Nationals Baseball: August 2012

Friday, August 31, 2012

Pitching, Pitching, Pitching, Pitching, Pitching, Pi..

Very early in the year, when the Nats pitching was looking like 4 Bob Gibsons and a Bob Welch (who was a pretty good pitcher mind you) I took at look at some of their stats. I was trying to see what was potentially "unsustainable".  That doesn't mean just outperforming, it means underperforming, too.  Months later the Nats pitching is still awesome (5 guys somewhere between Gibson and Welch) so I thought it would be interesting to revisit those same stats and see where we've ended up.

These are values that can vary from pitcher to pitcher but in general fall within a defined range. There can be an outlier or two in any given year but they are rare and barely fall out of the expected range. With so few games left this year though, you can't say anything off will be corrected this season. Really it's more of a next season thing.  (rough past 2 year average in parenthesis)

BABIP (usually ranges from .250-.325)
Strasburg:  was .262, now .314 (.275)
Gio: was .228, now .277 (.280)
ZNN: was .200, now .280 (.270)
EJax: was .250, now .262 (.320)
Detwiler: was .238, now .265  (.272)

Strasburg, by this measure alone, is having some terrible luck and yet he's still usually awesome.  Gio, ZNN, and Detwiler are back around average. Jackson is way lower but it isn't an impossible number based on the usual ranges. Notice they are all pretty low but all within range. That's what Rizzo was going for getting talented groundball pitchers to go along with with great infield D. 

HR/FB  (6.0% - 13.0%)
Strasburg: was 0.0%, now 10.6%  (4.5%)
Gio: was 0.0%, now 6.7% (8.5%)
ZNN: was 4.2%, 9.0% (14%)
EJax: was 5.0%, now 11.9% (9.4%)
Detwiler:  was 9.1%, now 6.9%  (10.6%)

Everyone was sitting too low. Everyone came back to the pack. Strasburg's been hit more with this than we'd probably expect going forward.  That Detwiler number is a big reason he's doing so well.  He's getting to the edge of normal there.  

LOB% (66% - 80%)
Strasburg: was 82.5%, now 75.4% (71%)
Gio: was 80%, now 72.2% (77.5%)
ZNN: was 80.7%, now 80.7%  (73.3%)
EJax: was 51.3%, 75.8%  (72%)
Detwiler: was 73.5%, now 70.6% (78.7%)

Early on Jackson was getting screwed here, but things evened out for him helping him out alot. That ZNN number is high, but the rest are right on target.

Personal stats
Here what we want to see if anyone has improved enough in these stats to justify the change in results we are seeing on the field. There IS a range but it's very broad and frankly I think it's more telling to look at their stats last year. It's difficult to improve on something like BABIP or LOB%. but I like to believe you can for the below.  Let's see who held up over the year and is showing real improvement.

Strasburg:   was 42.9%, now 43.9% (42%)
Gio: was 52.7%, now 46.5% (48%)
ZNN: was 48.7%, now 44.7%  (44%)
EJax: was 51.1%, now 46.5% (46%)
Detwiler: was 64.3%, now 52.0%  (43%)

We aren't seeing the same great leaps here that we did early in the year, so the all-staff improvement dream is probably gone. Detwiler though might have. Yes his number is still high in large part to that crazy start we saw.  But since then he's probably in the 49% range. That's not as good but that's still an improvement over his past numbers.

K/9  BB/9
Strasburg: was 9.00 / 2.16, now 11.14 / 2.63 (11 /2) 
Gio: was 10.27 / 2.66, now 9.49 / 3.39 (8/4)
ZNN: was 5.33 / 0.67, now 6.65 / 1.79  (7.5 / 2.3)
EJax: was 9.47 / 1.42, now 7.92 / 2.79 (7.4 / 3)
Detwiler: was 8.44 / 2.25, now 5.62 / 2.44 (5.5 / 2.73)

A couple things pop out. Strasburg's walks have gotten worse. It's hard to complain when he was starting from the !!!!! position, but it looks like my early column thinking he might do things we've never seen before was jumping the gun a bit. On the flipside, Gio's K's have remained higher.  Now alot of that has to do with being in the NL now (he's struck out pitchers in 33 of 49 at bats) but you know what? He pitches in the NL now. Other things that might be worth following, both Gio's walk rate and ZNNs seems to show consistent improvement.

Take Aways

First thing - Those ranges are real things you must accept.  Everytime early in the season you say "This guys is doing X - he can't keep that up" someone will come back and say "No! He's gotten better/worse and he is doing this, this, and that now! He can keep it up!"  No. With the exception of ZNN LOB rate (which was only 0.7% above the range I set) everyone fit back into the normal pitcher ranges. Thousands of pitching seasons over dozens of years tells us one thing. You only make yourself look foolish if you don't agree.

As for the staff.  I see real improvement with Gio in particular, and in parts with Detwiler and ZNN. At the same time the last two have had their share of luck which makes me think they are slightly outproducing what would be reasonable to expect from them.  Same thing with Edwin, slightly lucky, though with no real improvement. (Though he'd spent most of his career being unlucky so it's not like I'm telling you he's a 4.50 pitcher in disguise).  Strasburg has been the unlucky one, and along with a real regression in control, that's cause him to underproduce.

But no one is getting REAL lucky (or real unlucky) so they deserve the spot they've earned as one of the top rotations (if not the top rotation) in the majors. What about next year?  Plenty of time to talk about that in the offseason.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Good team plays well, News at 11

Can we stop with the Leskanic Panic now?  We are 130 games into the season.  We know who these teams are. The Nats, when everyone is healthy, have a good offense. They have a very good starting pitching staff in which the top three are able to pitch gems without it being surprising. They have a bullpen full of talented arms. They have a great infield defense, a pretty good right fielder, and a center fielder with a fantastic arm.  They have a manager, who has won before and who most people trust.

They are a team that is 5 games better than the Braves. They have (so far) no game-changing injury loss.  The Braves have no game-changing acquistion.  The smart money is on the Nats extending their lead a game or two before the end of the season.

So last night's game wasn't about a team meeting, or about a resiliant Nats team holding on, or about Bryce Harper breaking out of a slump (we already ran through this after a couple good games in the Mets series - let the kid hit in 4 or 5 games before you declare him "back").  It was about a good team playing like it can and getting the results that it should.

Other notes

Last night is why you start Bryce over Roger. When Bryce is feeling it he can dominate a game. Now right now, it's true that he's rarely doing this and mostly against bad pitchers, but the hope is he can get back to doing it against all pitchers, and make that good offense very good. Plus he's got that arm.  (Not that that what kept the Marlins from scoring in the 7th that was a bullet to the OF caught at mid-distance.  With Stanton on deck I probably hold the runner against any decent arm)

Strasburg shutdown opponents might have taken a blow with Strasburg's terrible last start, but they should get in one of their own after last nights game. In 3 of the last 4 starts, against middling competition, Ross has seemed like a 4 inning pitcher. While pitchers tend to get hit harder as the game goes along, Detwiler sees a bigger jump the 2nd time around compared to all the other starters on the Nats staff.

OPS per time around
ZNN: .591 -> .659 -> .766
Gio: .508 -> .571 -> .786
Stras: .593 -> .629 -> .748
Detwiler :  .563 -> .695 -> .739

(I left Jackson out because he's an exception.  Getting killed early this year.  .812 OPS first time around, then settles down for time #2 and 3)

Strasburg to Detwiler isn't a HUGE jump down, but in the playoffs, against the highest competition, huge jumps down aren't necessary to lose games.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Substitute Features

Here's something that might surprise you.  The Nats offensive starters have this line :

.253 / .311 / .408

That batting average is league average. That OBP is a little below league average.  That SLG is a little bit above league average.

But the Nats haven't produced like an average offense. They've been better than that.  They've been good.  How is that?

It's because, for one reason or another, the Nats hitters are great when they don't start the game.

One thing we can look at is pinch hitting.  The Nats have a line of .315 / .409 / .473 when pinch hitting this year.  That's good enough to be head and shoulders above the rest of the National League.

But it goes beyond that because being a substitute isn't just being a pinch hitter.  All those at bats after that count too. And nearly every National that could come off the bench in this role has hit better as a substitute than when they start.

Starting : .283 / .360 / .388
Subbing : .395 / .490 / .488

Starting : .219 / .265 / .438
Subbing : .323 / .405 / .548

Starting : .274 / .317 / .355
Subbing : .357 / .438 / .429

Starting : .277 / .342 / .505
Subbing : .310 / .375 / .517

Starting :  .085 / .214 / .085
Subbing : .316 / .458 / .526

Starting :  .226 / .275 / .376
Subbing :  .240 / .321 / .600

Starting : .131 / .180 / .190
Subbing : .278 / .350 / .667

Their sub line is .319 /.415 / .486. The next best in the NL is the Mets with a .262 / .344 / .440 line. Is it Davey making the right moves? Is it Rizzo putting together a decent bench? Is it just dumb luck?

I don't want to dismiss the other two but it's a lot of #3. Generally, your at bats as a sub are going to be limited so you are going to see a lot of variation compared to your stats as a starter (pure pinch hitters like Chad Tracy excluded). Some people should find themselves doing worse, some should find themselves doing better.  And it can be radically so, averages closing in on .500 or well below .100.  What we see here with the Nats, with everyone improving when they aren't starting, is really very fluky.

As for the first two parts, I'm not sure. The Davey role is something that would need more investigation.  He can't place the guys in situations so that they'd perform this well (remember too that this includes post PH at bats that Davey has less control over). However, he could have a history of having most of his guys do slightly better at PH than expected.  I'm not going to discount that out of hand.  The Rizzo role, well... I have a hard time saying that DeRosa and Nady constituted a good bench. You see what they've done when they've started. Their sub success is the most flukiest. You may not have expected the other guys to do this well but there are decent players among the rest. Bernie can spot start. Lombo can get a single. Moore has legit major league power. You kept Ankiel in part because he might blast one. Tracy was brought in to pinch hit and he has. Maybe Rizzo didn't personally set out to get all these guys on the Nats (Bernie has been the 4th OF for what? 18 years now? Moore forced the issue through his play and injuries forced the move) but in the end he's responsible for who's out there, so he gets the credit if they do well.

Can the Nats keep this up? Sure, why not. It's just a few at bats. A better showing from the guys that start the game would be nice though. 

Monday, August 27, 2012

Monday Quickie - the "kept it out" weekend

Well that sucked.  Not only did the Nats get swept but the Braves stopped the freight train that was the San Francisco Giants and picked up a game and a half on the Nats. As I noted on Thursday the Braves have a bit of a scheduling advantage from here onto the next series.  Not much, but enough to keep you scoreboard watching.

Why did the Nats get swept?  Because their offense isn't great. Sorry those that believe otherwise but it isn't. It is better than I thought it would be because the lack of anyone underperforming for the year has led to a lineup where there isn't a particular hole outside of catcher. But it also doesn't have great bats that can carry a team (well maybe Zimmerman, he kind of skirts that). The success it sees is because of its mild relentlessness.  From 1 to 7 they might not kill you but you can't take a batter off.  What happens though when two of the bats go out and you don't catch a lucky break with everyone else being hot? The offense stops dead in its tracks. Six runs in 4 games. The Nats need a healthy Morse and Desmond back ASAP.

To help with the freaking out that might happen if the Nats lose another one tonight let's put this season in some perspective.

Nats Record & Standings on August 26th 

2006 : 55-74, 24.5 games out of NL East lead, 11.5 games out of the playoffs
2007 : 58-73, 16, 13
2008 : 47-85, 26, 30
2009 : 45-82, 29.5, 27
2010 : 54-74, 19.5, 17
2011 : 62-68, 21.5, 15.5

2012 : 77-50, 4.5 games UP in the NL East, 8.5 games away from being out of the playoffs.

I'm not saying you can't complain about the lousy play, or the hot-headedness of Rizzo, or the Nats injury luck, etc. etc. But at the same time you should be enjoying the hell out of this. 

Friday, August 24, 2012

The "put it away" weekend

Hey the bottom 3 of the NL East won a game!  Good for them!

At any point now the Nats could vitrually clinch the pennant, but until they get that 8+ game lead fans are going to take each series pretty seriously.  While the Braves are in San Fran trying to hold ground vs the red hot Giants the Nats get the Phillies. How they been? Eh, ok.

The thought was that when Utley and Howard came back the team might make a run toward the playoffs.  It didn't happen. Right after the All-Star break they won 4 in a row! Then lost 3 in a row. Then won 4 in a row! Then lost 3 in a low. That's not a bad pace for a season (about 92 wins), but with only 60 games left that wasn't going to cut it. With the hole they already dug they couldn't merely be good, they needed to be great and sustain it till the end of the season. With that not in the cards the Phillies cut bait, traded Victorino and Pence and continued on their merry way. They've been 13-10 since. Despite wanting to believe Philly stinks, with that pitching staff and with a healthy Utley and Howard, it's still a decent team with playoff potential.

The match-ups look pretty good for the Nats.  First off they miss Hamels. That's always good. In the first game you get Jackson vs Kyle Kendrick. Kendrick was pulled from the rotation earlier in the year and has only been put back in the past month. He's been pretty good the second go-round. After getting killed by Atlanta, he shutdown the Marlins and Brewers in back to back games. Edwin hasn't had a good August but his last loss was a real hard-luck job. This game could go either way.

Game 2 is Gio vs Halladay. Halladay hasn't been the same pitcher this year While some of that is bad luck with RISP hits,  the Ks are down a tick, the walks up. He's still is almost certain to give up a few runs in each game. Meanwhile Gio is slowly rounding back into early season form. The Ks aren't really back and he's more hittable than early in the season, but he's been avoiding the wildness issues that were key to his bad games in July. Another thing in the Nats favor in this game is that the Phillies are a lefty heavy team. Utley, Howard, the surprisingly ok Juan Pierre, the rookie Dominic Brown, they are all lefties. Other than Ruiz there may not be a righty bat you care about. You'd like a few less hits in this game given up by Gio, but you still take him.

The last game is ZNN Strasburg* s Lee, a theoretical pitching treat which only ensures one of them will get bombed. We all know Strasburg has been a bit wild, but he's doing nothing wrong other than that.  Zimmermann is still not quite on his game. He's pitched ok, but last time he finally gave up a long ball.  A bit more concerning only 2 Ks.  Now you don't need K's to be successful but 2 Ks and 8 hits in 5 innings?  That's something to keep an eye on. Despite the evil liberal media's love of Cliff Lee and want to call him a hard luck case this year, he's actually been pretty consistently a mediocre pitcher since Mid-May.  His main issues is that he's been leaving the ball up and giving up a bunch of home runs. The Nats can hit a few out. I'll take Zimmermann though watch him in this one.

In the end the Nats should be favored in all three, but that doesn't mean sweep. (I can show you mathematically!) Personally, I think 2 out of 3 will happen. Given how bad the Phils fair against lefties I'd give that one to the Nats so either game 1 or game 3 they lose. If you twisted my arm, I'd say game 1. (though the Nats have won 6 straight series openers... though again the last series opener they did lose - it was to the Phillies).  Two out of three might be enough to seal the deal if the Giants don't cool down. 

*Stupid I thought it seemed early for Strasburg but didn't check. I blame myself for looking at these guys when I just called them out earlier in the week for having Gio the probable in the game after he pitched. 

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Almost over

Game Guess grade :  D-  Totally wrong on Medlen. He was very good. Not shutout good - he got lucky in a couple innings that the Nats didn't cross one over the plate - but 7 innings 2 runs good at least. Detwiler didn't go the distance I said he would and mixed a power pitching beginning that flummoxed the Braves with a wild 5th that basically ended his night.  I'll stop guessing now.

The Nats are 6 games up with 38 games to go. I want to call this division, but a collapse remains on the outskirts of possibility.  With an 8 game lead the Nats would have to play the last quarter or so of the season at a 60 wins pace and the Braves at a 100 win pace for the Braves to take the crown.  I just don't see that.  With a six game lead that Braves pace can slow to a 90 win pace.  Possible? I guess.

Really what does it for me is that remaining series. I believe you can pretty easily lose two games in the standings while blinking. If the Braves can get through this weekend (they are at the Giants, Nats are at Philadelphia) without losing any more ground, they should have a slight scheduling advantage the rest of the way to the final series. If you are wondering:

Braves : 3@SF, 3@SD, 3vPHI, 4vCOL, 3@NYM, 3@MIL
Nats : 3@PHI, 2@FLA, 3vSTL, 4vCHC, 3vFLA, 3@NYM

So if the Nats do lose two games in the standings before that next series and go into it with a ~4 game lead, well then a sweep means a ~1 game lead and a furious finish. If I can play out a reasonable scenario in my head, I have to hold off.

Of course this is all worst case thinking. I don't think the Nats will slump terribly, which would force the Braves to play at an incredible clip to take the pennant, and I don't think the Braves will play at an incredible clip. To narrow all this down to a single thought : Start thinking hard about where you'd place the NL East trophy but don't clear off the space just yet.

Other Thoughts

Obviously the Nats future is brighter with a healthy Strasburg, but don't get caught up in the "multiple WS" talk. Oh ok, if you define "multiple" as 2, which is technically a multiple since it's more than 1, then fine.  The odds aren't good, but it does happen.  Seven teams have done won 2 World Series in a 10 year period in the past 25 years. (Twins, Dodgers, Blue Jays, Marlins, Yankees, Red Sox and Cardinals.)  But if you are thinking 3+, of that group only the Yankees managed to win that 3rd. Going back to the next one before them you're going all the way back to the early 70's A's. Then you have to go back before divisional play to the Dodgers and Yankees of the late 50's, early 60's. It's very rare and understandably rarer in a time with a lot more playoff rounds. The Nats can be World Series contenders for a good stretch, but the most likely outcome of that is maybe one WS.

The Bryce mini-comeback that the media was all over is probably dead. 2-13 in the series, 0 walks and 6 Ks. I'm thinking that he's approaching this "occasional day-off" in the wrong way, trying real hard to hit his way back into playing every day (as opposed to 5 out of 6 days).  Since Davey finall gave him a rest he's only taken 1 walk.

Nothing I've seen of Suzuki changes my mind. The Nats are going to be paying a hell of a lot for a back-up catcher the next few years.

Meanwhile Zimm keeps chugging along 5-12 for the series with 2 walks.  He was hitting .218 on June 23rd and is hitting .285 now.

Werth has had four hits in the series, all doubles.  He's been great since coming back. .373 / .455 / .522. Some guys aren't hitting but the Nats have decent bats at every position but one, so it's hard to find them every really struggle because 5+ guys don't usually go cold at the same time.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012


Game Guess #2 Self-Grade :  D+.  I get credit for knowing the Braves approach would cause Strasburg to go out early and The Maholm/Nats guess wasn't THAT far off.  Really he was 10' ft on the Flores homer from a matching Strasburg in runs (though not performance).  4 runs in 7 is not great but it's allright and would win a few games. Still that only keeps me from failing. On the other side Strasburg was close to perfect (more on that in a minute) meaning that even though the Braves got him out early they only had one run in by the time they did it. Davey didn't try to save the bullpen. They all did great. So in the end a blecch guess.

Last nights game was all about Strasburg. He dominated and the fun part about it is that it felt like 90% of what he can do. The Braves still wore him down and in that last inning you definitely saw some wear. He threw 94 pitches over 6 and 31 balls. That's an excellent ratio but Strasburg, when he's completely on his game, will only throw 25-30 balls and most will be when and where he wants them. When he is completely on his game Strasburg should beat ANY team, I don't care how good offensively they are or how much they try to work him.

Gio is very good. Zimmermann is very good. Neither is as good as Strasburg. He can do everything right.  On any given night I think he can combine Zimmermann's control, Gio's strikeout ability, and Detwiler's GB tendencies. Hell, I think he can be better than all 3 at each. And he's over 2 years younger than any of them.

Which is why the shutdown is maddening to a lot of fans. You can't replace something like that.  And yet, what do you do? We know nothing.  We don't know how much pitching Strasburg beyond 180 or so innings will effect his arm.  We don't know how much losing Strasburg for the playoffs will effect the Nats chances at winning. No idea. All we know are the vague truths. Throwing more will increase his chances of being hurt. Strasburg pitching will increase the Nats chances of winning any series they are in. But because there are no certainties - there can be no "correct" answer and this argument can go on and on and on...

Game 3

Kris Medlen has been great for the Braves since being extended into a starter. There's very little to pick at in his stats. He's only given up 2 XBH, and struck out 22 in 25 and 2/3 innings. But again the last three opponents were the Astros, Mets, and Padres. What bothers me about Medlen is that his last 3 starts his pitch counts has gone up from 79 to 88 to 104.  271 pitches, about as many as he threw in the entire month of July and that includes his first start. That has to have some effect on someone who hasn't thrown that many pitches in a game in over 2 years. If he's going to blow up, a game away from home, versus the second decent offense he's started against (and the first in 3 starts), after a long start, is as good a guess as any.

Medlen has thrown 4 games vs the Nats. The first two they hit him pretty well, the second two they didn't hit him at all. But these were all in relief so I don't put much stake in them.

Detwiler hasn't been great the past two games, one of those being the Mets who as we've said up there - not impressive. Ross's Ks are way down and that's an issue. His control is good but not special like ZNN. He's adept at getting ground balls and thus not giving up homers, but the end result is teams put a lot of balls in play.  If he doesn't get the strikeouts, that's that many more balls in play. Eventually those balls will find holes and some runs will come. Not alot, but some. If he was on a team other than the Nats, with their fantastic infield D, I wonder what he'd be like.  For the Nats his starter ERA is 3.50. That's feels about right.

Detwiler's faced the Braves 3 times this year. The first one was bad and sealed the deal for Wang to take over. The second one was a lot like Maholm's start yesterday. Not terrible but a big 2 out, 2 run homer late made it seem worse than it was. The third start was the opposite, not great, but the hits were scattered and thus it looked better than it was. Short of it - he pitched like you'd expect. 

Game Guess 
You can't count on scattering. Ross is going to give up hits, and isn't the best but he's good, say ~3 runs, 6-7 innings. It's more than enough. Medlen, tired from the big increase in innings, gets hit hard and is out early. 6 runs 3 innings, something like that. The Nats don't necessarily pour it on but they tack on a few more, while the Brave score a meaningless run or two against whoever Davey wants to soak up the back 3 innings. Nats sweep and start drafting designs for a pennant.

Nats 9-4.


What you saw last night was the closer theory taken to its (il)logical ends.  The theory in a nutshell is as follows :

Because there is no further opportunity to come back if a team is losing at the close of the 9th inning, that is potentially the most important inning to be pitched. Therefore a team must save its best relief pitcher for that inning. 

Of course the biggest flaw in that theory is that the 9th is only POTENTIALLY the most important inning to be pitched. Based on situation, opponents line-up, and other considerations, it is often the case that another inning holds the most important situation in a given game. Simple example - 1 out in the 8th, up 2, with the bases loaded and the 3-4 hitters coming up; is far more important than the likely scenario to be faced in the 9th (up 2, 5-6-7 hitters due up) if the 8th inning pitcher is successful.  But because the potential is always there the default for the last 20+ years is to save that pitcher. What ends up happening then is teams will lose games before they get a chance to save them.

Last night Fredi Gonzalez used Chad Durbin (career relief ERA of 4.14), Luis Avilan (a rookie with 15 games under his belt), and Cristhian Martinez (ERA entering game of 4.10, just gave up 3 runs in his last appearance) instead of Craig Kimbrel (ERA 1.20 - arguably the best relief pitcher in the game) in order to get the game to Kimbrel.  It never got there.

Some may try to convince you it was the right move because the Braves pitchers kept the Nats scoreless over most of that time. That's crap. Running up the gut on 4th and 15 is not the right move. Taking a 50 footer with 10 seconds left on the clock is not the right move.  Pulling the goalie with two minutes left and a face-off on your side of the ice is not the right move. They might all work, but it wasn't by design, it was by luck. Results can't make bad choices into good ones, they can only make bad choices into irrelevant ones. Fredi walked a tighrope for 4+ innings asking to get burned and eventually he was.

Contrast that with Davey who used Clippard, although reluctantly, during last nights game. It wasn't the best use of Clippard, to face Janish, a PH, and Bourn, I can think of several better places to have used him, but at least Davey realized he should be used. It's the difference between a winning manager and a losing one, and thus a winning team and a losing one.

You'll probably hear this argument for years to come.  The closer has been given a special place in the fans psyche and thus the manager's one, too. But eventually someone will change it and be successful and others will follow. They'll realize that guys like H-Rod don't fail at closing because of the pressure. Relievers face pressure all the time. They fail at closing because they aren't very good. Let Fredi never realize this.

A quick shot of praise for the Nats relievers here - not the prettiest relief effort to start, but effective. 

Game 2

Paul Maholm has been very good for the Braves. But like I mentioned yesterday, the Braves haven't played anyone so his good start vs the Astros and shutdowns of the Mets and Padres aren't necessarily worrying.  What could be is Maholm's general pitching skill.  In the last two years Maholm has put things together. His walks are trending down, the strikeouts up, and when combined with a tendency to give up GBs and not HRs he has become a decidedly effective pitcher. He's not really any better than Edwin Jackson, or Ross Detwiler, but he's not any worse either. He's an effective #3 on most teams. His biggest weakness this season is probably a tendency to still get wild here and there.

Maholm has not faced the Nats this year.

Hey it's Mr. Shutdown himself!  Strasburg has been very unhittable recently (8 hits in his last 18 innings), but also very wild (4 walks a piece in his last two games).  The wildness would be a problem but his K's are still up and he's seemingly over a little problem he had with the long ball in July. So the end result is those guys get on and go nowhere and Strasburg has a very good game. Strasburg, though, is usually dominant because he does everything well and eventually you'd expect those walks to return to a more normal level for him and the dominance to return.

Strasburg has faced the Braves 4 times this year and has been underwhelming.  The Braves work him hard; Game 1 features 6 hits, 4 walks, and 95 pitches through 5 innings.  Game 3 - 2 hits, 4 walks, 67 pitches, through 3 innings (the "heat" game). Game 4 - 8 hits, 3 walks and 103 pitches through 5 1/3.  The Braves never were able to finish Strasburg off but you can't be enthused by these results. If you are looking for a silver lining, Strasburg at his best will dominate anyone.  In Game 2 he gave up 4 hits, no walks, and struck out 9 in 7 innings and at 90 pitches he could have easily gone another inning but he had to get PH for. It was arguably his best game of the year.

Game Guess
The Braves are the NLs most patient team and against a Strasburg that has been wild and a pen that was taxed to its near limit, that's a dangerous combination.  Still the Braves haven't been able to ever put Strasburg away so why should tonight be any different? A short outing for Strasburg, 5 innings or so, and not very effective, 3-4 runs, but he leaves the Nats in the game.  Maholm on the other hand pitches like Hudson and gets results like a post first inning Hudson keeping the Nats down through 7 and the Braves with a slight lead going into the final few innings. It looks like it'll be heading to a Kimbrel save situation but down by a couple, Davey chooses to use H-Rod stick with a guy too long to try to save his pen and it blows up in his face.  Braves turn a slight lead into an easy win.

Braves 7-2

Game Guess #1 Self-Grade :  B+.  I nailed the Hudson/Nats side of the equation, and also totally called Fredi not using his best pitchers, though for a different reason.  Didn't see ZNN being as ineffective as he was though.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Monday Quickie - BRAVES SERIES!

Well the Nats got the game on the Braves I expected them to, although not in the way I thought it would happen.  The Nats did indeed lose that 2nd game, but Atlanta, like Atlanta is wont to do, found itself unable to win important games and lost a series at home to the Dodgers. This to me is the "real" Atlanta.  While they have been hot in the past month - they've also played the Marlins twice, the Phillies twice, the Mets and the Padres. In other words, no real competition. Put a decent team in front of them and, well, you saw what happened.

I'm not just whistling "Nuts about the Nats" here.  The Braves are 11-20 against the Top 5 teams in the NL that aren't them, including a 5-13 record versus the two teams that have set themselves apart from the rest of the pack, Cincinnati (1-5) and Washington (4-8).  With no ability to rise to the occasion I strongly believe that the Nats will take the series. If the Nats do take the series - that puts the Nats up 6 games with 38 to play, and extremely close to having CNN call the NL East for the Red side. But because this may be the only important series the Nats play until October, let's take the time to break this down game by game.


Hudson has been up and down lately. Sandwich between good, but not impressive, shutouts of Houston and San Diego, Tim got rocked by Philadelphia. This is basically Hudson in a nutshell.  He's not a strike-out pitcher so WOW performances are few and far between.  What he does do is keep the ball down, doesn't get hit, doesn't give up walks and doesn't give up homers.  While you probably will score 2-3 runs a game, he makes you work for them.  Bad hitting teams just can't do it. Good hitting teams can.

Against the Nats he's actually been ok, if you can ignore the first inning.  In Game 1 (May 25th) he gave up a string of hits in the first leading to four runs for the Nats then shut them down until the 7th.  In Game 2 (Jul 1st) the same thing happened; 4 hits, a couple of deep flyballs and an error and the Braves were quickly in a 4 run hole.  He'd give up more runs in both games but those were incidental.  In fact Game 1 highlights why I think the Braves are going to lose.

Meet Fredi Gonzalez. After getting a quick two outs in the 7th Hudson walked Wang, then gave up a double to Lombo. At this point you have to think strongly about taking him out.  Bryce was up and one hit would end this game. A smart manager would have cut bait with Hudson and brought in a lefty to get that one out. Fredi, though, decided to stick with Hudson against the lefty Bryce. He promptly walked Bryce. Given another chance to take out Hudson, who doesn't walk people and just walked two of the last three including a pitcher who spent his career in the AL, Fredi decided to stick with his man for one more batter. In to face Zimmerman. Double. Ball game.

Zimmermann has also been a little off his game lately.  He has a shutout vs Houston (I sense a pattern Astros!) but around that has had his two worst outings since May.  Against the Giants, some Lannan-esque luck kept 8 hits and 2 walks in 5 2/3rds from being any more than 2 runs.  Against Miami , there was no such luck and ZNN gave up 4 ER in 5 innings. ZNN is a lot like Hudson only better. Walks are lower, strikeouts a touch better.  ZNN's only vice is giving up the long ball, but he's only given up one since late June (to a red hot David Wright if you must know).  Tonight will be a good test to see if ZNN is ready to hold down that "best pitcher in the NL" spot, or will revert to the Top 20 type position he held in the first half.

Amazingly enough Zimmermann has not faced the Braves this year. No point in looking at info even a year old.

Atlanta Offense

Atlanta had been super hot but were cooled off by the Dodgers, scoring only 6 runs during the series and getting shutout yesterday. In the past week the lineup has been split with a huge chasm between good and bad.  Great : Chipper (.375 / .444 / 1.063!), Heyward.  Good : Bourn, Janish, Uggla, Prado.  Prado has an OPS the past week of .804.  The next best Brave has an OPS of .400.  Among the dregs are Freddie Freeman (.091 / .200 / .091) and Brian McCann (.000 / .200 / .000) who anchor that lineup. Again though this includes the Padres series in which the Braves had 29 hits in the last 3 games. They have 8 in the last two vs the Dodgers, and only 3 yesterday.  We'll see tonight if they have gone cold or it was just some nice pitching by the Dodgers (entirely possible)

Washington Offense

The Nationals have continued on with their more potent offense but have done it in an odd fashion. Their run distribution has been all over the place.  14, 6, 6, 5, 1, 0 runs in the past 6 games. It's a bit like the little girl with the curl here. While they are feasting on bad pitchers in a way no Nats team has done maybe ever, a decent pitcher on his game can shut down the Nats as easy as any other team. Danny and Bryce recently, (finally) have been hot.  Werth has also been good. Morse and Zimmerman have been fine.  While LaRoche, the catcher spot, and Ian Desmond have been ice cold. That's a normal mix.

Game Guess  

Hudson's been normal, the Nats offense has been normal so on that side of the game, I'd expect normal.  A few runs early by the Nats followed by a nice long effective outing from Hudson. Something in the neighborhood of 4 runs over 7.  What it'll come down to then is which of the formerly red hot entities are really cooling down.  Is Atlanta's offense about to enter one of those stretches where runs seem impossible to come by, or is Jordan Zimmermann about to enter a rough patch?  My guess would be the ATL offense will come in trying to hard to score and that'll help ZNN get around the fact he's not at his best. He'll outpitch Hudson. Fredi won't use his best guys (I'm down by 2!) so the Nats will have an opportunity to tack on a few more before Clippard comes in and slowly shuts the door, probably letting a run in first.

I'll say Nats 6-3.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Pobrecito Bravos

I have a simple goal for the Nats in this Mets series.  Hold your ground.  Do not lose a game in the standings to the Braves.  If you gain a game, that's great (and I would bet the Nats do - I like them to sweep the Mets and the Braves to only take 2 of 3 vs the Dodgers) but don't lose a game. You want to go into that Braves series in a place where if they worst case scenario happens and the Nats get swept, they are still in the lead in the NL East.  Right after that series the Nats head to Philly, while the Braves travel to SF for 4. There's an immediate chance to rebuild a couple game cushion. So come out ahead and likely stay ahead. Come out tied and who knows?

Why do I like the Nats to sweep the Mets? Nats are a better team at home. Pretty simple.  If you look at the pitching matchups, first one is Johan vs Detwiler. That sounds scary but Johan has not been the same since coming back from his season lost to injury. He might throw a gem, but you can't expect it. You have to give the game to Ross.  If the Nats are going to be favored to lose a game it's #2 where an effective John Neise takes on a slumping EJax. The Mets offense, which was once surprisingly ok with guys outperforming expectations, has been below average after the break. Edwin should be able to handle them in a close one. The last game is Hefner vs Gio, and even though Hefner has been good recently, you're not picking against Gio, especially after a strong last start.

Since I said I'd do this every Friday, let's go over where the Nats stand right now.  No more guessing, this is using exact games left to 162.

The Nats are 73-45.   If they were to go .500 (and why would they - they are 73-45) to miss out on the playoffs the following things would have to happen.

(1) The Braves would have to go 26-18 in their final 44 games.  That's a .591 Winning Percentage or a 95 win pace.


(2) Two of the following three things must happen.
  • The Pirates must go 30-14.  .682 winning percentage - 110 win pace. 
  • The Cardinals must go 31-13.  .705 winning percentage - 114 win pace. 
  • The NL West 2nd place finisher, Giants or Dodgers must go 31-13.
I've been having a kindly back and forth in the comments with commenter "blovy8" and he's forced me to clarify why I'm so bullish right now on the Nats making the playoffs. So a couple things.

The Nats situation is very different than the Red Sox or Braves.  They both were WC teams with one team chasing them.  That meant only two things were necessary for these teams to miss the playoffs.  They had to collapse and the other team had to play well.  The Nats though are division leaders and have an extra WC spot to deal with. That means four things have to happen.  The Nats have to collapse and the Braves have to do well (knocking the Nats into the WC) and then two of the WC teams have to also play well enough to pass the Nats.  That's just that more unlikely. You also have to consider when you are talking this many teams you run into the situation where they are playing each other. The Cards and Pirates play 6 more times, the Dodgers and Giants 9.  If they split they don't make up ground in these games vs a .500 Nats team, if one team dominates the other team loses a bunch of ground. 

Also what non-believers are suffering from is a proximity to two of the greatest chokes in the history of baseball. Last year the Red Sox and Braves both had epic collapses. The Red Sox's collapse is arguably the worst ever - like in history in 100+ years of baseball. No team had played so well to start the season and finished so poorly. Because it happened means it can happen but it doesn't make it more likely to happen.  It is still a super-rare event. Your chances of winning the lottery don't go up just because your friend won last week.

Also this is all contingent on the Nats playing .500 ball.  If they do better (as they should) the impossible becomes that much more impossibler. Since July 24th the Atlanta Braves have been red hot. They have gone 17-5.  That's the type of run you fear at this point in the year. They have gained a half-game on the Nats. The Nats are playoff bound.  Pennant? We'll talk about that next Thursday.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Playoff Preview Time - Short Rotations

The Nats are going to make the playoffs. We're ok with that right? I mean there is no one out there that thinks this won't happen is there? No?  Good.  The playoffs are a completely different beast than the regular season. One of the big differences is that the rotations that need to be 5+ guys deep during the year can suddenly go down to 3, if need be. There's a school of thought that this can hurt a team like the Nats whose success is built a large part on being good 1 through 5.  Now the Nats are facing the likelihood of no Strasburg as well.

Certainly, the Nats may lose that distinct depth advantage of having their 4th and 5th starters be much better than their opponents and there's no way to positively spin not using your #1 pitcher.  The Nats won't be as head and shoulders above the other teams pitching wise as they have been over the course of the year. But the Nats 2-4 are among the best pitchers in the league.  Do the Nats completely lose their advantage when reduced to a non-Strasburg 3-man rotation (if the teams choose to go this route)?  Or are they that good that their advantage holds, even then?

Of course the below is all preliminary - there's a quarter of the season yet to be played, guys will get hot and other guys will get cold.  Still, we can get a general idea of the strength of the short rotations the Nats could be facing in October.  First the Nats (using ERA which yes I know is flawed but this is meant to be a rough look):

ZNN : 2.38
Gio : 3.29
Detwiler/Jackson : ~3.50

That's a very good three right there. I know Detwiler's ERA is closer to 3, but his starter ERA is around 3.40.  He put up an ERA < 2.00 in his short time in the pen.  Jackson's ERA is around 3.70 now.  In the end I like that spot to be held down by someone with an ERA of around 3.50 which is good.  I'm more concerned about Gio's mediocre 2nd half but for right now I'll treat him as at least 3.30 ERA pitcher. He has plenty of time to right the ship

Now, let's check out the opponents.

Hudson : 3.59
Hanson / Maholm : ~3.80
Sheets : 2.13

Sheets' pitching won't stay this good but the fact he's done well at all is big plus for the Braves. Hudson hasn't been dominating this year and Hanson with a 4.29 ERA has been disappointing. Maholm is a very solid pitcher but he doesn't scare anyone. This is a good three but the Nats pitchers are better.

Cueto : 2.45
Latos : 3.63
Arroyo/Bailey : ~4.00

There's a big dropoff right now from Cueto to Latos, but Latos has been pitching much better. I think he's a quality #2, as good as anyone. I'd put Cueto/Latos right there with ZNN/Gio. That 3rd spot though is where I think the Nats separate. You getting into guys for the Reds they aren't sure you can count on.  They are going to go with who's hot but the Nats hold the advantage.

Burnett : 3.32
McDonald : 3.77
Bedard/ Kartsens : ~4.00

Very similar situation to Cincinnati except Cueto/Latos > Burnett/McDonald; which means ZNN/Gio are better too.  Even though you can see AJ Burnett post-season hero coming at you like a freight train, you can't like this rotation better than the Nats.

Lohse :  2.72
Wainwright : 3.87
Lynn/Westbrook : 3.65

St Louis is solid 1-3 and Lohse has been that good but again, I don't see how you wouldn't like the Nats three more. Wainwright has been pitching better and has a nice history but he also missed all of last year.  I'm not going to put him above Gio and that seals the deal.

Kershaw : 2.90
Capuano : 3.11
Billingsley : 3.62

This is the first Top 3 that I like to challenge the Nats Top 3.  Kershaw hasn't been as good as ZNN but he is a star. I'd like them evenly. On the other hand, even though Capuano has the better ERA, I like Gio better. Billingsley to me is where I think the Dodgers at least match back up to the Nats. I think he's got to skill to throw a dominating performance in a way that Detwiler and Jackson don't.  I may give the Dodgers an edge.  Luckily their offense is pretty terrible.

Cain : 2.99
Bumgarner : 2.97
Vogelsong : 2.72

You have to like the Giants Top 3 better than the Nats. There's no denying that they've pitched better this year and in a random series against a random opponent I'd take these three to put up fewer runs than the Nats three.  However, this season the Nats seem to have the Giants number. So while the rotation is better I don't know how much I'd be worried about it.

If we were to throw in Strasburg and expand out to five, you'd see why the Nats are where they are.  While most teams are struggling filling out rotations with guys with ERAs closing in on 5.00, the Nats' worst pitcher is probably going to top out in the 3.50-3.75 range.  So cutting down the rotations does even things out a bit. However, it doesn't make up all the ground. You still have to like the Nats 2-4 better than most other teams 1-3 and for the ones you might favor the opponent it's not by much.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The New Mythology

Oh Boswell. I know some out there really liked this column and I can understand why.  It presents the Nats front office as any fan would love to see them. A group of guys ready to make all the right moves even if they have to flaunt convention to do so. But this is not the narrative of the Nats season, it's the mythology.  The Nats haven't blazed new ground or thumbed their noses at anything, rather they've charted the same course every other team has but they have done it better than most.

To me, this column is Boswell at his worst, falling in love with a situation, coming up with a story, then presenting the information and half-truths necessary to back that story up.  It brings back memories of 2005 where a team who succeeded early thanks to consistently good starting pitching and a lot of luck was transformed by the writings of Boz into a scrappy never-say-die squad led by a crafty veteran manager who had seen it all.   The Nats front office should be celebrated for what they've done.  We don't need to manufacture iconoclast status to do so.

Some choice quotes:

With “Moneyball” barely out of theaters, they are already several years down the road of giving scouts a “65-35” say over stat nerds in their decisions... “We’ll lean a different way.” 
Mythology : While the entire league was going crazy turning their teams over to computers, the Nats understood the true value of scouts and used stats, but in their proper place.

Narrative : There really isn't any way to dispute what Boz says because it's not based on any facts, just Rizzo stating the team is different than everyone else and has a 65/35 lean. There isn't a list out there of team's "scout/stat nerds percent influence".  I'm not denying that some teams did jump into the stat pool with both feet, but the general feeling (which is the best that anyone can do) is fully half the league's teams are still hesitant to put a lot of faith in statistics. Every team is trying to find the proper balance, the Nats may be among the half that continue to favor scouts more heavily. 
Why would you risk a 19-year-old in your lineup every day?
Mythology : Everyone thought Rizzo was crazy to bring up Bryce Harper and play him everyday.

Narrative : Everyone thought it was a gamble, even Rizzo (he admitted it wasn't optimal developmentally), but most people thought given the Nats situation (injured offense but on top of a NL East with a bad looking Phillies team) that it was a low-risk gamble worth taking.
Why don’t you want Adam Dunn, at any price,
Mythology : The Nats were so ready to move forward they would part with an All-Star slugging player without a second thought.

Narrative : The Nats did want to move forward and understood that signing Dunn to a 4-year deal when he was already best suited for DH was a bad move. Still it was reported by most reputable sources that they offered him a 3 year 30+ million dollar deal. They understood he had value, not just 4-year value for a NL team.
or Prince Fielder for a market price?
Mythology : The Nats would take a bargain on Prince, hoping he'd see what the Nats were building and come here anyway, but market price is for fools.

Narrative : This one is dependent on what you think market price was.  If you think it was what he signed for then Boz's point is fair. If you think, like I do, it is what most teams were willing to pay, then Boz is probably off.  The Nats were supposedly in it until the end meaning they probably put out 5-7 years and a ton of money at Prince, but ended up balking at extending the contract further. The Dodgers, Blue Jays, Rangers all seemed to follow the same thought process. The Tigers more or less, went above market to ensure that he would sign with them, much like the Nats did for Werth.
They signed amateur free agents Strasburg, Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon, Matt Purke, Alex Meyer and Brian Goodwin for record prices, sometimes shattering previous marks by 50 percent or more. Lerner gave the “go” and Rizzo executed.
Mythology : The Nats bucked the establishment and paid big money for their draft picks. 

Narrative : Several teams were doing this, particularly the cash strapped teams that saw this as a cheaper way to becoming competitive. The Pirates in fact outspent the Nats in the usual time frame examined. Kansas City, Boston, Baltimore, Tampa, etc were all doing it.  The Nats were on the forefront but they weren't out alone bucking convention. Plus their status as #2 spenders had a lot to do with drafting two generational talents in back to back years.  
When MLB changed those rules, the Nats still blew up the new slot system this year by drafting “unsignable” Lucas Giolito — the teenager with the 100-mph fastball. They convinced him he’d be happy as a Nat and, come hell or high water, they’d treat his already sore elbow with as much respect and restraint as they had Zimmermann and Strasburg. He signed.
Mythology : MLB changed the system but the Nats went again went against the establishment and drafted a guy that they'd need to pay out to do so.  But really he came because the Nats convinced him that they were special.

Narrative : The Nats did go against what the MLB was hoping teams would do, but so did several teams (Cubs, Red Sox).  The new rules didn't kill the old bonus system outright, rather offered teams a choice. You could still draft a guy in round 1 that you have to pay a ton for but you'll have to draft other guys you don't to make up for it.  That is exactly what the Nats did offering Lucas #5-#7 draft pick money. Given his arm situation, it was a lot of money, too much so, to turn down.
Few thought Jayson Werth was worth $126 million, especially when much of the money was to bring attitude, swagger and professionalism. Now the Nats have swagger, Natitude and professionalism.
Mythology :  Werth is worth the money because of the attitude he brought to the team

Narrative : Werth is still crazily overpaid and is set to make even more for five more seasons.  The attitude and swagger you see with the Nats is the effect of winning, not the cause. The professionalism has more to do with the organization, Rizzo, Johnson, et al. than an OF that played horribly last year and can't stay on the field this one.
Everybody, including me, thought they should sign Dunn and Josh Willingham to multiyear contract extensions in 2010. Both are having big years, but Rizzo wanted better defense along with his offense. He got it.
Mythology : While everyone wanted Dunn and Willingham back the Nats parted ways with them looking for better defense.

Narrative : This one... this one is really close to true. On Dunn, well as you heard earlier they did try to get Dunn back, so that part isn't exactly true, but a big part of the reason they wouldn't budge on the 4th year was his inability to play first. Willingham too was traded in good part because of his defense, but the Nats ended up with Mike Morse in left, who's no gold glover himself.  They have Bryce probably out of position in center. The truth is they understand there's a balance, and will trade off defense for offense, while trying to get both despite what fans want. Which is what most, if not all, organizations would do nowawdays.
Everybody, including me, said they should sign free agent Mark Buerhle and, if they failed, deal for a well-known veteran starter like Zack Greinke. Instead, they traded four prospects for lesser-known, joyful Gio Gonzalez, who has been exactly the vibrant personality that the Nats needed to enliven their gifted but dry-to-droll rotation.
Mythology : The Nats traded for Gio to enliven their rotation despite eveyrone thinking signing a guy was the better move.

Narrative :  Most of us talking about signing guys didn't really know Gio was available. I'm not sure what we would have thought if we had known that and the price the Nats would have to pay. It was a fair deal but most people overvalue their own prospects. I'm guessing this one would have ended up close to what Boz says, with most people saying the Nats should have just signed someone and kept all those prospects, with a vocal minority liking Gio

As for the liveliness, I'm not sure the Nats needed that as much as another great pitcher. Greinke would have probably had the Nats exactly where they are now.  Buerhle a game or two behind.  That's not counting what having Tommy Milone and Derek Norris in the rotation and behind the plate would have done (mainly because it wouldn't have made much of a difference other than possibly saving the Nats a few Wang starts)
When Manager Jim Riggleman pulled a midseason stickup for a contract extension, Rizzo let him quit. He talked Johnson back into the driver’s seat and took heat for his insensitivity toward the hometown Riggleman. Yes, 14 months ago, Rizzo was called a short-fuse bumbler.
Mythology : Rizzo handled the Riggleman situation perfectly letting the manager walk when he was unhappy.

Narrative : Rizzo was a short-fuse bumbler when it came to this. Boswell said it himself - Rizzo doesn't care what people think and this episode is one that proves it. He decided early in the season that Riggleman was not his guy and then refused to talk to Riggleman about it because either he or Davey or he and Davey didn't want Johnson as the manager until 2013.  A fair conversation with Riggleman would have probably ended up in the same place (Riggleman walking away when Rizzo says this is your last year, Johnson taking his place) with Rizzo looking a lot better for it.

This is NOT a takedown of the Nats front office. They deserve celebrating. The Nats have the best record in baseball.  They could be on their way to winning the NL pennant just a few years removed from 59 win seasons. It is an amazing turnaround that shows how the front office has managed the draft, the minors, and the free agent market with a great level of skill. You'd be hard-pressed not to consider them among the finest in the majors. We don't need to make men into myths to tell this story.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Strasburg situation

I say "situation" and not "question" because there likely is no question. Rizzo wants to shut him down.  He will be shut down. Is it the right move?  As Stark and Passan rightfully wrote, "Who knows?".  There simply isn't enough data to have created a sure-fire method of coming back from Tommy John surgery and there are too many confounders that we can't account for on a pitcher by pitcher basis.  There is no guarantee of success no matter what you do.

Given that and my usual proclivity to strike while the iron is hot, you may be surprised that I'm in favor of shutting Strasburg down. Why? Strasburg is a long-term asset and like any long-term asset you are best served by treating it conservatively. We don't know much but we do understand at a base level that more pitches equals more injuries.  Shutting Strasburg down might be too conservative, the baseball equivalent of investing your retirement fund in a simple bank savings account, but since we don't know where that line is, the line where you go from conservative to risky, you have little choice but to err on the side of too conservative. 

There are no compelling other reasons for the franchise to keep Strasburg pitching. National and local interest is just beginning to grow. Rizzo's job is not on the line. This is not the last chance of an aged squad. There isn't a large long-suffering fan base that may rebel at the decision (suffering fan base, yes).  Notice I didn't say anything about winning the World Series.  While that is the ultimate goal it is not necessary for the continued success of the franchise.

Of course I'm not a die-hard Nationals fan. The above is a soulless take on what's best for the future health of the Washington Nationals. I'm not thinking about a championship in this year or any other year.  I'm merely figuring what gives this franchise the most wins from here until the likely end of the Gio /Stras era in 2016. Unfortunately for the die-hards their side is filled with arguments from the talking head side of sports. The ones who shout "The clubhouse will be angry!!!" and "When I was playing, I wouldn't let them do this!!!".  Not a good side to be on. Since I'm nothing if not a wishy-washy android with feeling of goodwill toward the die-hard Nats fan base, here are some very good arguments on why the Nats should keep pitching Strasburg.

The Playoffs are not guaranteed 

You hear the "They got a chance to win it all!" argument a lot but the thought process behind that is they are a good team who will make the playoffs for a few years but who knows if they'll be best in the league again. They don't say that the Nats won't make the playoffs again, but that is a possibility.  We like to point out the Braves as a model of consistency.  The Braves have made the playoffs once since 2006.  The Red Sox built up a good farm system, spent a ton of money and are about to miss the playoffs for the third consecutive year.  Only the Yanks and Phillies have made the playoffs each of the past 3 years and only 4 other teams have made it twice in the last 3, the Cardinals, Rangers, Rays, and Twins. (Yeah, the Twins).  So out of those 6 likely only 3 (maybe 2, real unlikely 4) are going to get in this year.

The 2nd Wild Card will change things but even then things happen. Injuries, bad luck, other teams getting hot. It doesn't take much to miss the playoffs. You ask me now how many times the Nats will make the playoffs from 2013-2016 and I'd guess 3.  That's 3 playoffs teams not three pennant winners and I would bet on 2 before 4. What if the Nats only make it twice after this year?  By shutting down Strasburg, you are hurting yourself in one out of your three chances.

The offense is led by old guys...

Who are the four most important bats in the Nats line-up right now (well as of two days ago)?  Zimmerman, LaRoche, Morse and Werth, right?  Morse will be 31 next year, LaRoche 33, Werth 34.  All have missed major time to injury in the last 2 years. They are all in the decline phase of their career. Is it a slow decline with maybe a surprise good year left? Maybe, but betting on all three hitting like they are right now is a fool's bet. Over the course of the next couple years production from these guys will go down which means it'll have to pick up elsewhere.

... and everyone else has a legitimate question hanging on them

I wouldn't have said this mid May as Ramos was hitting ok and everyone was sure Bryce would adapt quickly to the majors but here we are.  Give me a Nats player and I'll voice a concern.  Ramos? Back from major injury. Suzuki? Not good. Moore? Scouts and stats both say he'll have trouble keeping an average up for a full year. Espinosa? Still hasn't broken out. Desmond? Just one year and possible injury-risk. Zimmerman? Even more of an injury-risk. Bryce? May take a couple years to hit full potential.

The Nats' offense has had a lot of injuries this year but they've also had pretty much everything break right for them on the field including the performance of fill-ins. Here are the names of guys who performed much worse than expected this year. Mark DeRosa. Xavier Nady.  That's it. That's the list. About 170 at bats. Everyone else is at expectations or above when they've played. That's an unusual occurrence that's unlikely to be repeated.

There's no such thing as a sure thing pitcher.

OK the Nats offense could be a bit of a question mark going forward. But the pitching, that is young and good and surely the Nats can count on that, right?  I went back three years and looked at the top pitchers by WAR and pulled out the top 7 that were 27 or younger that year. Here's what happened

Greinke - regressed a bit in 2010
Lincecum - not as good in 2010, went off the rails the first half of this year
Johnson  - missed major time in 2011, good in 2012 but not the same pitcher as before.
Jurrjens - battled injuries behind a bad 2010 and terrible 2012, hasn't had more than 23 starts after 2009
Wainwright - missed all of 2011
Lester - regressed, with good luck in 2011 didn't look so bad, with bad luck in 2012 looks terrible
Cain - nothing bad for Matt!

There you go. Seven young stud pitchers their teams were surely thinking "we can plan around these guys" and 6 of them don't perform up to the same level for the next 3 years. Only two, Cain and Greinke, are even just good pitchers for each of the next three seasons.  Now if that seems a bit dire, you're right. By chance this list just left off Verlander and King Felix, who have both been good three straight years since then. But adding them you still get to roughly 50% of the pitchers failing to do what their teams expected of them, in even a short period of time, either because injury or because the fact that playing high level baseball is hard. Gio, ZNN, and Strasburg will not each have 3 great years the next 3 seasons. If they falter will Detwiler/whoever be able to compensate for that loss?

This isn't my line of thinking, but these are valid arguments why the Nats should go all-in in 2012. Personally, I think the pitching is that good that it would survive the random off-year or injury year and I think the offense can be good enough even with the aging and questions to keep making the playoffs. That's why I favor shutting down Strasburg, but don't dismiss the guys that favor keeping Strasburg going as macho cranks or short-sighted.  Nothing is guaranteed in baseball.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Monday Quickie : Normalcy

The Nats took 2 of 3 from the D-backs, which is probably what they should do. This included their 4th straight one-run game which might get you worried about things breaking against the Nats soon, but their one-run record (23-16) isn't crazy given how good they are, so there's nothing here. They remain 4.5 games ahead of the Braves who took 2 of 3 from the Mets.  Why do I have a hard time seeing the Braves take the pennant ahead of the Nats despite how well they've played? Because of things like last night.  Give the Braves a hardship and they'll fight against it, give the Braves an opportunity and they'll fight against that too.

Next up is the Giants. The Nats miss Matt Cain, but Vogelsong, Bumgarner, and a revitalized Lincecum are nothing to sneeze at.  If the Nats were to lose a series the rest of this month, this is the one. Every team needs a slip up here and there so I'll say the Nats only win 1 and lose a game in the standings.

Some notes :

The Nats offense has been pretty good, but let's not think this is a team that can win a blow out game.  Their winning percentage in games where the other team scores 6+ runs is .176 - about average in the majors. Their winning percentage in games where the other team scores 2 or fewer runs is .872, good but not fantastic. What the Nats secret to winning then?  They have only given up 6+ runs 17 times this year, 6 games fewer than any other team.  They have held the opponent to 2 runs or less 47 times, 5 games more than any other team.  It's the pitching. It's the pitching. It's the pitching.

Not that the offense hasn't been pretty good, like I just said.  They are averaging 4.9 runs a game in August, good enough for 4th in the NL.  Who's #3?  Pittsburgh, 5.0. #2?  The Braves, 5.1. #1? The Giants, 6.4!  Why is SF so high?  Well, why did the Nats look like world beaters for a few weeks there when you saw "In the last X weeks the Nats have scored Y runs" blurbs. A nice trip to Colorado. So now the hottest offense in the NL takes on one of the hotter pitching staffs in the league (what - I told you Nats=pitching).  Something has to give I guess.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Sweep! Now stop playing like that!

The Nats lazily beat up on the poor Astros like a Top 5 NCAA basketball team winning a couple back to back 10 pt games vs small in-state colleges.  They gave Houston a thrill just by letting them play the Nats!  Now their coaches can go to free agents and say "You get to play good teams - like the Nationals!  People pay attention to those games.  You could catch someone's eye and maybe get to play professionally!"  It was unimpressive, ugly, and immediately forgotten about if the Nats play well tonight against a Diamondbacks team that isn't an elaborate practical joke being played out by Jim Crane. All you'll see is four wins, nothing telling.

The Nats didn't quite score as many runs as I would have liked (17 when I was looking for 20+) but in the end it didn't matter because, let's say it together, the pitching is that good.  9 runs in 5 games. Pretty damn impressive

Other things of note
  • Best record!
  • One game off biggest division lead in baseball! 
  • maybe Beast Mode is back? As much as people wanted to convince themselves otherwise, before mid-July there was no Beast Mode.  Morse was rocking a isoSLG of .120  which is like slap-hitting middle infielder level.  If you believed that was Beast Mode you must have said "Ooooh that ball went really far for a single!" a lot.   But since mid July he's rocking a .250 isoSLG which is Top 20 in baseball.  Sure that counts last night but pull that away and he was still at .191 which is like Top 50.  Still good.  He's rounding into form.
As for the playoffs let's go through this again - we should do this every Friday because it's so fun. The Nats are currently 69-43.  If they go .500 the rest of the way (and why would they - they are 69-43) they would finish 94-68.   In order to miss the playoffs the Braves would have to go 31-20, the Pirates would have to go 32-18 AND then Cardinals would have to go 34-16 in their final games. One is a maybe. Three? Think of it this way, the Nats have the best record in baseball and their best 50 game stretch has been 31-19.  The best 50 game stretch in baseball this year (by the Yankees, by the way) was 36-14.  Again - one might happen, if it does you hope it's not the Braves.  And again again - this is if the Nats go .500!

I hope you printed them out when I told you to.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

A day off for Bryce

Maybe.  We'll see.   It's no secret Bryce Harper is struggling mightily even when Angel Hernandez isn't behind the plate trying to draw attention to himself by screwing over a popular player with terrible calls.  Not only has he hit .176 / .276 / .541 in the second half, his monthly trending has been straight down since he started playing:

May: .271 /.355 /.505
June: .274 / .336 / .443
July: .222 / .306 / .313
August: .188 / .297 / .281

Hidden is that is a drop in power along with the average.  isoSLG that went from .234 (for a season that'd skirt the Top 25) to .169 to settling in the .090s in July and August (for a season that'd be among the worst for everyday players).

The comparisons with Trout, who's hitting nearly .100 pts higher, are over and done; and what once seemed like a slam dunk ROY case is now up for grabs.  Bryce needs something and a day off is as good as any place to start.

Davey had been avoiding this like the plague.  Bryce's started pretty much every game for the Nats since he's been called up and in the rare ones he hasn't started he's been used to pinch hit.  Unless I messed up (always a possibility) there are only two games he didn't participate in, one-half of a double header and a game where he was scratched due to a stomach bug.  I'm in the "let good players play out of slumps" camp so it's hard for me to say this, but I think Davey is a couple weeks late on trying this.

What's gone wrong with Bryce?  It's hard to say.  Sure he's striking out a bit more now than in May, but he struck out the most in June and that month was ok. you might say he's getting unlucky with BABIP (.212 so far in August) but he's also hit 0 line drives so far this month. The nearest I can tell it's two things, the same two things you've heard before, he's getting no fastballs to hit and he's getting no strikes to hit.  Based on the numbers Kilgore put out and where they stand now he's been getting even fewer fastballs (that percentage is down to 45.1%) but a few more balls in the zone (up to 39.2%), so the key seems to be the lack of fastballs. He's seeing junk, junk and more junk and even seeing it more in the zone now and he can't hit it. Take a look at this daily graph of GB/FB/LD.  Bryce relied a lot on crushing deep flyballs early on, now he's hitting everything into the ground. Anything with a break he's getting over top of.

Would I be worried about this? Hell no.  He's NINETEEN. It's his rookie year. Sorry he's not perfect. Worry about this... I don't know... in 2015, when he's 22? There will be growing pains but everyone is buying into the kid. Better yet the Nats have proved they don't need Bryce to be a stud to win. The pitching is that good.

What would I do? Last night marked Bryce's 110th game of this season (combined minors and majors).  Last year he played 109 and THAT was the most he played in a single year. The Nats don't need Bryce to win so every 10 games or so, give the kid a breather, a full day off.  No PH.  No defensive replacement. Let the kid rest.

As for the team, they are still winning ugly games. They aren't scoring as many runs vs the Astros as you'd like but you'll trade W's for runs anytime. I'm sure they'll face SF next week and win three straight 13-12 slugfests just because it's been that kind of year. Anyway, pitching is still that good. Rinse. Repeat. Pennant.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

A win is a win, but then again it isn't, but it is

The Nats have been taken to extras in two straight games by the Astros. They've won both games and that's what matters.  W's are W's. A terribly played 4-3 squeaker over the worst team in the league counts the same as a 12-0 shellacking over the best one. And yet...

The Nats are supposed to be one of the best teams in the league, so the feeling is, non-coincidentally, that they should be playing like one of the best teams in the league. Racking up extra-inning farces and scoring a few runs of young pitchers with terrible ERAs is not what you want to see.  Still it could be, and in fact it probably is, just a bad stretch.  All teams go through bad stretches, even the best, so the hope is this bleccch play by the Nats is just one of those phases. Lucky for them it's happening at exactly the right time, when they can still win because their opponent is so bad.

Two wins on the road and most fans still aren't feeling good.  Such is life with the expectations of a pennant winner.

Now on to something positive. There has been some worry about the 'pen, at least from me. It hasn't pitched well overall since the break. Tyler Clippard in particular looks really bad (WAIT! I swear positive is coming!). After blowing no saves the first half of the year he's blown 3 in the 2nd half, and has allowed a baserunner in 11 of 15 appearances (8 times he's allowed more than one). Stammen is also struggling.  But the thing is these two (and H-Rod of course) account for a lot of the poor stats and given that, the regression of the pen doesn't really matter. Not in the long run.

You see in the playoffs the starters will get stretched (one hopes) and your pen can be reduced down to a few decent guys made up of whoever is hot. Right now Sean Burnett has been lockdown since the break. Take away the Braves game (everyone has one bad game), and he's given up 5 hits and no walks and has struck out 10 in 10 innings. Tom Gorzelanny has been very effective in the same time period. Fifteen baserunners in 11 2/3 innings with only 3 XBH.  You've mostly liked what you've seen from Storen. A little wild, but hard to hit (5 hits in 7 innings - 1 XBH)  And Mike Gonzalez has been good over the last few weeks. This is all you really need in the playoffs.

The Nats pen is deep. Outside of H-Rod, who is still on the roster because he has a cannon for an arm and more importantly Rizzo will not accept defeat in that Willingham trade, every arm in that pen is talented enough to go out and throw a scoreless inning. Some arms might be getting tired, but that just means other arms are getting rest.  Some guys might go through a rough patch, but usually that means other guys are hot. Because the pen has been well-constructed, the Nats didn't have to worry about finding that one last arm during the trade season, and actually don't have much to worry about now.

In the next few weeks the Nats may lose a couple games because the pen blows it, but don't worry about it. Davey has to keep working guys in regular rotation so that come October he knows who's feeling good and who's not and how to use them properly. Expect that long leash with Clippard. When it gets to the playoffs the Nats will have their best 3-4 starters and their best 4-5 relievers on call. These guys will match up with anyone from any other team in the postseason.

Monday, August 06, 2012

Monday Quickie - on target

The Nats are doing exactly what I thought they should and would, so kudos all around. It shouldn't have been much a series but ZNN decided to have his worst game of the year on Sautrday and that almost cost the Nats a game. No blame to Jordan though. He'd given the Nats 10 straight outings of quality baseball or better.  They can't all be winners.

So now the Nats move onto the Astros.  Same things as I said Friday. 3-1 20+ runs for the series.


It was supposed to be next year.  The pennant contending, World Series dreaming Nationals team was suppsed to come through in 2013. 2012 was about being a real playoff contender and getting to enjoy an actual playoff race for the first time (unless you count the slow death of the horribly overachieving 2005 Nats).  But surprisingly to most, it all worked out a year early. The Nats started hot, kept winning, and by the All-Star break there could be no denying that the Nats were one of the best teams in baseball.

This quick jump up though, is messing with Nats fans expectations. I would say that for most what was the hope in the pre-season, and the goal in early Spring, is now the undesirable fall-back position.
It's interesting, though, to see how individual fans react to such a crazy quick sea change. Some choose to remain thinking the same "just happy to be here" as if the Nats were 3 games out of the Wild Card. They wanted a playoff race and they got it. What's to complain about? Others though have adjusted expectations so that a pennant is the only satisfactory response and likely, if the Nats keep winning at their current pace and the NL races don't significantly change, they'll need that ALDS win, too, to be satisfied.

There isn't a right and wrong here. It's a crazy season and being happy at being good, being upset at not winning the East or in the playoffs, or both, all make sense. Next year though, Nats fans are going to be united and they are going to know the "fun" of having a team with WS expectations. There is far more room for failure with a good team, and since only two teams can make the Series and only one team can win it all you'll likely be disappointed most every year.  Of course who would prefer it the other way?


We bandied about a lot about Kurt Suzuki Friday afternoon.  The crux of it boils down to this :

Suzuki can't hit any worse that Flores was hitting. He's going to be a better defensive catcher than Flores. Therefore it makes it worthwhile to bring him in.

That being said, Rizzo calling Kurt Suzuki a #1 catcher is ridiculous. OK OK it's technically true that if you lined up all the catchers currently playing in the majors, you'd probably put Suzuki in the Top 30.  If that's your definition than fine. But to me a legit #1 starter is a guy, who if you replaced him with a minor league nobody, would be sorely missed.  Kurt hasn't been that type of catcher since 2009. He was a middling major league catcher in 2010 and 2011, and a terrible one this year. 

Can he be a legit #1 again? Well on the plus side he's only 28. The bad news is everything else. The average has gone down. This year the mid-level power has been lost. He's never had great patience.  I don't know what exactly the hope is. I guess the best case the power loss is a bit of a fluke and he's got a couple good pop years in him, but it's still going to be a couple years hitting in the low 200s.  While catcher may peak a few years later than other players 28+ is still the vast majority of catchers's decline phase. It would take prime Molina defense to make up for the offense Suzuki might put up.

My guess is Rizzo doesn't buy Suzuki as a #1 any more than I do. This year he could be a slight improvement at the plate and will be a slight one behind it and that's what matters right now. Next year, well... if he talks him up and Suzuki happens to catch fire these last few months, maybe Rizzo can flip him for something of interest over the off-season. Or maybe he just deals him for whatever he can get. If he doesn't, and really truly wants him for the long haul, well if Ramos is ok than he's got a slightly more expensive back-up than he'd like.  For good teams that's the type of player you have. Someone slightly better than the alternative but way more expensive. The only bad scenario is if Ramos is hurt and Rizzo goes to battle with Suzuki as the #1 for the Nats. We'll worry about that in the offseason.

Friday, August 03, 2012

6 wins and lots of runs

That's what I'm looking for over the next 8 games.  If I don't see both I'll be disappointed in the team.

The 6 wins is easy to understand.  Four game set at home versus a middling Marlins team given up for dead.  You can't split that.  Three wins at least.  Four game set at Houston versus the worst team in the National League. If you haven't noticed the Astros are 2 and 18 in their last 20 games.  3 and 27 in their last 30.  3 and 27! Because it's away I won't give the Nats a sweep but again - a split is unacceptable.  So 6 wins.  5 would be disappointing but you'd get over it. 4-4 seems ok but it's kind of a disaster.

The "lot of runs" thing is not blatantly obvious but it's just as understandable.  Since the break the Marlins have had the 14th worst ERA in the NL from their starters and they traded away one of their better ones in Anibal Sanchez.  The Astros have had the 15th worst starter ERA and they traded away their best one, Wandy Rodriguez.  The Astros have also had the worst relief ERA. (The Marlins have actually done ok with this).  These are two staffs pitching horribly.

On the flip side the Nats have cooled off a bit after a super hot July. They were 2nd in runs in the NL for the month, 4th in OPS. Some people have taken that to be the new normal as the Nats finally start getting all their pieces back healthy. And yet they've scored 4 runs or less 5 times in the last 6 games, scored 5 runs total in the Phillies series, and after only being shut out once in the first 91 games they've been shutout 3 times in their last 13.

The truth is July was almost certainly "that month" - meaning the best month the offense is going to have all year where as much is going right as you could possibly hope for.  Ryan Zimmerman, Danny Espinosa, Roger Bernadina, and Ian Desmond (who played almost half of July) had probably their best lines of the year. Adam LaRoche probably isn't going to hit .300 for a month again this year.  Mike Morse didn't have a special month but it was a very good one, in line with how'd you like him to hit all year long.  Catcher hit poorly but that's to be expected. The only one that hit worse that you would have thought is Bryce Harper.  It was great month, but it was likely unrepeatable.

But as I've said before the Nats offense doesn't have to be great. It can be average and with their pitching the Nats can still win enough games (see last night).  With Werth back, the lineup is one Desmond away from the optimal one it can have this season. It should be about average right now. An average offense against the Marlins and Astros should be scoring above average runs.  5+ a game. That's what I'd like to see. 40+ runs for these 8 games. Show me that in a normal period, when half the offense isn't at their best, that you are good enough.

I think they'll do it. I think the pieces are there and the competition is that weak. But I'm watching nonetheless.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Don't Panic

At least if you are worried about a playoff spot. 

July 22nd - Nats lead ATL by 3.5, PIT by 3.5, LA by 4, and STL by 5.5

August 2nd - Nats lead ATL by 2.5, PIT by 2.5, STL by 5.5 and LA by 6.

Remember it's not enough for the Nats to get passed by ATL and PIT.  That makes ATL the NL East winner and takes them out of the WC race.  They need to get passed by ATL AND two other teams.  The 2nd team has gained no ground in the past week and a half and there is one fewer team within 4 games than there had been at that time.

Also for all we joke about the Phillies giving up on the season, they are still an ok team, that took one step back for the rest of this year, presumably to take two steps forward for 2013 (or else signing Hamels makes no sense).  After tonight the Nats have 8 games coming up versus Miami (home) and Houston (away). These weren't good teams to begin with and they also took steps back.  5 wins? 6? more?

As for the NL East - nothing has changed. The series with the Braves starting on the 20th will likely be the first chance for the Nats to feel safe about that pennant. Right now it's about getting to that series in the best possible shape.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Die trying

The Nationals want to play off the lack of movement at the trade deadline as a positive.  They don't need any help. They aren't going to make a deal just to keep up with the Joneses. They are confident of winning with the guys already "in the room".  These guys are good enough to win 61 games so far, they can make the playoffs. It's hard to argue with that but here goes.

It's not about being good enough, it's about realizing you can always be better. The Nats have had the "problem" that there is no glaring weakness with the team (that's not exactly true - catcher is a glaring weakness but it's also a spot almost impossible to vastly improve by trade) There isn't a singular focus point where you can say "fix this and the Nats will be much better", but there are places that the Nats could improve. By doing nothing the Nats are implicitly saying they don't believe that's true. They think the catching situation is fine as it is. They like their MI backups to to be punchless bench bats. They believe the guy who hasn't hit for the past few years and hasn't shown any particular acumen for pinch hitting over his career will keep coming up with the big hit, and that the rookie call-up that strikes out all the time will come up with the big blast. They are betting that there will be no more big offensive injuries for a team that's been plagued with offensive injuries all year long.

It's almost as if because this wasn't supposed to be the year the Nats were a dominant force at the top of the NL East, that it's ok for the club not to go all in. This is a gift year, let's not do anything stupid, and let's set ourselves up for next year. That bush over there is so full of birds, who cares if this one flies away? Playoffs aren't guaranteed even for teams that appear set up to make it. Look at the Red Sox. Someone gets injured, someone else underperforms and suddenly your 90 win team is an 85 win team and you are on the outside looking in. The window is already small, 3-5 years for most teams, that to not take every year you are playoff contending as a serious chance to win a title is asinine. The Nats are good enough that the cost of "being serious" was small. Few were asking to trade the farm for a rental pitcher, or an CF with potentially no place to play.  It was about making a couple gambles on tossing some weak prospects for some bats that may be able to show their old talent one last time.  Betting on a couple of new has-beens as opposed to relying on the less talented has-beens and never-will-bes you are currently employing.

The lack of movement isn't a death knell for the Nats. This all should work out fine anyway.  As I've been saying all year the starting pitching is that good, that this team shouldn't fall out of the playoffs. They have a series lead on the Braves who have shown a tendency to lose when it matters most.  The Pirates have been playing above their heads all year. The Giants and Dodgers have 9 games left against each other where either one team beats up the other or they both lose 4-5 games. Once in the playoffs, even in the undesirable Wild Card role, anything can happen.

The Nats team will win enough games. But wouldn't you have liked to see the team go out trying everything they reasonably can do to win just one more than "enough"?