Nationals Baseball: May 2017

Monday, May 22, 2017

Monday Quickie - Relative or Absolute

The Nats are 9-9 in May.  10-10 since Adam Eaton was lost for the year.  Does it matter?

Well let's say that the Nats go .500 for the rest of the season starting at the point that Adam Eaton went down. They were 23 games in, 16-7,... subtract... carry the one... multiply by Plank's constant...
They'd end the season either 85-77 or 86-76. Those aren't great totals to be sure. And in a baseball vacuum, you'd worry, in this scenario, that they wouldn't even get a Wild Card berth.

Now let's look at some other numbers. Namely the records of the other teams in the NL East since that same date.

ATL 9-11
NYM 9-11
MIA 5-17
PHI 4-16

The short of it? The Nats have played .500 ball for 3+ weeks and have gained ground on EVERYONE in their division. They do not play in a baseball vacuum. They play in the NL East. Even in this scenario, they are fine.

Now that we satisfied any worry warts, why are the Nats struggling? They aren't a .500 team are they?  Well April / May makes a convenient break point, even if it is imperfect so lets look at RS/RA in the two months

April  6.8 RS/G,  4.88 RA/G
May 4.22 RS/G,  4.61 RA/G

So the hitting got a lot worse. Or more accurately, the hitting stopped carrying the offense. There were 6 (out of 25) games in April that the Nats almost could not lose where the Nats scored 11, 14, 14, 15, 16 and 23 runs. That certainly skews the month but it also, you know, happened.  There were also 5 more games where the team scored 6 or more runs. This is a usual win even against a Nats team struggling with the pen, a good run more over average. (they did in fact win all 5 of these).   Lastly the Nats scored 0-2 runs only two times during the months. These are close to automatic losses.

In May the Nats have had zero double digit scoring games, 5 games still over 6 runs scored (won them all again), and three games scoiring 0-2 runs. There's still a week to go but the Nats are playing a lot more "losable" games. What they aren't doing though is playing a ton more "unwinnable" games. Instead they are playing a lot of games where everyone is scoring some runs. This accentuates the late inning problems because these games are all relatively close. 

The relievers, believe it or not, have gotten better. Though that isn't saying much as they had a 5.70 ERA in April. The starters, in turn, have gotten a bit worse, up to a 4.20 ERA from a 3.90 ERA in April. So there are some

Where is 4.22 R/G? It's below average in a typical modern season, but not terrible.
Where is 4.61 R/G? It's above average in a typical modern season, but not terrible.

Really it's the combination for a below .500 team, but you know, that's like 1 game going the other way difference, we're talking about.

What this shows is that with a terrible pen, the Nats can still win... with a phenomenal offense and above average starting pitching. With an average-ish offense and average-ish starting pitching, you can't. This shouldn't really be a surprise. Average + average + below average isn't going to equal well above average.

Should you worry? Well about the NL East no. What about just in general? Maybe. The starters have been around a 4.00 ERA for over a quarter of the season, the relievers around 5.00. This may be what they are as a group. If that's the case it's a below average combination and the offense will have to carry the team. Can it? Probably. The questions start with Turner, who hasn't gotten anything going this year. That is ok, but that's about all you can afford. Then the questions turn to MAT. Can he be effective? If that's negative that sets up a problem for the team

There are still more questions that are now hanging around the Nats.Where does this drift back down end for Zimm? Can Rendon sustain success? But these are tabled for the moment secondary to the obvious ones above. If MAT and Turner can't hit and these are still questions, then these questions take on added importance drawing the line between a good offense and an ok one. If those questions are both answered negatively then things start to get dicey. Murphy and Bryce have to both be stars constantly which is too much to ask.

For all the potential worry, a possibly underperforming Nats offense and a disappointing starting pitching staff is still keeping the Nats at .500 with a terrible pen. If we're right about the offense and the starting pitching they'll pop back up. Probably not to April levels but above .500 and with a smooth sail to 90+ wins and the division title. You can worry about the playoffs but I wouldn't.  Not now.  Too much time. Too many things can happen. What I'd worry about is one more injury. One that could make this back and forth, disappointing .500ish May an expected result rather than a presumed dip. If that happens the new dips can be lower and that might open the door for someone. Probably not, but maybe.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Amusement Park

I want to say this season for the Nats is like riding a roller coaster. The offense and the starters provide the highs, the relief pitching the lows. But it's really not the season we're talking about. The season should end up fine because the rest of the NL East is pure garbage. There should be only highs and "not as high"s. It's individual games that provide the up and down excitement. So it's more like the season is a trip to the amusement park where you pick a ride, like a roller coaster, and go through great parts and scary parts and maybe some parts you don't like but you end up fine in the end. At least this is what the regular season is like.

With that in mind I guess we're already at the "sit back and enjoy it" phase. The season isn't clinched because there's time for craziness and there's a brutal schedule coming up, but I'm not expecting anything. Just enjoy these crazy roller coaster games for a while until the other rides open up at the trade deadline.

With that in mind it is vaguely hard to talk about stuff. We can talk about the relief pitching but dammit if we don't do that all the time. I'm sure Monday I'll talk about it again after another blown game. Other than that we have a lot of guys doing roughly what they should, or who are not where they should be but seem to be trending in that direction.  These aren't terribly interesting topics, especially if you are like me, and prefer to give more time, than less.

Looking at it I'm left with two reasonable topics, Werth - who's overperforming but glancing at stats I'll predict will fall soon and Roark who is underperforming. I guess Roark it is.

What you first need to understand is that you can't use last year's results as a baseline for Roark.  Well you can but I wouldn't. While I don't think his FIP or xFIP is fair (Roark has a history of lower than average HR/FB which these numbers will assume will be more average) I do think his LOB% is a little high. Can he stay near 80% - perhaps, but historically looking at minor league data as well he's normally lower. I'd think a low 70s would be more appropriate. That means more runs given up, higher ERA, fewer wins etc. I'm not saying he's bad, just don't go into this thinking he's a  2.80 ERA 16-10 guy. Maybe more of a 3.20 ERA 14-11?

OK so usual fancy stats thing

How's the velocity? 
Seems fine

How's the K/9? 

That's up

That's up too.

Ok that combo would suggest a lack of control and keeping the ball up. But I guess for the latter I'd expect a different group of hits if that were the case. Fewer GBs, more FBs. That could explain the homers - more pitches up mean more mistakes up. Eh - that is the case but only slightly. GBs down from 48.7% to 46%, FBs up from 31.2% to 32.7% I wouldn't attribute the HRs to that.

Is he getting hit harder then - does that explain the HRs? Or is it just a fluke - one HR does make a big difference here.
Yes that could explain it.  Soft percentage down a bunch, hard percentage up. But don't rule out fluke.

What about the walks? Is he out of control?  
No real change in percentages in the zone thrown would suggest not. The walks seem to be driven by swings outside the zone being down a bunch, swings inside up.Guys aren't biting on his stuff outside the zone.

But he's had no real difference in what's being thrown has he? 
No not really.

So we kind of reach the end of fancy stats analysis here. I can try to look at the zone profile now... ok I verify he's not really leaving the ball up more. I see big drops in the swing percentages inside for both RHB and LHB, but especially LHB.... His splits against RHB is fine. It is the lefties that are more of an issue. Zone profile doesn't tell me exactly how much he missed though

My hypothesis would be that whatever pitch he uses to attack inside, especially to lefties but maybe to both, isn't working the same. Maybe it's a movement thing, maybe location. Lefties are then able to sit on in zone pitches and attack a lot better (they have all the home runs and four of the 5 doubles he's allowed). Righties on the other hand just are able to lay off a few more pitches. This is just a guess though.

My other thought is that he's the victim of the decline in defense. As a RH GB pitcher there's a certain import on the ability of the 1B/2B side of the Nats infield to field and acoording to early stats Murphy and Zimm are worse than last year. This is of course - small sample size - (we like 3 years of D data and we're talking about 25% of one) but I think it's clear they ain't good.  The Nats starters except for Max are all GB guys now so that may explain the general slight shift down from them. Maybe - Turner though has been fine.  If anyone wants to track all the hits Roark has given up and see if this plays, go to it. 

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Appetizers and the Main Course

The bullpen didn't blow it last night. Of course it took a 6-1 lead to start and a very timely DP but they didn't do it.

We focus a lot on the pen, for obvious reasons, but the Nats are 25-13 with the 2nd best record in baseball. They have the best offense in baseball (not just the NL) and arguably the best starting pitching in baseball* Let's focus on all that for a moment, everything that comes before the terrible desert the Nats are serving up night after night.

Bryce is still BRYCE.  We're now 38 games in (almost a quarter of the season) and Bryce hasn't slowed down. After hitting .391 / .509 / .772 in April he's hitting .378 / .489 / .757  in May.  You may remember he had a fast start last year and worry a big fall is coming but (1) he was never hitting for this high an average and (2) he began his decline at the end of April (a week before the Cubs stuff if you must know). I'd say something about fancy stats and his average should drop but with talent like Bryce's sometimes you don't know the ceiling.

 Zimm is still hitting. .319 / .373 / .596 in May which is still excellent (he's still fighting Bryce for a NL Triple Crown right now) but is yes, a drop off from the HOF April. He'll have you know, if you'll listen to him, that it's not about any sort of stat analysis. I'm sure at this point he's telling dogs he sees on the street he's just suddenly hitting better than he ever has in his entire career at 32+ because of health. Ok. Sure. Whatever you want to believe. Just keep hitting. We'll get back when I said I would - end of May

This would almost be enough but you do need at least one more big swinging bat and in May, that's Werth. Werth is way up but is also carrying a unsustainable BABIP and a questionable HR/FB rate. Still it seems like "above average" is possible for him in season 7 and who would turn that down.

Three more guys are finding their level. The 3rd man in April, Murphy is slowing down a bit after a hot start, but his overall stats are about where you'd want him to be (25 homers is just not him). Wieters is in a similar boat - with a harsher slowdown (.583 OPS in May) to reach his more modest level (about average).  Rendon, on the other hand, is heating up and getting his overall stats back to the above average we think he should be.  Basically the Nats need a couple guys hot to complement Bryce at any time to keep the offense humming. They have five other bats that are at least average to get those hot months from. It should work out.

This leaves two guys to talk about. MAT looks good, but he's carrying a modest .266 average with a .404 BABIP, along with a 36.9% K rate and a 4.8% BB rate. In word form - his approach is garbage, and even though he's getting lucky he's still not doing great. Turner? Well we don't know exactly what Turner is and how hurt he still may be so I don't want to put up any expectations.  Sophomore season hasn't been good as they are getting him to K a lot more attacking his lack of patience.

What about the starters?

Scherzer has been great. He's matching last year across the board so expect a similar endpoint - maybe a little higher ERA since he outperformed a little last year. There isn't any particular warning signs unless you are like me and think that all the pitches he throws will catch up to him (now for me the timeline is very soon, like sometime before the start of next season - but hey I'm wrong all the time). Strasburg might be trading trading strikeouts for contact. GBs are up, HRs are down. Or he might just not be getting the ball by guys and getting lucky so far.  Probably somewhere in between. So he's very good now, I'd expect more of a normal good going forward. Gio is... let's talk about Roark first. He's basically doing what he did last year but not catching the same breaks. This is more in line with what he should do. Which is still good! So the Nats are set up 1-3 in my mind. It be nice if Stras can get back up to "co-ace" like talent but I'll take what they have now. Ok back to Gio.  IT'S ALL LIES. a .243 BABIP? a 91.4% LOB? K's way down. BBs way up? There's a reckoning coming.

But it'll be fine if the Nats can find that 5th starter because at this point in that 4th spot all they need is a decent arm that can put up 100+ innings of like 4.00 ERA ball.  It's probably not Jacob Turner or AJ Cole though.  2015 - early 2016 Joe Ross, where are you!?

You might be saying, hmm these don't seem like the best offenses and starting pitching in the league. Well offensively you're just not getting it. Bryce is a MONSTER. Zimm has been close to that so far this year as well. Werth might be getting lucky but he's still probably at least average, along with Wieters, while Murphy is simply "above average" and Rendon also should be there. That is a difficult six bats to get through. And with MAT getting lucky it's like Eaton didn't leave yet making it 7.  Should it slow down? Yeah probably. Zimm isn't a Triple Crown threat and as he settles back to somewhere between average and above average, and as MAT shows his true colors, there will be more instances of several guys slumping at once. But if Turner can just be average the Nats lineup will still be long in the eyes of a pitcher.

As for the starting pitching - well you're right, sort of. The Nats do have a 1-2-3 worthy of being in the Top 3. We WAY overrate what we think pitchers should be like. We look at the best rotations and think - ok yeah that's what it should be like. Instead you should be looking at the average one and comparing to that. Right now Max is a true ace (obviously) but Roark and Stras are both near the top of #2s.  Lots of innings at 3.50 ish would be great as a number 2 for 20 of 30 teams definitely. However the back of the rotation is shakier than you probably think and the only reason that hasn't seemed to come back to bit the Nats yet is some ERA luck. 

But for a team that is going to sail through the season (barring injury) what is a back of the rotation problem if you can keep 1-3 healthy? It's nothing. The offense and those first three pitchers should do what? Win 2/3rds of their games? I can see that.** That's another 50 wins. Win half of the back of the rotation games - essentially be a .500 team with the 4 and 5 guys, and the Nats are at 100 wins. That's the power of this offense with those three guys.

*What? No "Without Jeremy Guthrie..."  factoid? Look, it's not fair to pull out the Nats worst starting appearance and compare to everyone else's total. We'd need to pull out their worst too.  Well Guthrie isn't pitching anymore? Ok then we'd have to evaluate everyone's current starting 5. 

**They won almost 70% of Max, Stras, Roark starts last year with a less impressive offense. So I'm probably underselling this by a game or two. 

Monday, May 15, 2017

Monday Quickie - The shape of the bullpen is round

The Nats got through another garbage weekend from the bullpen or so it seems. On Friday though Turner, Romero, Glover and Kelley worked 4 innings keeping the game tied. In the next game Romero and Albers combined to keep the lead where it was for over an inning. In the last game, Albers came in and shut the door.

Yes, I'm cherry picking the good where there was bad every night but it's for a reason. The bullpen is beginning to take shape. And it's beginning to take shape around Albers, who has been great.

You have Albers now as the lockdown guy, until he's not anymore. You have Glover on deck. You have Kelley available (every other day). And you have Turner and Romero to fill in some innings. It's not a good pen. Turner and Romero both aren't good enough to be relied on in big spots. You can use them sure, but you are rolling the dice. Kelley's limitations are apparent and keep the Nats from maybe forming a strong everyday back of the pen with what they have on hand (especially with the schedule with no breaks coming up). BUT, but - there is enough here to keep the Nats safely away from the rest of the NL East until teams are trading. That says a lot about the NL East but also a lot about the Nats starters and the Nats offense, even without Eaton.

I'll admit it's a precarious situation. One wrong offensive injury (Bryce would be the obvious one) could depress the scoring enough to matter. One wrong starting pitching injury (Max obvious one here*) could expand the instability of the 5th starter role into the entire back of the rotation. One wrong bullpen injury (Albers) could send us back to where we were a few days ago with nothing good to say about anything pen-related. But precarious is better than where it was before.

Yesterday didn't look good in part because of the double headers but I feel like there is something coming together. Boz is right. This isn't a pen you want to go into October with. There the pitching is better the hitting is better and the games should be closer. But the question is really more - Is this a pen that can survive until July? Today I say yes.

*which makes yesterday infuriating. One thing the Nats will have to do between now and whenever they bring in bullpen help is use the weakness of the NL East to their advantage. Let Jacob Turner soak up a beating. Pull guys early rather than late when possible.  A loss this year does not look like it will be as important as a loss in other years. Could that change and you regret it? I suppose but you can't worry about the hypothetical. You have to work with what's in front of you today.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Where's the noting how easy the schedule is?

I'm just saying. The team was incredibly willing to complain about the weird start times and New York to Colorado after a Sunday Night game scheduling but you won't hear them saying what a dream it's been since then.

Home from the 28th - 30th, day off, Home 2nd-4th, to Philly 5th-7th, to Baltimore 8th-9th, Back home 10th-14th, day off.

That is a pretty damn cushy 2 1/2 week stretch where the "long away trip" is a city a 2 1/2 hour drive away.

Anyway. Not only are the Nats at the end of a virtual relaxing stroll period of their schedule travel wise, they are about to embark on a tour of the dregs of baseball.First up are the Phillies - in the midst of a 2-8 stretch and carrying a 13-19 record.  After that it's off to the window closed without Marte Pirates (currently 14-21), and the no threat with a terrible Dansby Braves (11-20). They then come home to best team they'll face in this stretch the Mariners (17-18), who could be over .500 by that point but are still hurt and coming cross country. That's followed by the garbage Padres (13-23). Then they start a road trip with the currently reeling Giants (12-24) that'll take the team into June. I won't say that'll be easy this far out but it certainly could be given how SF has performed this year.

It's a stretch of 18 games where 13-5 would be a perfectly reasonable expectation. Do that and the Nats start the next month 35-17, likely with the best record in the game, and likely dominating the East by 8 games or so.  Good teams create distance when the opportunity arises and the opportunity is here. It's not as direct as the Mets series where they didn't come through. It could take 18 games rather than 3 to pull away*, but it's there.

If you're curious, June through the All-star break will be hard on the Nats. They get a day off after that SF series - then on the 2nd start with at the A's and then at the Dodgers, they lose an off day to make up for the O's rain out, then face the Rangers and Braves. It's not a tough end, admittedly, but after a road trip and with the games in a row racking up it may matter. Then without a day off they are at the Mets and at the Marlins. Again probably not terribly hard teams but by the end it'll be 20 days in a row. If the Reds remain competitive then the next stretch could be tough too CIN, CHC at home, STL on road, NYM ATL at home to go into all-star break. 17 games in a row with no break and 37 games in 38 days, so even assuming the Braves are still garbage and with the Nats are at home they could easily be dragging.

*Mets schedule isn't hard but it's not as easy as the Nats, and they aren't as good right now, so 11-7 would be a nice projection for them and that would put them two games further out.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Bullpen honesty

Look there are two objective truths here.

Objective Truth #1 : When Blanton was brought in, most people were satisfied with the pen. I won't say most people were happy. Most people wanted a lights out closer either Melancon or Jansen, and were disappointed when the Nats got neither. But Blanton made the pen whole. Kelley was very good. Treinen finally pitched well last year. Glover looked to be good. Solis seemed serviceable at the least. That's 4-5 arms. The roles were still undefined but once a closer was found things should shake out.

I define this truth because I'm hearing a lot of "I knew they needed depth! Rizzo didn't do his job!" type of comments and I think that's like 90% hindsight. A few probably did think that, not feeling comfortable with the mix of injury cases and brief successes. A few more probably think everything is always a problem and complained about it while complaining about the offense and the rotation as well. But at the time the majority felt that given the likely contract restrictions keeping him from getting a big money closer, Rizzo did a pretty decent job finding a handful of good arms with potential.

Objective Truth #2 : This isn't working. That the plan might have been ok at the time only matters in saying "Hey, don't blame Rizzo too much"* Congratulations. Now that you've had your cupcake, fix this. Treinen does look broken.  A 2.38 WHIP with 10 walks in just over 14 innings? He needs to go to Syracuse to get his head on straight. Blanton does look done. A 1.92 WHIP with 6 homers in 12 innings? He needs to be demoted to last man to see if they can get anything from him. Glover and Kelley should help solve things a little at least but given they are still not back from injury they can't be relied on until probably the end of May.

I keep saying that the NL East is garbage if the Mets aren't healthy and it is. I mean the Nats have gone 4-4 since May started and they've gained 2 games on the Phillies and 2 and a half on the Marlins. But the Mets have gained ground and so have the maybe dead Braves. The longer you let teams stick around the more chance they have of catching you. This bullpen issue is letting teams stick around.

Of course, as we went over yesterday, I don't know how to fix this. A lot of you brought up Turner. I mean, maybe he's growing into a relief role, but I look at his lifetime stats and I don't see anything encouraging. It's not like he's a guy who can dial it up and blow three guys away for you. He's bullpen filler. Move Ross or someone else to the pen has been floated out there too. Voth or Cole are both viable options. Both have some historically decent K-rates. Both are of an age where you'd try to transition them from failed starter. Ross I see less, just because the guy has shown he can be a good starter in the league and he's younger. I guess, I'm saying Cole/Voth into the pen makes sense as the next move. It's leaves you even thinner when it comes to rotation depth but it's not like you liked these guys anyway.**  However it looks like Cole is getting the rotation turns so maybe concentrate on Voth now.

Again - like yesterday - any team with a massive failure early in the year is in a bad spot. Teams aren't built to fix big problems early in the year and there usually isn't a good way to do it from the outside through trade or free agency. The Nats have to jury-rig a solution for the next 7 weeks or so.  It could stay ugly.

*He has to get some blame, of course, because he picked all these guys. Even if they looked ok, they did fail. 

**Sidenote : Have you seen the Nats AAA starter stats? Don't.  As for Fedde - he's fine in AA so far but not so great you can project him in the Nats rotation in 2017.  He's at least another month in AA and probably the season.

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Bullpen whoas

Yes, I know it's "woes" but "woes" doesn't convey the amazing turn from "maybe the best pen they've ever had" to where they are now. The Nats best bullpen arm currently is Matt Albers. He's got an 0.77 ERA which is backed up by a 0.600 WHIP.  He's only pitched 11.2 innings so you have to take that into account but it's roughly the same amount of innings any Nats reliever has pitched.

The second best reliever is probably Koda Glover, who despite posting a 4.15 ERA has pitched better than that as his 0.923 WHIP and 1.96 FIP attest. Of course he's injured. So the second best active is likely Enny Romero. Enny has a 4.40 ERA, and deservedly so. While he's managed to keep his walks down he's been very hittable and has given up a few long balls in his limited innings. An ERA of 4.50 is probably fair.

I'm going to repeat that

So the second best active is likely Enny Romero. Enny has a 4.40 ERA, and deservedly so. While he's managed to keep his walks down he's been very hittable and has given up a few long balls in his limited innings. An ERA of 4.50 is probably fair.

That above, is basically a "last guy in the pen" description, yet for the Nats it's describing their second best option. You don't need me to tell you this, but the Nats pen is in trouble.

You could see any one of these things happening. Injury issues with Koda and Kelley, who both finished last year with health troubles. Treinen failing. Blanton somehow crossing an age line and no longer being effective. Enny not living up to his talent. Oliver Perez not having a comeback. Matt Grace not surprising. But that all of them happened in the same 6 weeks? That's coming up snake-eyes a few rolls in a row.

The question now is what can the Nats do? The answer is precious little.

The Nats can sit and wait. This is what they are most likely going to do. As we discussed yesterday the NL East is terrible so the Nats are not feeling any pressure to do much. The offense is very good. The starting pitching is very good. They will be winning a lot of games by several runs heading into the late innings. They can sit and wait for Glover and Kelley to get healthy. They can sift through any number of AAAA arms to see if something clicks like Albers has so far. Then they can re-evaluate the situation at the usual time and look to make a trade as we head past the All-Star break into the dog days of August.

The Nats can try to make a move now for a great reliever. This is tougher. Few teams are truly out of it at this point, and those that are may not want to admit it. Thanks to the Wild Card, teams that were looking at division titles that are floundering still have hope. The Rangers (5 out), Blue Jays (5.5) and Giants (7.0) can still come up with scenarios that get them in. All you are left with are the teams that were trading before the year started (Padres, White Sox, probably Rays) and teams that were on the fence that are now far behind (Royals).  Those are your four. Problem is - these guys know they are the four. They also know that as the season goes on the price goes up. To get a great reliever now would take a impressive offer. At the same time there haven't been many games to build up new prospects in the Nats system. You are going to have to give up a combination of players that includes Robles for sure, and probably Fedde and/or Soto and/or Keiboom the younger. The end result would be lopping the head off a system that's at best fair.

The Nats could make a move now for a solid reliever. This might be more doable than going after a Herrera type, but it would be introducing the same sort of question mark that got the Nats into trouble in the first place. Here is an ok reliever.  Let's see what he can do. It may be a sound move logically, but it's not going to assuage anyone's fears.

The Nats could look at free agent relievers. Talk Matt Thornton back into the game. Sign Luke Hochevar and hope for the best.  Honestly this may be the way to go although again - it doesn't solve the problem as much as bridge the gap to the time when a real solution is needed.

This is the reality for the Nats, or really any team with early season issues. If there are no good internal options, there are no good options. The Nats don't have to do anything so maybe they won't but I'd like to think they'd at least try to bridge the gap while continuously kicking the tires on better talent because hey - you never know.

Monday, May 08, 2017

Monday Quickie - 15 games

The Nats have to win the NL East by 15 games.  That's it.

Now granted that only has a small part to do with the Nats. The rest of it is up to four other franchises playing terribly but who's betting against that?

The Mets are an imploding mess just 6 weeks into the season. They've had a heaping handful of injuries, several seemingly made worse by trying to play through the initial pain. Their best pitcher, Syndergaard, will likely be out until the All-Star game. They have just had to suspend Harvey without pay for some sort of insubordination to which he's going to sue the Mets to get that money back. It's hard to see this team challenging for anything

The Braves have failed to develop into any sort of threat. Instead of helping to lead them forward Dansby Swanson looks like the worst regular in baseball at the plate. Bartolo Colon finally looks done and the bullpen is an a horror show. It's almost Nats bad! It's hard to see this team challenging for anything.

The Marlins' rotation is as bad as you thought it would be, and the bullpen isn't good enough to cover for that. The offense is full of middling bats and there is no help in sight for any of these problems. The Marlins were always an "if this and if this and if this" type of challenger and pretty much none of those ifs look like they'll come true this year. It's hard to see this team challenging for anything.

You almost feel good about the Phillies by default. They aren't good at anything, and pretty much every team is good at something. But they aren't bad at anything, either. Of course all that means is they are a team that if they are lucky may challenge .500 and most likely will win 70 games but deservedly so this time, instead of the lucky 71 of last year. Still 71 or 81, it's hard to see this team challenging for anything.

Don't think I'm calling it - I'm not. The Nats still haven't put that lead up I want to see. Hell, the Mets are still only 6.5 games out when a week ago we were hoping to put them 10 games behind. Without that lead the Nats are still subject to the surprise. Maybe that will be a surprise awesome run by some NL East team, but more likely it would be a surprise run of injuries for the Nats dragging them down. They are obviously deep enough to weather losing Eaton. But another bat and Scherzer? No. Of course that's worst case and we're more likely to see say Rendon miss a month and 5th starter continue to flounder with a league average 5th starter type - which is to say "not good".

The season is almost 20% over. A good chunk is done. The Nats seem to be in complete command of the division. They need to keep winning and keep pulling away slowly between bursts. They need to win by 15 because I don't see how the 2nd place team in this division finishes much over .500.

Now let's see what they do against a real league.

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Interesting parties

Nats win. They currently have the 2nd best record in baseball, their 18-9 sandwiched nicely between the Astros 19-9 and Yankees 17-9. They have a 5.5 game lead over the second place Marlins and Philles. Basically they are cruising right now. Sometimes it may be a 25 MPH cruise but there's no one else on the road so they don't have to push it.

So forgive me if I take a slight break on the Nats to look at other former Nats and things of interest from around the league so far. Like

Mike Trout
We constantly talk about how good he is and how neglected he is and yet we still kind of neglect how good he is. I noted the other day that his team is garbage and another amazing season is being wasted. Take a look. In that team you'll note Danny Espinosa being amazingly bad and Yunel Escobar not doing well either. This is a team where players have gone to die (sorry Albert). Hey Ben Revere, too! It's a reunion and I'm going down a Nationals rabbit hole now.

Seeing Danny got me thinking about other Nats players. How's Ian Desmond doing? Just got back and coming out swinging. the two homers may not surprise you but they were in San Diego, not Colorado. Jordan Zimmerman? Injured in the neck last year, still getting back into form. His last start was more prototypical ZNN so we'll see.

Span? Hurt in SF.
Robinson? Performing poorly in AAA Syracuse.
Fister? Still waiting on injuries to pile up so someone will sign him
I heard something about Tyler Moore? Brief major league time with Marlins then off to play poorly in AAA.  
Chris Marrero? Showing San Fran why he never made it before now.
Mike Morse? Showing San Fran why he can't make it now.
Sandy Leon? Back to being the poor hitting catcher he's always been. 
Bernadina? In Korea, not doing well.
Lombo? Slapping singles and building a strange fanbase of frustrated short white guys in New Orleans.

Another thing I noted recently was how good former Nats relievers are doing. Clippard 1.54 ERA, Storen 1.29, Blevins 0.90, Rivero 0.56. None of them are THIS good but still there's a very solid pen built just from the guys the Nats got rid of. (All of these guys were traded). Of course other than Blevins every deal made sense. They weren't going to pay Clippard. They needed Melancon (and he was good). They needed to get rid of Storen. Sometimes this stuff happens. Sometimes it doesn't Like the 7.36 ERA with Stammen in Cleveland or Ian Krol's 8.44 in Atlanta.

Speaking of trades, we just saw Robbie Ray pitch very well.  What about other minor leaguers given up by the Nats?

Lucas Giolito? Struggling mightily in AAA.
Reynaldo Lopez?  Early issues, but seems to be coming around last few starts.
Other guys? (Dane Dunning)? So good in low A they moved him up to high A already.

Jeffrey Rosa (guy traded for Enny)? hasn't even pitched yet

Taylor Hearn (other guy in Melancon deal)? Middling in high A

Nick Pivetta (Papelbon)? Starting now for the Phillies, trying to see exactly where he'll end up. Back of rotation guy seems most likely, but some like him more, some see him in pen.

Wil Myers and Steven Souza? Both doing really well though Souza is in a bit of a recent freefall. (.120 with 11Ks in last 6 games)

and finally I'll end with Alex Meyer (Span)? I've talked about before how the Twins, who last developed a good pitcher in Brad Radke (only possibly hyperbole - that's how bad it's been), basically ruined the kid. Off he went to the Angels. I figured any place else would be better. Well after five mediocre AAA starts to end last year and 4 poor ones to start this one, the Angels brought him up.  So congrats on becoming the name I bring up for the rest of my life on how you can mishandle talent right into the trash.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Zimm Resurgent

So let's discuss Ryan Zimmerman. I'm not going to waste time with a long lead-in. He was terrible last year. He's great so far this year.  Is this real or not? Is this sustainable or a flash in the pan?

I could go through a bunch of numbers but I want to try to do this systematically. Think about how I'd answer the question before looking at the numbers. Ok, well the first thing I would do is try to determine if Ryan has just been lucky or not. Generally that means looking at BABIP and HR/FB rates. It's not that a person can't control these things but there are certain historic limits to these numbers. In the past 5 years the highest BABIP seen was Chris Johnson's .394 in 2013. The highest HR/FB rate was Nelson Cruz 30.3% in 2015.  So if Zimm is beating either of these he almost HAS to come back down. Let's check...

BABIP : .448
HR/FB : 40.7%

Ok he's been lucky. But come on. He's on pace to hit .420 with 70 home runs. It would be crazy if I didn't find him to be lucky. So congratulations we've determined he shouldn't have the best offensive  season in the history of the game.

The next question I'd try to answer is how lucky is he? That's harder question. What I would probably look at next is trying to see if he's hitting better. If he's not then he's probably getting real lucky, if he is there's probably something "real" behind this. By hitting better I mean he would (1) hit fewer balls softer / more balls harder*, (2) Hit more line drives,** (3) swing and miss fewer times. Those are all things I'd like to see. But better than what?  Better than last year? That only tells us that he's not terrible.  Let's see how he compares not only to 2016 but to "peak Zimm",  2009/2010 Zimm.

2009: 12.4% / 35.8%
2010: 14.8% / 40.0%
2016: 15.2% / 34.7%
2017: 10.1% / 40.6%

2009: 18.7%
2010: 17.6%
2016: 16.7%
2017: 23.2%

2009: 7.4%
2010: 7.4%
2016: 9.8%
2017: 8.5%

Zimm is hitting it, at least in April, as well as he ever has. He's hitting it hard. He's hitting it on a line. He's swinging and missing more than "peak Zimm" but that could be a necessary trade-off to the harder swings. It isn't surprising to see a very good statistical month given this.

But what you might have noticed is that 2016 doesn't look too far off "peak Zim" either. Maybe too many swings and misses but he was hitting it hard and while not as line drivey as 2017, just as line drivey as 2009 and 2010. Remember what we were told about Zimm last year, though. He was hitting the ball hard but was hitting the ball too much into the ground.  Was that actually a problem?  Did he change that?

2009: 39.6%
2010: 41.2%
2016: 48.6%
2017: 37.7%

Yes. Yes he did hit a lot of ground balls.  Yes he did change that. It's not necessarily true that if you hit a lot of groundballs that's bad, though. So let's take a look at that BABIP from last year.

2016 : .248

That's near the bottom of the usual range. So there was an element of bad luck likely there last year.

But back to the question at hand. Is what Zimm is doing real, is it sustainable? The answer to the first question is yes, I think so (with the caveat of we're only talking about a month here). Like I said he is hitting hard and square. If I take a look at the 2016 leaderboard and come up with a quick and dirty "Hard and Square" stat (say (hard% - soft%) + LD%) you see the names you want to see in that Top 10. Freeman, Carpenter, Ortiz, Votto, Cabrera, Trout, JD Martinez, Corey Seager, Justin Turner.  The bottom is filled with disappointments - Iglesias, Heyward, Alcides Escobar, Schoop, Panik, Pillar.  It's not a perfect "Up Here = Stardom, Down There = Garbage" but it's close. So while .420 70 HR pace is not sustainable, I don't think that's what you're asking. If he keeps hitting like he is, a fair expectation would be something like .310 and a 28 HR pace.*** What would be the best case if luck never went away just became reasonable season long most lucky? Oh like finishing the season .370+ with 50+ homers. Worst case if luck spun around to worst reasonable while still hitting like this?  Like .250 with 25 homers.

The sustainable question, "can keep hitting like this" - not "are the stats real", is a big I don't know. Certainly players can hit for a season generally like Zimm is now. But can Zimm do it? Or is this a one month mirage? He hasn't really hit this well since the "peak Zimm" years and even then he wasn't like this. "Peak Zimm" was a patient hitter who worked a fair amount of walks and saw a lot of pitches. 2017 Zimm is an aggressive hitter who attacks the count early. He's a different animal. So I can't simply say - this is how he hits when he's healthy because he's never hit like this before. There's something more here and the question is whether that is something that can last a season. One thing that may happen is that as teams realize they can't pitch to Zimm as they did last year, they may start throwing it down and out a lot more. What happens then? Does Zimm pivot back to patience? Or will he swing and miss at those trying to keep up aggressiveness? Or maybe counter with fewer homers but more singles and doubles to the opposite field?

My guess is we'll know how a healthy last 60% of the year will play out by mid June. At that point he'll have 4 rounds vs the Phillies, and 3 vs the Mets and Braves. If they are able to make exploitable adjustments you figure they'd do it by then. If he's still hitting real well by mid June, I'd buy on Zimm finishing the season strong.

*Hard balls good! Soft balls bad!
** Line drives better than flyballs or ground balls. 
*** That would be from here on out so his actual final numbers would be more like .335 33 homers

Monday, May 01, 2017

Monday Quickie - Dark Clouds Silver Linings

Real quick one today

The Nats failed to put away (in my opinion) the Mets this weekend. Opportunity knocked and the Nats hid in the bed with the covers over their head until it went away. They could have been over 10 games up on the Mets if they swept this series at home. But Max failed to come up big in the first game, as an initially shaky deGrom did what he couldn't.  In the next game,  the Nats pen yielded 2 runs in two innings to keep the game out of reach. That was that. The dream of finishing off the Mets by May 1st was done.

Of course that doesn't mean the Nats are in a bad position. In fact, neither the Phillies or Marlins, the two closest teams, could pick up a game. The Nats find themselves with the biggest division lead in the majors at 5 games. While the Mets have managed to stick around they lost their best bat (Cespedes) going into the series and maybe lost their best arm (Sydergaard) coming out of it. The Nats didn't put away the Mets, but they haven't done anything to lose their place as a early favorite.

The Nats also suffered a major injury, losing Adam Eaton for the year. Center field has been a major issue for the Nationals since 2005 as a parade of players have come and gone trying to fit the very specific, very traditional role that apparently the Nats need. Adam served to be this top of the order hitter the Nats have always wanted.*  Now the Nats are once again searching. The first guy up is again Michael A Taylor who has been very consistent over 800 PA in baseball so far.  He will not hit for average (around .230). He will not show patience (walk rate around 6.5%). He will show moderate power (isoSLG about .140) but he'll strike out a ton (K rate over 30%).  He's young enough that this could change but he's at the end of that range. After this try it won't be natural progression if he gets better, it'll be luck.

But the Nats line-up had shown itself to be 8 deep. The worst hitters currently being the aged Jayson Werth, who has shown an ability to at least keep himself competent this long, and Anthony Rendon, who if isn't hurt has shown himself to be a very good hitter, as evidence by yesterdays breakout. The Nats line-up is now 7 deep. That's still deep and it's not 7 deep with moderate talent. Bryce and Murphy are potentially MVP bats. Turner could be the same. Zimm (tomorrow!) just had a special April and is a solid bat at worst when healthy. Things may have gotten easier for opponent's pitching but they haven't gotten easy.

Was it an ideal weekend? No. Was it an ideal April? No, you had the Eaton injury and the bullpen situation hasn't gotten any better. But despite all that the Nats are staying up there with the best teams in baseball with one month down and a nice sized lead in their favor. I'll take it.

*You know who else was that? Denard Span in 2014-15.  I'm not sure why that has seemingly slipped everyone's mind.