Nationals Baseball: 2014 is 2014

Thursday, June 12, 2014

2014 is 2014

You can feel a sentiment rising as the Nats go through this dominant run. This team is special. The clubhouse feels different. When this happens you start to get the explicative stories that are meant to be silly and are, like Matt LeCroy's eating habits, and ones that are meant to be serious but aren't, like Werth getting a text from a friend saying "Feels like 2012". 

Why is the latter silly? Well not two weeks ago, as the Nats exited a stretch of play where it felt like they rolled over and died in the face of adversity, everyone was asking "Why does this feel so much like 2013?" Well which is it? The team today is pretty much the team of two weeks ago. Is it a 2013 or a 2012 team? Are they filled with a special camaraderie that will carry them to the best record in baseball or are they chokers who can't handle the pressure of being a target?  I'm not sure - let me see if they won last night.

Yes, they've added two players, but are we to assume the clubhouse is so fragile that losing LaRoche and Zimmerman sent Werth, Desmond, Zimmermann, etc. into a tailspin where they could no longer rally the spirit of the team to win games they should win? Is that what you are telling me? That the alchemy of a clubhouse full of grown men is so delicate that the loss of one particular reagent makes sure lead stays lead?

The truth is 2014 is 2014. It's not 2012 and it's not 2013 and looking for off the field answers for what 2014 is silly, just as it was in 2012 and 2013.

2012 was 2012 because the Nats had awesome pitching (thanks to guys in their prime years) and their mild injuries were covered by great bench play.

2013 was 2013 because the Nats had very good, but not awesome, pitching and their normal injuries were made worse by terrible bench play.

There is no need to look off-the-field here. The numbers pretty much explain all. The pitching going from awesome to very good, you have to understand that is just variance. A guy might hit .340 and follow it up with a .310. There's no reason to drag off-the-field things into that. The only place where it might have been applicable is if one was looking for a reason why the bench was so good in 2012 and so bad in 2013. I prefer random variation and crappy players, but the swing was so wild that I admit I'm just guessing. I suppose if a Werth said "we lifted the bench up with our fantastic spirit" at least that would be trying to explain something that isn't clear as day.

What's going on in 2014? A combination of things (obviously). They've had awesome pitching again - thanks to a combination of the Fister acquisition and the Roark revelation. They took a very good rotation and tried to make it better and hey! It is! Not exactly how they expected it but it'll happen more often if you try. They've had more than their share of injuries and mixed results from the replacements. Lobaton was ok when replacing Ramos. McClouth was terrible but picking up. Espinosa was great but is trending down. It has been a very normal bench-like performance.

Awesome pitching + lots of injuries + normal bench = 88/89 win pace so far. Makes sense to me. No reason to look in the clubhouse for something that's obvious on the field.

The story of 2014 will write itself on the field, just like the the ones for 2012 and 2013 did. If the pitching keeps going at about this rate but the Nats keep losing offensive players for big chunks of time on the edge of the playoff race is exactly where'd I'd expect them to be.  If the pitching keeps going and the team remains healthy they should play much better, like they have recently, and win the division. No mayonnaise and banana explanations needed.


Donald said...

My guess is that it's winning that leads to good chemistry rather than the converse, but beat writers always assume that chemistry is the catalyst because it makes for better stories. And hearing that after LeCroy eats a banana and mayo sandwich for lunch they win is fun. Hearing that after the Nats win, LeCroy treats himself to a banana and mayo sandwich for lunch the next day just makes him seem like some kinda weirdo.

It'll be very interesting to see what happens after Bryce comes back and they shift Zim back to 3rd. If Zim can throw okay over there, it'll be fine. But what does Williams do after he airmails a throw in a critical situation? And how does that play on the pitchers psyche?

Eric said...

I think it's the mayonaynay sandwiches. I know I would be highly motivated to see the look on someone's face as the first consider such a wretched abomination, then bit into it, then contemplated the horrific trainwreck of flavors and textures assaulting their gustatory and cerebral cortices.

Anonymous said...

I am also very interested to see what happens with the lineup when Bryce comes back, and had a couple questions for the group (first time commentor, and by no means a baseball expert, so pardon my ignorance):

1) With Zim looking at least average in left, there seems to be some interesting possibilities for shifting the lineup depending on pitching match-ups or slumps (Zim in LF vs. 3rd vs. 1st, Rendon 3rd vs 2nd, Bryce LF vs CF, Espi 2nd vs SS). How much does it affect the players psyche and play, though, if they were to move around on a more regular basis? Is it too much to ask Zim/Rendon/Byrce to switch between 2-3 positions regularly and not expect their play to deterioriate at all?

2) Hopefully Ramos' hamstring is fine in two weeks, but given his injury history, is there any thought towards having Bryce put in some time at catcher in case he goes down for another extended period? I know it's been a few years since he has played there, and never at a professional level, so I am not sure if it would even be possible to make that switch mid-year, but it could be a way to keep the best bats in the lineup.

All of these situations could be irrelevant depending on what happens over the next month with injuries, and it's not a bad problem to have, but figured I'd throw it out to the group.

WiredHK said...

Anon - Good questions. My feeling is that these decisions will never really come to a head because we'll constantly be without someone (DL) and be forced into varying lineups. That said, IF everyone was healthy, I'd think the simplest explanation is it becomes a Span/Righty Espy platoon depending on the pitcher faced that day.

On Span days, he plays CF, Bryce to LF, Zim to 3B, Rendon to 2B. Espy days, shift it all accordingly the other way. Espy is simply a better RHB than LHB, all his career numbers say it plainly. Defensively they are both fantastic, so there you go.

On #2, my buddy thinks the "hamstring" injury is a cover and that he actually hurt his right hand on the play -- but that the Nats don't want it out there so that opposing teams don't take advantage when he returns...ahh, conspiracy theory..

Donald said...

Anon -- There was some discussion around the catcher position a month or so ago. The consensus was that it's a very difficult position to master at the major league level and usually requires several years in the minors to get decent at. It's not just catching the ball, it's calling games and framing pitches and knowing pitchers and batters tendencies, etc. Couple that with injury concerns and it seems like putting Bryce behind the plate just isn't realistic.

As for platooning, my guess is that Williams wants consistency. If Zim can play 3rd, he'll stay there most of the time and Espinosa will be back to the bench, with occasional spot starts or defensive substitutions. But I don't think Zim can play 3rd anymore. Once that's obvious, it'll be very interesting and probably pretty fluid for a while. In addition to those platooning options, there'll be more days off for Werth, LaRoche and Desmond. But I don't think any manager wants that many shifts for very long and we'll eventually settle into a stable line-up. As WiredHK notes, injuries could help decide what that ends up being.

Chas R said...

I think the reality is Zim used to be a +++ defender at 3B, but he really hasn't been good there since 2009. I think he knows that, and is very happy with the move to LF.

Getting Harper back should give MW a lot of flexibility for using certain players against certain pitchers and in certain situations. Putting Harper in CF with Zim in LF allows the Nats to be strong defensively at three positions (Danny Espinosa at second over Anthony Rendon; Rendon over Zimmerman at third; and Harper over Span) and have a great offensive lineup.

A related question is who will be moved from the 25 man roster when Harper comes back? Dobbs? Hairston?

cass said...

Sure feels like this team needs historic pitching performances to get ahead of the Braves into first place. In 2005, 2012, and 2014. I'll take it - I love good pitching more than anything in baseball. Let's just hope it can keep up.

Nattydread said...

I agree with your automaton logic in general but there is something to the clubhouse feeling described by journalists who are paid to do so.

In my small office (10 people) when one key person is on leave, things are harder for all. When that person comes back there are two work improvements. One from the general work reduction because a key player is back. Two from the overall feeling that the team is complete. Yes, we are all adults, but that feeling of having a full team enables more work to get done.

Why would this not be true on a baseball team? Zimmerman makes a difference.

Anonymous said...

Ya I have to agree with Nattydread. I generally am not a fan of giving credit to off the field stuff (which is why I say Matt Williams is a terrible manager, because all I see is his in game decisions), but I don't think you can dismiss it out right.

I am sure it is easy to get frustrated when 4 back ups are playing and are automatic outs. And frustration can lead to sub-optimal performance. But like "seeing the ball better" there is no way to actually measure it so it is hard to assign it value. It probably better to note it has some impact, but not try to assign some sort of tangible measurement (ex. "like 2012")

Anonymous said...

Ya I have to agree with Nattydread. I generally am not a fan of giving credit to off the field stuff (which is why I say Matt Williams is a terrible manager, because all I see is his in game decisions), but I don't think you can dismiss it out right.

I am sure it is easy to get frustrated when 4 back ups are playing and are automatic outs. And frustration can lead to sub-optimal performance. But like "seeing the ball better" there is no way to actually measure it so it is hard to assign it value. It probably better to note it has some impact, but not try to assign some sort of tangible measurement (ex. "like 2012")

Bote Man said...

An embarrassment of riches seems like a good problem to have. Leaving aside the bench and who will go off the roster in about a month when Bryce likely returns, having 4 good to very good outfielders strikes me as a good problem to have.

RHB = Zim, Werth
LHB = Span, Bryce

Considering these 4 guys as only outfielders allows Matty to rest one of Werth, Zim, or Span on any given day and continue to get their money's worth out of Bryce. Base it on starting pitcher handedness, need for the guy to rest, or the supply of bananas and mayo in the clubhouse fridge.

I think it's only a matter of time before Zim makes another spectacular diving catch in LF and strains his meatloaf shoulder while bracing his fall, then he's out for another 15 days (at least). Hopefully not, because Zim's bat is valuable in the lineup so Matty should find a way to keep him batting somehow.

There's also the option of a Zim platoon with LaRoche at 1B on appropriate days. The Nats have worked him out at 1B a tiny bit. That could give you:
LF = Bryce
CF = Span
RF = Werth
3B = Rendon
SS = Desmond
2B = Espinosa
1B = ALR/Zim

Assuming they maintain this level of offensive output, that's not too shabby a lineup in whatever order Matty's Magic 8 Ball tells him on any given game day.

All indications from reliable sources indicate that Zim's days at 3B are likely done, so be governed accordingly.

Overall I think this is just moving around deck chairs. Keep the hot bats in the lineup, hope the starting pitching stays lights-out, and be happy.

JWLumley said...

@Nattydread Because when someone is out of your office, there isn't someone who has been preparing their whole life for the job to take their place.

As for the decisions, it won't happen, but the Nats best team on most days when Harper returns is Espi at 2B and Span on the bench. Harper is an above average CFer, Espi is the best defensive second basemen in baseball. The Nats also get a big defensive boost from Zimmerman in LF who is much better than Zimmerman at 3B and Rendon at 3B where he's better than at 2B. Won't happen though, partly due to archaic thinking and partly because Span on the bench means Rizzo will have to admit he traded a blue chip pitching prospect for a 4th outfielder.

Either way, enjoying this ride. The Nats are a good team, but they're not this good and--especially with Ramos out--I think could use one more bat in their lineup to support the pitching staff. Desmond's hitting again, so it's not nearly as dire as it was a month ago, but still necessary in my opinion. Espi + Span + Lobaton + pitcher = 3 below league average hitters in your lineup.

Bjd1207 said...

@NattyDread - Really like the analogy and can say the same for my office. Even being just one or two people down the typical bumps in the road become roadblocks, and things that are usually automatic are glaringly not-so-automatic. And that doesn't even touch on the psyche aspect of things.

@Anon - I think the one we can rule out off the bat is Harper behind the plate. Major league catchers usually need 2-3 years in their respective system to learn the in's & out's of the staff/coaching. Expecting an ungroomed position player to jump in midseason is unreasonable in my opinion, and I doubt any team would ever do it. Added on top is the fact that Bryce will be coming back from injury and it's a physically demanding spot as well.

Now the real topic that's ripe for debate is the infield/CF/LF situation. First thing we all need to keep in mind is that defensive contributions are VERY small compared to offensive, in the majority of cases. Even with all of us saying "Zim's done at 3rd" for the past month-running, he only racked up -1 DRS in the first part of the season. Bad, yes. Overshadowed by his bat? Certainly. With Espi hitting at replacement level and Span appearing to find his form at the plate, you'd need a HUGE contribution from espi's defense to push either of those guys off the field. And by huge I don't mean defensively elite, as Espi is, but I mean 2013 Andrelton Simmons level defensive metrics. Without that, the bat always wins. So I'd field Zim at 3rd, Rendon at 2nd, Bryce in LF, Span in CF, and hope Zim makes it 7 innings with the lead so you can sub in Danny

Bjd1207 said...

@Bote - Platooning Zim's bat EVER is a mistake in my opinion, and platooning LaRoche right now should deserve to get any manager fired

Anonymous said...

I don't think there's going to be any "platooning" but it makes off-days for rest much easier to manage, to say nothing of what it opens up for late-game double and triple switches. Span's leading off and in center every day (except for rest) until he plays himself out. Harper's in left every day. Werth's in right every day. Zim's at third every day, etc. Maybe against a side-arming LHP there might be a different starting lineup, but I doubt that'll happen often.

I'm just waiting for the day where everybody plays 2 spots in the same game.

Donald said...

I didn't see the game last night. Did anyone watch the play where Morse turned a single into a double by testing Zim's arm in left? The write-up said Zim one-hopped the cut-off man. Was it a tough play that most left fielders wouldn't have made, or is it a real weakness in Zim? If batters continually try to test him and he can't get the ball into the infield with any kind of zip then it could drive him out of that position even if he does make great catches.

Jimmy said...

Donald it was completely weak sauce, if Harper was playing he would have easily got the out at second as it was close enough with zimmerman bouncing the cut off man. That said he took some pretty good routes.

Jay said...

I think atmosphere does make a difference. A major example is in the same city. The Redskins are the offseason champions of the last decade (Desean Jackson??). Yet they stink every year.

Everything I have read sounds like Zimmerman has said good bye to 3rd base forever. I think MW is saying Zim is going back to 3rd bc why commit to anything but status quo right now? He's in the outfield for conditioning - right? I think in the end Zim ends up in left and Harper ends up in CF. Harper is a bigger asset in CF. He becomes one of the best bats in CF in the league and is above average defensively. If Espinosa can hit >.220, then he should be on the field. The only thing that muddies the water ... next year Span has a club option and LaRoche has a mutual option. Does Zim move to 3rd this year bc Span will be in CF next year too and Zim then goes to 1st? Or does Zim stay in LF and LaRoche stays next year at 1st?

Ryan said...

I object to this repeated characterization of Denard Span as a substantially below-average hitter or 4th outfielder. Should he be batting lead-off? Probably not. But he is almost the definition of league-average. Per Fangraphs:
Career wRC+: 105
Projected 2014 wRC+: 94-99
2012 WAR: 3.6
2013 WAR: 3.5

Being a league-average (or minutely below) hitter with a plus glove in center field is too valuable to be used as a fourth outfielder. As Harper has said before, if Span were batting 7th or 8th this would basically be moot, it's only because Rizzo and Williams are stuck on the idea of the speedy lead-off man that his offensive mere-adequacy is an issue.

Anonymous said...

Lets also not forget to mention Span has been getting on base a lot during this hot streak. Hard to bench or platoon a guy who has been doing exactly what he was brought in to do.

JWLumley said...

@Ryan I kind of agree, but don't. Span is a below league average hitter (nice cherry picking of stats though). Last two seasons wRC+ 98 and 97, with a .316 and .313 WOBA would indicate he's below league average (100 and .330 respectively.) His career stats are buoyed by his great 2008 and 2009. But he's probably better than a 4th OFer because of his defense. The problem is this, his defense isn't better than Zimmerman's bat, especially to a team with a staff full of strikeout pitchers who happen to have an above average defensive CFer playing LF.

Rather the equation is this:

Zim LF Defense + Harper CF Defense + Rendon 3B Defense + Espinosa 2B Defense > Span CF Defense + Zim 3B Defense + Rendon 2B Defense + Harper LF Defense

Harper said...

NattyDread - On the "Office" analogy - that explains why the team struggles on the field just fine. There's the drop in the individual quality of work (obviously) and a "greater than the sum" drop in team-related work as well because it effects everyone in little ways.

Here's my issue - I've been in places where maybe I buy the psyche thing. Someone leaves and things get worse than they should because the perception of how hard it will be discourages. But here's the key - these aren't places where I'd characterize it as "having great heart" or "full of spirit".

That's the thing. If the Nats were gritty gritty heart dawgs then the shouldn't have rolled over because of a few injuries. And if they were knee-knocking choke artists then they shouldn't pull off a streak like this when everyone is healthy. We shouldn't be spending a lot of time trying to figure out if they are one or the other.

Mental things matter - but on a limited basis and in a way we can't quantify. So in my mind it's best to leave those things for when you don't have an easy explanation. Everything in 2014 (and 2013 and 2012) seems pretty cut and dried to me.

Jay - totally different. Redskins have been consistently overrated by their own fans and occasionally by pundits. You don't lose for 20 yrs in a row because of atmosphere. Bad team. Bad players.

Brian and Holli Jones said...

This nats team is a playoff team!

Kenny B. said...

"Redskins have been consistently overrated by their own fans and occasionally by pundits. You don't lose for 20 yrs in a row because of atmosphere. Bad team. Bad players."

Not to divert too far into the problems with the Redskins, which can (and does) support its own blog(s), but bad team/bad players supports a bad season, or even a bad cluster of seasons. That team is an organizational disaster, which is why they have been pretty consistently awful for a generation. It's a pretty good example of how a bad organization can decimate a franchise. I think that's bigger than a "clubhouse atmosphere" thing.

Plus, I think "clubhouse atmosphere" is football is fundamentally more important just due to the nature of the game, which requires that everyone act in a coordinated way at the same time, and where failure to do so results in bad play, regardless of individual efforts. To the extent baseball has this characteristic, it is significantly less pronounced.

Donald said...

Another reason that 2014 isn't 2013 is that the Braves aren't the same team either. We were expecting them to gain a game on the Nats over this stretch. Could still happen, but so far the Nats have gone 5-2 while the Braves have gone 3-4 against the Diamondbacks and Rockies. And now they are on to play the Angels who should give them a tough series. I really hope the Nats do well in St. Louis.