Nationals Baseball: August 2014

Friday, August 29, 2014

Zimm, Bryce, and the here and now

It's kind of strange to be talking about the future with a month plus left in the season like I have been the past couple days. Really though, it's the Nats fault. Outside the usual "this guy is slumping, is it going to last" questions, what do we have to talk about going into the final month of the season? There's the playoff rotation... ok I can hear some of you screaming DO NOT TALK ABOUT THE PLAYOFFS!!! but seriously? The Nats just lost 3 games for the first time in months and their lead dropped to 6 games, better than all but one other division lead.  If this hypothetical Braves run to a division title is sparked mainly by their own amazing play, while the Nats play average baseball, then the Wild Card would still be a likely outcome given that the Cardinals and the Giants would have to play very good baseball to catch them.

Think of it like that - if the Nats play average baseball the rest of the way the Braves have to be great the rest of the way to pass them, and the Giants AND the Cardinals have to be very good (or I suppose the Pirates could be great).  That's a lot of unlikelies thrown together.

More worrisome would be the Nats play terrible, because then all those teams could play to more normal levels to pass the Nats. That's really what you are saying when you say not to look to the playoffs. You are worried that the Nats will reel off, for no good reason like injury or schedule or strife, their worst 30 game stretch of the year right now, allowing the Braves to catch and pass them with a good September, and the Cardinals/Giants to beat them for the WC with average ones. Could it happen? Sure. But as I said in the comments - for every famous collapse you can quote I can give you 4-5-10 teams that didn't. The fact that it could happen means we don't call it, but we can start to look to September to answer some questions because if you don't do it now there isn't a two week exhibition season prior to the playoffs to figure it out.

Anyway - back to the topic at hand.  We could talk about the rotation but that's going to be played to death by the end of September or whenever Williams makes a decision.  You know my thoughts going into the month - the 4 best pitchers should start regardless of IP or handedness. Really the only team that is leaps and bounds worse vs LHP is the Pirates, who probably won't make it. The Dodgers are a little worse but I don't want a questionable Gio facing Puig, Kemp, & Hanley do you? No, four best.

Anything else? Clip's struggles would play into that "slumping" category... we can wrangle out a couple.

What to do with Ryan Zimmerman?

He should be healthy in September. If he comes back, the Nats can do four things with him.
  1. Sit him - The Nats are a perfectly good team without him and who knows how long it will take him to get his swing back.  Of course if he is fine he's certainly a better hitter than some guys in the lineup he could replace and he is the best of that non-Werth/LaRoche group at taking walks. 
  2. Start him at 1st, platooning with LaRoche - LaRoche is pretty terrible versus lefties (.197 / .291 / .299) so at the plate it makes sense, but the Nats are convinced that LaRoche is a key defender. On GBs I can affirmatively tell you that's not the case. LaRoche can't move. When's the last time you remember a diving LaRoche stopping something? But on throws? Maybe. Zimmerman could be better, should be better, but is really a big question mark since he's been playing primarily LF. If he isn't ready for 1st, you don't want to find out during a playoff game.
  3. Start him at 3rd - Rendon goes to 2nd removing probably the weakest offensive player, Cabrera, from the lineup. This gives you the strongest line-up overall but brings back the Zimmerman at 3B issues. He's altered his throws in a way that might be able to compensate, but he's not comfortable and no one fully trusts him. With Rendon playing the position well enough why mess with it?
  4. Start him in LF - Now this could be a platoon with Bryce thing - which wouldn't make sense as Bryce has actually been fine versus lefties this year - but it remains out there. We'll talk about it later. The other way this could work is a Bryce to CF and sit Span thing. Again, makes your offense better because Zimm is better than Span, but Span plays a critical role compensating for Werth's declining range. Move Bryce, who is passable in LF but not great, to CF and the OF defense takes a big hit. Not to mention what sitting Span would do to Williams' mind line-up wise. 
There isn't an easy answer here unless either Zimm can't comeback, or he does comeback the Nats do #3 or #4 and he just kills the ball in September.

Will Bryce face tough lefties in the playoffs? 

For a while there it seemed like Bryce was sitting versus lefties regularly.  Whether that was the truth or not, it no longer is. In August he sat twice, both versus Cole Hamels, and started against every other lefty (Miley, Locke, Neise and Wood I think). So he's facing lefties now, but sitting versus the hard ones.  In the playoffs though, usually the talent is upped so all the pitchers you are facing are hard ones. My guess will be yes he will face all the lefties, part of the Hamels sit was because Hairston hits him well, but I think a big indicator will be when the Nats face Kershaw in the upcoming Dodgers series.

This is not to say you can't sit Byrce. You can. I don't like it. I don't think it's a good idea, but I get where it's coming from. But you can't sit Bryce versus lefties before you sit LaRoche, that just flat out makes no sense. Let's see what happens in LA.

Is Blevins demoted to LOOGY/Mop-up status?

Blevins can't face righties in a big spot. The evidence this year is too strong to risk it. Yet it keeps happening. I'd love to see this stop in September.

Any other non-rotation questions sitting out there?

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Ian Desmond and the future

We'll get back to the Braves Nats when it's 5.0 games... maybe 5.5. For now let's talk about Ian Desmond

Last night Kilgore noted  Ian was three steals away from his third straight 20SB/20HR season. It's true and it helps explain why Ian Desmond is a key piece to the Nats future... potentially.  He's a steady presence of power (and speed) in a position that doesn't lend itself to power. In the past 3 years Ian has hit 66 homers. The next best SS (Hanley) hit 56, the 5th best (Rollins) hit 46, and by the time you get to the 10th best you are talking about SS with half the homer power of Ian. He's a unique player and young enough that it's not too hard to expect he'd be near the top of this list for another 3 years. He hasn't signed long term yet but he seems to like it here, the fans want him here, and the Nats really need a SS because their minors is lacking in the MI dept. There's one problem.  Well two problems really.

The first problem is that Ian will be disproportionately expensive to sign, meaning you will get less from him than would be expected given how much you are paying him.  This is a problem contenders often face. To go from bad to ok isn't expensive, to go from good to great is. Teams need to get a little better, or reduce the variability of performance a little, but there aren't many places to do that if you are already good. So they spend more money than would theoretically be necessary in order to make this improvement. Usually it's the "3 years, 15 mill for a reliever!?" situation, but some long-term player signings fit the bill as well.

The Lerners haven't shown much interest in these kinds of signings. The good news for Ian is that both times when they have done it, it's been with position players (Werth and Zimm). The bad news for Ian is that so far those haven't worked out great. Werth has been worth it the past two years, but robbed the Nats in those first two and has got three more years in his late 30s at even more money. Zimmerman was doing well at 3rd base even though he never got back to star status, but injuries and arm troubles make the team worried that they'll be paying 14 mill a year for a part-time LF.  Of course neither of these are a surprise for someone who follows a perennial contender. You sign a long term deal with the idea that you are paying for the first half of the contract. The back half is lost money you hope to luck into. It's a terrible way to run a business but as a way to get results? It works, if you can afford it. The Lerners can definitely afford it but considering they just placed a bean-counter high up in the organization, they used the phrase "topped out" earlier in the year... well you get the idea.

The second problem is that Ian is declining. The K% which ticked up last year, has made a full jump this season. He's always been prone to the K, his former rates would put him around the top 25% of all players, but he was saved by the jump in his power. That made him an very good hitter despite being a bit strikeout prone (and not much of a walker).  Now though with this big increase (he's 7th in the majors) the average has dropped accordingly and his power can't keep him a very good hitter. He's merely ok overall. He has seen his walk rate go up but not nearly enough to help.

What's going on? Something kind of scary. He's not really swinging at more bad pitchers. He's always been a bit of a free-swinger and his swing % out of the zone has been worse than what we see this year. The problem is he's having a problem making contact when he does swing. The number of swinging strikes is on the rise and the contact rates are all dropping. So it doesn't seem to be a recognition issue. He sees inside and outside the zone as he has before. He just can't hit the balls. Is it the pitch type he's seeing? Maybe. He is seeing more curves and less changes but there isn't a single pitch you can pick out and say "oh he's always hit that" or "he's never hit that" since 2012. So... I don't know.

Homework assignment : find out if this contact rate drop at this age is telling of a greater problem or not. If it's something that gets worse then Ian is a few years from being done. The average will drop enough that he will no longer be a positive at the plate (unless he can magically start walking a ton or hitting even more homers). If it stabilizes... well Ian should probably be fine for a while. There's no reason he can't hit 20-25 homers for the next 3-5 years and that's enough to make him a good hitting SS. If he doesn't lose range in a hurry that's worth a deal. Or maybe, just maybe, it's often a blip. Something that corrects itself and leaves Ian able to be that very good hitter he was before. I'm not betting on that, but you gotta leave that option open.

 The Nats undersold Ian with their 6/90 deal before the season. That was too little for a top defensive shortstop who was arguably the best offensive player at his position, 28 years old or not. But after this year? 6/90 sounds about right. That's a lot of money but for a reliable fielding SS who can hit 20+ homers a year? It's fair.  To give Ian more would be betting on a reversal. 

I'll be interested to see where this goes in the offseason. A re-offer by the Nats should be taken by Ian. He's not the player he was post-2013. Will the Nats offer that though? They undersold last year, so perhaps they come at Ian with 5/65 now? If they do that they put Ian in a similar situation as last year. It's not close to what he can get on the open market. However, going into 2015 he'd be coming off a year where he potentially cost himself money by not signing. Would he make that same bet on himself again?

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Somehow this turned into a LaRoche post

Nats lost last night. Again.

But like I said the other day a loss for the Nats is a minor annoyance. As long as the night doesn't end with the Nats loss / Braves win combination, it's actually an overall win for the Nats. The Nats remain X games ahead and the Braves lose a game in which they could possibly come back. Unless you are obsessed with NLCS home field advantage, today is a good day.

The offense is going through one of it's dry spells. Can I take a moment to call out my own private MASN commenters, those that love Denard Span? Again going over all the caveats - Span should start, Span should be re-signed, overall Span makes the team better because he fields and runs well - I'd like to point out this:

34 games from July1-Aug10 : .399 / .462 / .464
97 other games : .259 / .304 / .372 

Why is it I'm called out as if I'm waiting for the brief moment Span does bad (hitting .226 / 262 / .290 in the last 15 games), when it's pretty obvious it's the opposite? I'm using a much bigger sample to come to my conclusion that the "eh Span" is the real Span. He does get super hot at times (so the 97 numbers aren't 100% fair either) but for the most part is a mediocre singles hitter. This isn't me. This is his last 2800 plate appearances talking. He may have a slightly better overall year in 2014. That's great! But don't try to turn that into him being a good offensive hitter.

A far more reasonable "How good IS he" question is the one regarding with Adam LaRoche because he's been all over the place since 2009. This is crucial to figure out because he's up for a 3rd year option. 

Looking at OPS+ you'd probably default to him being a 120+ OPS player which is good to very good.  He was that in 2009, 2012, and this year. 2011 is easily ignored as an injury lost year so you only have to reconcile the more mediocre 2010 season (under the free-swinging D-backs influence is how I'd do it) and 2013 (ummmmmm).

But there's an issue in that his offensive presence has changed. He was previously relying on his pop to be his selling point, but this year he really upped his patience. Before he was a 65 BB guy who hit 25+ homers a year. Does the fact that he may now be an 85+ BB guy, but ~20 HR guy change what you think about him?

You might have noticed that I went from 25-26 homers to say... 19-23. Not a huge drop really to change a profile.  Really what's disappearing though isn't the homers. He was an exactly 25 homer guy for a number of years. His 33 in 2012 was clearly an anomaly and the 20 he hit last year was probably a couple low because of luck.  His HR/FB% is consistent and the distance of his homers still looks good. He's probably not going much under 20 if he does do that. Really what's plummeted are the doubles. Excluding 2011 of course, he hit between 35 and 42 doubles every year but one from 2006 through 2012 and in that off year he "only" hit 32. But last year he hit a mere 19 (with 3 triples) and this hasn't changed much as he has only 19 so far. He'll probably end up with 23 or so. That's where the loss of power is really coming from.

(FWIW His batting average has been pretty steady and the BABIP seems generally what I would expect based on aging and previous numbers so I think .270-.260 slowly drifting down is right. )

He's been a rather consistent hitter in his HR/FB% and types of hits (LD/GB/FB breakdown), so it's not that that's changing the results for doubles. Most likely it the fact that he's always been slow and now he's reached an age where it's finally taking away his ability to leg out some doubles he could have 3 years ago. You'd want to say he's becoming a "true outcome" guy, the type that homers, walks, or strikes out, but he doesn't really strike out THAT much or walk that much, even with the improvement. It's more of a middle ground that still works. Hits some singles, hits some homers, walks enough. For 2014 at least.

And let's not discount the increase in walks just because it isn't a ton. The Nats are a decent walking team on the whole but really only Werth and LaRoche use walks reliably to get on base. Bryce might get there but if you lose LaRoche it'll drop to straight up middle of the pack.

My personal opinion is you do re-sign him. I know the Nats need 1B space, for Zimm, for Werth (the guy is becoming a statue) and possibly for Ramos (injuries, injuries), but for one more year and considering the other options out there, I don't see how you can let him go. I think the walk increase isn't a fluke. The fancy stats tell us he's swinging at fewer pitches outside the zone and it's something that he did succesfully before in 2011 to mitigate his other issues (not nearly enough but still). I think he can walk more when he wants to and now he wants to. With the batting average and power probably staying about the same, it's worth it. I wouldn't want to have him 3 years from now, when the HR power finally starts to go and his age starts costing him singles along with doubles, but in 2015. Yes.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

I must break Roark

The Nats lost last night. Not a huge deal as they still stand 7.5 infront of the Braves, but it gives an an opportunity to delve into two pitching things of interest, the extended use of Tanner Roark and the bullpen woes.

As we talked about here and has been brought up again now that we reached it, Tanner has pitched more this season than ever before. A few innings - maybe even 20 or so wouldn't be a big deal, but he already sits at 8 innings past his previous high with the entirety of September to go.  He could easily pitch 30-35 more inning putting him 40+ over his previous high going into the playoffs. This is why most people see him as a lock for the bullpen.

What do I say? I say if he's still pitching great come the end of September, ride him into the ground.  Start him if he's in your Top 4. Relief pitch the hell out of him if he's not.

I know that may sound harsh but it's an extension of my belief that was espoused when the Nats tried to convert Christian Garcia into a starter. If you have an older "prospect" you should strike while the iron is hot and get the most use out of him NOW because any sort of future derailment could easily spell the end of his career. Garcia was an obvious case, 26, reliever, multiple previous injuries. He was a time bomb but the Nats thought they could possibly save that arm for future use.  They were wrong.

Roark isn't that cut and dried. He's a bit older (27 closing in on 28), but he's a starter with no big injury history. You could see curtailing his innings for another season if this were a non-playoff year. But it's a playoff year. It's one thing to sit down a young prime prospect a year after major surgery at the beginning of what looked like a 4 year stretch of relevance. It's a much less explainable thing to me to stop using a surprise story of an older guy finding his stuff toward the end of this stretch. (and look how well it worked out for Strasburg) There are no guarantees in sports beyond what you can put out on the field today. At some point you have to choose between playing for now and playing for tomorrow and certainly this is it, right? Saving Tanner Roark for a later date can't be a line the Nats draw in the sand, can it?

As for the bullpen, the dichotomy is alarming. In the past two weeks Drew Storen and Matt Thorton have ERA's of 0.00.  Stammen has an ERA of 1.50. Then you have every starter between 2.11 (ZNN) and 2.84 (Stras) and then the rest of the relievers. Clip (4.26), Blevins (6.23), Detwiler (6.75), Soriano (7.11). Of course it's only two weeks. Are these just blips or something to worry about?

I'm actually least worried about Soriano.  He had a few rough outings in a row then went back to being Soriano. It was market correction really as he wasn't a 1.10 ERA type knockout reliever. A 2.50 ERA feels more correct. It didn't have to happen but it doesn't bother me that it did. I don't see any other reason to be concerned.

Blevins bothers me because he has just deteriorated into such a true LOOGY.  But this isn't a two week thing, it's a year thing so I don't feel I'm reaching in being concerned in his use. Last night he was brought in to eat up an L-R-L inning. He got out those Ls. The problem?  The R hit a HR. He can't face a righty in a big spot. Just can't. 

I worry about Det too just because there something there between him and Matt Williams.  He's not a bad pitcher, but he's treated like the worst guy in the pen and just occasionally enough pitches like that so Matt doesn't have to change his mind. This spotty use (4 times in last 17 days) fails to keep him fresh, so the end result is I don't want to see Det because I don't trust him to be ready to go, because Matt hasn't used him. Matt's won.  Again though I don't feel this is a two-week judgment but a yearly one.

Clippard is the most bothersome to me. The issues with Blevins and Detwiler should be understood by now and compensated for in how they are used. I'd say that they are. Thorton has passed Blevins on the depth chart and Detwiler is caught in the Detwiler Paradox. Clippard though is different. The Nats are a 3 pitcher pen; Clippard, Storen, and Soriano, and don't need to be much more with their starting pitching. I don't see this changing.

Clippard has appeared in more games than anyone but Matt Belisle since 2010. 356 games to be precise and in terms of IP and G there is him and Belisle and a huge gap bfore you get to the next set of high use arms. They pitch often, they rarely pitch less than an inning.  Looking at all the pitchers who have pitched 300IP and have appeared in 320+ games you have Belisle - worse this year, Gregerson - better, Ziegler - worse, Axford - better (at 3.72), Peralta - worse.  Scanning alll 300+ guys... more worse than better. That in itself is not damning but add in a decreasing velocity and you get scared.

93.53 on his fastball in March -> 93.56 -> 92.96 -> 92.75 -> 92.45 -> 92.13

The same thing happened in 2013 and the same general trend, a worse 2nd half, was seen.

This concern I will say is based a lot on just recent data so unlike my worry of Blevins and Clippard, this could just be a momentary dip in a otherwise fine season. The FB speed is dropping but maybe he works a way around it, or can dial it up for the stretch run. I'm not counting Clippard out yet. But no one's arm last forever. At some point Clippard's will run out of steam. Just not now, ok?

Monday, August 25, 2014

Monday Super Quickie - A sacred calling

People who get into accidents on major roads during rush hour should have their licenses revoked.

Just saying.

It's funny but there was a sense of uneasiness when the Nats lost on Friday and the Braves won.  Only 6 games out? A tough stretch for the Nats ahead? Here's where things get interesting! Nope.  Two Nats wins and two Braves losses later and we're back tubing down easy street... or easy river I suppose if I want to carry that analogy to a more logical place.

As for calling the race - there are four times you can call a race. In order of decreasing certainty :

The first is when it's officially over, say 11 games out with 10 to play. It is impossible. This is the cowards call.

The second is when it isn't officially over but the circumstances needed to make it happen are two unlikely performances.  Say 6 games out with 10 to play. If the following team goes 8-2 (great!) and the leading team goes 2-8 (terrible!) that would tie them up.  It isn't likely that the following team does that though, and even less likely that the leading team does that, so calling it makes sense. It's the realist call.

The third is when only one unlikely performance is needed. Say 3 games out with 10 to play.  If the following team goes 8-2 then the leading team only has to go 5-5 to reach a tie.  8-2 is unlikely (the Nats have only hit that kind of stretch 3 times this year and they would presumably be the better team in this scenario).  Or vice versa 6-4 and 3-7 would work, but 3-7 isn't likely for a team that has done well enough to lead a division. (Nats have had two of these time periods). It's a gutsy call.

The fourth is when there's no reason to call it. Say 1 game out with 10 to play. What kind of call this is depends on the person making it. It could be a fun call, for those who don't take it seriously. It could be a fool's call, for those that don't understand. It could be a "Jeane Dixon" call for those in public who like to say a bunch of things and then pick out the couple that end up working out to be true. Anyway - not a call I'd ever seriously make.

Where do the Nats stand with just over 30 games left (Nats 33, Braves 31)? Somewhere between the second and the third.  The good thing is these don't extrapolate linearly.  It's would be one thing to say the Nats need to go 2-8 and the Braves 8-2. It's a whole 'nother thing to bump that up to 4-16 and 16-4. If the first is unlikey for each then the latter is crazy unlikely because you're stretching out something rare for 10 games into something rare for two sets of ten games. If you think there's a 20% chance the Nats can go 2-8 and then same chance the Braves go 8-2 (just work with me here) then you'd being saying there's a 4% chance the Braves can catch up 6 in 10 games. That's tiny. Catching up 12 in 20 games? The chance would be 0.16%, assuming you didn't change the odds. That's impossible.

In other words the Nats don't need to be 12 games up with 20 to play to have the "realist call". 8-10 would do it. At 30 games out... maybe 10-12? It all depends on what you think of the teams. We're getting close though.  Right now the Nats going 16-17 would force the Braves to go 23-8.  The Braves going 23-8 is unlikely. The Nats going 16-17 is getting close to unlikely. A couple more games ahead for the Nats and we might get there.

*What does the H2H games do? They increase the magic number because they add certainty to the chance of one team rising and one team falling at the same time. Normally I'd call it 8 games up with 21 to play (when they next meet) but the H2H will give me pause. I probably wouldn't call it unless the Nats were up at least 10. 

You can see how this works though - if the Nats get up 12 games before then I might call it because to say the Braves have a chance you'd be saying (1) The Braves close that gap by 3 games in ~5 games, which is hard, and then (2) catch up 9 games - basically winning all the head to heads- before the season ends. That's two unlikely things.  

Friday, August 22, 2014

Another great start and great finish

The former is what excites me more. Sorry walk-off fans.

Gio seemingly finding his way is going to set-up a very interesting situation if it continues. Remember, the Nats need a playoff rotation.  They don't have to throw just 3 or 4 guys out there. They could go with 5. But the days off that are sprinkled throughout the playoffs lend themselves better to a shorter rotation, probably a 3+1 would be the best way to describe it.  While Gio is the most... volatile Nats pitcher he's also the only left-handed one and for a guy who seemingly isn't interested in treading new ground as a manager Matt Williams will be very tempted to bring in a "new look" for the opposition. That would mean someone sits. And there are no easy answers to which of the other 4 sits unless one of them blows up in the next 6 weeks.

Oh well, these are first baseball world problems.

Is anyone not doing well recently? Danny. That's about it. You could say Michael Taylor is being looked at for induction to the Nats AAAA Club (hopefully temporarily) of guys that kill it in AAA and get killed in the majors.  Tyler Moore is reviewing his credentials as we speak. But bench players, you know. And the Nats have a bench player hot right now in Frandsen, 9 for his last 22 PA, with a walk. Granted they are all singles but like we said when Span was hot - you hit .450 no one cares if you walk.

How is Span doing.?  Arguably the worst of any regular Nats, .280 with minimal power and few walks over the last two weeks. Let's call it standard Span. But he's had all his walks recently so we'll see. And when a guy hitting .280 is your "worst" you're in a damn good stretch.  No guy you expect to start is close to being slumping.

Can the Nats keep up this during their last hard stretch? SF, then @PHI, @LA, @SEA? The reality is that they don't have to. Just keep from going 2-10 and they should be set up to finish the Braves off in that 6 faceoffs in 10 games that follow. And if they happen to roll through this stretch - even better. The only thing that is keeping the division alive is the Braves being hot. One team has to cool down. If it's the Braves first that'll put an official end to what I'm so close to wanting to call over, but just can't not yet. Just... Can I... no.  Not yet.

Thursday, August 21, 2014


I'm all busy with work and stuff but figured you kids would like a fresh place to discuss things like why the Nats bullpen can't get anyone out.  Why the Nats offense keeps scoring late runs to win these games the bullpen blows.  What shirt you are wearing to the NLDS home opener.

Really this is how I see things is this

The comebacks are fun but of spotty meaning.  You love a never say die attitude and more importantly you love a win but this is more a function of timing and having a good offense.

The relief pitching is worrisome but not that much. Not yet anyway. Almost. If you accept up and down times you need to ride out the downs

The starting pitching is so good.  Ok Gio can be rough but the last bad nonGio start was two weeks ago.  This is why the Nats win. Not because of 9th inning heroics but because the starter set them up to win from innings 1-7.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Monday Redux

You might not read the ESPN power rankings so here's a tidbit for you : The Nats have won 5 one-run games in this 7 game winning streak. However, don't consider the team lucky. This only brings their record in one-run games to .500.

Anyway about yesterday

J' Refuse to take back my comment that the faces of the Nats are Bryce, Strasburg, and Werth. Sorry long-timers but it's true. It's true for the national media. It's true for Joe Q Baseball Fan. It's true for the more recent, perhaps bandwagon fans. It's probably even true for local sports fans who casually follow the Nats. This isn't a statement on who it should be. It's a statement on who it is. I would liquidate my assets and bet it all on Werth being more associated with the Nats than Zimm.

As for the rest of the column. Yeah, you could read it as "the Nats have a good chance in the future because the GM is good".  That's fair. And I don't necessarily disagree. I think Rizzo is good. How good? Well I think the next few years are telling. I've gone over the issues I had with 2013 Rizzo and I think he's improved in both bench building and mid-season course correcting. However, I still don't see him making all the moves I think he should. More importantly there was a lot of things that came together, not necessarily because of Rizzo's genius, that created this mini-run from 2012-2015. What he does as this run draws to a close will really define his tenure.

A lot of you said something to the effect of "it's too hard to predict that far out" and you're absolutely right. 2015 is fair game, but 2016 is iffy, and 2017 might as well be a coin flip. But remember that works both ways. We can't say "doom and gloom are coming" but we can't say "blue skies ahead!" either. At best you get general impressions (like everyone had for the Phillies let's say) but they don't always work out (how long ago did Boz say the Yankees were bottoming out? No not that time, the other one.) The general impression for the Nats is good. They have a couple good young players who will be here for a while and a decent minor league system. That's all you can say, but it's better than what you can say for most teams.

This also plays into the "now or later" argument. Obviously it's never that cut and dried. Dealing for immediate success has to be judged based on how much help it brings versus the cost you give up. But looking at it as if you were trading a future playoff season for a slightly better chance at winning the whole thing now is a dangerous point of view to take. The slightly better chance isn't guaranteed but it's as close as you'll come. You know these players, how they've done recently, how they've done this season in fact. You can be fairly sure on how they'll do for the remainder. Small sample size creates the issue of not living up to expectations, but it also creates possibility of getting a crazy good run. On a whole its a fair gamble.

Saying that trading a way a prospect will cost you a future playoff season though is fantasy. It could, sure. But it just as easily could not. You can't say "we don't know what 2017 will bring... except if we trade away this guy we're doomed!"  Of course there are always exceptions. Massive sell-offs of prospects would indeed hurt your future chances.  But take a look back at any trade deadline and you'll see a massive amount of prospects that the media "couldn't believe were traded!" that ended up as replacement parts at best.  You get the John Smoltz, Jeff Bagwells, stuck in your head but they are the exception, not the rule. The rule is Brett Wallace, Justin Smoak, Matt LaPorta. The very best (like Giolito) don't get moved any more. The rest are nothing you can rely on.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Monday Quickie - these aren't open windows! They're paintings!

Oh Boz, Boz, Boz. Someone forgot to take his medicine

The crux of the article is that the Nats are good, and they are good despite their "best-known faces" Strasburg, Bryce, and Zimmerman having off years so obviously that must mean they are going to be good forever right? That their 3-pronged approach of smart trades, smart drafts, and smart FA signings have set the team up for years upon years of success.

Of course the first thing you'd say is Strasburg, Bryce, and Zimmerman aren't their best known faces. That would be Strasburg, Bryce, and Werth. But Werth has had a good year so that doesn't fit the narrative. You could also say "young stars" and go with Strasburg, Bryce, and Rendon, but again - good year - doesn't fit narrative. So I guess you just say whatever?

But let's get down to brass tacks here - are the Nats set up for future success, like long-term future success? The easiest (and arguably best and obvious and why didn't Boz do it like this) way of looking at it is seeing who is doing well and looking at their ages and contract situations. Where do these players stand in terms of helping the Nats in 2016/2017? Here are the players who have given the Nats at least a half-win of WAR this year, which is basically saying "not a bit player". I've ordered on roughly this year's importance but don't take this as definitive. 

Rendon : 24; FA after 2020. Rendon is the best thing the Nats have going in regards to future success. Good, young, cheap and in team control forever.  He could get better. He can play important, harder to fill positions. Big win right here

Fister : 30; FA after 2015.  Fister is great. Fister is also unsigned after 2015, and has made it somewhat clear like ZNN there isn't a discount coming. Could be helpful in those years, if signed, but can't be counted on to do that.

Roark : 27; FA after 2020. Roark has been great. He doesn't have the history of the other guys you like but it's hard to argue with results and another year like this one will force everyone to say "ok this is who he is". Given the team control of Roark that would be another big win. Of course that caveat still hangs out there.

Span : 30: FA after 2015 if the Nats decide to pick-up his option.  Span is a 30 year old having maybe the best year of his career. You can like him but the chances he's on the team and helping them 3 years down the road have to be considered slim.

LaRoche : 34; FA after 2015 again option based.  See Span. change 30 to 34 and "best year of career" to "surprisngly good year".

Werth : 35; FA after 2017.  The increased fragility and declining production peg Werth as a iffy contributer for 2016 and beyond. That he's bounced back to give the Nats what he has after the horriffic 2011 has to be a big win but leaning on Werth at 37 would be a mistake.

ZNN : 28; FA after 2015. ZNN has been a rock for the Nats the past few years. He's also almost certainly gone after next season. Age makes him a little more likely than Fister to be helpful in 2016+ but he's also probably not as good. But again, almost certainly gone.

Desmond : 28; FA after 2015. Desmond has anchored the infield as a power hitting, good fielding SS. That's a tough find. That's why it'll cost an arm and a leg to keep him. Peripherals (high K's, low BB's) make his long-term impact uncertain but for the 2016-2017 time frame I'm looking at he should be better than your average SS. Unfortunately, no promises he'll be here.

Stras : 25; FA after 2016.  You could argue at this point that Strasburg is the player you could count on 2nd most (behind Rendon) to (1) be here in 2016 and (2) be contributing at a higher level. Think about that. Not sure of his long-term commitment to DC over his home on the west coast.

Ramos : 26; FA after 2016. A key figure for the long-term Nats as age, position and talent all combine to be a big-time part of the 2016 team if not further. But can he stay healthy? As a catcher and getting older? Hard to bet on that.

Zimm : 29; FA after 2019. See Ramos but remove position. Should still be an impt piece a few years from now but has same injury issues. 

Bryce : 21; FA after 2018. Definitely should be a big part of 2016-2017. Should be starting peaking in fact. Whatever that means though, superstar or very good offensive force, remains to be seen.

Clipp : 29; FA after 2015. Hard to see the Nats spending the money on Clip he'll get on the FA market but maybe he'll stay here for a bit of a discount. He certainly has blossomed here.

Storen : 26; FA after 2016. Will very well be closer for 2016 team. After that who knows. Wouldn't be surprised to see the Nats make a good budget play for him long-term after this season.

Soriano : 34; FA after 2014. Gone right? Can get more than the Nats would likely give him. Do the Nats even want him?

Gio : 28; FA after 2016 if the Nats so want. After 2018 definitely. Tough to rely on Gio as more than a back-end starter in a few years. I mean he SHOULD be better than that but I'm talking something you consider a safe bet. I don't consider Gio a Top 3 starter on this team's rotation in 2016-2017 that.

Ok so let's wrap this up. What do we have here?

Likely gone before the 2016 season : Fister, ZNN, Desmond, Clippard, Soriano, Span, LaRoche.  They don't all have to be gone but age, cost, and talent suggest most will be, if not all. You could stretch and see two staying here. I'm thinking one (Desmond or Fister) at best.
Likely here but of questionable contribution : Roark, Werth, Ramos, Zimm, Gio.  A combination of injury, age, and general question marks lead to unreliability. The odds for any single one of these to be a replacement level contributer in 2016 isn't that low. (Roark is the biggest stretch here so if you want to shift him to the next category feel free)

Likely here and contributing : Rendon, Storen, Strasburg, Bryce.  Why does it matter that those guys are not performing to their capabilities? Here's why.

So that's 2016 - just two years from now. After 2016 Storen, Ramos, and Stras could all walk, which would leave 2017 a mess.

What about the minor leauges? I'll say this - it's very likely the Nats could develop a rotation ready starter and a major league outfielder by 2016.  How good can they be? Potentially very good, with the starter (likely Giolito, but maybe Cole) looking like a better bet to be impactful. As for anything more, I'm sure they'll find a decent bullpen arm. Those aren't hard to get if you have any competence as a GM.  Other than that there is nothing I would bet on. So if you don't lose both ZNN & Fister and if Stras/Gio/Roark are all ok and if the Nats young guy hits roughly his potential the rotation should still be top notch. If. The OF should be able to handle the eventual loss of Span. But the pen? 1B? SS? There's nothing certain here.

I'm not saying the Nats future is grim. To look two years down the road and say you've got Rendon, Stras, Bryce, and Storen as a core is a future most teams would like to have. The Nats shouldn't be a bad team. But the perennial contender Boz makes them out to be?  I can't be as sure. The rest of the Nats team is on the way out either because of age or contract. The Mets and Marlins are improving and the Braves are always decent (Wood, Minor, Teheran, Beachy and Hale would all still be under contract in 2016 and at oldest 30) With some injury luck and a slow aging star the Nats could stay in it up through 2016 and 2017 isn't a "doom and gloom" year as much as a big fat question mark. But a new machine that has no real down cycle? That's a stretch considering they haven't passed their first run at that.

This is why I like the Nats to play for now. At the end of 2012 you could take a 3 more years of contending as a given. Gio, ZNN, Stras, Zimm, Bryce, Danny, Ian, Detwiler, Clippard, Storen; all good, all 27 or younger, all except for Zimm sure to be here for a while. If Werth could hang on and if Ramos could stay healthy the holes needing to be filled were extremely limited.  Now in 2014 you don't see the same thing. There isn't as much youth. There aren't nearly as many guarantees to be around in 3 years. You are still hoping for Werth to hang on and Ramos to be healthy. This isn't the time to be looking rosily in the distance. It's time for looking hard at what's in front of you.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Random stuff

Want to rate the superhunks? Because we're almost at that time. Basically the only thing standing between the Nats and total and absolute control of the NL East is... well the Nats. They have gone 4-9 versus the Braves this year.  Even going 6-7 would put the Nats now at 8 10 games ahead, the kind of lead where you start saying "well if everything breaks right for the Braves" If the Nats could have pulled a winning record versus the Braves we're looking at a double digit lead.

The Braves are close to being toast - but don't buy into the whole "since going 17-7" thing that makes them look like a bad team. They aren't. They just aren't good. If you look at their schedule a more accurate breakdown would probably read : 17-7 / 1-8 / 40-33 / 3-12.  They spent the majority of the season playing like a high 80s win team. Makes more sense right based on what you think of them, or at least is does to me. 

So here to end the week just a random assortment of pitcher facts/ thoughts.

So what IS the playoff rotation? With 40+ games to go it's a tough call. The rotation based on stats/results would probably go something like Fister, ZNN, Roark, Stras, Gio. I'd say Gio in the 5th spot is the most obvious slotting and thus would be the first guy out but he's the only lefty and everything about Matt Williams tells me he'll want to mix a lefty in there. So do you take out Strasburg then? Oh god, I'm already having nightmares about the media play that would get. Roark? That can't be justified in anyway other than "veteran status".  What do I think? Well hopefully the Nats catch Milwuakee so you can push Gio out and it makes sense. Otherwise, how about this - don't move anyone to the pen. You don't have to. You have 5 good arms. Just a thought.

Don't think positioning matters? Here is what has happened to the BA associated with line drives since 2009 (in the NL). .728 -> .727 -> .718 -> .716 -> .665 -> .654.  Meanwhile the isoSLG (slugging taking out the singles) has gone up so guys aren't hitting it softer, teams are just getting better at putting defenders in the right spot.

Roark :  The opposing team has hit Roark better in DC. Better average, higher slugging, gotten on base more. They've struck out a lot less, walked more, better BABIP. Yet his ERA is almost a run better in DC. A little bit can be associated with actually more power away when they hit the ball (better isoSLG) but almost a run? Quirky.

Fister : Speaking of BA associated with LDs, Fister's is .586, that's why things like FIP, xFIP, fWAR don't love the guy. He's getting A LOT of hits where they is, as opposed to where they ain't.

Gio : This 2012 nugget still amazes me. Against the pitcher in 57 PAs Gio got 41 strikeouts. 41! For comparison Strasburg might lead the league in K's this year, he has gotten 23K in 56 PAs. Kerhsaw has 14 in 31. (when you're Kershaw good you don't face the P a lot)

OK as for this year - he's not getting lefties out. They are actually hitting him better than righties. Seem strange? It shouldn't. Lefties hit Gio better in 2012 and 2011 too.

ZNN :Remember that amazing "no-walk" run the Nats pitcher's had? For ZNN it's back. In his past six starts he's struck out 34 guys and walked 1. He actually has gotten hit so it's not like he's dominating out there, but he's certainly got his control in order.

Stras : We went over a lot of his splits that were menaingful the other day. One that probably isn't but who knows? His OPS against goes WAY down on pitches 51-75.  .518 for these, .733 for next best group of 25. Need time to warm up? Need arm to get tired to stop overthrowing? Need arm to get tired to change approach? I can come up with literally dozens of ideas that I have no clue if it's really happening or not!

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Preparing to fight a different beast

  • The Nats are better than the Braves (or anyone else in the NL East) 
  • The Nats have an easier schedule than the Braves 
  • The Nats have a 5 games lead on the Braves with 42-44 games to go. 
The Nats are making the playoffs
  • The Nats playoff odds are 97.8% here, and 95.1% here, better than everyone but the A's and Dodgers (and maybe Angels)
  • Their division winning odds are 95.2% and 92.1%, better than everyone. 
Again, see the first three sentences of this post. That's why the Nats are making the playoffs.They are near locks for their division.

So what are we doing? Watching to see if the Nats somehow blow it? Hit those 1 in 25 or so odds that a team set up in this situation somehow crashes and burns so completely that their very flawed competitor can catch up and pass? I suppose that you can think of the next few weeks that way, if you like. Not me. I'm watching to see how the Nats handle games, how they prepare themselves for the playoffs.

Can Williams use Drew Storen in a big spot before the 7th? (Yet to happen this year) Or Clippard in a big spot before the 8th? (Never has happened - used once in 7th when Nats were down 11) Can he quickly move on from a Soriano who doesn't have it?

Can he understand that bunting is generally a trade off that slightly increases your chances to score a single run at the cost of decreasing your chances to score multiple ones, thus needs to be used judiciously? Who's the first man off the bench as a PH? Who's the first man in line for an emergency injury start?

How healthy are the Nats? Is Werth ok? Will Zimm be back? Can Stras/Gio settle themselves? 

That's what I'm watching these games for, with only a half-glance at the standings.  Cocky? Not really. See above.

The first point won't change unless the Nats injuries become permanent (and maybe they get one more). The Braves had too many season long injuries and too many bats fail to be considered on equal ground for 2014.

The second point will briefly favor the Braves once we get to the end of August but then bounce back the Nats way for most of September.  The Nats should be able to use that for a game or two in their favor.

As long as the third point remains mostly true there is no reason to worry. 4 games w/ 38 to go. 6 with 35. Something like that. When you get past 6 the situation becomes dire for the Braves. Not only would they have to sweep the Nats in the mutual games versus eachother, but they would have to play better in the rest of their games as well. That's a tall order for a team struggling to maintain .500 for much of ths season. And for each game they don't take versus the Nats the mission gets that much impossbler.

I won't go as far as to say the division race is over... not yet. With 6 head to head left, and that little SEA/LAD schedule bump for the Nats still to overcome you can't do that unless things get out of hand. I'd say Sept 3rd is the first date I'm likely to call the race. Let's see where we are then. 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Fragile Strasburg or fragile arguments?

The role of stats, when used properly, is to provide an unbiased look at a player. Over time, we all become subject to our own prejudices, and thus we can reach conclusions that do not conform with reality. This is how the Lombos become Lombos. We decide something then form our opinions around that decision. We reinforce when we really should be questioning, constantly poking at our conclusion to make sure it's solid from all sides. The numbers can help you do that but only if you use them the right way.

One of the common refrains heard over the past couple years and especially this season is that Strasburg is a "hothouse flower". We've seen him break down after errors. We've heard him complain about mound conditions, about weather. He wilts. He collapses under pressure.

Ok that's the conclusion. But we got there the same way we've gotten to many places before, our own raw observation backed up by feelings and conjecture. What do the numbers say, or more precicsely what numbers would you like to look at to prove that there is an issue? Decide that first - see if the argument holds up.

If he wilts under pressure surely he'd collapse with runners in scoring position or in low-scoring games or in tight pressure situations late in games? Do we see that?  Do we see a significantly worse performance post errors or do we not? Is this consistent over years or just this year? If we do see an issue, are we sure it's because of what we think or could it perhaps be about something else?

The latter question - one of confounding - is important. One of the current questions about Strasburg is why is he pitching worse away than at home. The numbers bear this out - looking at raw stats (2.41 ERA home, 5.25 away - corresponding fancy stats agree) or looking at patterns. (sort by game score and see the home and away games segregate). But is there something else afoot? Well yes, if you note Strasburg has pitched terribly with Sandy Leon as his catcher. Sandy Leon was catching for his two worst performances, both away games. This doesn't resolve the home/away question but it moderates it. Make Sandy Leon the issue and if you pull him out of the equation and the home away splits are closer; 2.50 to 4.09.  The closer you get to even the more it becomes about random variation. This would make sense for a pitcher who's previous home/road splits show a very normal, very slight preference to home instead of a major issue.

This doesn't mean SOLVED! but it means what we were taking as a given requires a closer look. Frankly I do think the gap in the ERA and the segregation when you look at performance indicates something.

Ok so what about the OrKid?  Well he's dead-on with RISP (.712 opponent OPS) compared to overall (.711), and great when there are 2-outs with RISP (.606).  He's bad when the Nats don't score for him (.802), and hideous when it's "late and close" (.927), but scarily even worse when it's high leverage (.945). So maybe there's something here...

Yet last year he was worse with RISP and great "late and close". And that issue this year when the Nats don't score for him? Turns out this year it's this way for the entire team, making it seem like we're looking at the issue backwards. It's likely not that the Nats pitchers pitch worse when the Nats don't score, but the Nats stop scoring when staked to a big deficit. High leverage was also an issue for Strasburg in 2013, but not in 2012. It's tough to say there's a pattern of issues (or successes) here.

What about the error thing? His ERA in games where men reached base is 2.32. It certainly hasn't effected him in later innings. What about in the moment? Guys batting in the same inning post error this year have hit .278 with one XBH. Nothing at all strange here. But yet it persists.

The work I've just done is admittedly cursory but trying to be objective we've found little to suggest some sort of internal weakness. I suppose you could work it as - ok THIS YEAR he's mentally fragile and it may not show in all standard high-pressure sitiations but when they pressure is REALLY on he breaks - but that strikes me as fitting the data to your conclusion, rather than seeing what conclusions can be reached with the data.

Strasburg may in fact have an issue - but you don't know, can't prove, and can't even really see when looking at these past few years as a whole outside of "well I can read his body language". There is a disconnect between the talent and the result but trying to pin down a mental "fragility" issue does no one any good. If it is a fastball issue (speed? location? more likely a combination of both?) then that's what the focus should be on because the speed isn't coming back, not fixing his head. Especially not when the diagnosis is based on little more than what you've seen while lounging on your armchair.

 *Some more interesting Strasburg stat diversions for those inclined - following up the stuff I was looking at earlier in the season with his 2-strike issues (damn that target data isn't readily available). - what has changed about the Nats' pitching approach? Renewed focus on keeping runners honest. What's new in Strasburg's stats this year? An issue with men on first. How do we prove/disprove this? some sort of speed of runner adjustment combined with if the SB would matter score wise? Would the subsequent PAs be enough to really make a judgment?

Monday, August 11, 2014

Monday Quickie : On the Job Training

On some level it must be tough to be Matt Williams.  The Nats are a team everyone predicted to win the division (particularly post-ATL injuries) so simply winning the mediocre-team filled NL East is not going to prove to anyone that he is particularly adept at his job. Winning a playoff series also may not be enough to prove to people that he's the right man for the job as the playoffs are often seen as a luck-driven (or at least as the "residue of design" driven). The simple truth is it's hard for Matt Williams to walk out of this season as a success. One could feel sorry for the guy... if he didn't seem to bring so much of this on himself.

Last night was another night of questionable decisions. The big one being why the hell Jerry Blevins was allowed to pitch the entirety of the 9th. Of course, if you follow Matt-logic the reasoning is simple. Tyler Clippard, who pitched in each of the last 3 games, was obviously not pitching last night. Any manager would do the same. But Matt Williams also has a mostly-followed edict that guys that pitch two of the last three nights are also to be avoided, especially the back of the pen if the Nats aren't winning. This meant Thorton, Soriano, and Storen were all removed from his set of first choices and it left him, in a one-run game with the team's closest rival, with essentially Stammen, Blevins, and Detwiler as his bullpen arms.  Despite there being a day-off for the Nats today, he was going into battle with the Nats pitcher most likely to blow up and arguably his three weakest bullpen arms.

It's not necessarily a bad plan to go into a game with, and if the Nats blew out the Braves or vice-versa you can see sticking with it. But life gave Matt Williams a close game and you have to be able to adjust in these circumstances. Stammen in the 5th and 6th made some measure of sense* and then, yes you have to pinch hit for him. So Blevins to start the 7th, with two lefties up to start, made a lot of sense. However, letting Blevins face Justin Upton, who homered earlier, to end the inning,was pushing it. I could sort of justify it in a "Heyward is up next" way but still I wouldn't have done it. Blevins did K Upton, though

Letting Blevins face Heyward to start the next inning was an easy decision but then letting him face Chris Johnson, who earlier you didn't let Gio face presumably because you know he hits lefties better? Mistake. Letting him face the righty Laird with nothing but righties coming up? Mistake. Letting him face Pena? Mistake. Neither of the last two were BIG mistakes because... well both Laird and Pena stink despite being RHB. But with a man on, in a one-run game, you shouldn't be pushing your luck, you should be optimizing your chances of winning. In other words you should be working to give up no more runs. He got away with it for Laird but not for Pena. This set up the real bald head-slapper, letting Blevins face Gattis.

Blevins had run a gauntlet of questionable match-ups; Upton, Johnson, Laird, Pena and has escaped so far. For each one you could come up with a reason it was ok. Nobody on, next guy a lefty, these guys stink . But now, 29 pitches in, you came to the absolute no-brainer. Blevins does not face Gattis here. Gattis is good. Gattis KILLS lefties. There are men in base and in scoring position. There is a righty on deck. No manager lets Blevins face Gattis. But Matty did.


Does he treat the playoffs differently? I sure as hell hope so.

Other notes:

Since the All-Star break the offense has been mediocre but not terrible. Rendon is the lowest regular with a .666 OPS and LaRoche is the highest non-Span regular at .787.  (Asdrubal hasn't come around yet either .614). Span is killing it (.447 / .505 / .511) but you can kind of see having a slap-hitter get hot, even extremely so, doesn't carry a team.

Meanwhile the bench continues to be awful. Lobaton (.582), Hairston (.464) and Frandsen (.455) just aren't doing anything. Frandsen has to be the biggest Rizzo mistake of the year. No one thought bringing him in was a good idea and he's been terrible. Yet here we are in August with Frandsen getting key ABs. If Rizzo could admit mistakes and cut bait mid-season, I think he'd be in my personal Top GMs (3? 5? I'd have to think). But this stubborness to prove he's right is a big issue.

Speaking of bad managers - why did it matter when we were calling for Span to be moved down in the lineup? Becuase you never know when that extra AB is going to be important. Case in point : BJ Upton batting first.The Braves do this and what do you know, 9th inning tie game two-out and two-on, and who gets his 5th AB before anyone else? BJ Upton. What does he do? Get out like he normally does. Then they lose in extras.

*I would have liked to see Storen in the 5th - it seemed like a game hinging AB for Chris Johnson. But I understand no manager would have done that. It was "long relief" time still.

Friday, August 08, 2014

Spanning the Flames

Up until a little more than a month ago, a fair chunk of Nats fans were calling for Denard Span to be taken out of the leadoff spot.  I won't deny that if I wasn't the president of this group, I was a top general.  It made sense as the past 4 years of data said "at best ok, more likely meh".  Four years! We're not talking small sample size here, we're talking some player's careers.

But sometime in late June Denard took off like a rocket.  When it was just a hot month we could ignore it. I could make an All-Star team out the worst 3 players at each position if I could just take their hottest month as how they'll perform (Before you overreact, I'm not saying Span was in the bottom 3 CF) Now though, it's stretching into week 6 and hasn't slowed down.  Is there rhyme or reason to this transformation?

One thing that has been downplayed, and rightfully so when you are getting on base almost 50% of the time, is that Span's power has completely disappeared during this stretch. His average is so high that you don't notice with a glance at the SLG percentage but the isoSLG (how much of his slugging is from XBH) tells the story.

APR:  0.081
MAY: 0.121
JUN: 0.158
JUL: 0.043
AUG: 0.035

Remember when he was hitting all those doubles? Yeah, not so much. In this stretch of 30-whatever games of getting on base (about 50 from the record for those into those things), he's had 5 two-baggers and no 3B or HR.  Again you don't care about this when you are getting an OBP of .450, but investigating the lack of power might help lead us to the reason for Span's surge.

You can have GB doubles and you can have LD doubles, but for a player like Span (no pop) it's not uncommon to have your XBHs vary with your FB%. You hit a good fly ball but it doesn't go out of the park - you get a double. How has Span's FB% changed?

APR: 33%
MAY: 24%
JUN: 46%
JUL: 22%

If you were to guess he had his biggest power month in June you'd be correct. And his abandonment of hitting fly balls in July and August seem like at least part of the reason that BABIP is so high.  He's been "Willie Mays Hayes"ed. You hit a bad fly ball but it doesn't go out of the park - you get an out. But why wasn't May like July and August? Let's check his LD%

APR: 20%
MAY: 25%
JUN: 20%
JUL: 33%
AUG: 23%

Hmm in May he hit a lot of groundballs, had a pretty typical BABIP and had what you would consider a typical good Span month .296 / .331 / .417.  In July he hit a lot of line drives and had a killer month for any hitter that doesn't measure success with HRs.  .368 / .459 / .411. August? August honestly looks more like he's caught some breaks (it's not like he crushed those hits yesterday). So are we nearing the end of the Spanaissance? Well there is more than one way to get on base.  How did his walk rate change over time.

APR: 8%
MAY: 5%
JUN: 7%
JUL: 14%
AUG: 3%

Part of what had been keeping Span from being a good offensive player was his lack of patience. You hit .265 to .285 like Span does and that's an average that serves as a good base. But add to that no power and it's necessary to get on base to be good at the plate. Span didn't do that so he floated around that completely replaceable range and let his other skills, plus defense, plus speed, keep him starting. But in July he walked a ton and that took him from a guy having a hot month of singling to a player who might be the Nats most valuable. In August though the walks dropped back down.

In July Span got base hits on roughly 34% of his grounders (quick hand work so forgive me if you find the numbers a little off). In August that number is 47%. For 2014 overall this number is about 28% and over his career this number is just over 26%.  The career numbers make sense. In general ground balls get hits somewhere in the 26% range. In July you could explain the higher than average number hits by saying Span was hitting the ball harder. Look at all those line drives.  In August...

Ok it seems like what I'm saying is that the Span party is almost over. If you're the pessimist (realist?) that's how I would take it. In July Span truly was a great player at the plate, hitting the ball hard and walking a lot, but in August (and really the last few days of July too if you look at it) he's been a groundball hitting machine bouyed by luck.  BUT if you're an optimist you could see it as a hidden down period that he can come back from. If he hit well in July for 4 weeks why can't he do it again? He might be off and getting lucky right now but we don't care about what should have happened as much as we care about what did. So he hit a bunch of grounders that found holes the past two weeks. That's GREAT. They found holes. Today he can start hitting line drives and walking again. And he hasn't K'd in August either. 

Pessimist? Optimist? You know where I'm going to lean, but I'll say to the optimist that with a few days left in June we would have said the chances for a month like July were tiny. It happened. So if the chances for Span to turn it on again are tiny that doesn't mean they don't exist. He did it. He did it recently. Why can't 2014 be his special year?

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Nats weaknesses

In his "Power Rankings" Jonah Keri has the Nats 5th and notes out of all the top teams the Nats seem to have the fewest weaknesses.  That you'd have to nitpick to find them. Of course the Nats must have some weaknesses or they wouldn't be the current "worst division leader" who are one loss to the Mets away from three straight non-winning series. So let's nitpick. What are these weaknesses?

1) They have a lot of good and a little great.

This sounds like a backhanded compliment but it matters.  Let's simplify things and say there are 5 types of player; bad, poor, fair, good, and great.  Moving up the scale from one type to the next nets you an extra win.  The difference is moving from bad to poor may cost you a couple hundred thousand, moving from good to great might cost you a couple hundred million (I'm simplifying people!). Now that we are experiencing a Spanaissance, the Nats have a very good to fair player at every position.  That's really good! But it also makes improving the team next to impossible.

When you are at that 7-15 ish player range improving to 5-10 hardly makes a dent. No, you have to improve to the Top 1-5 and those guys aren't cheap - either in the money it costs you to sign or the talent it costs you in trade. Looking for value, it's not likely the Nats will make those sorts of deals so we're left with the hope that some of the players on the team break out into superstardom if we want those extra wins.

This isn't a "losing" weakness, more of a "keep from dominating" one, but I said I was nitpicking

2) The 1B line defense is not good

When I caught up on the game last night and saw the phrases "triple past LaRoche" and "Bloop Werth couldn't get to", let's just say I wasn't surprised.  Werth is near the bottom in range for qulaified RF, and LaRoche is dead last at his position. This isn't a one year fluke, either, it's a trend. These guys can still catch and are sound defenders... when they can get to the ball. But at this age they get to fewer and fewer and the beating of a season coupled with the non-stop ravages of time mean they are likely getting to fewer today then they were in May.

Coupled with a 4 righty staff and a predominately righty pen, the Nats will face more than their share of lefties which might exacerbate the problem. Some crafty defensive shifting might help alleviate this issue a little but the Nats aren't shifty. And it's not like either of these guys are going to sit late in close games.

3) The bench stinks.

Benches often stink but here's the question posed to you: It's late in the game and the pitcher is up, you need a hit, who do you bring in? Maybe you just need a baserunner, who's your choice? What if you are just crossing your fingers for a long bomb, who are you asking to pick up the bat? If you responded "I really don't know" to all  three questions congratulations, you've noticed the Nats bench has no strength, or even moderate ability at the plate.

Ok that's a little rough. If for some reason the opponent was stuck with a LHP out there, Espinosa or Hairston might answer a couple of those questions, but seriously when are you stuck with a LHP? The Nats bench strength right now is defense (Espy) which is mitigated by having decent defenders across the MI now, and relative speed (most of these guys are fair to good baserunners which give you lots of options for Ramos/LaRoche/pitchers late in games)

Is Souza the answer? Maybe. But it would feel a lot better if there was one guy on the bench you could count on to do one thing. A slappy singles hitter that puts the bat on the ball. A big masher who strikes out 7 times but the 8th one he takes deep.  Those types play more into the PH roles they are likely to have come October.Still it's not completely Rizzo's fault. The collapse of both Lobaton and McLouth is surprising.

4) only LOOGYs

Matt Thorton could solve this, but he might not. As it stands only having a LHRP that's a LOOGY is a weakness.  It's kind of like the weakness #1 up there - hey it's good to have a LOOGY - but it creates some issues. You put him in in the 6th, what if you need another big lefty out in the 8th and Clip is faltering? You have good LHB, great RHB, good LHB coming up - how do you work that? Detwiler could have been the solution but apparently the team hates him or something, I don't know. So we look to Thorton. Deliver us.

5) Matt Williams?

Opinion only but I'm not convinced he won't conventional the Nats into a playoff loss. Nor am I convinced that he hasn't done everything on the fringes he can to mess up the development of Bryce. Calling him out, questioning him, batting him in sub-optimal places, sitting him when he's hot. Nothing overt but add it up and I'm not dismissing someone who thinks this has hurt Bryce.

I know liking a manager is rare, but early on, especially with winning teams, you usually have your share of defenders.  Right now the best defense I hear is "i don't think he'll necessarily be like this in the playoffs". Not exactly confidence inspiring.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Tired Tanner?

You know my opinion.  While it took until the 7th for the wheels to come off, the guy was hit pretty hard all game long. Lots of line drives. Is that Roark or the Orioles lineup? The Orioles are ok, but they aren't actually anything special in the AL, so I'm going with Roark.

Yes, yes I know you all love Roark and have a giant Fathead of him covering your wall which you kiss every morning before going out to work. But here's a fun note about Roark that you never hear - it's possible only one other consistent starting pitcher has faced an an easier set of opponents in 2014. This stat, aggregate OPS of opponents faced, isn't an "end all be all" one so you don't have to (and probably shouldn't) take it as gospel. But Roark ranks so low in comparion to other pitchers the idea that he's had a bit of an easy ride, if not the easiest, has to be considered fact. I mean 35th out of 654 guys who have thrown a pitch this year. That's not something you can dismiss out of hand.

OK since you are wondering

Roark : .667
Fister : .703
Gio : .669
Stras : .690
ZNN : .690

Clippard at .719 ranks as the highest of any notable Nat.  The Nats as a whole rank on the low end because the NL is going to be lower than the AL with all those pitchers and the NL East is probably the worst hitting division... well the worst hitting division when you take out the Nats, who the Nats pitchers don't have to face. Gio, you might notice also ranks on the low end which is kind of worrying given his up and down year but this is why I note that you might not want to put complete faith in this stat. I trust the history of Gio. With Roark the history is limited so I take a closer look at something like this.

Roark's next start, on 4 days rest again and against the Braves will be huge. Luckily for him - NL East - the Braves aren't all that good at hitting the ball. If Roark stumbles again there has to be a question f how effective he'll be come the stretch run, likely two additional starts away from his all time high in innings pitched.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Monday Quickie

The Braves are begging, PLEADING, to be put out of their misery. If you doubt that, understand that they continue to play BJ Upton everyday.  BJ Upton has just over 900+ PAs for the Braves so far. He's batting under .200 and has 16 home runs across 1 and 2/3 seasons. After having one of the worst offensive seasons in recent memory in 2013 the Braves decided to bat him primarly first or second. Does that sound like a team that wants to win?

The Nats haven't been able to do it just yet thanks to some bumbling play versus bad teams but they have a chance this week. They play 2 more games than the Braves before Friday (the Braves have two off days - how 'bout that!) then head into Atlanta for a 3 game set. I'd love it if the Nats wake up a week from now a cool 5.5 games ahead of the Braves and almost (but not quite) in coasting mode.

As for the Nats the starting pitching is hot.  In their last 2 games each Zimmermann, Strasburg, Roark and Fister have gone 14 innings* and they've given up 2, 1, 2, & 2 runs respectively.  Roark has been particuarly good going four straight games of 7 IP, 1 R ball. The relief pitching though has been spotty and the offense up and down. As much attention as Bryce Harper has gotten for his issues, Werth, LaRoche, and Ramos are all hitting noticeably worse.

I'm hoping (and expecting) the offense to get fully on track soon and this week would be nice. It's a week that should set-up the rest of the season. With a week of great play, the Nats can put away the free falling Braves, with good play they can expand to a comfortable lead. Or if they continue to stumble, it sets up August as a continued slow pull away, with the "one bat injury away" hanging over the Nats season for another month. (and then, for completeness sake, there's a total collapse scenario making the season a dogfight - but does anyone see that happening?)

The won't get another straight-up shot at the Braves until a week into September so let's get this done.

*Last Nats pitcher to go over 7 innings was Strasburg a month ago. Just noting - I didn't see an egregious pattern of underuse or anything. 

Friday, August 01, 2014

Better today

The Nats didn't get a reliever (Miller went to the O's) and instead got Asdrubal Cabrera for Zach Walters. Great? Good? Mistake?

Let's go over the "Two Goals" evaluation of the trade.

Did the Nats win the trade? Did they get back equal or more in value?

The answer to this is probably not. Asdrubal is a 2 month rental. Zach Walters is under team control until 2020.  You can argue the value of Walters (and we will) but it's doubtful that whatever Asdrubal does in August and September (and beyond?) will add up to more than what Zach gives the Indians

Will the Nats win now? Did the Nats make the team better for the immediate future?

The answer to this is yes.  Asdrubal was an All-Star as recently as 2012 but had a off 2013 and has not recovered in 2014. It's very likely what he is now is his new normal.  What exactly would that be?  Combine 2013 and 2014 and you get a line of .244 / .301 / .395.   He doesn't get on base and his power, which was what made him special, is fading. That's the line of an average player.  Defensively he's never been great and was kind of bad last year, but you'd probably qualify him closer to average than bad. Average hitter, average fielder. Doesn't sound like much.

Then you look at what he's replacing in Danny Espinosa. We love Danny. He can field like the Dickens (little known fact, Charles Dickens was a top-notch second bagger).  But Ol' "Refuses Surgery Joe" can't hit. He had put up a line of .221 / .287 / .354, which is worse accross the board, enough worse than Cabrera to end any arguement you might have.

Yes he has put up a .309 / .385 / .494 line versus left-handed pitching. But there are two things to note here. First, there is a lot more right-handed pitching than left-handed and if he's that good vs LHP you can imagine how bad he is vs RHP (don't imagine - hurts the brain - .186 / .245 / .296). Second, it's in 91 PAs. That's not even a month of PAs for full-time players. Could Danny be a good hitter vs LHP? I think so. He pretty much always has been.  Is he this good? Probably not. That's probably small sample fluctuation. If Danny isn't this good versus LHP than his value tumbles even further and right now it's already at a point where he is not giving a team as much as Asdrubal should.  To satisfy your split curiousity, Asdrubal, has for his career been very steady as a switch-hitter .737 OPS vs RHP, .753 vs LHP, and year by year basically shows the same consistency. What he gives you, he gives you every day versus everyone.

As for Zach Walters you've probably heard by now that guys that have Walters minor league profile (Lots of K's, not many BBs) tend not to succeed in the majors. (See: Moore, Tyler) It suggests a problem identifying the strike zone, not just a guys swinging from his heels. Now the one thing you can say about Zach is that he's moved quickly up through the minors. In 2010 he was in low A-ball. by 2012 he'd gotten some AAA time. He stalled there for a year (.253 avg with 134 Ks and only 20 BBs last year - despite 29 HRs that's an obvious recipe for major league disaster) but this year has put up better numbers all around.  .300 average, 62Ks to 20BBs so far. It's improvement but don't feel too bad, because it's improvement from "Oh My God, Kid. Have you ever taken a walk?!? No WAY you'll succeed" to "I don't like your chances, Kid"

Best reasonable case for Zach? He spends a year or two figuring out major league pitching like he did in the minor leagues. Gives the Indians a few starting years including a couple .240 high 20 homer years in his late 20s before petering out.

Worst reasonable case for Zach? He can't hang with major league pitching at all, becomes a career minor leaguer who might give you one surprise good bench year in the majors (again See: Moore, Tyler)

My best guess? Bounces up and down for a few years, then maybe has one decent year of half-starting and a couple other borderline seasons where his value is mainly in the fact he's a 3B, SS, 2B type of bench player.

All in all the Nats didn't give up that much here. Certainly not someone you could rely on helping the Nats this year. So they are better off for 2014.

The Nats needed another bat in the lineup that wasn't flat-out terrible 60+% of the time, preferably with adequate defense. Asdrubal gives them that. This doesn't necessarily solve the "one injury away" issue the Nats were dealing with, but it certainly softens the blow in that case, staving off the dreaded "easy inning" scenario that that might have created.

The Nats are better today then they were yesterday, and they were good yesterday. Hard to complain.