Nationals Baseball: Losing is FUNdamental!

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Losing is FUNdamental!

The past three days have gone as badly as they possibly could have. Looking for a sweep to give hope to a miracle late season charge to the division crown, the Nats instead got swept themselves. So now they can re-focus on the Wild Card, right? Well, while they were busy losing both the Reds and D-Backs won 2 games in a row moving the Nats wild card hopes from slim to grim.

At six games under on August 8th, the game has changed.  It's now a fight for .500 and if they happen to reach that sooner than the end of the year, we can check out where they are in the WC standings. New rule. You don't get to .500 you don't get any playoff play from me. Sorry.

The Nats have been an unquestionably big disappointment and the question of why remains on everyone's mind even though we figured it out a while ago. As Boz writes in his column :
Their bench, strong last season, has been horrible, with six key players combining for an abysmal .521 on-base-plus-slugging percentage through Tuesday night in more than 1,000 trips to the plate. Their fifth starter was a disaster for 100 games. Their second baseman’s career imploded. General Manager Mike Rizzo’s biggest team-tweaking decision, trading for Denard Span, proved misconceived, subtracting offense from a team that has plummeted in scoring.
You think that would be enough, or at least it would be enough if you also realized, ZNN, Gio, Detwiler, Stammen, Mattheus, Storen, Duke, Zimm, Desmond, and LaRoche have also played worse this year, from minor setbacks (Desmond) to outright abject failures (Storen). There you go, end of story. Except of course it's not. Not when there are two months to fill and cliches to cover.

I'm not going to kill Boz for the column he wrote. It's human nature that when you are looking for something, you'll find it. Boz, and many, many others, want to see something explicit on the field they can grab on to to explain the dramatic turnaround. Yes Haren was bad for a while and Espy's career died on the surgical table he never got on, but just two players and a bench? That's not enough! So a missed bunt here and an error there becomes not the minor issues that they are, but symptoms of a larger problem that explains why a good team has gone bad.

Rather than mock Boswell for this, can we simply explain it away? Using, you know, stats and stuff? Let's go back to the column.

"The Nats can’t sacrifice bunt or execute basic situational hitting."

This is easy enough to prove, thanks to baseball-reference.  The Nats are on the low end of successful sacrifice bunts at 69%.  However they aren't far from average. It would take only 2 of those failed bunts (in 61 attempts) to be successful to get the Nats to average status. To get to an incredible success rate the Nats would need 8 failures to be successes. How many games does 8 successful bunts change? They aren't going to score in all these attempts, and certainly not win all those games. More damning is taking a look at where the other teams fall. The only two teams worse than the Nats at sac bunting? Atlanta and Los Angeles. The best teams? Philadelphia and San Francisco. 

BR also has a stat called "productive outs" which measures a mish mash of moving runners over and sacrifice flies and stuff.  The Nats are not great here either, but again are not far off the average. They sit at 30% the NL average is 31%  It would only have taken 4 or so failure to be successes (out of 366 times) for the Nats to be average. The best teams are only successful around 35% of the time. And again, two very good teams (Atlanta and St. Louis) are actually worse at this than the Nats, while San Francisco and Miami are in the Top 3.

One more thing - the 2012 Nats? Below average in both these stats. 

The take away is that even though the Nats might be a little worse than they need to at these things, they really are not far from being average at all, and success in these things does not correlate with winning. Some good teams aren't any good at this. Some bad teams are very successful. It may matter, but it's a fringe thing. It's a win here and there, but not a major swing.

"...overanxious Adam LaRoche dribbled out to first base on a 2-0 fastball that was six inches inside and would have been ball three. That’s the Nats: neglecting what’s easy or trying too hard at what’s difficult." 

But why was that at bat important? Because in the previous at bat Jayson Werth drew a walk. This doesn't seem to me to be a Nats problem. It seems to be an Adam LaRoche problem

On Monday, the Nats lost, 3-2, because Stephen Strasburg, who had fabulous stuff that night, allowed an uncontested steal of second that turned into a two-out run. 

Now on one hand this is REALLY REALLY true. The Nats are OMFG Gossip Girl XOXO terrible at keeping the other team from stealing. 13% when the average 29%. But here's the thing, it's the organization's philosophy. Ignore the runner and get the batter out. Let him steal second but don't let him disrupt your pitching. You know who was also really bad at throwing runners out at 2nd? The 2012 Nats. 17%.

Personally I think this matters a bit more than the sac bunts and situational hitting because it's completely solvable and it's, you know, actually a problem, but again it's something on the margins that unless you have a superior catcher, would only save a few runs here and there.

He should be working on his craft before bad habits become ingrained. Maybe some of those commercials or styling in home run derbies can wait.

Now this paragraph was about Bryce Harper not being able to hit lefties. Completely true. He's been awful at it this year. But it's this sentence, and one he had earlier about practicing bunting more, that miffs me. This isn't thought, it's emotion. If a talented player is disappointing in some way it MUST be because he doesn't care enough. He's not putting enough effort into it. He's worried about other things. Could it simply be that he's no good at it? Or that it's actually really really hard to do?

Some guys can't bunt. Some lefty batters can't hit lefty pitching. If you want to call Bryce out about not practicing then I want some quotes. I want a batting coach saying "We told Bryce he needs more practice vs lefties but he went off for a photo shoot" That's fair. Just pulling out a stat and saying "well must be because he participated in the HR derby while everyone else in baseball was in a batting cage working out kinks" is something an angry fan writes on a message board.

It’s time for Zimmerman to find out where his arm strength stands and stop playing shallow

Again - Yes. But again, not a huge deal in terms of Ws and Ls.  Remember how the Nats were way leading the league in errors? Not anymore. 77. Still above league average but not that far above it.

Actually there is a problem with defense but it's not a fundamentals problem (outside of Zimm maybe putting himself too shallow). LaRoche is getting old. Werth is getting old. Bryce is probably just a mediocre fielder getting by on athleticism. The best fielding player on the team was sent to the minors because he couldn't hit. The fielding is getting worse, but it's not lack of fungo drills that's causing it.

I want to wrap this up by going back to the productive out number. The Nats did allright there percentage wise but let's look at the raw number of times when they were in position to make a productive out. The Nats could have done it 366 times, last in the NL. 40 fewer times than league average, 100 fewer times than the best of the best. This is what matters. The Nats could be above average in getting these productive outs and still be 13th in the NL in the raw number. It's not a failure of executing with men on base, it's a failure to get men on base.

Boswell could find a genie and make the Nats the best bunting team, the best situational hitting team, the best team at throwing out baserunners, the team with the fewest errors and you know what? They might be .500. The Nats need to hit better and pitch better and field better across the board in order to get back to the team they were last year. Picking at the little things is fine, a game or two can matter, but worry about them when the big things are solved.


Anonymous said...


Chaos56 said...

I think you really hit it in the last paragraph. This is not a one thing problem, it's being sub-par at pretty much everything except your top 3 SP's this year....and the bench is a disaster.

I disagree on Bryce being an average fielder, I think that's what he is so far. However, he is exceptionally athletic and has been playing OF for only 4 years. I saw him play at Hagerstown and he was god-awful. He has continued to improve year over year.

Harper said...

Anon - Can I get an Am... beat me to it!

AW - To be clear - I am not worried about Bryce as an OF for the duration of his current contract. (which is a while). So young its not likely to matter for years.

Chas R said...

That's absolutely spot on, Harper. The stuff in Boz's article hits at stuff in the margins. I still think there is something deeper going on here. How does the best team in baseball become one of the worst in many categories? Is it really just a lot of things that went wrong and guys that just had bad seasons at the same time, or is it something more? And what will Rizzo do, if anything, to fix it?

As much as we have discussed all the problems with the Nats over the past months, I am still scratching my head. Maybe I'm just stunned, or so disappointed I can't believe it- ?

Wally said...

Well, I am kind of pissed. I liked the Boz article, but now I can't like it any more. Damn you, Harper!

You have done a good job documenting the offensive problems - although what to do about it is becoming a bigger problem. Werth, ALR and maybe Span have crested the hill, and Zim and Desi are plateauing. Only Harper, Rendon and Ramos could can reasonably be expected to improve towards their true talent level. Yet all are locked in next year too, while our pitching gets another year older and closer to FA.

It feels like failure in run prevention has had a really big role too, although quantifying it is hard. Not just errors, but range, etc. Just by watching, it seems like they make many less plays than last year. But I don't know whether that is supported by facts.

Froggy said...

Your last point Harper was the most telling, you need runners to move over. Boz trying to squeeze 100% orange juice from an avocado is an exercise in futility (lame analogy I know). All your supporting points scream league average as if that is good enough, which clearly is the wrong metric to strive for.

League average is what the other 20 non-playoff bound teams will be, right?

A Fly Moses said...

An issue I'd list below "everyone needs to play better" but above (or at least interrelated with) "do the little things better" is "be managed by someone who doesn't actively sabotage them." That may be slightly overstating it (though it might not be), but warming up Clippard and then benching him in the pivotal inning (despite his refusal to use him in higher leverage situations all season because he likes him in the 8th of games they're tied or leading in--i.e. last night) was the final straw for me (about the third time I've said that since the break).

I'm not sure how to quantify this, but looking at FG's clutch/WPA statistics, every bench player has performed worse in high-leverage situations than their overall performance (obviously they're terrible anyways, but even worse when Davey picks them in big spots). With the exception of Soriano, the only relief pitchers who have not been worse in high-leverage situations than in normal situations have been Mattheus (who's missed most of the season) and, surprisingly, Storen (who was nevertheless so mismanaged that they had to send him down after making him pitch in a meaningless game with the flu). Soriano is the only RP with a positive WPA.

So my question is, how much of this is random variance (I would assume some, although it's odd that the entire team would be negative due to randomness), and how much is what the eye-test says: Davey constantly pushing the wrong buttons, mismanaging his bench and picking the wrong RP for the wrong situation? (For reference, the median bench Clutch rating last year (excl. Cs and guys with <40 PAs) was +.38; the median Clutch rating for pitchers used primarily out of the bullpen was +.13).

WiredHK said...

It's a funny thing, this "doing the little things well" notion. When you lose a lot, they don't seem to matter because there are bigger fish to fry as the real reasons for the losing. But, conversely, when you win a lot, they also don't seem to matter either because you do so many big things well that it covers up small failures.

But then lastly, it would be hard to find any baseball person that claims "doing the little things well" doesn't matter.

How do I square all this? :)

Anonymous said...

I agree with that Wally guy,I liked the Boz column and your take on it Harper and now I don't know what to think.

Chaos56 said...

Hey there's this young kid at Syracuse they could call up; he's doing pretty good:

T Moore .304/.390/.556 .945 OPS

How 'bout we start him at 1st against LHP?

There's also a former ML reliever:

D Storen 4IP, 4ER, 7H, alright, he's not doing so good.

Chas R said...

Hahaha...good one Alan.

Froggy said...

Went back and read Boz's column and really don't find much to disagree with other than the Gio 'why don't you practice bunting more in batting practice' mini-tirade. One missed bunt by a pitcher does not a season make or break. I did think he was a bit over the line on beating up on Bryce as there is no doubt that 20yo kid leaves it all on the field every game.

Everyone from coaches to players, sportswriters to fans is restless, frustrated and dissappointed and looking for something to blame. In my opinion there isn't some one 'thing' and instead it was the obvious storm of little things that piled up.

Which brings me to question the all mighty and sabermetric powerfully wise and smarter than everyone else, President AND General Manager Mike Rizzo's decisions. Isn't this type if scenario exactly what sabermetrics is supposed to avoid?

Carl said...

Re ALR swinging at a bad 2-0 pitch and grounding out: that caught my eye because it's indicative of what's frustrated me all year. This team seems to have terrible strike zone judgment. It looks to me like they swing at more crappy pitches and take more good pitches than any team I've ever seen. Maybe it's a result of a bad approach to hitting, or maybe they're just not the greatest baseball players. I have no solid evidence to back this up, of course, and it could just be observational bias. I'd like someone with more free time and better statistical chops than me to us PitchFx charts to look at this across the league and see how the Nats actually stack up.

Kenny B. said...

At this point, I'm more or less convinced that 2011 is this team's average potential. 2012 was a freak aberration on the positive side, and 2013 is a crash back below the average, evening out the 2012 aberration.

I support this theory with my gut instinct as a pissed off fan now sorely lacking in Natitude.

Kenny B. said...

Also, just want to point out that Harper in the HR derby has pretty much been the highlight of the season. Boz can shut the hell up, because it's been the only time all year when I felt like I was having fun watching baseball.

Anonymous said...

Braves fan here. I've been reading this blog for a while, and you are actually an insightful writer Harper. It's good. As much as I dislike the nationals, I realize they probably will not be this bad next year. Maybe last year was an, I dunno, accident like some of you seem to think on here, but I disagree. The nationals have talent. Real talent. They probably aren't as good as good as the braves, but they can make the playoffs, as they've proven. From an outside point of view, it looks like a manager and leadership problem for the team. Granted I don't know the nationals like you guys do. I just feel like Bryce Harper, as good as people think he is, needs some attitude adjustments and he shouldn't have to feel this burden to be a leader either. He's too young. Don't get me wrong here, he is good. Pretty dang good. He just can't be your leader. They should look to get some veteran help and find a better manager. Go braves.

Donald said...

The number one issue with the Nats all year has been hitting. So how do you fix that? I think there are really only 2-3 position slots even remotely open in LaRoche, Span, and possibly Rendon. Werth, Zimm, Desmond, Harper and Ramos will be there. So Rizzo could dump Span, move Harper to CF and bring back Morse, but can Morse stay healthy? Maybe Shin-Soo Choo instead?

Not too many options for 1B either. You could dump LaRoche and move Zimm over, which would free up 2B or 3B depending on where you put Rendon. Or you could keep LaRoche and try to get a 2B, moving Rendon to the bench, but that's not a great option either. I don't think there are any great 1B available next year.

Or would you focus on the bench and leave the starters as is?

What would you do?

Nick said...

anyone care to comment on the lack of plunking a braves player last night? FP Santangelo was all over it on MASN

Froggy said...

It seems like the only options are spend Werth like money on a Cano, or Stanton (is he even available?), go with what you got and 'hope' for better results, or the sacrilegeous option of trading one of the big 3 SP's for a package of Stanton and PTBNL-ish. I know Third option won't happen, so what do you do?

Nick said...

anyone care to comment on the lack of plunking a braves player last night? FP Santangelo was all over it on MASN

Anonymous said...

Also, I'd like to add about Bryce, don't jump all over me when I say this. I think he is a little over rated... He can't hit lefties a all. His fielding is sub par as of now. He also is way too cocky. I'm not saying he sucks at all, he isn't. If the braves had a chance to get him I'd say hell yes. He is still young, and he will get better. He's just not as good as everyone says he is right now. I'm sure ill make some I you mad with this, but it's the way I see it. I'm no expert. In just a happy braves fan.

Anonymous said...

As a braves fan I was hoping they would. I wanted to see some kind of fight and pride out of them. We are in a good position right now so if a fight broke ii I wouldn't be upset. It would have added to an awesome rivalry. Our rivalry needs something like that.

Froggy said...

Mike Morse would have been scrapping and would not have let Mccann or the pitcher get away with any jaw jacking. It should be mandatory that baseball players must play a couple years of rugby where learn to take a punch to give o punch and learn how to go into contact especially for plays at the plate.

Can u imagine a runaway Tatonka making the opposing catcher pay? #Tatonkatude!

Wally said...

On the plunking of a Brave, I think that they should have done it, primarily because Harper felt like they should have supported him. I doubt that it would have had much effect, but I do think the players feel like they are out there publicly, and need to feel like the team and manager have their back. I read somewhere that Upton took longer to circle the bases on both his home runs, so Harper felt like he got plunked for a borderline walk around, and Upton gets a free pass twice. I didn't think any of the homers were particular showboating, but once Harper was clearly hit with a message pitch and Upton had similar trots, they needed to do it.

It reminded me of Acta refusing to ever argue a call in support of his players. I never felt like he would get something overturned, but the players want to feel like you have their back.

Anonymous said...

Froggy - That's the reason for 90% of Bobby Cox's ejections. He always had his players' backs and they always played their hardest for him. Davey doesn't have anyone's back (Hell, he was late for the presser because he was playing golf with Smoltz).

On the bean-gate, The Nationals didn't want anything to do with it. Go watch a replay of it, the only people passed the first base line are the guy on 2nd and the Pen guys (coming from the field side of the line). Nobody else crossed the foul line. Meanwhile, the entire braves team was at the pitcher's mound. THAT is the difference between the two teams. One has fight, and confidence. The other has guys that are collecting their paychecks and planning their winter vacations.

Anonymous said...

On the last comment - I meant Wally, my mistake.

Chas R said...

Anon- those are good comments from a Braves' fan perspective. You should really get a name tough if you are going to continue to post comments.

I think there has been a lot of pressure on Bryce and he is clearly trying too hard. You're right though, he's very young. Given the level he has started at, if he stays healthy and continues to improve, can you imagine the dominating player and leader he could be in 5 years?

Froggy said...

Anon, I know you were replying to Wally but I totally agree with your observations. It was clear none of our guys know what a scrap is, nor have probably ever been in one. Now with a Nyjer Morgan or Mike Morse on the team you know at least those two would have mixed it up. My respect for the team is dwindleing every time we pass up an opportunity to protect this house.

I hope none of our guys have Under Armour contracts.

cass said...

Anon (the Braves fan):

Harper has hit the second most career home runs of anyone before their 21st birthday. He was the greatest teenage position player of all time.

He's not quite perfect, but he's only 20 years old. Mike Trout has completely distorted expectations by having the greatest age 20 season of all time last year. Harper is still on pace with the all-time greats. He's fine.

And his only problem attitude wise is the attitude of idiots around baseball. Harper is a model citizen. Seems like a great team player who everyone targets and thinks is a jerk even though he doesn't act like it. His reputation doesn't match reality at all. He's a good kid.

If I were the Nats, I'd lock up Harper and Strasburg for the next 10 years this offseason. Both will look a little worse this offseason than they will for quite a while, I reckon. There's the Boras factor, of course, but see what can be done. As close to sure bets as you can get for a hitter or a pitcher respectively.

Anonymous said...

Ken Griffey jr had like 80 RBIs and about 20 homers wen he was twenty. He might have even had more. I wouldn't say Harper I the beat teenager ever.

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