Nationals Baseball: August 2015

Monday, August 31, 2015

Monday Quickie : Keep on Truckin'

After a fair outing by Scherzer led to an defeat on Friday the Nats needed to win two in a row to win the series. They did it. That makes 4 series wins in a row and an 8-4 record in the last 12 games. They even gained a game back on the Mets who lost the series to the Red Sox, one of three lost series for the month for the Mets.  For those of you bemoaning the fact that the Nats have actually lost a game to the Mets during this recent streak (were 4.5 out, now 5.5 games out) understand that if the Nats played another middling stretch and went 6-6 or 5-7 they would now be around 8 games out and we'd be really stretching to keep them in this pennant race. It's a longshot as it is, but the recent hot streak keeps it from Hail Mary territory.

Now comes probably the biggest hurdle that sits between the last Mets series and the next one. The Mets host a three game set versus the still terrible Phillies while the Nats travel to St. Louis for three against the best in baseball Cardinals. Nothing has changed. Win the series. Hope the Mets don't. Pick up a game. However, this three day set is probably the best chance for things to go quickly south for the Nats besides the H2H match-up. If the Nats can come find themselves Thursday morning no worse for wear I'll consider that a moral victory. But I do hate moral victories, so win the series.


Boz blames the starters. Have the starters underperformed? Absolutely. Do they share part of the blame? Of course. Are they the "biggest problem of 2015"? HA! Imagine you're driving a car on four bald donuts, out of steering fluid, with a windshield you can't see through but you do have brand-new brakes. Now you see at the last minute you need to avoid an accident, you can't steer out of the way so you hit the brakes... and they don't work perfectly. SMASH! Do you blame the brakes?

Despite Strasburg battling injuries and Fister collapsing in a heap of "we knew this would happen, we were just hoping it would be next season"  The Nats starters have an above average ERA of 3.84.  I'm going to go ahead and list the teams ahead of the Nats in ERA. Cardinals, Dodgers, Mets, Pirates, Cubs.  Notice a pattern? And right behind the Nats? The Giants. The Nats have a playoff caliber rotation, the fact that it's not near the best in the NL is disappointing but it can't be singled out as THE issue.

The rotation was supposed to be so good it would help overcome other issues. Guess what? THAT'S A TERRIBLE PLAN. Maybe try not to have other issues instead. It's baseball. Any aspect can be completely undermined by a couple injuries and a surprise bad performance. Any aspect.
  • I told you I'd hold off on Jayson Werth to see if the thin mountain air helped him get back on track or not. Since the Colorado series (not counting it) he's hitting .294 / .415 / .559.  Will he keep it up? Will he hit for power in September? Don't know. What I feel safe in saying is that he's as healthy as he's going to be for 2015 and therefore needs to be playing nearly everyday. I still want Robinson playing but the Span injury makes it easier to find time for him in a Taylor/Robinson quasi-platoon (Bryce takes over CF when Robinson plays).
  • Strasburg is hurt. That's not good. I think he needs the whole offseason to rest, but he's not going to get it. Since it's not his arm, I say shoot him up, get him out there, and go for it. At least until the season is decided.
  • One of Boz's points is that the offense is fine because the Nats are going to score about the same number as runs as last year. Yeah except offense is slightly up this year. The offense is actually down in comparison to the league. Slightly true but he's insinuating it might be slightly better. It's not. Context matters. 
  • You know if Ian hits in September like he did in August, turning down that 7/107 extension may turn out to be a wash. That would almost certainly put him Top 5 in the NL, maybe Top 10 overall in offense for a SS.  And that's just overall, if you want power Ian looks even better. If you need a SS next year either him or Asdrubal will be the top target. If Asdrubal fails down the stretch and Ian keeps it up, 7/107 might be a stretch but 5/80, with some team options on the back end? 
  • Weekly reminder how awesome Bryce is. Trea Turner hasn't got a hit yet. That's ok. He's still a top prospect and will have a couple years to show what he can do. He's is also only 9 months younger than Bryce who is currently hitting .331 / .457 / .629.  And we aren't being too kind to Trea.
Win the series.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Into the weekend

Nats win. Mets win, but hey at least their bullpen gets stretched, and right before facing a pretty good offensive team in Boston. The Mets aren't going to win the next 30 games in a row so just keep doing what you are doing Nats.

Meanwhile TICK

Another game is off the schedule and no ground gained. That's not necessary a bad thing though. The whole idea that the Nats need time to catch the Mets is based on a simple, but now probably flawed, assumption. That idea is that the Nats are better than the Mets. That might have been a decent assumption to make in June, that a healthy Nats team would simply overtake the Mets like a strong runner overtaking a weak one, once everyone got back healthy. However after seeing the additional players the Mets added (and Nats didn't) at the trade deadline, and seeing how the Nats players have played post-injury, and noting that it seems likely the Nats will never actually get everyone back healthy, that assumption is much harder to justify.

If the Nats aren't better than the Mets then you might not really want a lot of games left in the season. If the Mets are better they will simply use all those games to lengthen a lead. Instead you might be better off with FEWER games left in the season. Remember when we talked about streaks before. Every team goes 3-7 at some point. Every team goes 7-3. If that lines up at the right time, that's 4 games gained by dumb luck. Sure you want to gain games in the standings, but if the Mets are actually better, not losing games is a positive. Holding ground until you get to a point where fate and timing can stake you a tiny lead and the season can run out on the Mets might actually be a more reasonable thing to pray for.

Think this is a silly idea that fewer games might be better. Perhaps* But here's something I found out yesterday when digging for comebacks. There are (at least) two big September comebacks for division titles in the past 10 years that come up when you look for such things. The Mets in 2007, as I'm sure you all know, lost a 7 game lead they held on Sept 12th. The Tigers, in 2009, also lost a 7 game lead that they had as late a Sept 6th.

Got that? Ok. Now guess how many division comebacks of 5-10 games starting on Sept 1st have there been in the same time frame? You'd kind of assume given that definition maybe a couple more. There's more time involved than either of those two comebacks and the team trying to catch up only has to make up 5 games. So four or five maybe?  Nope. One.

Minnesota in 2006 was down by 6 games on September first and made up the ground on the Tigers to take the division. Note that by one I mean one. Neither the '07 Mets blown lead or the '09 Tigers blown lead qualify here. The Mets were only up by 3 on the Phillies on Sept 1st, the Tigers by 3.5 on the Twins in 2009.  The fact they were closer on Sept 1st allowed the Phillies and Twins the ability to lose a little, but not too much, ground, and then let said dumb luck in the timing of streaks carry them to a division title.

You might try to bring up the WC collapses of the Red Sox and Braves here but I'll caution you. These needed the "plays like the best, plays like the worst" scenario we've talked about before. That is far more likely to be seen in a WC race where the "plays like the best" can be any of a handful of trailing teams, than in a divisional race where you are generally talking about two specific teams**. In 2011 if either the Angels or Giants played like the best team in baseball down the stretch perhaps they could have taken the WC. Essentially that's doubling the chances of seeing it. It's doubling very bad odds, but it's still doubling it.

To put the divisional thing in another perspective at least 59 teams (probably one or two more) were 5-10 games out of the division lead on September 1st in the past 10 years and only one took the division. This is for the reasons I was talking about above. You've played 5/6ths of the season. If you are 5-10 games in front of a team at that point, well you are very likely not lucky, but better than that other team. If you are better than that other team you'd expect that in 30 games to expand your lead, not to see it shrink.

What does this mean for the Nats? Basically at some point down the line, probably after Labor Day you switch the miracle you are hoping for. Right now you are hoping that the Nats are better than or at least equal to the Mets and that in the games left things will break in a way that the Nats can overtake them. Win series, gain games, sweep H2H. If after Labor Day the Nats still find themselves 5+ games out we can probably put that miracle to bed and start hoping for the other one, that dumb luck takes the Nats to a title. Stay close enough, within 7 games, and pray.

*I'll try to work out the actual math on this. As much as it can be done.

** Not that it hasn't happened. The Twins (19-11) / Tigers (12-16) in 2006 is close, if not that. The 1995 Mariners (20-9) / Angels (11-17) was like that. In 1978 the Red Sox didn't even have to play that poorly (14-15). The Yankees just caught them (22-8). But I hope you notice we're zooming past dozens of divisional races that didn't end up how we want them to just to find an example here and there.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Series series series

Nats lost. Remember - series at a time. Win tonight. 

On August 16th the Nats fell to 4.5 games back. Since then they won a series in Colorado and they won a series at home versus the Brewers. They are 5-3 in their last eight and if they win tonight against the Padres they'll take their 3rd straight series, going 6 of 9.  That would be great.

On August 16th the Mets lost their 3rd in a row keeping the Nats at 4.5 games out. Since then they split a 2 game set at Baltimore, swept the Rockies, and won the first three in Philadelphia. They are 7-1 and if they win tonight that'll be seven straight wins and a 2nd straight series sweep. That would be near perfect.

Hence the problem with playing catch-up. You can only catch-up if the thing you are chasing goes slower than you. Right now the Mets might be the hottest team in baseball.There's a reason why you have to pick and choose great comebacks through history, not just say "Oh yeah, last year 3 teams came back late from big holes to win their division"

Look on August 16th the Nats were 58-59. If they were to win every series they had left which is the goal I set, let's estimate that by saying they play .667 ball, they go 30-15 to end the year. That's a great finish. They are probably playing the last month and a half better than anyone. 88 wins? I'd take it right now. You can't really ask for more from that point on.

But it's still just 88 wins. An unimpressive total for a year where 98 was thought as a possibility. You can complain why you didn't get more before now (a reminder that games in other months count too!).

Other things - Storen was used to keep the game close! Papelbon was used to keep the game close! Great! Werth batted 2nd... not so much. I won't comment on Werth in the regular lineup too much until the next series is done with because it's hard to judge anything on a couple of games. Maybe he did really get his swing back in Colorado. The Brewers series was fine. However I will say since I never would have had him leadoff he'd still be a question mark batting at the bottom of the line-up, not the top. That's a better place for question marks.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Tick - Part 2

A win. No games gained. Just keep trucking. 2 games left to win at least one and hope the Mets don't win 2. (I'm asking the minimum here - obviously winning both and Mets losing both would be the aim)

Shields was a little off last night. He's run hot and cold all year, but let's face it, recently running into the Nats was a guarantee of running hot. The Nats instead got to him pretty well, bunch of hits, bunch of walks and the fewest Ks he's gotten all year. Meanwhile Strasburg looked strong as he has since coming back and Blake Treinen continues his "as long as no one is noticing me, I'm fine" restoration of his season. We'll see what happens when he's noticed again.

We know what the Nats have to do. At this point, with Span back,  the question is how best to do it. The Nats made a hard choice sitting Fister for Ross. Are they going to continue to make the hard choices?

Will the Nats keep Ross pitching until the season is decided or he looks decidely tired? 

MW noted that Roark will get stretched out in Potomac to potentially take over for Ross as the 5th starter. Even though I'm a Ross doubter (I think he'll be a fine piece of the rotation in 2016 but nothing special) I can see he does do very well chewing up bad teams when he faces them. The Nats remainder of the season is mostly bad teams.  He should pitch until it's clear he shouldn't.

Will the Nats continue to sit Trea Turner? 

Yep sit. They shouldn't sit Yuney. He's been good at the plate all year. They shouldn't sit Ian.  He's been arguably the best hitter on the Nats for over a month. They shouldn't sit Rendon. He's probably their 2nd most important bat and after fits and starts he may be finally heating up. They should use Espinosa when possible. He's a reliable source of power and a steady fielder. Where does that leave Turner? Exactly as described. Late inning D replacement and pinch runner.  So why call him up? Because Uggla and Moore ain't giving you that and he can do more if needed and by now I hope you know all these guys could go down to injury in a heartbeat.

Will the Nats give Werth rest and work in Clint Robinson? 

Werth talked his way into the lineup this weekend. That shouldn't happen. While Werth may also be heating up he isn't hitting for power (espeically vs RHP - .287 SLG this year. .287!), probably won't (nature of injury he had), and he's a statue in the field.  Clint Robinson is a better choice to go up against RHP.  He won't get every RHP or else Werth wouldn't get regular at bats, but every 4th or 5th day we should see Robinson in there. He's earned it and give the Nats the best chance.

Will Michael Taylor get starts versus LHP and be a constant late-inning D replacement for Werth/Robinson? 

The latter question is a no-doubter. Every game that's close enough Taylor should be coming into the OF so the Nats can have the best D out there.  The former point is about keeping Span fresh and Taylor involved. Like almost all lefties, Span doesn't hit LHP well. Taylor is no lefty-mashing beast so this is more about when to give Span time off, which he needs. Don't make the same "gotta play these guys everyday" mistake you just made with Werth & Rendon coming back.

Will the Nats keep Papelbon involved? 

The whole season proved that Storen can close if needed. Hell, Janssen did it for like three years. So please pitch Papelbon more than the every 5th day thing you got going on now.  It doesn't do him much good and keeps a good pitcher out of some close games for no good reason.

Will the Nats get back to using Storen more AND be ready to bury him?

Storen was awesome for most of the year. You brought Papelbon in to have a killer 8-9. Start using Storen to shut down things again. The last close game he was in was on August 12th. He's been buried since then. Everyone has a bad run. If you are thinking - why not stick with what's working, Well the Nats have had 5 close-ish games since Storen appeared in his last. Which relievers have given up a run or more in these games? That would be Rivero, Thornton, Papelbon, and Janssen. So yeah. It's not like you are looking at forcing Storen into the Nasty Boys. 

That being said the Nats can't afford many more losses so let's say two more blown games and yeah, you have to stick him in blowout middle relief and work with the "hopefully fine" options you have left. This is the basic truth facing EVERY reliever in the pen right now. You don't have time to work out issues. If in September you aren't performing, you aren't pitching.

What do I think will be the answers to these questions? I think they'll sit Ross after first Mets series. I think they will sit Turner. I think Werth will force his way into the line-up more than he should be. I think Taylor will get to play for Span and as late inning D. I think Papelbon won't be used as much as he should be and I think Storen is already buried effectively making the trade moot.

Ok let's see what happens. Win tonight.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

What's a chance

Now as we get into the real stretch run I want to be absolutely clear what I mean when I say the Nats have a chance. I mean exactly that "a chance". It's not a "good chance" like Giants have with the Dodgers (only 1.5 games behind, and with  seven H2H games to go).  It's also not a "bad chance" like the Twins have with the Royals, where essentially Minnesota has to play like the best team in baseball and Kansas City the worst, for the Twins to capture the division. It's a chance.

I'll say it again. The Nats can either beat up the Mets H2H and match them otherwise, or they can match them H2H and play much better than them otherwise. Either of those scenarios would get the Nats close. Neither of those scenarios is very likely though. Fangraphs has the Nats odds sitting at 18.6% using projections or 11.8% using season stats to date. A chance. If it came down to a dice roll the Nats would get #6 and the Mets would get #1-#5.

I also said yesterday that the Nats can't play poorly. They can't go 4-9 in the next 13 games (before the H2H) and hope to win the division.  Of course they CAN technically, same way the Twins CAN win the Central, but it would take something that right now involves nothing crazy (just unlikely) and makes it involves something crazy.

The flipside of this, and the part really out of the Nats hands, is that the Mets can't play great. The Mets are in control. They can play well enough that how the Nats do is moot. If in their next 12 games the Mets go 9-3 it will probably work just as same as the Nats playing poorly. The Nats regardless of how they play will lose a game or two, meaning that in order to catch the Mets a sweep of H2H is almost necessary along with playing better in the 20 games between series. It's a lot to ask. Too much probably, I bet the odds would drop closer to 5% or "I'm thinking of a number 1 through 20. Guess what it is" stage.

For anyone vaguely holding onto "well maybe the Wild Card" hopes, I wouldn't bother. Pittsburgh and Chicago are the 2nd and 3rd best teams in the NL right now (3rd and 4th in the majors) I expect the Cubs to slow down a bit but still they have a 6.5 game lead over the Giants for the 2nd Wild Card. If the Giants don't sweep this series starting today...

So again here we are. The plan is still the same. Win the series in front of you. Hope the Mets don't. Get to the next H2H series closer than you are right now. Win that, sweeping if possible. Repeat until the season end. That's the most reasonable plan for the Nats right now. Let's hope the Mets cooperate.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Monday Quickie - Series win!

Hey everyone! Series win! Like I said last time and on twitter after Friday's game, I'm not going to make pronouncements after any one loss. The Nats are going to lose games. The Nats are going to lose games to teams they are better than. That's just baseball. They key is to keep winning series. They lost the first game, won the next two, series win. Mission accomplished. Now the next mission starts.

The best thing to come out of the weekend beyond the wins was the play of Werth and Rendon. Werth was 4-11, with a double and 2 walks. Rendon was 3-9 with 4 walks, a double, and 2 homeruns. Are they back? Hard to say after one non-Rockies series but I think you can start asking the question, which is a positive. We'll see if the good hitting continues in this series and/or next before judgments are made.

The Nats didn't pick up ground on the Mets thanks to the Rockies being terrible. In fact despite going a very nice 4-2 in the past week the Nats actually lost half a game in the standings. Again, this is the hole the Nats dug for themselves. Simply playing well will not be enough. They have to hold their own in the remaining head to head games and be consistently better in the rest; or they have to dominate the head to head games and be no worse than the Mets in the rest. That's what they have to do. There isn't room for the Nats to either play consistently worse than the Mets or to lose more of the head to head games than they win. It won't work that way.

Mets are at the Phillies, Nats are hosting the Padres. Both those teams are playing a little better recently.

I wrote something over the weekend for Vice Sports about the Nats. You can read it here. Pay no attention to the factual error at the start (it wasn't me! really!)

The crux of the whole Nats not meeting their expectations thing is that a team is a series of defenses. Offensively first the starters have to fail, then the bench does, then you have to be able to fail to upgrade. On the mound first the rotation and a couple key relievers have to fail, then the middle inning guys, then the manager, then again you have to fail to upgrade. Usually these defenses are more likely to fail the deeper you get. That's the way it was for the Nats, that's the way it is for most teams. Fiscally it just makes sense to put more money in those first lines of defense.

What made the Nats different is (1) offensively because of big injury issues, that first line of defense was fairly likely to fail*, (2) we had real questions about Williams' ability to work a bad pen situation, and (3) there was a strong likelihood of having difficulty upgrading due to likely financial constraints. If the rotation, for some reason, didn't live up to it's billing (and arguably starting pitching is pretty variable in itself) then things could get very bad very easily. That's what happened.

Lesson to be learned : really pay attention to injury concerns. Regression to means and regressions due to age are real things but they generally follow a slow curve. Injuries can take a player from sixty to zero in no time flat. That type of season changing event should not be taken lightly, even if the team is telling you it's not an issue. Never believe the team. 

*Especially for a 95+ win team.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Friday thoughts

Stop thinking about the season game by game. It's tempting because the Nats need every game they can get but it's still way too early to do that. Think of it series by series. The Nats just took 2 of 3 from Colorado in Colorado (where they are not bad). That's good. Chalk that up in the series win column. They are now at home versus three bad teams, the Brewers, the Padres, and the Marlins. They shouldn't lose a single series. Will they lose a game or two? Almost certainly. If you ride that game by game roller coaster enjoy.

Do worry about the Mets if you want. I said this before but the whole "Don't worry about the Mets." comments that come after a mention that the Mets won/lost, that makes no sense. Why do I, Joe Wellwisher, have to ignore the Mets? The players don't have to know how the Mets are doing. It could be distracting. Me? What the hell does me following the Mets have to do with anything? The Mets... probably should go 6-3 in their next nine as well but they are at Colorado and Philadelphia then home v Boston. It's an eclectic bunch of games with a couple of band box parks to start. It's a tougher road so if the Nats do go 6-3 I bet they pick up a game at least. If the Mets go 7-2 or something, well then, hats off to them.

Rendon played last night making the speculation that he was super hurt just that. One of these guys, Werth or Rendon, is going to have to come on this homestand. There's no other way it's going to work... well ok if Bryce gets hot and Yuney is hot and Ian is hot and Ryan is hot, there are ways dammit, but the easiest way is for one of the two best offensive Nats of 2014 to put it back together. Werth had a couple good games before last night. Maybe his bat woke up. Let's hope because he's probably batting first for at least a series.

Oh Matt Williams. The Rockies actually had a tough line-up to deal with last night. L/S/L/R/L/R/L/R you really can't avoid letting a match-up go against you at some point. If I sit down and think about it it's hard for me to really feel like he had a big screw-up. Let's go over the probably thought process. 

"Let's see if Max can make it through one more inning. Sure they scored last inning but that was a fluky swinging bunt / why Yuney shouldn't be at third. All in all Max still looks good"
"Dammit, well I can't keep Max in to face Gonzo, now. Not given how hot Carlos has been and how he hits righties. Let's bring in Rivero. Let him get Gonzo and maybe then pitch to Arenado. He hasn't hit lefties great this year. We'll see."
"Dammit, well I can't keep Rivero in to face Arenado now, not after giving up a hit to the one guy he was supposed to get out. Give me Treinen"
"Ok he looks good out there. It's a gamble but I think I'll let him stay in. Paulsen is no Gonzo and he hasn't been swinging the bat well the the last few games. Hasn't had a hit this series." 

I wouldn't say I would do the same thing. I probably PH for Max in the 6th and try Roark for a few batters then Rivero to turn around Reyes to his bad side and then get Gonzo. Sounds good here but any move to pull Max to get to the Nats middle relief? That's not going over well. The facts are that right now the environment for Matt Williams and the pen is so toxic that the only move that isn't going to get him heat from the fans is bringing in Papelbon in the 9th. Maybe matching up Thorton or Janssen vs a tough righty or lefty, maybe.

I thought about it a bit yesterday and Matt really gets the brunt of things because managers are the last line of defense. If the GM does his job and the players are healthy and playing well the managers job is easy. If something goes wrong he has to fix it and it doesn't matter if the tools he has on hand aren't equipped for the job. The starters are going a bit short, the offense isn't hitting, so the middle relief matters. The middle relief hasn't found dependable arms so who Matt Williams chooses is making a difference. If any of those three things didn't go wrong, we wouldn't even care about MW's amazing ability to pick the wrong guy and the wrong time. But they are so he gets the blame.

Half a thought should tell you though - you try to fix the first line of defense first, not the last one. So watching decent bats like Wil Venable and Marlon Byrd get traded while Tyler "I've got one hit since the All-Star break" Moore sits on the bench drives me insane. I know you could say Moore will be gone when Span is back, but I don't trust that'll be before rosters expand and I don't trust that someone else won't go down to injury again. Sigh.

Thursday, August 20, 2015


See! Not that hard! A game gained already!

Also please please please I'm asking very nicely before I get mad, don't take these games in Colorado, in the high altitude and against pretty awful pitching, as an indication of anything in itself. Maybe it will get the bats on track. That would be great. But we'll find that out when the Nats get back home. You can score 30 runs in Colorado and it's meaningless. Don't act like the Nats offense or any particular player is "back" because of a few good nights here.

Is Rendon, who missed the last two games, not 100%? Probably. Does that mean we see Turner, who tried out second the other day, up in the majors soon? Possibly.   Probably because sitting Rendon, who wasn't slumping as badly as Werth and actually offers other things to the team, doesn't quite make sense. Possibly because Espinosa has been playing pretty well and you don't bring up Turner unless you are going to play him. You don't start the clock for insurance.

Strasburg! Wooo! Apparently he had to suck all the pitching skill out of the rest of the rotation to do it, but he certainly looks back.

No Storen in the 8th... interesting. If you aren't going to use him in the 8th though... why not just trade him?

Wednesday, August 19, 2015


One of my favorite things to say late in a game is "They now face two opponents, the other team... and the clock" I don't know why it always amuses me but it does. It highlights how in a timed event it's not only the team on the other side that you need to worry about but the amount of time left for you to comeback. At certain points a comeback becomes an impossiblity simply because it cannot be completed in the time allowed.

Baseball of course doesn't have a clock so while comebacks become progressively more unlikely they never become impossible. You can't come up with a scenario on how to score 5 pts in .2 seconds in basketball, but 9 runs in one out? Just don't get out. 

But while baseball the game doesn't have a clock, baseball the season does. You don't get your turn to make up 4.5 games at the end of the year. The season, and time to make up ground, will run out on you. And that's the other opponent the Nats face right now. They won last night. So did the Mets. Ground wasn't lost but a game that could have been used to make up their deficit was. Tick.

It ominous, every game passing costing the Nats something even if they do win, but it's actually not terrible if the Nats simply hold their ground. That's because of the 6 head to head games left. I've said before that as long as they can be within six, I'm not writing the Nats off. In some ways the way the season breaks is even better for the Nats, or at least for the tiny sparks of hope residing in their fans.

The best news for the Nats lies in the fact they end the season with the Mets. Three games. So if the Nats are within 3 games of New York at that point. There's a reasonable chance they could get to where they want to be. What's reasonable? Well say you give the Nats a 50/50 shot at winning any game against the Mets. For the Nats to make up three games they'd need to sweep the Mets. Since every Nats win is a Mets loss in this case the chances of this happening would be 0.5 * 0.5 * 0.5 = 0.125 or about 12.5% That's not likely but it's better than being 3 out and not playing the Mets to end the year. In that case the Nats wins and Mets losses are distinct events. Even if you like the Nats to win vs their opponent a lot. say 70% (which is crazy high) and you like the Mets to lose to their opponent alot, let's again say 70% (which is again crazy high) you have to have 6 things, not 3 going your way. In math that would be (0.7 * 0.7) * (0.7 * 0.7) * (0.7 * 0.7) = 0.118 or 11.8%.  That's giving the Nats winning and Mets losing crazy good odds of happening, like best team playing worst team odds. Something more reasonable like 55%?  Your chances drop below 3%

So really that's where the Nats stand. There are 41 games between now and the final Mets series. The Nats need to only make up 1.5 games in those 41 games for fans to have any hope of making the playoffs come October 2nd. And that hope wouldn't be crazy. In the meantime the Nats have another 3 game set versus the Mets sitting there 18 games from now. I've set that as kind of a mid-way goal. Make up 1.5 games in 18, get to that Mets series with a chance to get back into a tie for first. That's not too much to ask, is it?

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Formulating an agrument

I could talk about the pitching but hey why not try to enjoy myself during this terrible downswing and go with something I know Ill love : picking on Boz.

Yesterday in his chat (still optimistic, the team hasn't quite beaten it out of him) he included this weird factoid.
Since 1983, 14 teams have won their division by 15 games or more. Five — more than a third — failed to repeat, including teams that had demolished their divisions by 21 1/2 and 20 games.
The idea he was trying to get across was pretty straightforward. Even teams that seemingly are head and shoulders above their divisional competition can find themselves in 2nd place just a year later. But how he formulates the argument makes me question the whole point.

First off he uses two arbitrary endpoints in the argument. The first, "15 games or more", makes some sense. He wants to include the 2014 Nats, who won their division by 17 games, and dropping it down to 15 allows for more teams to be included (more data points) and gives some needed flexibility to the definition of dominant division winners. It's a perfectly reasonable choice. The second though, "since 1983", I can't figure out why he chose. You read enough about baseball and you get familiar with the years usually used as endpoints used for factoids. Unless you want to use 100+ years of questionable comparison, you pick division expansion (1969, 1994), years of team expansion (1969, 1977, 1993, 1998), other notable years (1946 post-war, strikes in 1981, 1994,  DH in 1973) to subset your analysis. But 1983? What is that measuring? Last time the Orioles were in the World Series? Only All-Star game grand slam?

Either you pick 1983 because it serves your point or you pick it because the data tells you to. Already the latter is questionable because since you are dealing with a division question you should probably only go as far back as these divisions existed. But if there were a big gap prior to 1983 of 15+ game leads but constant type leads since you could reasonably use 1983 as a stopping point. Well what does the data tell us? What years do we find these 15+ game leads? We'll use since 1969 since that is when divisions similar to 1983 started.

1969, 1970, 1971, 1975, 1983, 1984, 1986, 1988, 1995 (2), 1998 (2), 1999, 2002, 2003, 2008, 2011, 2014

Hmmm. The biggest gap is between 1975 and 1983, but the gap between 1988 and 1995 is almost as large. I just don't see the reasoning of looking before 1994**

OK for our sake let's restrict analysis from 1994 on since that makes sense. How many out of 9 (can't count Nats yet) division winners ended up losing their division the next year? 2. The 1999 Indians and the 2003 Giants.

Now here's another thing. There are multiple ways to be 15 games better than the team behind you. You can be great and they can be mediocre, or you can be very good with some luck and they can be good but with bad luck. Either can work. The Nats were great (Pythag 97 wins) and the competition was mediocre (Mets 2nd best with 82 pythag wins). That's the scenario we want to see. The 2003 Giants don't really fit that bill. They were more very good and very lucky turning a 93 win pythag team into a 100 win team. Talent wise they were more 10 games better than the Dodgers, which is a lot, but not enough for our purposes here. So we're left with the 1999 Indians. Over 15 games better in pythag than the next best team in the division. What happened to them in 2000?

It IS Boz's argument come to life. The Indians, a couple games lucky the previous year, got a couple games unlucky the year after. A division rival, in this case the White Sox had one of those years. Nearly everything went right. Only one hitter dropped while several got better, trades worked out, the entire pitching staff took a step forward. It's quite amazing to see. In the end they were just good enough, with everything going their way, to pass the Indians. It only lasted for a year, only happened to one team truly 15 games better than their opponents in 21 years, but this type of magical season does happen. This is what Boz was worried about at seasons start. It's what we worried about (albiet more with injuries costing the Nats a few games than getting unlucky)

Too bad that isn't what's happening here.

The Nats aren't facing a Mets team who is having everything go right. The Mets are playing like an 86-87 win team. A natural progression from the .500ish win team they were last year. They didn't catch the Nats with magic. The Nats have utterly collapsed. They are under .500 for god's sake. Has that happened before to anyone?

Well we see it didn't happen since 1994, so let's go back through those 8 times from 69 to 93. The last four times it happened the teams did in fact fail to win the division the following year. Were any of these complete collapses?

The 1983 White Sox. Totally. They were a good team in 1982 who made it all work in 83 only to come crashing down in 84. The starting pitching saw three guys pretty much turn bad at the same time, while the hitting kind of took a combined step back along with their DH, Greg Luzinski, hitting the wall.They weren't quite the Nats talent level though, imo.

The 1984 Tigers? I don't know if I'd call it a collapse. They continued to play well in 1985. There were also not 15 games better than anyone by Pythag, the AL East being very competitive in the mid 80s. The 1984 team was more of an aberration to me. One of two standout years in a sea of decency that lasted from 1978-1988, powered by 2 things that are ultimately very variable - a great bench and a great pen.

The Mets in 1986 and 88 present the last two examples and are probably fueling Boz's comments. In both 1987 and 1989 they were still good but just passed. In 1987 Ron Darling became the average arm he'd be for the rest of his career, while Ojeda got injured and the bullpen stepped back. As you could guess that wasn't enough to make them bad but the Cardinals watched Jack Clark have a monster year and Coleman and Pendleton go from bad to good. In 89 they got a bit unlucky. Carter and Gooden got hurt. Cone wasn't awesome. Meanwhile the Cubs saw Grace develop and Sandberg bounce back, got a career year from a rookie named Dwight Smith, got Mike Bilecki's only quality year as a starter and Rick Sutcliffe's last good season...

Where does this leave us? Well Boz's initial statement, that 15+ winners can easily lose their lead the next year is probably a bit overblown. While it happened 4 out of 8 times from 69-94 it's only happened 2 out of 9 since then with the divisions set up as they currently are. Plus when you try to factor luck out of the records it even gets less likely in the initial pass of the data* because a couple of those teams drop "true 15 games better" status.

However unlikely doesn't mean impossible as we see. Boz (and really all of us - we did say it was possible) is right in a more macro sense, despite the terrible way he formulates the argument and his wrong facts and off conclusions. It's hard to play high 90s good and when you drop back into the low 90s, a little bit of bad luck for you, a little bit of good luck for them, and you can totally be passed.  In the biggest lesson to the current Nats, the late 80s Mets only won two divisions when they really could have won six divisions in a row. They were that talented, but luck/timing/heart/etc wasn't on their side.

To me looking at that team - the late 80s Mets is most informative. We've thought that "being good for a while, win your division a few times, make playoffs. then hope" was the best strategy you could put together for championships. But unless you can put together a worthy high 90s win team (which we did think the Nats could have been this year, to be fair) over and over again the playoffs aren't guaranteed. Not even close. So many little things can happen that can keep you out that playing for it all when you have the chance... it just makes more and more sense to me.

The other thing I take away is that what the Nats are doing right now, this total collapse into mediocrity? It's crazy. While not unprecedented it really only happened once before with that 1984 White Sox team and it's tough to argue they had the Nats talent. Still the Nats have some time to get back and either win the division or find themselves a more normal path to missing the playoffs, being a good team that's just not good enough by a game or two. Otherwise this Nats team will go down as something historic. An incredibly talented squad with limited competition who completely imploded and lost the division in a single season.

*to be complete we need to go back through the years to see who might have been 15 games better by pythag but won their division by fewer than that and see how they did the following year.

**At that point we have more divisions with fewer teams in them. We should see more 15+ game leads during this time. Is that the case? Well if we see 8 such times in 25 years from 1969 to 1993 with 2 divisions per league we should see 12 in the next 25 just by division increases alone... but it hasn't been 25 years yet (21) so scale that back to 10... and we see 10!  That's actually interesting because I would expect the decrease in number of teams in the divisions to lead to more instances. It's probably something that can't be seen with this analysis - probably just shows up as greater average divisional leads.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Monday quickie - Does it matter?

Fire Matt Williams... I guess.

This team is where it is because it deserves to be. This is how it has played. Middling hitting where bursts of offense are matched by stretches of utter incompetence. Disappointing starting pitching and relief pitching that has made it a habit of blowing up at the worst times. Unimpressive defense and yes, questionable managing decisions here and there. Firing Williams will in itself solve exactly zero of these problems and will only fix the manager issues if a good manager is brought in behind him and we can see the difference in 40+ games.

But it would make all you guys feel better wouldn't it?

I haven't sat down and really evaluated MW's work for the season. To be honest, I really can't (no one can) because I don't know what Rizzo's goals were for him. That aside, does he deserve to be fired in that the job he is doing is significantly worse than the average manager you could put in there? I don't know. Feels like it recently but that's going to be the case with every manager when the team goes on an extended losing streak. They play bad, you make a couple bad decisions and it's a snowball rolling down hill.  What I can tell you for sure is that if I was considering firing Williams after the season I would just do it now. Why not? Nothing to lose.

There's no way around it. As of August 17th, this team is a major disappointment. We can (and will) go over the various reasons why as we close out the year. The question though that matters right now is why is the team playing so badly today? Why, after pretty much everyone gets back into the line-up and rotation, and after they presumably strengthened the bullpen, does the team have it's worst 20 game stretch of the year? 

Part of it is painfully simple and sadly unavoidable. For the first four months of the year the Nats had four good hitters, Bryce, Yuney, Clint Robinson, and Espinosa. When Zimmerman, Rendon and Werth came back, Robinson, Espinosa, and random other guy had to sit. Zimmerman has functionally replaced Robinson, might even be better. Certainly more pop. But Rendon has been a downgrade from Espinosa, even the Espinosa that was slumping in June. And Werth has not been an improvement from three guys in Moore/denDekker/Uggla who are questionable additions to a major league bench. So the injury returnees have made things worse, not better.  But what was to be done? Not play these guys?

Well... maybe. Someone has to evaluate when they are ready to play in the major leagues everyday. Werth and Rendon have not been. So someone made a mistake in that evaluation.

Another part took the Nats by surprise and went unaddressed through the trade deadline. Nearly everyone else dipped from June to July to August

Bryce 1.143 -> 1.015 -> .804*
Clint .872 -> .756 -> .819
Escobar .855 -> .693 -> .720
Ramos .745 -> .410 -> .529
Espinosa .729 -> .606 -> .815
Taylor .704 -> .616 -> .626
Desmond .463 -> .645 -> .911

The league OPS is .707, figure in some pitcher stuff there, but the take away is in June nearly everyone was hitting ok or better. Since then things have fallen way off. Escobar is merely ok. Ramos and Taylor are terrible and not good respectively. Bryce is no longer a monster. Only Desmond has picked up the slack (Espy is playing way less) and one guy isn't going to counter all that on his own.

On one hand you see the thought process. You have guys struggling in July but you have three guys All-Star caliber the last two seasons, coming back from injury. They will simply replace the strugglers. It seems so simple.

But even at that moment it wasn't. They'd push out Robinson who wasn't struggling. They wouldn't push out Taylor and Ramos who were good bets to perform under league average.  They wouldn't, at least at first, push out Desmond who was struggling mightily. It wasn't a sure bet, it was a gamble. It was a gamble that these guys could come in and perform at a high enough level to perhaps carry two poor bats, with the rest of the line-up helping. They've lost that best so far.

Pitching tomorrow!

*I suppose you could blame Bryce if you like, but doing that would be stupid because without him being a monster May-July the Nats win fewer games and we aren't even talking about the playoffs right now.

Friday, August 14, 2015

On streaks

A couple people commented that they don't like the use of "If the Mets go... then the Nats have to go..." talk. I get that. Teams don't get to .500 by winning every other game. Everyone goes 7-3. Everyone goes 3-7.  So while it may be unlikely that the Mets go under .500 or the Nats play 95 win ball from here on out, it's not unusual. Some team over .500 will probably play under .500 from here on out. Some team around .500 will probably play like the best team in the league. Might as well be the Mets and Nats, right?

But still I do like the use of trends occasionally because it helps highlight how big leads (or deficits) actually are.  When you are down say 3 games the optimistic part of your mind tells you "Oh that's just a series. We sweep, they get swept and everything is good" or "We have 6 games head to head left so even if we simply match these guys in the other games we can almost make that up by going 4-2 against them".  These are completely fair and true views, but they are one-sided. Being 3 games out is as close to 6 games out as it is to first. You are one series away from a big hole, a bad head to head record from your performance in the other X number of games to not matter. By giving you an idea of how the Nats would have to perform if the Mets do nothing special I hope to show you how big the hole the Nats have dug actually is. Because it's there.

It's certainly a hole that the Nats can dig out of. The head to head alone would cover it (although at this point a 6-0 sweep would be required to make up enough games) but it's dire times for the Nats.

What can I say that's positive? As I noted the starting pitching has picked up. Strasburg looked on the ropes early and often but pulled off 2 runs in 6 innings, a performance you'd take every time. In the past two weeks Gio (2 starts - 1.38 ERA), Strasburg (2 - 2.08), and ZNN (3 - 3.20) have done very well and even though he's struggling a bit Scherzer has kept the team in the game. In fact before Ross' performance in LA you might find yourself going all the way back to Jun 28th to find a game where you can flat out say the starter lost it (Roark bombed in Philly). I'd probably quibble with that - I don't think 5IP, 5ER games help anyone, but the fact is the starting pitching is good. Maybe not great like advertised but good enough to win games by itself when doing well, and good enough to keep the Nats in it when it's not. The SP ERA looks only good (6th in NL at 3.68) but replace Fister with Ross and assume Strasburg now is not Strasburg before and it would be right up there with the best. This is the Nats strength.  Always has been.

Treinen has looked good. Last night it wasn't even a blowout and he came through. As terrible as it may sound, it might be time again to try handing him the 7th. Desperate times.

It hasn't been a good last couple of games but both Zimm and Ian have done well recently*. Ian has even started walking and apparently not in the "I'm going to defensively take pitches to try to get on base because I can't hit" way. In 64 games from May1st to July 19th Ian walked 10 times. In the 23 games since, he's walked 10 times.

Trea Turner is still crushing it in AAA. A little less pop and patience than in AA, but with a .315 average you don't complain. He could be called up and although I think taking over for Ian is not the right idea (see above), there's no reason he couldn't start spelling guys all over the IF/OF. 

Although Bryce's power has mysteriously vanished** He's still hitting and still getting on base. A .462 clip. He stole a base (finally) last night. If this is the role the opposing pitchers are going to force on him because he has no real protection, well he can flourish here too.

Whatever deal Yunel made with whatever demon - looks like it's good for the whole season.

There's your positives. Run with it!

*As hard as it may be to do, Zimm may need a day off. After being in a nice groove since coming back, he's 1-11 with 7 Ks in the past 3 games.

**Well not that mysteriously. Bryce had been pounded low and away all year, but occasionally either by mistake or on purpose pitchers would challenge him up in the zone. He would punish those pitches. That's happening less and low and away is happening more. To the tune of like 50% of the pitches he's seen. Now we get to the guessing game - It probably reached a tipping point in mid July (he hit .240 for a stretch) where he decided he was going to change his approach and if they were going to let him get singles he was going to try to take them. Then going after the singles made it a little harder for him to drive the balls for big hits. Just a guess.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

At a loss

The Nats passed a symbolic line in the sand when they fell 1.5 games behind the Mets. At that point if both teams played as expected the Mets would most likely take the NL East. But as a line in the sand it was a fuzzy one. A Nats win and Mets loss would put the Nats back on the side of the line we'd want them to be.

Now there are no more symbolic lines to cross until elimination from the playoffs but each game lost in the standings hurts more because it would take longer to get back to where you wanted. Now we get into the paces.
  • If the Mets go .500 (24-24) they will finish the season at 86-76
  • For the Nats to win the NL East outright at 87-75 they therefore have to go 29-20
Maybe the Nats can pull off 29-20. It's a 96 win pace which is way higher than what the Nats have played all season, but it's not unthinkable for a shorter time period. Plus their schedule lightens up considerably after this road trip. But it's a stretch

Maybe the Mets will go .500. However they've played at a .544 pace this season and since becoming the New New York Mets at the trade deadline they are 9-2*. Their schedule is the only one that's easier than the Nats for the remainder of the year.

You're looking at two unlikely scenarios that both have to play out. It's better to assume then, one unlikely scenario and that the other goes roughly according to plan. Right now we should be hoping for a Nats run, a la... let's say the Nats last year when they won 10 in a row starting on August 12th, or when they went 13-3 starting on September 7th,  or a Mets collapse a la... well the Mets in 2013 when they went 10-20 starting on August 12th or in 2012 when they went 4-14 starting on August 4th. Yes, I'm using recent years to hint that it's not crazy to think it might happen. However, these are different teams. It's still not something to expect.

How may the Nats make a run? Hit, dammit, hit. It's both surprisingly and unsuprising why the Nats are floundering. Look at the team. The only above average hitters playing right now are Bryce, "Slappy" Yunel, and "Bench" Robinson. Every other bat is hitting below average for the year, starters, bench players, everyone.  It's suprising that this has happened, but once you see it has happened it's no mystery why the Nats can't win. The starting pitching will give the Nats more winnable situations than it won't**. It's up to the hitting to convert on those. How to do that...  I have no idea other than keep running out the guys you've got out there and hope it clicks. You can replace Werth as I noted yesterday but the truth is some combination of Werth, Rendon, & Zimm have to start hitting. Making a single move of playing Robinson for Werth isn't going to make the Nats score enough runs to matter on it's own.

* some commenters like to joke that I jinxed the Nats but if you look back what I said was I thought the Nats would win if the rosters stayed the same. If the Mets didn't have Clippard, Uribe, Johnson and Cespedes, do you think they are up 3.5 games? I'd bet even with the pitching they've got - maybe they are up 1.5. Maybe.

**A week or so ago I noted that the pitching wasn't being great. Since the 5th of August the Nats have gotten very good to great games from Ross, ZNN, Stras, Gio, and ZNN again. It's picking up.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The next move is tougher

Let's start off by talking about Ross. How did he do against a good team? Eh. You know. Not the worst. If you are a Ross lover, you are probably thinking "If they had a good RFer in then that Puig hit is no worse than a single and actually is probably caught and the night looks differently" Ok sure. But Ross was hanging junk all night and the Dodgers were missing it. Pop-ups usually happen on 98 MPH heaters up in the zone, not sliders and sinkers that aren't sliding and sinking. Watch the game again and see how many "Oh they really could have nailed that" pitches you see. I saw a fair amount.

If you're negative then you can say "this is Ross". You might think that is unfair, it's just one poor start, but the unhittable Ross with perfect control? That was the unusual Ross based on his minor league stats. If you're positive you can hang your hat on some good situational pitching like that Gonzalez AB in the 3rd where Ross found a spot he felt was a weakness and was able to pound it over and over. Even if you are like me and think the Ross-love is overblown, there is undeniable potential.

Mets win. Nats lose. Whatever. That'll happen. What can the Nats do to get better now? They got another top notch relief pitcher. They sat Fister for Ross. Desmond has hit his way to a point where he's mashing bad pitches from bad pitchers and not striking out all the time. What's the easiest way to get better today?

Sit Werth.

Unlike Ian, who is presumably healthy but working through issues, Jayson was hurt this year. He may still not be 100%, In fact I'd take all the money I have sitting around and bet on that fact. The guy is 36. He hit .208 / .294 / .287 before going out. He's hit .160 / .185 / .280 since. Just a bad two weeks? Perhaps. But almost 65% of his hits since coming back are grounders and pop-ups (63.1%). His pull-rate is basically the lowest of his career. He's hitting a lot soft (22% - usually around 16%) and nothing hard (24.4% - usually around 34%). He's a worse version of the player that the Nats saw back in 2011. He's not helping the team being out there.

Of course sitting Werth is easier said than done (espeically with Bryce nursing a sore knee and Span not close to returning). You could just play Robinson for him. That would be an improvement, although an admittedly minor one. You could scour the waiver wire for a replacement. De Aza? Byrd? Again - minor improvements probably (actually Marlon would be a nice move) but minor improvements are still improvements.

But it's not just the available options that get in the way. There is the "Werth-iness" that is problematic. Ian might be the internal leader on the team, but Werth is the external face. For all the talk about Bryce, Werth is the one with the Chia pet and the troll doll and the 21 million dollar contract. Should you sit that? Yes. Can you? Maybe not, depending on the guys in charge.

Werth also has (in pure theory - like the one that proves 1+1=2) the best possibility of a big impact. He was very good the last two years, great even. If he does "get it" he'll be better than anything they can bring in.

So there is a lot working for playing Werth while the stats scream sit him. Is there a compromise? Yes. Move him down in the order. Bat him 7th. 8th. If you truly think he needs to work his way back and that's all it shouldn't matter if he's batting 4th or 5th or 9th. It'll happen. In the meantime if it's not happening he's not stranding runners again and again.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Offense rounding into form or not?

Greinke and Kershaw. The Nats needed last night's game because this is what they are facing over the next two nights. And they got it easily with an offensive outburst that we've hoped to see from this team with everyone back. In fact they haven't had a truly bad offensive game since the Mets series ended.  Is the offense really back?

Last night was the best night so far because unlike the D-back series, which looked better than it did thanks to 6 runs off mop-up pitcher Daniel Hudson, and the Rockies series, which featured one bad pitcher after another that the Nats couldn't knock out, the Nats finally got an ok/mediocre pitcher and sent him packing.  The last time that happened was probably Miguel Gonzalez around a month ago* This is good. This is what good offenses do sometimes.

Good offenses also find a way to score 3-4 runs versus very good pitchers and win those games too. The Nats have had a real issue with that and now the Nats have to prove they can do it against two guys in Cy Young contention. Greinke has had only two bad games all year, a blah hold your ground 6 innings in Colorado a few months ago and pretty solid beating from the Phillies last time out in Philadelphia. Maybe last time out was a sign of things. Or maybe coming back home where he has a 0.78 WHIP a 1.54 ERA will put him right back on track. Kershaw had a bad-for-him start to the year but has been picking up steam as the season progresses. Before last time out, he had four straight outings with no runs allowed. Of course last time out the Pirates got to him, so... hope?

I don't know if it's fair to judge the Nats offense versus these two but that's exactly what I'm going to do. The Phillies got to Greinke. The Pirates got to Kershaw. The Nats should be able to get to one of them. Eventually we have to stop throwing up our hands and saying "Well, just a good pitcher. Nothing we can do about it" because you have to beat good pitchers in the playoffs. You are likely to only face good pitchers in the playoffs. And the Nats are going to have to beat good pitchers to beat the Mets head to head as well. You can't concede these games before they start and you can't excuse them time after time when the offense doesn't come through. You aren't going to beat good pitching every time, even most times, but you have to do it sometimes.

Offensively things have perked up because some Nats other than Bryce have finally started to hit things other than singles. Zimmerman has 6 doubles and 4 homers since being back. Ian is on a mini-tear with 5 XBH, including 3 homers over the past 5 games. Pitchers will make mistakes. They'll hit a batter or walk a guy. Or maybe a error puts someone on, or a seeing eye single. At that point if you have a guy getting an XBH, well you have a run. Can Rendon or Werth flip the switch and make this offense truly formidable?

Meanwhile I finally get to see what I wanted (barring the Dodgers putting up another line-up like last night. Not that it would have mattered but if you don't have good righty hitters - don't force it. P U) I get to see Joe Ross against a good offense for like the third time in 8 starts. As I said before the previous times (both against the Pirates) produced his best start and his worst, and his worst even wasn't that bad. If he can come through with big time starts versus the Dodgers and the Giants well then I personally, who doesn't love Ross as much as you (worst Friend too - not even close. There are no arguments here), will have to start changing my tune. Or at least allow for an optimistic view to creep in. 

Late night baseball! 

*We can argue this point if you like. They didn't really knock Flande out. As a converted reliever he had a pitch/innings limit on him. They did knock Hellickson out but I don't consider him a decent pitcher given his last not bad season was 3 years ago. They did knock Burnett out, and he was actually having a good year, but it seems likely that given that run of starts and his subsequent possibly career-ending tendon issue, that the Nats beat a hobbled AJ. So that brings us to Miguel Gonzalez, who's not having the best year and is having a bad post-All Star time but bounced back from the Nats game with 2 good starts so it seems like he wasn't done yet. If you don't like this pick the Nats did run Bumgarner for America and off-year or not, he's not bad.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Monday Quickie

Yesterday marked 2 weeks from the last time the Nationals had a big chunk of their lineup missing. On Tuesday 7/28 Werth and Zimmermann would join the recently returned Rendon and the line-up would basically be as originally planned, save Span. Span has been a very good player for the Nats, but one line-up spot lost to injury has to be par for course, if not better off than most teams. Since that moment the Nats have gone 5-8 and have fallen from in first place by 2 games, to down by 1.5. Nats are back, baby!

The Nats hit a middling .232 / .309 / .376 in the past two weeks but really the weeks are distinct pieces, as they hit .263 / .363 / .424 over the past one. That's actually pretty good. Now they should hit pretty good against the Diamondbacks and the Rockies, but you have to take the fact that they did do it to be a positive. At least I do. Doing what you should do is never something to just write off.

Of course they didn't win despite hitting well. They went 3-4 losing every game they scored 4 runs in for some reason. 4-6, 4-11, 4-5, and 4-6 again. A team should be able to win at least one of those games, and a team with the best pitching staff ever (TM) should probably expect more. What happened? Doug Fister, Aaron Barrett, Drew Storen and Drew Storen again. Two of those guys are no longer doing what they were doing at that moment.

That leaves us with Drew. What to think? You have to just write it off. Maybe the Rockies just have his number. He was nearly perfect in his previous 5 outings as 8th inning guy, (5IP, 0H , 6K, 1BB) so it isn't that. Or at least there isn't evidence that it is that. He wasn't hit especially hard in either blown game. The first involved a walk, a single past a drawn in Zimm (expecting a bunt? Couldn't have been holding the runner on with 3 run lead, right?) a swinging bunt single then the mistake. The second was worse but still involves a multi bounce GB finding it's way into the hole to score the runs. The Nats really don't have a choice here. They brought in Papelbon so the 8th and 9th would be set. Move Drew around and you brought Papelbon in for nothing. Let's hope this setlles down now.

What's more concerning to me is the continued morphing into "just good" of Max Scherzer. He's had two straight outings that were perfectly competent but little more. In the five games before that he had two bad games. This isn't terrible in of itself, but it is terrible compared to the bar he set for himself early in the season. In the past month he's given up more homers and had more 3+ runs allowed outings than he had in the previous 3+ months before that.

Is there anything concerning or relieving in the fancy stats? Well, Max is getting hit with a higher than expected BABIP (.346) in August. That is part of it. But a more telling stat is the increase in HR/FB rate that has been consistent all year. 0.0% -> 6.3% -> 9.1% -> 13.3% -> 23.1%.  Part of that is of course the weather, but is there something more here? GBs have generally gone down and FBs generally up all season. Perhaps he's not getting down in the zone as much as he once was? Or perhaps batters are attempting to tee off on him when they have a chance? Kind of a "swing for the fences" mentality because whatever more cautious way of approaching Max they were trying earlier in the year, it wasn't working. It'll take more digging. Something even more weird out there - a 3.5% "soft%" (how hard the balls are being hit off him - soft, medium or hard) two games into August. Now that is crazily low. I would normally take that to mean "not fooling anyone" but he's still getting strikeouts and the LD-rate isn't any higher. So what could it be?

This could be it. Basically Max is throwing more meatballs as the season goes on. It may be tied to his new obsession about not walking anyone or maybe not but the straight pitches (fastballs and changes) thrown in the middle middle of the plate have gone up steadily since June. It's not a lot but if hitters are going to the plate looking to hit that one mistake someone is going to be successful. Based on the heat maps (where he's throwing pitches) I think this is more a righty issue but I'll have to do more thinking / looking up to come close to a decent guess, which is confirming nothing. So... yeah.

Anyway this road trip is exactly not what the Nats needed. Away against the two best teams in the West (reeling or not) followed up by a series in Colorado, where the Rockies are much better. The Mets are in slightly better shape - home against Colorado and Pirates, then off on their own road trip starting in Baltimore. Given how the NL East does against the other divisions* I don't see either team running away over the next two weeks.

Time for some night baseball. Who's up until 1 with me?

*The NL East is the worst division in baseball. If you disagree you do not understand concepts like "wins" and "losses" and maybe you should follow something with more nebulous achievements like acting. However the NL East is not the worst division ever and likely won't be. The combined winning percentage of the East is at .460 which is really really low, but the AL Central went through a good 7+ years of being terrible around the turn of the century where multiple seasons had even lower winning percentages that that. The NL East could beat this but it would take a pretty solid losing streak to do it. Like both the Nats and Mets coing 2-8 in their next 10. And although it may not count the "winner" is the 1994 AL West, where the best team was sitting at 10 games under when the season was cut short.

Friday, August 07, 2015

Nats making right moves - Ross for Fister

The Nats are going to keep Ross in the rotation and drop Fister into long relief.  That may seem like a shocking move but really it was the only sane one for a team fighting for its playoff life.

Joe Ross since he's been up has a 2.80 ERA, 0.911 WHIP, 9.4 K/9, 0.8 BB/9
Doug Fister since coming back from injury has a 4.86 ERA, 1.42 WHIP, 5.8 K/9

It isn't a contest. Literally the only reason to keep Fister in the rotation instead of Ross right now is "Ross is a rookie. Fister is a vet" That's not good enough and it's nice to see the Nats realize that. Ross may not be this good but you ride the hot hand.  That being said, the Nats are probably not going to ride him for more than a few starts

Why not? Because of innings limits! Ross probably has 4-5 more starts in him before the Nats shut him down for the season. Now react violently hearing the words "shut" and "down" so close in proximity.

The Strasburg shutdown of 2012 was a hard call to make. Strasburg was arguably the best pitching prospect in a decade, was coming off injury, and all signs pointed to the Nats being good for several years. Plus the Nats were using an early August run to  pull away from the Braves. Ultimately you may have not agreed with the decision but shutting down  Strasburg could be argued to be the right move from several angles.

Ross in 2015 is nothing like Strasburg. He isn't coming off injury. He's was a good but not special pitching prospect. The Nats situation is far more dire now than back then. They are currently looking up at the Mets who have vastly improved their team for the stretch run (they needed it) and there is little security that the success of the past few years will follow into the future. In this case it seems like an easy decision to let him pitch.

First things first though. I said this a few days ago but it bears repeating. You let Ross go for the rest of August as planned. Then you see what is up. Could be that the Mets pull away. Could be that the Nats pull away. Could be that Ross starts putting up stinkers. A decision to shutdown Joe Ross could easily go from controversial to obvious in 3+ weeks. There's really no reason to talk about it until we're closer to month's end.  All that does is invite hot takes.

It's good to see the Nats making moves like this. It shows they know the seriousness of their situation. Speaking of that, the Nats have a killer road trip coming up (LAD, SF, COL) so it's pretty important that they get no further back than they are right now. The Rockies are ok at home, terrible on the road. Three of four is pretty much a necessity. Make it happen.

Thursday, August 06, 2015

Williams is A problem, not THE problem

I come to bury Williams, not praise him.

Last night, Williams made one big questionable decision which helped send the game spiraling out of control. The worst part may not even be the decision itself, but other things around it. Such as the fact that there was a group of fans that didn't think that decision was bad but thought his follow-up was the problem. And the fact that the game blowing up helped hide another mistake that was going to rear its head as the game went on. Williams really can't win. But first the mistake.

In the bottom of the 5th Gio Gonzalez was the second batter due up. He had already hit 93 pitches and was getting out of self-made jams all night. It seemed only a matter of time until things blew up on him. The easy call was to pinch hit for Gio now and move on with another pitcher in the 6th. Instead Matt Williams let Gio hit for himself.

There are reasons why you could let this happen. Several in fact. The problem was almost none applied at the time. Gio could bat if :
  1. The Nats had a big lead : Nope. Nats were up only 1. 
  2. The opponent had a lefty or lefties coming up early the next inning : Nope. The Dbacks had three straight righties. 
  3. You thought Gio might be likely to come up in the bottom of the 6th : Nope. By being 2nd up in the bottom of the 5th with one-out it was unlikely that the line-up would work it's way back to Gio. 
  4. Bullpen was gassed : Nope. There were two pitchers who Williams would likely avoid using last night but the rest of the pen would be fine to use. 
  5. Gio had been cruising coming into this inning : Nope. He'd allowed 2 or more baserunners in 3 of the last 4 innings. 
This leaves only one usable reason. You had no faith in the middle relief to hold the lead. This is actually understandable given the Nats issues. However Matt made it clear that this wasn't part of his decision making when he pulled Gio after one batter in the 6th*. He put in Barrett (instead of Roark who would have made more sense**) Barrett blew it.*** Then he put in Roark who slowed the bleeding before Thornton and Rivero ripped off the bandages and dug their knives into the wound.

So there's the mistake(s). What other mistake did it cover up? The "Davey"ing of Storen and Papelbon over the past two nights. I call it "Davey"ing because it is kind of like what Davey did to Drew back in 2012. He failed to keep him loose, then felt forced to use him in a game that didn't matter, only to find himself forced to use him on three straight nights. Matt made the same mistake using neither Drew or Pap in the Mets series, feeling forced to use them so putting them in Game 1 vs the Diamondbacks when it didn't matter, then looking at having to use them yesterday and today. Either he could stretch them or sit them. Either would be sub-optimal.****

Not a good night for Matt. But what about the title of my post? Well here's the thing. You should be able to turn to your pen and they should be able to get you a few outs. This pen, outside of Drew and Papelbon, is often unreliable. So let's say Matt made the "right move" and went to Roark and he did ok for two innings (He seems to finally be settling back into the pen. This year he's had issues transitioning back to relief after spot starting, so let's just stop that). Now it's the 8th and the game is close. You probably want Janssen to pitch the 9th where it is likely the heart of the order will come up again. So who's in the 8th? Barrett? He's terrible under pressure. Thornton? Might be tiring at 38 and into the dog days. Rivero? Rookie arm?

And here's the other thing. The Nats couldn't score against Rubby De La Rosa. Just like they couldn't score against Patrick Corbin. Just like they couldn't score against Zach Godley. Can we finally say it's the line-up and not the pitchers they face? Please?

And here's the other other thing. Scherzer only went 6. Fister only went 6. Gio didn't even get there. Ross was the last one to pitch into the 7th and he gave up a homer and double before being pulled. Six innings is ok, but you want these guys pitching into the 7th if possible. That negates the unpredictable part of the pen and dammit it's what the "best rotation in baseball" is supposed to do.

Matt Williams is bad at managing the pen. That's true. He doesn't plan out usage well. He doesn't pick the right guys as logic would dictate. And if there's any art to it, if there's a sense that you can feel who's got it tonight, well if that's a real thing Matt don't got it. But this in itself shouldn't be a big problem especially with Storen and Papelbon at the back end. It only becomes a big problem because the Nats rotation isn't living up to it's end of the bargain***** and the offense can't score any runs. In that case every inning is important and the soft underbelly of the Nats and Matt Williams is exposed.

Understand this. The Nats aren't winning anything, not with Matt Williams at the head or goddamn Joe McCarthy, unless the hitters hit and the starters pitch. 

*Note : This is where that other group of fans get angry. They think Gio should have been allowed to pitch the 6th, maybe more and pulling him, not letting him hit and pitch, was the big mistake. They are wrong, I don't know how you could have watched that game and wanted to see what Gio would do as he got tired, but let's put those differing opinions out there and discuss and/or ridicule.

**Whoever came in was likely to have to throw 2 innings of baseball because he wouldn't come up until the 7th. Barrett had just done that true, but Roark is probably the arm you trust most both in general and to put up multiple innings, especially with the middle of the D-backs order coming up.

***Bad throw or not Zimm really has to block that. He tried to short hop it and just whiffed completely. That's why Rendon couldn't get to it either. He was in position for if the throw missed Zimm, not if Zimm missed the throw.

****What Williams should have done, once the Mets series was over, was use Papelbon OR Storen in Game 1. If Game 2 was also a blowout he could use the other then. If Game 2 and Game 3 were both close he'd have both for Game 2 and at least one for Game 3.

***** A game score ~60 is generally a good, above 70 is usually a great game. Since Zimmermann pitched a 74 on July 5th (7IP, 5H, 8K, 1BB, 1ER). Here are the games above 60 - Scherzer,  Scherzer, Scherzer, Ross.  Meanwhile how many mediocre under 50 games have there been? Nine. The staff hasn't been terrible, but "not terrible" isn't acceptable from this staff.

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Feel Better?

A little bit at least? I hope so because when I say the Nats are better than the Mets, on paper at least, I'm not kidding. I mentioned this in the comments yesterday but here it is again.

The Mets have 55 games left. Their best 55-game streak this year was 30-25
The Nats have 57 games left. Their best 57-game streak this year was 36-21

True, the Mets have more talent playing for their team now then they had at any point this year. But then again you might say the same thing about the Nats and certainly would with the return of Strasburg, then Span. I'm not crazy thinking the Nats still have the edge. Neither are the stats who continue to have the Nats as slight favorites. That being said there are three giant caveats hanging over the Nats "edge".

The first is the fact that it's based on expected performance, the best guess you can make on how players will perform from here on out. That's variable enough as it is. Add in "returning from injury" and the reasonable possiblities become so wide to almost be comical. The best guess for Rendon may be something like .280 / .350 / . 400 for the rest of the year. But .300 / .380 / .500 might be possible. So may .240 / .300 / .340. That variability means the best guess on how the Nats will end up is simply the most likely scenario out of dozens of scenarios that aren't particularly likely. One scenario had to be the most likely one. This is it.

The second caveat is that luck matters. People hate to hear that. Winner's pride is deeply ingrained in our psyche and we take any mention of luck as an affront, as if saying the winner got lucky is the equivalent of saying the winner didn't deserve the win, or didn't earn it. Both can be true though, you earned it, deserved it and got lucky and often that's what happens even if we try to deny it. This belief system creates the great paradox of sports, where we watch because we believe any team can win any game, but we also believe only the better team wins it all. It's not even completely true that the better team that day wins. Team A could be a pitching, hitting, and fielding machine. Team B could be the exact opposite. But have Team A hit line drives right at fielders at inopportune times while Team B manages a swinging bunt single, another to move him over, and an excuse-me bloop double down the line and Team B, clearly the worse team both that day and overall, can win that game.

The first two caveats are neither good nor bad. The Nats may play much better than expected and get lucky, and run away with the division. The Nats may play much worse than expected and get unlucky, and quickly fade from playoff contention. These things sit out there as more than potential equalizers to any edge the Nats may have. Equalizers that could be ignored say, if the Nats were up 6 games, but down 1 they could easily decide the season. But you'd still have to say they have an edge though, at least right now. Which brings us to the third caveat.

The Nats edge has grown slim enough that a bad half-week may wipe it out. The Mets have made themselves a better team. The Nats have had fading performances from key players. The once sizable talent difference is down to a mere few games over the course of the season. Right now the Nats are thought to be able to make up 3 games on the Mets for various reasons. That'll still be true let's say 5 games from now. But have the Mets go 4-1 and the Nats go 1-4 in those games and the gap between them will now be 4 games. It won't really matter that you think the Nats could make up 3 games in the remaining time. They'll need to make up 4. The Nats currently have the slimmest of cushions. For the Nats to remain favorites they can lose a game perhaps two more in the standings. Time will slowly tick away that advantage but right now losing games in the standings is the bigger worry. 

The Nats need to start winning now. There isn't any way around it. Last night was a good start, winning a game that could have gotten away from them. Keep it going. Get back into first. Get a bigger cushion. Dammit, do it. 

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Maximizing Wins

Second Place

As much as I'd like to say differently - it's not panic time. Neither team, the Nats or the Mets should really panic unless the gap between them approaches the number of H2H games they have left (6). Right now the Nats could match the Mets up to the H2H battle and get back into first with a single win.

There is still a lot of the season left, more than a third. The division could be won by someone running away but it's better to assume it will be close and if that's the case each win the Nats can get is of crucial importance. How can the Nats maximize wins?

At catcher : Make sure Lobaton doesn't hit against lefties.

There's been talk about letting Lobaton play more, but the truth is he is no better than Ramos. Not at the plate, and really not behind it either (past few years of pitch framing and caught stealing don't show me enough of a difference to get worked up about). So play him as much as you usually would. He's been Gio's personal catcher so keep that going I guess but don't let him hit lefties, even if Gio is pitching. He can't do it.

At first and second : Pray for health

I'm not saying either are "back" but both Rendon and Zimm look ok and are crucial to the success of the Nats. Give them a couple more weeks to see where they are while scouring the potential waivers for a worthy 6 week replacement for either. Probably unnecessary but no harm keeping an eye out.

At shortstop : Don't call up Tre Turner... just yet

I know you guys are all ready to replace him but Ian Desmond has hit .300 / .364 / .580 over the past two weeks. He battled through a 1-16 stretch in there, and came out the other side with a hit in each of the last 3 games. Espinosa? Obviously you haven't paid attention because Danny has been hitting like old Danny since well before the All-Star break. He's not the answer. Tre Turner is looking great in AAA, but Tre Turner performance at the major league level is a great unknown. Do I think he'll be good in the majors? Looks like it. Do I think he'll be good for 7 weeks if brought up now and made to start? Hell if I know.

Ride out Ian's return to relevancy for a few more days at least. If he keeps hitting ok, you can probably wait till September for Tre. If he flounders then call him up.

At third : Nothing.

Yuney had an unimpressive July but hasn't dropped enough for him to be a big worry.  Just take him as is. If for some reason he does fall apart now in karmic retribution for some crazy BABIPs in May and June, it's just another reason to wait out Ian. If Ian hits and Yuney struggles, Yuney could be out. Not Ian.  I'm not saying it's likely but it could happen. Yuney's been over his head.

In the OF : Get Span back ASAP, see where you are then, pray harder

There's not much that one can do. Robinson is not a "have to play" option, so Bryce, Taylor and Werth it is. If the prayers work Werth will return to having some sort of offensive presence and Span simply replaces the flailing Taylor. If the prayers don't work... well assuming nothing has changed, you probably split time between Taylor and Werth, with Taylor getting all the late innings and occasional spot start for defense.

In the rotation : Get Strasburg back ASAP, drop Fister. Ride out Ross as long as his arm takes you.

Fister hasn't looked good since May. He has a 4.86 ERA since coming back from injury and a 6.14 ERA in his last 4 starts. He's gotta be the one to go if you value winning. As for Ross and innings limits, don't think about it now. Maybe the division will be decided in a month when he hits it and you can pull him. Maybe he'll have tired out and look like he needs to stop. If neither are true you've gotta make the call to keep him going, in my opinion but let it go.

In the pen : Tell Storen he's the most important guy in the pen and as such you are going to use him wherever.

Storen has been jerked around because the Nats keep bringing in veterans who refuse to do anything but close and dammit if they can't make Storen do it. Let me take a moment to shed a tear for him. Ok done. It's not fair but that's life. What should happen now that instead of Storen being "8th inning hold guy" he needs to be seen as "Mr. Important situation in 7th inning on guy" That's his new "position". Make him feel important. Sing his importance from the highest mountain. Because it'll help him accept it, it'll be totally true, and it's best for the team. This way he can put out fires for starters, he can keep games tied that aren't going for saves, and yes, he can get holds when they come up. Use him like that and you won't need to work him in lost causes like last night. He'll get plenty of work.

Wrapping it up there's actually not much. Use Storen more effectively in more situations. Take Fister out when Stras is ready.  Take whoever is worse, Taylor or Werth, when Span is ready. Watch Ian carefully and be ready to pull the trigger on Tre Turner. Scour the waiver wire for a no doubt bat in the OF or MI (Yuney can shift or sit) or an emergency bat. Pray. This team was already set-up for success, more than anything it just needs to perform like it was supposed to.

Monday, August 03, 2015

Monday Quickie - the 59 game season

The Nats and Mets, for all intents and purposes, are tied for first in the NL East.

I did not expect to be writing that back on Friday.  But here we are. The Nats offense continued to sputter and the Mets swept the Nats in a series that sets up the rest of the season as a 55+ (Nats 59, Mets 57) game... well not sprint.... let's say 10K to the finish. Both teams have relatively easy schedules. The Nats have more home games, the Mets more games away. It should be a close one. I did not expect to be writing that back in June.

What has gone wrong? And it is what has gone wrong. As much credit as you have to give to the Mets the Nats are now on an 85 win pace, about 10 games off where most people expected them to be. For all those screaming "just wait until they get healthy", they are pretty much healthy now and they are performing worse, not better. The team has scored more than 2 runs once in the past 7 games.

What has gone wrong is underperformance when playing by people the Nats were relying on. You know about Ian. Ramos has been just as bad. Michael Taylor, #1 OF sub has been too. So have Werth and Zimm. That's four regulars and one important sub who have just been hideous this year. On the other side Zimmerman has merely been ok, Gio average, Fister bad and Strasburg terrible early on when most of his innings came. Roark, the first in line replacement, has been nothing more than fair. Treinen, the presumed 8th inning guy and heir apparent to the closer role, was not good and worse in big spots. While the Nats have had some bright spots it's hard to balance out all those dim ones.

What has gone wrong is a dimming of those few bright spots. Clint Robinson, super sub, has hit .208 with no homers since July 20th. Since June 19th, Espinosa has hit .208 / .252 / .302 with 32 Ks in 116 PAs.

What has gone wrong is superstars no longer carrying the team on their backs. Max Scherzer, once arguably in commanding lead for the NL Cy Young, had a good but not great July, posting a 3.42 ERA and giving up almost as many HRs in the month as he had in the previous 3. Bryce, who looked like he might run away and hide with the NL MVP, had an off July for this season hitting .307 / .435 / .557.  Neither of these months are bad at all. Hell, Bryce's month for the whole year would probably put him 2nd in MVP voting. But the team was being held up in some respects by these two guys and as they return to mere mortal and mere demi-god status the team suffers.

What has gone wrong is a manager unable to use the back end of his pen with any effectiveness in close games.  It's one thing to hold a lights-out closer until the 9th inning. While there is almost certainly better usage from that asset possible, the 9th inning in a save situation will by definition be an important inning. And frankly convention has dictated that saves must be had. If no one is taking advantage of better usage then relatively you don't lose anything compared to other teams by following orthodoxy. However, it appears that Matt Williams is stuck not only there but on the expanded idea of having an "8th inning guy" to the point where Storen won't be seen unless there is a lead to protect in the 8th. We saw the end result of such rigid thinking this week as neither Storen nor Papelbon saw the light of day for arguably the three most important games the Nats have played this year.

What has gone wrong is a GM, likely hampered by budget and possibly hampered by his own long-term view, gambling on losing the season rather than losing prospects. It has to be seen as a possibility that some combination of Werth, Zimmerman, and Rendon will not comeback to perform at adequate levels, at least this year. It has to be seen that perhaps Espinosa's fast start was not indicative of his ability and that Michael Taylor may not find his way this season. With that in mind a bat that you can rely on would be extremely helpful. Mike Rizzo did not make such a move. It is fairly clear that he could not add salary, however dangle enough prospects in front of a team and salaries may be swallowed.

The Nats are still the better team, in theory. While the Mets have a better rotation (I've been saying that for a couple months now) the gap should not be that big and Nats should have a better lineup and a better bullpen. However all of those things are stuck on the word "should". The rotation and the line-up have to prove themselves better by performing to a higher standard for the next two months. The bullpen has to be used better to show the talent differential.

Theoretical advantages stop mattering when play begins. "Should" and "theory" are great for pre-season, maybe even early Spring, but here in the dog days, those are worthless terms. Now "is" and "reality" take precedence. The Nats are not anything special and 100+ games in they've played no better than the Mets. That's where we stand. If they want us to believe they are better now, they are going to have to prove it on the field.