Nationals Baseball

Friday, April 19, 2019

The National Way

Great Starting Pitching
Solid Offense
Questionable Bullpen
Kind of Shoddy Fundamentals

This is the Nationals Way. And what it basically comes down to is that first item. Here are the Nats ranks in SP ERA,  Runs Scored, and Reliever ERA*

2012: 2nd, 10th, 7th
2013: 7th, 15th, 17th
2014: 1st, 9th, 4th
2015: 7th, 10th, 10th
2016: 2nd, 8th, 2nd
2017: 4th, 5th, 23rd
2018: 13th, 8th, 15th.

The bolded teams are playoff teams and you'll note the Nats have made the playoffs with good, but not great offenses, and missed with the same (in fact they've been pretty consistent in producing good to very good offenses).  They have made the playoffs with great relief pitching and terrible relief pitching. But they have never made the playoffs with anything but great starting pitching. That's what this team is built on. That's why they spent money on Patrick Corbin. That's why they need him to perform more like yesterday.

The Nats way isn't the only way to win. You can certainly try bludgeoning the other team into submission, something the Nats have only really done once (remember these are MLB ranks not NL so 5th is very good without a DH. You can 6-7-8-9 and fundamentals your way to a good team and from there hope things break for you (hey 2015 Royals!).  You can just get both a dominant staff and offense. But starting pitching is like winning the line in football, or out rebounding in basketball, it's the base victory that can cover up your other mistakes if you are superior at it. Great starting pitching means fewer IP from relievers, mitigating bullpen issues. Close games go either way. With great starting pitching you make sure that when your team doesn't score they still have a chance and when they do, it's not close.

Where do the Nats stand currently in these?

2019: 8th, 9th, 30th.  Though it's still early. The Nats starting pitching ERA is good and within striking distance of the top.  It's more than fluky performances dominate the outer ends of the rankings.

How the Nats get to a good spot can differ but generally you have a couple guys under 3.00 ERA and a couple more under 3.50.  If you can get three under 3.00 you can have more leeway in the other spots but that might bite you in the playoffs**  Often when the rotation is "bad" it's still good. It's just that the number of great, under 3.00 ERA performances are limited to 1 or 2, and the number of good performances around 3.50 take up the bulk of the rotation. That's a very good rotation still - but it can't carry a team and demands the other parts of the equation - the offense and the relief - be good as well***

This is all just a way of saying - the Nats can't win like they have been playing this season and it's not just the pen. The Nats have had two great starter performances, one good one, and two poor ones. That's not a distribution that'll work for this team in any situation. Assuming Hellickson (currently great) and Max (currently good) swap they'll need Sanchez to step up or Stras to find himself. The offense is fine but is kind of walking a tightrope and shouldn't be relied on. The bullpen is what it is. These can bury the Nats but they can't save them. The rotation can save them.

*Yes imperfect measurements. 

** Like the 2017 Nats where Max, Stras, and Gio finished 1-3-6 in Cy Young voting and Roark 

*** that WAS the case in 2015 so what happened? The Nats got unlucky three times over. They lost a bunch more close games then they probably should, underperforming they Pythag record by 6 games. The Mets had a healthy season from their rotation getting 29 starts or more from 4 of them and 24 from Syndergaard. The Wild Card was won with record records of 98 and 97 wins.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Worry About Strasburg?

Stepehn Strasburg had another poor outing yesterday.  People had been worried about him, most noting a lack of velocity.  What exactly is going on?

Like any stat, velocity isn't something that is easy to judge off a few starts. It has an ebb and flow during a season often being lower during the first months of the season as the arm warms up and the last months of it as fatigue sets in.  So to really get a good judge of any velocity issues you do have to look by month.  The easiest place to do that (imo) is Brooks Baseball.  Here is Strasburg's page.

If we look at his April veolcity's in his career we get

2012 : 96.95
2013 : 96.53
2014 : 93.99
2015 : 95.24
2016 : 95.68
2017 : 96.21
2018 : 95.61
2019 : 93.93

Now there is at least one more start for him in the month so the number could pick up but we are seeing a velocity that we haven't seen in April since 2014. However, we have seen numbers this low before. In August and September of last season.  That suggests a bigger issue than may have been seen in 2014, but we'll dig into both.

First, for interests sake - how did he do in these three months?

April 2014:  4.24 ERA  1.412 WHIP 4.42 K/BB
August 2018 : 6.30 ERA  1.600 WHIP 2.50 K/BB
September 2018 : 2.60 ERA  1.212 WHIP  3.46 K/BB
April 2019 :  5.56 ERA, 1.279 WHIP, 4.00 K/BB

Not great news but interesting in that he seemed to learn to pitch around the velocity loss last year but this year, despite the relatively same WHIP and better K/BB he's having a worse season.  Why is that? Likely HRs...  Yep last Sept he gave up 4 homers - about one every 9 innings. This year already 5 in 22 innings.

That could be bad luck... or it could be more FBs or harder hit balls. Lets check it out.  FB%? Sept 41.2%  April  33.9%   Nope.   Hard hit %? Sept 27.6%   April 25.4% Nope. HR/FB? Sept 11.4% April 23.8%  Yep.

So bad luck is an option here. But this isn't definitive. It could just as easily be when he throws a bad pitch it gets WRECKED and he's throwing more bad pitches while around that pitching pretty much the same as last September. Well Brooks Baseball has a measurement for that as well with "grooved pitches" (off fastballs)

Sept 2018 :  9.13
April 2019 : 10.10

that isn't much of a difference and if you threw March into 2019 it'd be a wash.

I guess currently if I had to choose a reason, I would say a little bit of bad luck.  Yes his velocity is down but that didn't make him terribly less effective in September of last year, and peripheral stats suggest that if the homers go back down, he'll be perfectly fine.

But what causes Strasburg to have these velocity dips? In 2014 there wasn't anything telling. He had a lat strain in June of 2013 but came back to pitch fine after that.  Last year it was a shoulder/neck injury.  You could try to say it was a back related issue but he missed time in 2015 and 2016 with back issues. There's no pattern here to discern. In 2015 he hurt his back much earlier in the year but then injured his oblique. 2016 was a lot like last year - back injury, didn't miss much time, seemed fine going forward and it didn't effect his velocity at the start of 2017.  So... nothing? Well maybe or maybe not - the truth is as you get older injuries get harder to recover from and even two years might make a big difference given the wear and tear these guys go through. What he could bounce back from in the offseason of 2016 at 28 might be something he couldn't in the offseason of 2018 at 30.

My take away from this quick look through is cautious optimism. The early season struggles seem most likely related to a couple more balls going over the fence at inopportune times. As that even outs he should revert back to the pitcher he was at the end of last year.  That may not be the pitcher you want to see - his velocity is still down and it may not come back up much more than a MPH which would be low for him - but it's a good pitcher nonetheless. But this is cautious, as with each passing year there are greater chances for these changes to be real and lasting. 30 isn't old, but it isn't young and while I doubt he's a 5.50 ERA pitcher now, he could be inching closer to a 4.00 ERA guy

Monday, April 15, 2019

Monday Quickie

Almost there - almost to the point where I'll take a more critical look at the stats. Next week. But until then we are still dealing with a aingle 0-4, 2-4, 4-4 game being the difference between  a current batting average of .227, .273, or .318.  We need a little bit more time.

We can look at the team however and find why the Nats are .500.  Of course we all know the main issue - the relief pitching.  Worst ERA in the majors currently at 7.75. If there is a silver lining here (and there isn't - it's more like a possibly long term cancer causing BPA lining) its that the Nats aren't THAT bad.  They don't really have the worst pen in the league. But they aren't a good bullpen cursed with bad luck. They don't strike out a lot, they walk too many, give up too many hits, give up too many homers, don't induce a lot of easy out (not great in getting pop-outs, league low in GB rate). Take it all together and you have a mediocre bullpen at best, which is what you'd probably expect from Doolittle + 6 guys who are all ok guys to have as your last 1-2 men in the pen. Rosenthal being the complete failure is the biggest issue but Barraclough, who was hoped to be the next guy up, has traded his control issue for being hittable, and Tony Sipp, who may have been a great late pick-up has basically tossed batting practice out there. That's 0-3 in your first go around trying to figure out who could fill in that 7-8 roles. Rosenthal and Barraclough at least will have a few more chances, especially with no one beating down the door, but the failure to get a more secure very good reliever to fill in the pen is the biggest issue the Nats face.

The Nats starters have been very good, as you'd probably expect, but not exactly as it was written up.  It's limited starter Jeremy Hellickson who is doing well so far to counter a strugglinlg Strasburg.  At this point takes can be dominated by a single bad start so it's important not to take too much from this. Just know to make up for something like the reliever probelms above the rotation would have to be special, and they have not been that. Max has been merely good. Stras struggling.

That combination is kind of an average team but a great or terrible offense could swing the Nats record in either direction. The Nats offense has also been good, but it's a bit of a mirage. The Nats have the second best OPS with RISP leading them to score more runs than you might expect looking at their other stats ok batting average, pretty average batting across the board otherwise. This is likely due to the fact that the Nats offense is the haves and have nots.  Kendrick, Rendon, and Robles, all have been very hot to start the year.  Zimm, Dozier, Difo and the Cs have been cold.  The same guys are getting on and being driven in by the same guys. 

In the long run this makes me a bit worried. The relief pitching should get better, but there's no reason to think it will be good. The offense, I feel, has great potential for collapse as while I like Soto to pick it up past average, there isn't any reason for me to think the cold guys will rise up to take place of the production that the Nats will lose when the hot guys cool down. If the offense collapses then you don't have enough to take this team to the playoffs.  The path to victory though is there. Strasburg starts pitching better. The SP gets dominant and Turner coming back balances out the offensive issues I see happening down the like. Dominant SP, Good Offense, Poor Relief pitching. That can make the playoffs. Of course the easiest solution would be to clear up the relief pitching problem but I don't expect to see that happen.

OK Sweep the Giants, or at least really beat them up in a couple of these games. A lost series here would be a big problem if any of the other NL East teams make a push

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Exactly where they need to be

If we had done the whole "this set of games" outlook like we like to do here sometimes, and you had presented me with 11 games versus the Phillies and Mets, 5 home 6 away, I would have put the Nats goal at 6-5.  It's not dominant - but it shouldn't be if these teams are any good. But it is above expectations if all these teams were the same (that'd be 5-6). What it shows is that the Nats still have a leg up on these teams, a slight advantage that over the long haul could push the Nats to another division crown.

Where are the Nats now?  6-5. Right on target.

But we also see the flaw in this.  The Nats are 6-5 and still in 4th place in the East.  They only trail the other teams by one game - they aren't significantly better, at least not right now, but they are there.  The Nats may have an advantage but they can't expect the advantage alone to get them to the finish line. They can't slip. They may need some luck, too.

The bullpen had a couple of good games in a row and that will happen. The bullpen is still an issue but the bullpen shouldn't be a season ending thing. Grace, Miller, Barraclough, Suero - these guys are all fine.  The problem isn't with any of them individually, but that if Doolittle is stuck in the closer role and Rosenthal doesn't shape up to be lights-out (smart money is on no for that) that important situations are going to be coin flips for this pen.  Sometimes it'll work out fine. Other times it won't.  You like to have a little more assurance than that - but don't expect that to come for the Nats before the trade deadline.  This pen is "good enough" and the Nats love "good enough"

We'll still let the numbers stew until around game 20 so let's take a look at the schedule. The Nats will be home for 6 games starting tomorrow 3 v PIT and 3 v SFG. Pittsburgh is a solid team relying on a really quite good starting staff to carry a less impressive offense. The Nats will get their best three (Taillion, Archer, and Williams) making this a tough series to win, but one you still have to expect the Nats to pull out.  The Giants are as mediocre as expected with a pretty hideous looking offense but a good enough pen to maybe keep things above disaster.  The rotation actually might be ok, but still it's hard to worry about it. The Nats should miss Bumgarner but he might sneak in there in the last game if the Giants are trying to maximize his outings. This is a 4-2 home stand at least.  Maybe 5-1.

In the meantime the Mets take on the Braves then the Phillies, so someone is going to lose ground to the Nats unless the Nats blow it.  The other team the Phillies face is the Marlins and the Braves will take on the D-Backs early next week.  Given these match-ups I think in a week the Nats should be hoping to be in 2nd by themselves, a game behind the Phillies

Tuesday, April 09, 2019

Early numbers

It's hard not to look at these numbers. Unlike Spring Training, these numbers mean something. Everyone is really trying now. What happens here goes on the "permanent record" of the season. We have no other information so this, while limited, is what we have to go on.

However it is still just 9 games. In any 9 game stretch you can have Matt Wieters hit like an MVP (From Aug 5th - Aug 15th Wieters hit .345 / .394 / .517) and you can have an MVP hit like... well Matt Wieters. (From May 9th - May 17th  Mike Trout hit .111 / .333 / .111) So we really have to back off from looking at these numbers. Except...

Except we can start to look at them to see if any preconceived notions/worries are playing out. We aren't coming in fresh and trying to say something just based on 9 games. We have something we are thinking about and want to see how it's coming along.  That's fair right?

Yan Gomes should be starting more than Kurt Suzuki - Defensive stats heavily favor Gomes. His age makes him the one with potential.  Technically this has been the way it's been with Gomes starting 5 games to Suzuki's 4.  That's probably a little more even then I'd like right now but it's a bit hard to judge with this few games.

Is Dozier done? In the fall Dozier looked old, hitting .111 in the NLCS, and going hitless in the World Series while providing pretty terrible defense. This Spring? Arguably more of the same .103, 9Ks to 1 BB, just one homer, with uninspiring D. If you want to look on the bright side -  that homer was just last game so maybe things are turning around now. If you want to be more honest - at lesat Howie is healthy now.

How will Rendon hit in his walk year? Rendon has put together MVP vote worthy seasons before but predicated on a plus bat mixed with plus defense. There's still a sense peak Rendon could hit .320 with 30 home runs in a couple seasons if healthy.  .412 with 4 homers suggests this may be the year which is both good news (good Rendon!) and bad ($$$$)

How will Robles hit long term in the majors? Last year's 20 game trial was very positive but it was just 20 games. Minor league numbers suggested high average with questionable power and patience. Last years suggested more power.  This year? Power seems to still be there as well as patience. K's are way up though and the average could take an unexpected dip. Where this all balances out will be interesting

Sophomore Slump for Soto? Last year was a revelation as Soto had the greatest teenage season of all-time. Hidden in that though was "trouble with the curve" so to speak. Soto couldn't hit off-speed pitches but it didn't matter because he had a great sense of strike zone and no one threw him off-speed pitches in the zone. This year they've upped the off-speed stuff and Soto has suffered. His walk rate is about the same but the K-rate is way up.  He's 20 so this isn't a "He can't hit this stuff! He's done for!" situation but how does he adjust this year, will be very important as his bat was supposed to help cover for the loss of Bryce's  

Corbin : Max2, as advertised, or bought high?  Only two starts but seems like as advertised. Starters are hardest to judge this early though.

Can Rosenthal rebound to dominance? HAHAHAHAHHAHAHA

There you go.  Things look like a mix of good news (Robles could be better, Rendon could be an MVP) and bad (Dozier and Rosenthal could both be big fat zeros) which is what teams expect to have.  That might be a problem since luck isn't evenly distributed there may be a team in the East that gets all the luck.*  But that's all you can expect.

*Right now   I'd say Philly is looking pretty good here.  Hoskins is rebounding to STAR with Bryce in the lineup. Franco is showing improved patience which makes him a very good overall player as opposed to the up and down player he has been. Eflin may be taking a step up.  The only bad news based on pre-season questions for them right now is Kingey doesn't look any better.

Monday, April 08, 2019

Monday Quickie - Don't get swept

The Nats have set themselves mostly right after a stumbling start. They took the 2nd game of a two game homestand against the Phillies and won an away series against the Mets, making up for a series lost to the Mets to start the year.

But it hasn't been a clear turnaround. While the team has started scoring runs and winning games, the pitching has continued to struggle. The bullpen is the main issue, most notably the fact that Trevor Rosenthal still hasn't gotten a single batter out, but things get even more scarier when you think a little bit more. The Nats have been able to use the early season plethora of off days to their advantage. The breakdown of these 8 games includes only 1 game not started by Max, Stras, or Corbin. Only one pitcher (Matt Grace) has been forced to throw three days in a row. There's a couple more break days coming up which means a little more manipulation is possible but starting April 16th the Nationals will get into the meat of the season. They'll be forced to use their fourth and fifth starters, and forced to use a tired pen. What happens then?

This series against the Phillies is a pop quiz of sorts for that question. This is the first stretch of 5 games in a row where the Nats will have to dig into their 5th starter. Davey managed to only use one relief pitcher twice in the past two days (Suero) giving him as deep a bullpen as possible but still a bullpen where no one has more than one day of rest.  This series will test how bad this thing, that already looks bad, can get.

What I have as a goal going forward is simple. Don't get swept. If the Nats get swept they'd be 5 games behind the Phillies with 5 H2H games in the past. It's a big gap with decidedly less opportunity to make that up (compared to say 19 full games left to even any gaps they may have with the Braves). Even a series loss (the most likely scenario) only puts the Nats 3 games out.  So don't get swept. 

Wednesday, April 03, 2019

A night to boo

Yesterday was supposed to be a moral reckoning for the Nationals fans. Logically Bryce Harper did nothing wrong. He played (mostly) hard in DC for 7 seasons, then grabbed the largest contract he could in free agency. 99% if us would do the same thing.  But fandom isn't supposed to be rational, and Bryce also always had a foot out the door and never quite connected with fans because of that. He turned down what could be taken as a fair contract and signed with a direct rival instead.  It was easy enough to turn "nothing wrong" into "Benedict Harper"

And so the Nats fans rained down the Boos with unexpected force, the "fake fan base filled with half-hearted transient fans" proving they could be just as crazily passionate as fans anywhere else.

And that should have been it. Boos. Bryce vs Max. A K or a hit and the game moves on.  But after the cathartic K in an otherwise shaky top half of the first things started to unravel. Trea took a pitch off the hand on a strange bunt attempt.  Max gave up a bomb and couldn't close out innings fast enough. Matt Adams tumbled over the railing. Max struck out Bryce again for another pop but rather than a rising crescendo it was a muted saving grace at that point.

In his third and final Max AB, Bryce would double, putting an end to hope of complete humiliation for Bryce. Then Max had to come out and the bullpen burned the park down. Suero and Grace were almost out of it. 2 on but 2 out. McCutchen walks to load the bases and the Nats face a do or die situation. Segura up, Bryce just missing out on the huge AB on deck. In hindsight it's clear Doolittle should have been brought in here. A hit blows the game open, likely losing it. It is time for a good reliever and frankly the Nats only have one of those right now. But Fake Davey stuck with Grace, Grace grooved on down the middle, and Segura cleared the bases. Bryce's follow-up single, scoring Segura was anti-climatic at that point. The game was pretty much lost as no one thought the Nats could score 7 in 4 AND the bullpen could hold the Phillies where they were.

But even then the indignities didn't end. With one last at bat against "We don't have a real long man so you are it" Hellickson, Bryce crushed a homer into deep right center putting an exclamation point on this disaster. The game could have hardly gone worse.

It's a game that you feel can send a team reeling, but as we've noted before this is more fiction than fact. The truth is win tonight and the season feels a lot better. Win tomorrow too and while the slow start isn't forgotten (Trea is still hurt) it's seen for a minor overcome able stumble. That's all it takes - two wins.

What to do about Trea?

Difo has to play SS right now. Dozier can't. Kendrick is still out and also can't.  Young Kieboom should be up even if unready because the Nats shouldn't try to carry Difo's bat for any longer than they have to.  Kieboom may be no good, but the Nats have to take that gamble and start this clock.