Nationals Baseball: March 2017

Friday, March 24, 2017

Five things that could go easily go terribly wrong

When we look at the Nats you should see a division champ. I imagine that when all the predictions come out they will be a heavy favorite to win the NL East and a "here and there" pick to get to / win the World Series*. If they don't make it though, it probably won't be because a dozen little things didn't go right. It'll likely be because one or two big things went terribly wrong. This is true of every team - a couple injuries can derail a season. But there are places the Nats are more vulnerable where an injury can't just be attributed to tough luck. Places where the Nats looked bad at the tail end of 2016 that could carry over.

Jayson Werth crashes and burns. 

Jayson Werth is staring down the barrel of 38 (May 20th).  That's old. He has pulled rabbits out of his hat before but last year marked his first back to back years of below average offense. Yes, it was just barely below but still it seems to say that the time of being able to bounce back and have a good offensive year has finally passed him by. In agreement with this idea is the fact the season wore him down and his September was terrible (.211 / .297 / .267)  Without his offense, Werth becomes what? His fielding has been bad for years. A savvy yet slow baserunner?  A 'leader in the clubhouse'? Those are fine things, but not fine things to be trotting out daily. Could the Nats bench Werth? Could the Nats bench Werth and Zimm at the same time?

Shawn Kelley gets hurt

I've said it before and I'll say it again. The last time we saw this guy was walking off the mound in a pivotal playoff game because he couldn't throw the ball anymore. That's very very very not good. He seems fine now but he's a 2 TJ arm.  Losing Kelley wouldn't throw the bullpen into chaos. The signing of Blanton assured a depth to cover it. But losing Kelley would kill that depth. Alone this is a survivable issue, but we are talking potentially two big things going wrong. Tack this onto a starting pitching failure and we start to have an overtaxed pen with no depth and a definitive problem

Stephen Strasburg gets hurt

What could be that starting pitching issue? Well since Max's finger issues appear to be over (and he was pitching through it anyway) we'll leave that aside for now. Instead we'll focus on Strasburg who I'll remind you pitched once, for 2 1/3 innings, after August 17th last year. He hurt his arm in a way that's about as close to "Uh oh need another Tommy John" as you can get without actually needing another Tommy John. He's rested and we haven't seen any issues but given that he's missed about 10 starts in each of the past two years, don't you have to assume that he will at least do the same in 2017?

Joe Ross gets hurt

Less impactful because of his role, but this still matters. A little more hopeful because of the way he ended 2016, but still a question mark. The Nats collection of minor league arms has done little to suggest there is a major league capable guy just waiting for his chance. Ross going down may not in itself be a huge issue, but coupled with a Kelley injury you can see the problem snowball.  Ross did not pitch from July 2nd through mid September and he never was allowed past the 4th in the three times he started. In the playoffs he failed to get out of the third and put the Nats in a hole they ultimately couldn't overcome. Was he really starter healthy at the end of the year? Doesn't look like it. He still hasn't pitched over roughly 150 innings yet in his career so relying on him for 180+ seems dicey.

Gio Gonzalez stinks

2016 was both a weird year and a completely expected year for Gio. He probably pitched better than his ERA indicated. At the same time he had wildly good months (April, August) and wildly bad ones (May, June, September). The end result though was a year where he pitched slightly worse than he did the year before which follows the trend we kind of assumed he would follow. For our purposes here we are focused on that September month. In that month Gio gave up 34 H, walked 7, and hit two guys in only 23IP. That's almost 2 baserunners per inning. If Gio continues a moderate decline he'll be a bad, but necessary, innings eater. If he pitches like September? Well you can't start him anymore. Last year Gio was bouyed by a strong April that gave him cover when he threw 10+ starts of garbage in Spring. If he starts with those garbage starts, what happens then?


None of these issues alone are unique in baseball. They can happen to any team at any time. Yet these are all issues that we hit pause on when the season ended. They are in some measure "existing" rather than past. None of these issues alone would necessarily derail the Nats. Yet we have to consider the chance that a couple or more will continue on and in combination could matter.

Oh how were the Nats in September? When all this was going down? Still good. 90 wins good.** But 90 wins good isn't winning the East


*Tough because both the Cubs and Dodgers are also very good. All are fair choices to come out of the NL.  Anything else is someone trying to be contrary for attention.

**They were still good! So don't worry? Not exactly. Offensively the Nats did take a dive as Werth joined Zimm and Espy in terribleness. But Murhpy and Turner crushed, and a collection of "don't bet on this for 2017"s (Difo, Severino, Goodwin, Lobaton) all over acheived. That at least kept the Nats head over water. Pitching wise AJ Cole was predictably bad filling in but that was about it. Eventually Lopez filled in admirably and there were almost a dozen relievers with ERA under 3.38. That means for the time being the pitching didn't suffer. I'd buy that happening for any single month but for an extended time, no. I think you'd see some predictable downs.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Who should be the closer?

Shawn Kelley

Moving on....

Wait. You want more don't you?

OK

Shawn Kelley is the best, most proven reliever the Nats have. His K/9 is fantastic (over 11.5 over the past 4 seasons). His BB/9 has moved steadily down from a "uh-oh one of these guys" 3.88 to 3.48 to 2.63 to a "did somebody say elite?" 1.71. His HR/FB is perfectly reasonable.  His percentage of hard hit balls is not high. His LD% is low. 

Blake Treinen is a GB specialist.  Over 65% last year and never under 59% in the majors. Along with the groundball inducing good sinker comes a lot of mediocre contact (Hard% on the low side). However, he  doesn't strike out nearly as many (K/9 around 8.5 over past 2 years), and walks way too many (over 4.00). Plus his HR/FB is higher (though not terrible). With not too much bad luck a Treinen outing can go horribly wrong.

Koda Glover is an unknown. In the minors he has great stuff (K/9 of 10.6 in upper minors) and very good control for his age and that stuff (2.2 BB/9).  He seemed to be unhittable as well, having a hits per 9 of under 7 across every level since being in the Nats organization*. There's also less than 100IP total for Koda and he hasn't pitched more than 24 innings at any level. That means there has never been time for the level to adjust to him. He also seemed to have issues pitching with men on - showing a horrible LOB% and allowing 2 of 6 inherited runners to score. Small sample size? Almost certainly. However it highlights that Glover is an unknown more than anything.

In short, guys don't hit Kelley well, they don't get on base against him, and if he needs to he can strike them out. Guys hit Treinen terribly, but they can get on base against him, and he can't necessarily dial up the big strikeout. Guys hit Glover worst of all, they don't usually get on base against him, and he can strike them out as well, but these "guys" are almost all minor leaguers.

So Shawn Kelly is objectively most likely to give you the best major league results.  By the whole "closers are stupid" philosophy, shouldn't he NOT be pitching in the ninth? Sure. If this were a perfect world. I'll give you a moment to check on that.

...

Not perfect, huh? You see if Shawn Kelley isn't the closer then he'll be tied to some other role, likely 8th inning guy so what exactly does it matter where he is in this stupid one-set inning food chain? If Dusty were going to break with tradition and use him all over the place then maybe I'd say don't use him as closer but I don't have faith in that. Therefore - might as well give him the inning that's most likely to find itself with high leverage situations.

Another benefit of Kelley the closer - limited innings. Kelley doesn't have any flaws when he can get the ball from the mound to the catcher, but his career is already filled with injuries and last year ended with a dead arm in a playoff game. Closers, because they are used very specifically, pitch fewer innings than even the 7th/8th inning types who are more frequently called on to get an extra out or pitch in closer or tied games. It's possibly smart to limit his innings and sticking him in this role may serve that purpose, if secondarily.


*Kelley and Treinen were both this low last year, too. But historically have been higher so there's more a chance of them being a little easier to hit.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Roster Guess

It's a hard Spring for me and yet that means an easy Spring for the Nats because what the hell hasn't gone according to plan? They have had only one injury, with Scherzer, that appears to be minor.  The market bore out a couple of opportunities to get better now for minimal cost in 2017. The team for all intents and purposes seems set. So why not just go ahead and assume it is with an OD roster?

Last year the Nats started with 12 pitchers, 2 catchers, 6 IFs and 5 OFs.  I'd expect something similar this year. I will take a small guess and say for the purposes of having an extra arm on hard, Max will start on the 15-Day 10-Day DL* but will be brought up right before his first start.

Pitchers
(Max DL)
Strasburg
Roark
Gio
Ross

Treinen
Kelley
Glover
Blanton

Romero
Perez
Solis
Cole (until Max back)

Thoughts : Nothing tricky about the first eight. Those are given.  Romero is out of options so they'll let him stay up or else they risk losing him in waivers. Perez is getting paid so he stays up.

I feel like they've already committed to Solis so he gets what amounts to the final real spot in the pen. Nathan has pitched ok but probably not well enough to outright win a spot here. If he's lucky he'll actually opt out on Friday because someone else will give him and his decent showing a secure spot. Martin deserves a spot more than Solis but you lose a little flexibility with another RH pitcher and the Nats have never seen overly keen on Martin.  Guthrie is probably the only real threat to take a spot from Solis, but I just feel they have their minds set and would need a continued flop from Solis and a dominant run from Guthrie to change their minds.

Why does Cole get the temporary spot? Because they've pretty much given up on him and don't care if they shuffle him about or use up an option on him. He's here for mop-up work.

Catchers
Wieters
Lobaton

Thoughts : The Nats really like Lobaton as the back-up, valuing his D and the pitchers have to be comfortable throwing to him. He loses a little with Ramos gone because Wieters hits better from the left side of the plate which was Lobaton's specialty, but I think he'll get this role and they'll let Severino get every day ABs in AAA.

Infielders
Zimmerman
Murphy
Turner
Rendon
Drew
Lind

Thoughts : No surprises. Robinson isn't paid Lind money so he gets the axe. His flexibility to play OF if necessary was nice but because of his bat and his ability was more of a "break glass" situation than actually usable everyday. 

Outfielders
Bryce
Eaton
Werth
MAT
Heisey

Thoughts : Heisey is paid and did well last year and Dusty likes him.  Heisey stays. MAT plays good defense, and is a fast runner, which makes him an ideal 5th OF (having Lind instead of Robinson helps MAT too as Clint filled an emergency OF / "better than a pitcher" runner role which Lind does not).  His hitting in Spring doesn't hurt, either. Goodwin can make a decent play to replace him but needs a repeat of his first few months of AAA last year.


Today we'll also play "Guess Max's First Start Date".  Wednesday the 5th (probably quickest possible return date), Friday the 7th (skips homestand), Saturday the 8th (slots back into #1 spot), and Monday the 10th (starts back first game of homestand) are all fine guesses assuming he stays on track.  I'll say :  Saturday the 8th.

*Ed Note - Been reminded that the 15-Day DL is the 10-Day no backdating DL this year. That changes things but I'm not sure how.  So right now my Max guess and the OD roster guess can't happen. I guess I'll think about it. Should take me as many days until Max's next start to come up with a final decision. 

Monday, March 20, 2017

Monday Quickie - Possibly last updates that don't matter

Max pitched in a minor league game.  Everything went fine.  Said he even used some two-finger grips. This keeps him in "first rotation" track, but not first start track since that either would require some short rest or a leap of faith on conditioning. Dusty doesn't seem inclined to do that just to pitch Max what amounts to two games earlier.

Do we really know he's ready? Not quite yet. While every outing is the potential key to showing he's NOT ready, this next one will be the first one that will really show he could be. It's real hitters and with only two weeks left in Spring, it's real hitters really trying. There will be a radar gun and this time the Nationals can't just stop the inning if Max can't get the outs he needs and let him start over in the next one like they did in the minor league game. If he looks well enough this time then you can start saying Opening Week for Max.

So this is pretty damn good news, especially since AJ Cole and Erik Fedde have looked less that ready for a spot start, let alone a rotation spot. Voth? Maybe but he's at 4.2 IP in 3 games. No the Nats were basically only looking at two guys for that role. So good thing they won't need it.

Catcher update

Wieters is getting his first team reps and seeing the pitchers we expect him to see. There really isn't anything more here to update unless you think Severino will replace Lobaton on the bench. I can't see that though. You'd probably rather Severino get the ABs to work on his hitting. Maybe Solano replaces Lobaton? You'd be putting a lot of faith into ST stats if you make that call.

As for Norris - don't kid yourself. The Nats didn't do him any favors. They kept him as long as they could before his pay would jump up. Then they cut him. They didn't cut him so he could explore options. They cut him to save hundreds of thousands of dollars. This was completely the right move as you have to hold on to him in case there's an injury. It's nothing more than that. Nats are a baseball team, not a non-profit charity.

Closer Update

The Nats had one closer type situation (3-1 win over Mets) and Glover got the save. That's good to see but won't be the way the Nats start the year. They had another close one and Guthrie pitched the last two innings. That's definitely not what we'll see. Kelley pitched for the first time in a real ST game in long time the other day. Treinen still hasn't pitched in one since March 9th. The Post says the Nats say it's all part of the plan. Sounds fine. Now let me see Treinen, too.

Clint Update 

The bad news for Clint is that despite getting regular at bats he's not showing the Nats any reason for him to win the job.  .176 / .163 / .206.  Not that those numbers matter but like I said if it's a tie-breaker situation (and it might be - hold on) that's not breaking any ties.  The good news for Clint is that Lind isn't making this a simple decision. .179 / .233 / .214.  Contract and history both are on Lind's side so let's hope it doesn't come down to ST stats.

Here's the Post's take on that. Please to ignore when Janes' calls Robinson the "big, powerful lefty" bench role filler in. The short of it is Clint is likely to end up somewhere else or a fill-in AAA player bc they want to make a final decision on "prospect" Matt Skole so he gets the 1B ABs.

Anything else

MAT keeps hitting in the Spring, presumably while shouting "Wolf! Wolf!"

Bryce has hit his 6th homer of the Spring. Don't bet that it means a 50+ homer season, but this is heartening for those that thought last year he didn't quite put enough balls over the fence.

Zimm got hits! Several! He may not be dead quite yet.

With Zimm actually hitting my biggest offensive worries shift to the prep for late-arriving Wieters and never-used in WBC Murphy. Not getting ABs now may mean a slow start in April (of course they may also be unrelated if it happens but it'll be fun to blame Boras and Leyland)

All the starters look fine! Great!

Friday, March 17, 2017

2017 Nightmare Scenario - missing the playoffs

So everything is looking good for Scherzer.  Dusty admits what we've been saying all Spring - Max can't start on Opening Day. There's just not enough time to get ready. He also notes something else we've said, the first game is just the first game and he may in fact sneak into the first round the rotation goes through.  I'll go ahead and adjust my guess, as he's been hitting all his targets after just a week ago looking like he'd have to throw more BP.  I'll guess he slots into his #1 role after someone (Fedde? Cole?) eats up a start.

But today isn't about Scherzer. It's about making you worry about the Nats. How can the 94 win Nats miss the playoffs?  Well let's start with an idea of how many wins that would be. Looking back at past years I'd say 87 is a fine guess. What did I say last year? Oh last year was about hitting .500.  These things change based on the starting point.  One year the dream was setting the record in wins!.  Ok so we'll go with 87.  Let's roll up those sleeves and get to work

I'll go ahead and take a half-win from Gio as his decline outpaces his performance. (93.5 wins) and I'll make the pen a little worse (93 wins) as well.  I can take another full win and an half from Murphy. That makes him more like all his other years (91.5). If Rendon's slow start wasn't injury related but just part of a normal up and down season there's another half-win (91).  Let's temper Bryce's comeback a lot and pull a win from there (90).

I guess I can pull a half-win from Trea (89.5) and the same from Eaton (89) and maybe make the bench below average (88.5). 

Ok well right now we're at a point where there are disappointments across the board. The starting pitching holds up ok (but we're still factoring in a drop from Scherzer that looks less likely today than a couple days ago), but the relief pitching and bench both do nothing of note. Murphy reverts to his career norms. Trea is good and Eaton is solid instead of being very good and good respectively. Bryce barely improves from his .243 24 HR line.

I suppose at this point I could pick half wins here and there. Maybe Ross never gets going again. Maybe Trea sophomore slumps. Maybe the bench or pen just stink. But rather than do that I'll just go ahead and throw in an injury here.  Let's say Strasburg misses a couple months. That probably gets us down to the 87 win totals and being outside looking in.

It may seem easier to have gotten to 87 than 100 but I think that should be the case. Each successive win is harder and harder. That's why you don't have many 100 win teams.

What did it end up taking for the Nats. Well to my surprise it didn't take everything going wrong, however it did take pretty much nothing going right. Roark is again great. Rendon puts up a good year and you'd still like what you see from Turner even if it wasn't an MVP type situation like he put up for 70 games last year. Otherwise nothing you'd view as a positive.

I think an actually more likely scenario than nothing going right, would be several injuries. However I can't predict who and what.

I also think there's a lot of room for variation for this Nats team but not because we don't have a good feel for these players. I think we know what most of them can do. Instead of that variation being spread out the Nats two players have had wildly different performances in recent years and where they end up in 2017 will make a big impact on the Nats

Murphy
2015: about 2.5 wins
2016: about 5.5 wins

Bryce
2015: about 9 wins
2016: about 3 wins

If Bryce and Murphy are both hitting as well as they have in the past two years that's 14.5 wins.  If they are both hitting as poorly as they have in the past two years that's 5.5 wins.  That's a 9 win discrepancy.  That may seem crazy but you are going from having a historic season coupled with an MVP season, to a couple of solid, but nowhere near special, major league season. In my 94 win setting I tempered both projections. I think I have Murphy and Bryce around 4.5 wins, hitting a near perfect middle between the best and worst cases you see above.

If both these guys come out swinging the Nats have best team in the majors potential.  If both these guys don't, they'll struggle to win the East. Safe bet is somewhere in the middle but who wants to go with the safe bet?

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

2017 Dream Scenario - 100 Wins

Time for the annual exercise where we go over what it would take to get the Nats to 100 wins or out of the playoffs. We'll start with the good news first, the 100 win shot, which the Nats probably won't get to, but it'll be more about their opponents then their own talent. Note this is all rough and stuff with my afro-puffs so don't get on me about exactness.

First we need to set a baseline win total for the Nats. Is last year's 95 wins good enough? Maybe. Let's look at other "in a vacuum" records in order to take luck out of it.  97 Pythag. 100 2nd order wins, 98 3rd order.  I'm not saying the Nats were a 100 win team last year but the general trend is the luck worked against the Nats a game or two last year. I'm fine starting with 97 wins as the base.

Now we need to adjust for anything we see going into the year. Players brought in, players who have left, injuries and recoveries.

Pitching
Max is hurt.  I don't think it's going out on a limb to say being forced to adjust the way he throws his fastball may have a negative effect on him.  How negative? I don't know so to be cautious I'll only cut out a win and a half for now (95.5 wins) That's not bad. That basically puts him back into Roark/Strasburg territory. I don't see any reason to change anyone else. Gio is tempting but he pitched better than his ERA suggested so while I think he'll continue to drift down, he'll probably just match last year's effectiveness.

The Nats are essentially replacing Belisle, and Lopez/Melancon with Blanton. Maybe a half-win less to be conservative? (95) They actually had a good bullpen last year and they'd still be above average with this take.

Offense
At catcher the Nats take a big loss as Ramos was a fringy MVP type for most of the year. Weiters is perfectly acceptable but the Nats lose like a game and a half here. (93.5). At first base, I can't bring myself to knock Ryan down anymore than he already was, but I have no reason to bring him up either. And unless I hear "platoon" I can't bring Lind in here.  He has to be talked about on the bench.  Murphy should regress a bit. Let's take a win off and go from MVP to All-Star (92.5).  We'll get to SS/CF in a second.  Rendon is healthy and put up a Rendon type season after a slow start. If we take that slow start to be recovery we can add a half-win here (93).  Werth though, aging as players have done forever, takes it right back (92.5).  Bryce? I'm trying to be conservative here but it's hard. I see a big bounce back. Maybe not a repeat of his historic season but he can at the very least pick back up a win and a half (94)

Ok onto SS/CF.  We're taking out Danny and his not-the-worst bat and very good glove and  MAT and Revere who did nothing to help the Nats. That's probably only a win total loss (93) The also lose the 3 wins Trea put up in CF. (90) But immeidately we put back a full season of Trea at SS.  I don't think he'll double his half-season but 5 wins, given his speed and likelihood to play 160ish? I'm ok with that. Then again might be high.. I'll stop at 4.5 then. (94.5) And then we add Eaton. Let's be conservative given the position change and say 3.5 wins.  (98).

As for the bench it's the same as last year.  I'm going to say Drew won't pull the same performance out that he did in 2016 but Lind can't be worse than Robinson so the whole thing equals out.

Competition
There is one more thing to consider. The competition the Nats face. The Mets seem healthy. The Braves are better. The Phillies are probably a smidge better too. That increased competition is going to cost the Nats some wins as they were an amazing 41-16 against these teams last year. If you want to be honest you could see the Nats being 31-26. But you gotta mitigate it because if they beat up on their own division they didn't do as well outside and it's not like outside was so great. 7-12 against the Brewers, Padres and Rockies? Let's say the Nats should lose about 4 more games to competition increases and leave it at that.

94 wins. 

Ok so a conservative me puts the Nats around 94.  How do we get to 100 from here? If Bryce goes historic again he almost does it by himself.  But let's say he's merely MVP worthy and toss another 2 wins there. That's not crazy at all. 96. We can probably throw a half-win more in if we expect more use of Lind than Robinson and him to be ok. 96.5. We can give Trea back that other half-win.  97. Make the pen no worse than last year 97.5.  I feel good about where we are with doing nothing crazy.

What's most likely now? I guess I'd say Murphy and Scherzer don't decline as much as I have - I'll add back a win and a half combined. 99. Almost there. Let's give Rendon another half-win 99.5 and say someone in the pitching staff Ross or Stras improves by half a win. There you go 100 wins!

Now as I always say - you see what it took to get there. Nearly across the board peak performance. Bryce and Murphy are MVP candidates and Rendon and Turner are only not fringy ones because Bryce and Murphy are solid choices taking their votes away. Max is Cy Young worthy and Roark and Stras are in the conversation. No injuries. No disappointments. If you get one of those last two then even with all that you need a surprise. You need a Bryce historic year, or Trea to be no-doubt MVP caliber or Strasburg to finally put up that amazing Cy Young year. But that's 100 wins. It's also easy to see how the Nats can weather some adversity and still be a division title contender. It didn't take anything crazy to get them to the 94-97 win range. A few nicks and bumps and a disappointment still puts them in the 91-94 area and that's good enough to be right there.

Tomorrow we see how we get from 94 wins to out of the playoffs. I'm telling you now, it's gonna take injuries in the end.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Monday Quickie - Simulated Max

So Scherzer pitched in a simulated game yesterday. A brief pause here to throw out some definitions.

BP (Batting Practice) - Pitchers throw off the ground at like 2/3rds speed to hitters who take cut after cut. Can help with stamina build up but not much more.
Live BP - Pitchers throw their real stuff off a mound to batters who take cut after cut.

In both BP and Live BP the team can choose what it wants to do defensively. You can have 8 guys in the outfield shagging flies and grabbing grounders that go through an empty infield, or you can set-up your game ready D and let them play each batted ball if it were a real hit.

Simulated Game - A pitcher faces a set of teammates who treat at bats as if they were in the game - 4 balls a walk, 3 strikes an out, etc. It usually is only a small subset of batters - not 9 - who rotate around. Because of that you often don't bother with real runners or real fielders for that matter, and you kind of guess what would have happened which each batted ball. For example Max faced Jose Lobataon, Raudy Read and Wilmer Difo.

Up to this point you are facing your own teammates and thus they might be taking it easy on you or you can tell them to let certain things go by now and again.

"Minor League Game" - The Spring Training equivalent of pitching in the minors. Right now all those minor leaguers are gearing up for the AAA, AA and single A seasons too. They play games just like the major leaguers. You send your major league pitcher over to one of these games and let him throw a few innings. It's real competition, though not major league level and in Spring so... yeah.

Grapefruit/Cactus League Game -  A regular Spring Training game, meaning you'll face at least a few major league starters along with a mix of back-ups and minor leaguers. Again it's Spring so the competition level is low but it's the best you'll get until the last week of Spring when teams start working on getting their actual everyday lineups ready.


Ok we're back.  So reading through those definitions and you can see why a simulated game matters but why it's far from telling in terms of development. What I will allow though is that you can bring back those dreams of Max starting in that first rotation set. It's the bar I had before and he met it. There wasn't a word of negativity from the people watching him and more importantly the next outing is another step in the right direction. I still think personally he'll miss a start or two at least getting fully ready, but it's not impossible as I think it would be if he was still throwing BP.

Next step for Max is as close to real rotation work as he has gotten. Four days off and then a game, a minor league game, but a game. As Castillo points out in the article - the earliest that a "real game" could be would be the 22nd, which would give him 11 days to build up arm strength from what would likely be at most a 4 inning / 50 pitch type outing to major league ready.  That's less time than needed for two starts with regular rest inbetween. That seems tough.  Slotting in at the #5 spot would give him 16 days.  Seems more reasonable.

Catcher Update 

Norris was waived.  Seems like they couldn't find a partner given Norris' contract.  It's not a terrible contract but the market seems to dictate it could be a bit lower. This waiving saves the Nats millions, which cuts into the Wieters money. Keeping Norris is probably the smarter move. Wieters is two years removed from a 75 game season, three years from a 26 game one. Last year was much better. He had an elbow issue that cleared up before the season started and missed a handful of games after fouling a ball off his foot. That's it. But the history is there. However this was always going to happen.

Closer Update

Still can't tell.  Classic closer situation yesterday and Neal Cotts got the save despite Kelley and Treinen not pitching for days.

Clint Update 

See last week. Clint's been used like any other back-up and he's been pretty stinky. Cuts have finally started last week with more today so expect Closer and Clint Updates to be more worthwhile next week maybe.

Anything else? 

Bryce smacked his 5th homer of the Spring. We've talked about it in previous years, how there's some evidence that power break-throughs might in Spring might have meaning in the regular season but the evidence is shaky. I suppose it's better than everything else though where the evidence is non-existant.

At this point you only look for really special cases. Guys who can't do anything or can't make a mistake in a decent amount of at bats. Something more than a series. So you might hear about Solano soon.  Who you will hear about now is Zimm who in 15 ABs still doesn't have a hit.  Also of note is Adam Lind who's struck out 8 times in 22 ABs. Does that matter? I don't know. I'm not worried about Werth (6K in 16) but then again I know Werth.  An up in K rate was an issue for Lind so it's something to keep an eye on but remember last year Espinosa K'd a lot and didn't hit and put up... well not a good year but a year that was pretty much exactly what we'd expect from him. So no reason to think Lind can't do the same.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Setback 1

Dusty says it's no big deal but Scherzer won't be in a real game or a simulated game next. He'll be pitching more BP. (Here's the Post if you prefer Castillo). The Nats continue on with their "Nothing to see here" attitude, still maintaining that Scherzer, who hopes to pitch 3 innings of BP Sunday, will be ready to go all out against major league hitters in 28 days or less. Don't buy it. Scherzer should be considered a mid April return at best and with each further setback that start date gets pushed further and further back.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. For one, we can all agree we'd rather have a definitively healthy Scherzer than force him into 3-4 more starts. Also, if you are gonna miss time, April is the time to do it. The schedule makes it easy to work around that missing rotation spot. It's been noted in the comments and it's true.  Take a look at the month. You'd need a 5th starter the 8th or 9th and then you don't hit the need again probably around the 22nd. So you could almost get through the first three weeks of the season without putting a guy on the mound you don't want to see.  And one rain-out in the set of games starting on the18th nearly gives you a whole another week. Would you rather see Scherzer throw 3 times? Sure. But it's nearly as important that his starts are taken up by Stras, Roark, Ross or Gio and not Cole or whoever. That latter qualification can certainly happen.

Now the question is - why no start? They seemed pretty adamant that he would get one unless he didn't seem to handle the recovery from the first BP well. If I were to guess then I would have to say he didn't handle the recovery from the first BP well. "So is it normal soreness or is it situation?" is the quote from Dusty so we have to assume, unfortuneately, that it's a situation. What is it exactly isn't known.  It could be the finger. It could be extra fatigue. He is throwing the ball differently than he has in the past and that could matter to these finely tuned machines. If its the finger - that's bad because it suggests he can't throw without hurting it and he just needs to rest or surgery it out.  If it's fatigue then it might just mean an extra week or two to get his arm used to the changes. Thus ends the office hours of Dr. Harper.

All I can say at this point is that I hope the Nats are extra cautious with Scherzer. It's hard to see them having the ultimate success without him performing up to his level. It's also hard to see a bright immediate future for the staff if he's becomes lost to injury for a long period of time over the next few years now that the Nats have given up their best starting prospects up in trade*. If he needs an extra month or two, let him have it. Force him to have it.


*How are these guys doing? Both had questionable first outings in the Spring and better second ones. Giolito had his third outing and pitched ok.  Wild. No word on his velocity on his third outing after his first one was very worrisome and his second was more in line with how he ended last year. Lopez throws for the 3rd time today. I'd say neither look ready right now, but that doesn't matter for the White Sox.

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Waiting on Scherzer

Here are the Post and MASN accounts of the Scherzer live BP.

What are the take aways? The response could best be described as tepidly positive. Max and everyone seemed to think the velocity was there, but there was no radar* so we don't know if the Mordecai** is as fast as his normal fastball. There didn't seem to be good contact against his pitching but you are talking about (1) 2 innings of pitching, and  (2) AA batters (at best). A lot of good contact would have been alarming. There was a loss of command after one inning which isn't abnormal for someone starting to get back his major league readiness after the off-season, but it reminds you that he's starting to get back his major league readiness and we're less than a month until Opening Day.  And one thing that doesn't even need a "but", I didn't hear anything about swings and misses. A lot of bad contact is fine, but there should be some "no contact" mixed in there.

What's next? Well if Max moves to a Grapefruit League game we can keep thinking he might get around to starting the season officially in rotation. That might be Opening Day, but more likely means a 4th or 5th start - wherever they can fit him in.  If it's a simulated game, I'd go ahead and expect him to miss at least a start as it's hard to imagine him having enough time against real opponents to work up to where he needs to be. If it's not even that... well then you can start to worry.


*if you are a conspiracy theorist this is the 2nd time in 5 days where there was no radar available for public consumption for a Nats injury recovering pitcher. The Palm Beach Park radar wasn't working for Strasburg's start either. Do I think it's on purpose.... Maybe I do. Do I think it means something bad? Not really. More message control then avoidance.

**Yes I'm calling his 3-fingered fastball this as long as I want to.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Monday Quickie - Too many players

Strasburg pitched! And it went... well like a Spring Training outing.  2IP, 3K, 1H.  I was interested in velocity but apparently the radar gun wasn't working so we don't actually have any specifics on that. But the news was less about the ball after it left his hand then what Stras was doing with it before.  Mainly he pitched out of the stretch and suggested he could be done with the windup. Wind-ups are thought to generate more power using more of the body to create all that torque and force needed to throw a ball at the major league level. The stretch is thought to be easier on the major league arm. However the data on these beliefs is inconclusive.

What is clear is the stretch is faster and well what matters is how he feels, right? If he likes it and he pitches well then do it. That's as far as my detailed analysis will go right now.

Max Scherzer update

Bullpens haven't been a failure so he's throwing live BP on Tuesday. That means there's still a path to getting where you'd want him to be for that first rotation through but any set back and forget it. Let's see if he pitches and what they say. I'd like them to say "Looks fine. We should see him in a game by X" Anything other than that I take as a "not going to be ready".  Also be clear - his finger isn't right. It's just a matter if they are going to let him progress with the ol' Mordecai grip. Right now it's all positivity on that grip working but that's to be expected.

Closer Update

Nothing to see here. They are still running out tons of arms just to see who may or may not stick. No back of the pen being set yet.

Clint Update

Clint hasn't been good. Clint hasn't played a particularly large number of games either. I'm not sure what they are doing then as he can't get any worse trade value (re: next to none) than he has now. But perhaps they don't feel any rush to deal him away or any fear he'll be grabbed if they try to outright him.

Anything Else?

Talks been all about Norris since Weiters signed.  He's barely played though with Solano and Lobaton getting into most of the games. He started hot so my guess is he'll be used sparingly in favorable games from here until he's gone. (And if he's not gone by OD I'll eat my ... well I did HAT and CAP.  Hmmm anything else you wear on your head that's short enough to be a workable sandwich acronym?

Most of the ABs and IP are going to nobodies.  They are just getting some guys major league time. I'd wait for after the first cuts to see how things like line-up and bullpen are going to shake out. Too much noise now.

Stats don't matter much but you do want guys who were hurt last year to do something to prove they aren't hurt now and Zimm... well anytime now Zimm would be nice.

Friday, March 03, 2017

Weekend thoughts

David Price possibly going under the knife reminds us that every team, every one, is a balky elbow and a blown knee away from a lost season. There are some players that can't be replaced and for the Nats Max Scherzer is one of those players. We'll officially check up on him Monday, because that's what I said I'd do, but I can tell you I'll definitely be keeping my ears out for any news this weekend.  Personally I think this is the weekend that decides whether Max will start in that first rotation set - maybe not Opening Day but sometime during the first 5 games. I'm ok with him missing a week or two as staying healthy is the most important thing, but the sooner we get off this path the better.

Strasburg is set to start today. We haven't seen him really pitch since going out with injury toward the end of last year. He was presumably well enough to go in October so the stakes feel lower but let's get through today healthy, with normal speeds on his pitches before we officially let go of the held breath.

As for the stats? Somewhere in the next 3 days you are likely to see a "Look how good Solano is hitting!" Ignore this. Please.



Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Joe Blanton - the needed arm

We've talked about this earlier. The Nats pen had lost a lot of innings pitched - some good Rivero/Melancon (79.1), Belisle (46), Rzep (11.2), some not so good Petit (62), Papelbon (35), but a lot of innings nonetheless. Knowing this, the Nats made some efforts to get a lights out closer, first trying to re-sign Melancon, then going after Jansen. They failed at both.

That happens, but what happened next was unexpected. Unable to solve the problem of lost innings with the preferred solutions the Nats acted as if there was no longer a problem to solve. Things would be fine, they said, with Kelley and Treinen and maybe Solis and hopefully Glover and ? ? ? It didn't make sense then. It doesn't make sense now, a team that sees itself competing for a title content to leave its bullpen up to the fates

Eventually though opportunity knocked. The best available pitcher, Joe Blanton, was seemingly drawing no interest from the teams despite a price tag that appeared to be quite reasonable (1yr 5 million might have done it). Desperate to take a deal that got him the same money, if not in the same time frame, the Nats were able to swoop in with a deferred deal that paid Blanton his money and got the Nats the arm they desperately needed.

So what kind of arm is Joe Blanton? Since settling in as a relief pitching Joe's been a very effective arm.  He's a slider heavy pitcher (43% of the time last year), who uses curves, fastballs, and change-ups around it. The movement of his main pitch makes it very effective, he strikes out a decent amount and is effective at getting swinging strikes, but hard to control. He can walk a few. His ability to place the pitch where he wants has made him as effective against LHB (.546 OPS) as RHB (.587 OPS).

Do the fancy stats have any warnings for us? Plenty. First is the .240 BABIP. Part of that is surely induced weak contact from that slider. But his percentage of soft contact isn't all that high, suggesting luck is playing a large part in this as well.  The previous year, pitching mostly, but not exclusively in relief, he had a .301 BABIP which was more in line with past results. That number should rise. Another thing is an oddly low HR/FB rate. Perhaps related to pitching in the vast fields of the NL West, Blanton, who was a severe flyball pitcher last year, had a HR/FB rate of a mere 7.4%.  Improvement in this number is not unusual given the focus of relief pitching but again it's a number that should go up. Finally his LOB% - the percentage of men left on base - was fairly high at 82%. This again symbolizes some level of luck, whether that means a lot or a little I can't tell you.

That may seem like a lot of negatives but the end result is basically explaining to you why Blanton isn't a sub 2.50 ERA pitcher, but probably more an over 3.00 ERA pitcher.  He's not Melancon, he's Belisle. But this isn't bad. The Nats need a reliable arm and Blanton throwing 80 IP of say 3.10 ERA baseball would fit that perfectly. He's not your lights out closer but he solves the problem we noted at the beginning of the column with the best available solution.

This isn't to say there couldn't be a worst case scenario. Blanton is over 36. His arm could simply dry up. It's hard to say if its coming because going from starter to reliever all those went up the last couple years. However there has been no trend at all in his career yet of declining velocity.  Or Blanton, who had everything work for him last year could have everything work against him this year, a .330 BABIP, 70% LOB rate, 17% HR/FB rate which would balloon his ERA up over 4.00. But understand we're saying "oh if he has bad luck accross the board it'll be bad". That's not really an analytical statement. That's a common sense one that applies to anyone.

We try to find the middle ground here and the middle ground says Blanton, shifted over to the Nats and with more moderate luck is probably a low 3.00 ERAs type pitcher. 3.30 or so. That's good enough. Reliable arms are a necessity. You could pray you develop them or you can go out and get them. The Nats went out and got one.