I like running all day, all the time, every chance you get - which makes those power pitchers itch/sweat and fail to concentrate on the batter.

Small ball, baby!

Mythra said...

@WiredHK - Power pitchers also tend to be really bad at holding runners on base, which is another great advantage that Lopes, Dusty and Trea bring us over last two playoffs.

I know one of the Thor meltdowns against the Nats was the fact they ran all day on him and eventually got the bloop they needed to plate a few guys.

Flapjack said...

Don't know the stats, but how many games has some no-name journeyman carried a shutout into the 5th against the Nats? Seems like a lot. My sense is that our pitching has to be very good, because this club can't comfortably rely on its bats.

Sammy Kent said...

But beating good pitchers? In tough spots? For whatever reasons that is a problem for the Nats and those are the types they'll be seeing a lot of in the playoffs.

Harper, you have stated very succinctly what I have been trying to say with much embellishment.

Harper said...

Sammy - of course you have to admit a couple things (1) in a short series it may matter not (2) outside of good pitchers in tough spots Nats do really well so - matters less in playoffs but still matters (3) Mets are equally flawed. Giants and Dodgers less so but in no way killers, so it's not like they are bound to lose in the playoffs bc those teams are all great.

The Cardinals could be tough - their problem will be keeping it close enough to make those advantages matter. The Cubs - well they are the team to beat. Honestly I'd accept a well-played NLCS loss to the Cubs more than any other loss. They are complete.

Harper said...

I guess what I'd say is there is worry the Nats will underperform but given how the Giants and Dodgers do the NLDS actually looks fairly even. It's just as likely to be other things deciding that series than this stuff. This stuff would more likely come out in a Cardinals match-up, which is unlikely to begin with. It could come up in a Cubs match-up but then again the Cubs could just flat out beat the Nats

Anonymous said...

oh god

Gr8day4Bsbll said...

Here we go again...

Froggy said...

"It's just as likely to be other things deciding that series than this stuff."

Like Strasburg going on the 60 day DL...

Anonymous said...

we shoulda never left
Strasburg off the 2012
NLDS Roster.

LOOK WHAT JUST HAPPENED!!!!

Anonymous said...

It has kind of gotten flushed down the memory hole, but I distinctly remember back when Strasburg was drafted, someone said that he would have significant arm health issues because of his pitching mechanics.

It sure looks like that guy knew what he was talking about.

Anonymous said...

Furthermore, this sure looks to me like pretty solid evidence that no matter how cautious you are, it doesn't matter much with certain guys. Strasburg has been treated and used more cautiously and carefully than any other starting major league pitcher I've ever seen in my lifetime.

Anonymous said...

Would you rather have a:

Show Dog = Strasburg
or
Sled dog = Roark / ZNN

Jay said...

What it definitely looked like he blew out his elbow. All the Mets fans are probably laughing and saying Syndergaard is still pitching. Just kills me. Strasburg seems to be a pretty good guy that asked Scott Boras to keep him in DC. This is how everyone gets repaid. I'm hoping for good news, but I doubt it. I think the Nats are now the underdog in whomever they play in the playoffs. Also, Znn has spent most of the year on the DL for the Tigers.

G Cracka X said...

...

Gr8day4Bsbll said...

Trying not to be a pessimist here, but I think it's in our blood as Nats fans. The way Stras looked after those last two pitches and coming off the mound and heading into the dugout looked hauntingly similar to how he looked when he blew out his UCL and needed TJ. That said, though, I don't think that given his history, that anyone could blame him if he's a little gun shy and reacts with alarm anytime he feels any twinge, no matter how small, in that elbow. Here's hoping it's an overreaction and not what this pessimist Nats fan is preconditioned to think...

Rob Evans said...

So, like we were saying, Max, Roark and Gio in the Dodgers series....right???

If I don't laugh, I'll cry uuuugggh...

Froggy said...

While we are all sitting in the metaphorical baseball waiting room awaiting news on the prognosis of our star pitcher, I was looking at the overall playoff picture and was wondering what tie- breaking system would be used if StL, SF, and the Nets all ended up tied for the second WC slot?

Dave said...

The description of what he felt in the elbow is not the typical one of a UCL tear. He was pretty specific on where (olecranon) he felt the "pinch". I hold out some hope that he has irritated the elbow by the sheer extension forces of pitching. He returned to the mound after a less than usual path back from the DL. He was throwing the day before. Very odd...

Zach said...

Let's just use a 3 man rotation in the playoffs. We can have a couple long guys out in the pen. I honestly think that may be our best shot at this point, if Ross can't come back to start.

DezoPenguin said...

Yeah, ultimately I don't like our chances against anyone if we have to go Scherzer, Roark, and pray for rain in a playoff series. Gio is a fine #5 starter, a solid #4 starter, and a serious stomachache as a #3. We need at least one of Strasburg or Ross pitching to the level they pitched in the first half of the season or games just become unwinnable.

(Which informs the whole "win series against good teams" discussion. Cole outpitching Syndergaard was the exception that proves the rule, but otherwise Hurt Stras, Giolito, Lopez, and Cole have basically given us two automatic losses every five games when facing top-level competition. If our playoff rotation is Max-Tanner-Gio-AJ, then, well, we're trusting a lot in the offense and the power of prayer, and that is not a good place to be. It's not like 2012 where even without Strasburg we could reliably count on Detwiler to pitch respectably in his place (as he actually did).)

Of course, the Dodgers fans are probably sitting on their message boards saying the same kind of things about getting Kershaw back and hoping that Rich Hill can pitch more often than every ninth day. And even Cubs fans are hoping that Lackey gets back healthy, Arietta re-figures where the strike zone is, and Hendrick doesn't turn into a pumpkin. Teams that are angsting over September issues are good teams with good players, meaning that "please let us be healthy for the postseason" is what everyone is worried about.

Anonymous said...

Strasburg will be on and off the DL year in and year out. Dude throws the ball way too violently.

Sammy Kent said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Harper said...

Froggy - Fun question! I could go into it deeply but the reality is this possibility is not as interesting as it could be. If all 3 are tied in H2H2H records vs eachother it goes into some stuff but all three CAN'T be tied bc Mets/STL played eachother 6 times, while STL/SF, Mets/SF was 7. So SF will play one more game overall and can't be tied with STL/Mets in this scenario. They are either in or out.

After that it becomes a two team tie (if SF is out - which is actually more likely in this scenario given H2H2H records right now) The Mets - STL would go to simple H2H (tie), then intradivision (STL leads 33-26 vs 30-27). If that ends up tied it's NL games at which point STL would take it bc they only won 8 interleague games and are done, while the Mets, who are not done, have already won 9.


Froggy said...

Thanks Harper! I had a feeling it was a complex scenario but had complete confidence that you would know the answer.

I think it would be cool to have that kind of drama at the end if the season.

Froggy said...

Thanks Harper! I had a feeling it was a complex scenario but had complete confidence that you would know the answer.

I think it would be cool to have that kind of drama at the end if the season.