Nationals Baseball: August 2016

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Nationals "secrets"

If you haven't been able to tell my interest in the Nats is in a waning period. I feel like the division has been sewn up for a month now. Papelbon is gone. Strasburg and Ross aren't back yet. Dog days and all, plus like I said yesterday, there are plenty of interesting baseball situations going on that have more hold on me than if the Nats host 3 or 2 games in the NLDS. (It'll be 3 - the Nats schedule is too easy to fall away). So I took a look at the Nats past 4 weeks of baseball to see if there was anything going on that I wasn't keyed into.

First thing it seems like Bryce is BRYCE again. He actually has a higher OPS than either Turner or Rendon, the two poster children for "Nats hitting well in August". He does not have a lot of homers (only 3 - Heisey has 3 in the same time period) but he's hitting .338 / .422 / .592 over the past 4 weeks and has driven in 19 runs. He's not going to get the MVP and he's back behind Trout in the pecking order*, but who cares as long as he's BRYCE for the playoffs.

Jayson Werth is only hitting .222.  It was brought up during his "on-base streak" but Werth was having a lot of one-hit or one-walk games to do it and wasn't really boosting his overall stats as much as you might have thought. As far as my theory that he can walk or he can hit for power - he's currently in "power mode" having 3 homers and a double in the last week - with no walks.  Like I said this isn't bad at this point. I'll take him doing one thing well. The alternative is far more likely doing nothing well, than doing multiple things well.

Clint Robinson is doing better with more playing time. He started playing more around July 8th and has hit .270 since then. It's been all singles - literally 1 XBH in those 34 games, but he's doing much better than Zimm. In Clint's last 5 starts he's 8-19 with 3 walks. Yes, those are probably favorable match-ups. Well keep playing him in favorable match-ups then.

Speaking of Zimm - no better since coming back. He started with a 3 hit night and has had 4 hits since giving him a line of .175 / .209 / .275 with 10 Ks.  We'll give another week or so but early indications is my "just sit him for the rest of 2016" plan seems easily arguable.

When Robinson starts, the bench has become just Heisey as Revere, Goodwin, Lobaton, Difo all are not hitting.

The veteran middle relief has really taken a hit. Oliver Perez (12.71 ERA, 2.647 WHIP) Petit (11.00, 1.778), have had terrible Augusts. I knew they were bad but I didn't know they were this bad. 

Why did the Nats trade for Rep? Because Solis has been sneaky bad. You can't rely on someone with a 2.000 WHIP. That's not going to work long term. They needed a reliable lefty arm and at this point of the season all they can do is throw stuff at the wall to see if it sticks.

On the other side of the mound, Melancon has been very good as has Belisle. Kelley and Treinen (one terrible outing) have both been better than their ERAs would suggest. So big right hand outs and any normal SP outing should be well covered.

All in all this may be an issue for the regular season until the rotation sorts out Lopez not against the Braves, Cole, and Giolito have all been various shades of disappointing and the Nats will have to reach for 4-5 innings occasionally. But for the playoffs? I'd hope that wasn't the case.

*Trout is hitting .319 / .436 / .562 for the year. He'll probably hit 30 homers, drive in 100, steal 20+, score 125. Remember when we had the people clamoring "Where's Machado?!" He has a terrible July just like Bryce - .204 / .288 / .337.  He's having a hell of an August (10 homers) though but he wasn't able to keep pace with Trout either. It's Trout #1, everyone else lining up behind him.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Other races

The Nats race is done. It was done a while ago, whether you were with me, after me, or before me in getting to that point inside of you you must be there now right? You must understand that if the Mets or Marlins play like they have all season the Nats would merely have to go like 7-24 or 8-23 to tie them. You must understand that if the Nats muddle through September going 15-16 from here on out then the Mets or Marlins will have to go 24-7 to catch them. You get this right?

So if the Nats race isn't watchable what is?

Well we'll start with what isn't. The NL Central makes the NL East look like a horse race. The Cubs have a 14 game lead on the Cards and are almost as far ahead of the Nats for home field as the Nats are ahead in the NL East. Neither that division or the race for HFA in the NL is interesting. Also Ian Desmond and his Texas Rangers have a similar lead to what the Nats have in the AL West. Consider that done.

NL West
Probably the most compelling race. Dodgers and Giants, two decades long rivals, fighting for the division. The Giants a biennial favorite to win the World Series, and this is the year. The Dodgers, the team that spent the most to try to get over the hump and get their first championship since 1988. They have 6 games H2H still left - starting on Sept 19th, including a season ending series. The only "shame" is the loser is on pace for the Wild Card rather than a vacation.

NL Wild Card
If everyone is mediocre things can still be exciting as the Cardinals, Pirates (-1.5), Miami (-2.5), and Mets (-2.5) battle it out for maybe 87 wins and the 2nd Wild Card.  Good baseball? Maybe not, but compelling? Sure. Impt series include Mets/Marlins right now and Pirates/ Cards starting on Labor Day.  They both meet near the end of the year so it could be a hot finish as well. (but knowing these teams 3 of them will go like 5-15 over the next few weeks)

AL East
A big ol glorious mess as the Blue Jays currently hold a 2 game lead over the Sox and a 4 game lead over the Orioles. (the 7.5 game lead over the Yankees only scares Nats fans who are still wary of the Mets and Marlins).  The Blue Jays are playing the Orioles right now, and will get Boston in little over a week, before finishing the season vs Bal and Bos back to back. In between all that Boston and Baltimore play eachother 7 times in 11 days from the 12th to the 22nd. There's a lot of potential in this race.

AL Central
Cleveland is up with a solid 4.5 game lead over Detroit and 5.5 over the hard charging (18-4 in last 22) Royals. The Indians meet up with the Tigers and Royals for two series each a starting on the 16th (with a White Sox breather inbetween) so it could be a great finish. It could also be over before it even gets there.

AL Wild Card
A mess but not quite as glorious as the AL East because it's a Wild Card thing. The Orioles, Tigers (-1), Astros (-2), Royals (-2), Mariners (-3), and Yankees (-3.5) all have a shot at that last WC spot. The Royals are trying to end the Yankees hopes right now, then take on the Tigers. The Yankees face Baltimore again after the Royals. The Tigers and Baltimore match up soon after that. If it still matters there are SEAvHOU and more KCvDET and BALvNYY beyond that. It's likely something will end up mattering.

The Rangers have a slight lead for this but have to play SEA and HOU 12 times in the next 15 games. After that it should be smooth sailing.  Toronto is closer than Cleveland but there is no rest for an AL East team. 21 games versus the teams we've talked about. Cleveland on the other hand has a more balanced schedule (even better if you don't like the Marlins - and I don't) so they are probably going to be the challenger, if there is one.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Monday Quickie : chugging along

What happens when you virtually clinch your division by mid August?  When you see that the two teams chasing you could win a week and a half straight weeks of ball games, that you could lose the same and you'd still be right there? That the closer team chasing you lost their star player for the year and the further team can't keep anyone healthy? You ease up. that's what. You lose focus on the race and you start to think about how long the season is and how you just want to get to the post-season already and well you lose games you should win.

That's one thing that might be going on with the Nats. Or it might not! I don't know.  I can't look into the heart of every player, not since an EMP pulse fried all my nano-camera floating in their bloodstream. It's ok though. Post-season after post-season has shown it's not about how you are doing when you get in. It's about how you do when you get there, how your top 2-3 pitchers do, and your overall talent. I know you want the Nats to go into the post-season winning 2 out of every 3 games but it doesn't matter. Really we'll take the post-season results and backfill the narrative anyway.

Mediocre September - Lose in NLDS : The team has played like crap for months and Dusty couldn't get them ready!
Mediocre September - Win in NLDS : The team was just resting and Dusty was able to get them up for the playoffs!
Good September - Lose in NLDS : This team just can't perform in the playoffs. Maybe they wasted too much energy playing hard till the end for no reason.
Good September - Win in NLDS : It's call 'momentum' people!

At this point what I'm thinking about is Strasburg and Ross and Zimmerman. Who's going to be healthy by the playoffs. I'm thinking the bullpen. How is Dusty going to settle it down? What's it going to look like post roster expansion. Is he even going to try to set up a 7-8-9 type of situation or is he going to keep going heavy match-up? That's what's on my mind. Not the Ws and Ls. Not until the Marlins get within a punchers chance - say 5 games or so, right now.

You worry if you like. We all follow differently.  But it's a lot easier on the spirit this way, I'll tell you that.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Let it Schrock.

The Nats won last night as Scherzer was dominant and the Nats bats... well they did enough! Thus ends all four games of the "tough" part of the schedule from Mid-August to Mid-September. Now it's the Rockies and Phillies and Mets and Braves and Phillies and Mets and Braves and Marlins. This should be where the Nats officially start putting teams away one by one. The Braves should be any day now. Ideally the Mets will be eliminated in that second series and the Marlins in that last one, but we'll see.

Speaking of Maxs the Nats made a trade yesterday sending Max Schrock to the A's for Marc Rzepczynski. Who is "Scrabble" (the only time I'll use that nickname - though it isn't a bad one)?  He's a 30 year old southpaw reliever whose job it is to get lefties out and pretty much nothing else. Now you may say "But Harper - he isn't getting lefites out this year!" and you'd be right. Lefties have a .755 OPS against him (while righties have a .674 one).  But historically he's been death to lefties and a delicious feast for righties.

2015:  RHB OPS : .972  LHB OPS : .661
2014:  RHB OPS : .944  LHB OPS : .441
2013:  RHB OPS : .859  LHB OPS : .480

If you believe this year's just been a fluke so far he's a LOOGY, plain and simple.  And even if you worry about it not being a fluke - understand that the .755 OPS, somewhere between Chris Heisey and Jayson Werth is pretty much completely average and is mainly average driven. In 81 ABs he's given up only 5 XBH to lefties, only 1 home run. Plus he's struck out 23 lefties in 89 PAs. This pick up makes sense.

Now is Max Schrock too much to give up? Depends on who you ask. We went over this for the Melancon trade but if all you care about is potential future value nearly anything is too much to give up for a rental reliever. Relievers pitch such few innings that they are barely going to effect a team's season, especially not a team with as large a lead as the Nats. In the playoffs chance drives their impact and there's always the "couldn't have another pitcher gotten this out" hanging over them. Since outs happen far more often that hits, even in bad matchups, the answer is usually yes to that latter point. The impact a reliever can have over the alternative is just very limited.

But is all you care about potential future value? If you care about winning then it's usually fine to trade prospects for anything, even rental relievers. Most prospects amount to very little. This is especially true when considering the 10th best prospect, not for the sport or a league, but for a team. They don't make the majors or when they do their impact is limited. It may not feel like that's the case but it is. You can just look at the players the Nats have traded and hell, the ones they haven't, to see that. For every Turner there are a dozen Balesters, Coles, Milones, Norrises, Peacocks, Freitases, Meyers, Pineyros, Krols, Lombardozzis, Burnses, and Karnses. A mix of never-made-its, cups of coffee, barely role players, and maybe a good year or two. That's what you usually give up and what you usually get.

Then why do people care so much? The same reason they'd scream if you ripped up a lottery ticket. "But what if?" Schrock isn't a nothing prospect. He's 21 (although nearly an "old" 21*) and he's hit really well in advanced A-ball (.341) after hitting in low A and regular A. That's good. He doesn't have any power. He doesn't have any patience. He's not particularly known for his fielding. That's not so good. The minute he stops hitting for .300 or so, his usefulness ends. (For completeness he seems like an ok runner). He probably tops out, if he's lucky, as a useful bench piece for a couple years. A guy who can come up and put the ball in play for you. That's worth more than 40 games of a reliever yes, but it's also something you can get with a couple million dollars at any point.

In other words if Schrock develops into what most people think he will he'd be a good piece to have. But in no way should his presence make the difference between success and failure for a team. You can get what it is Max Schrock is expected to be for next to nothing as far as a baseball payroll goes. That's what the trade is. Something you could get for a couple million today (an effective LOOGY reliever) for something you can get for a couple million later (an ok bench player).  

Does the variability in Schrock, the potential, matter? Yes, but only in bulk. If your team consistently makes these trades, empties out prospects 3-13 for a few years in a row, you'll likely find yourself with a dearth of bench prospects and probably will have "unlucked out" into trading someone who might have a 5-10 year decent career. Instead of a couple million, you may have cost the current team something more like 20 million. That can matter to a team** But the Nats don't do that. A trade or two every year should be fine. 

It's nearly playoff time and the Nats need to optimize for that. They aren't going to spend a ton of money so they will tweak here and there. LOOGY is something that looked like it could be improved. Rizzo did it. What's left? I guess they could find a bench player you like better than Difo. But I'm not sure there is one. He's good enough defensively and a fast enough runner to fill those roles. You'd really have to bring in someone who is a special at either of those to matter. I suppose a truly great contact hitter might be worth grabbing. Really we're at the margins here.

*If you have forgotten or never knew I like to make distinctions between "young" and "old" ages. Since the age for a player in the great baseball-reference website is set of July 1st that year it gives you the impression that someone who turned 25 on June 29th was the same age as someone who turned 26 on July 2nd, when they were more accurately closer to a year apart. That's not a bug. The line has to be set somewhere. But in order to lessen that false impression I call players who have a birthday in the first half of the season (OD-July1st) "young" and those in the second half (July 1st -October whatever) "old"  It's less important as you age, but it matters for minors IMO. 

**Though as always - it shouldn't matter. Rich men's toys whose valuations grow rapidly should not have payroll issues. There is no money bucket. However, I understand it will matter. 

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Opposite Directions

I tweeted something yesterday that encapsulates exactly why I would call the Nats season with so many games (at the time) left to play. Here is an expanded version.

After the games of August 5th, the Nats had won their 4th game in a row and had opened up a large lead over their closest rivals for the NL East title. They were 7 games ahead of the Marlins and had a 9 game lead on the Mets. In the 17 games since then the Nats have gone a middling 8-9. But they are in no worse position after the games of August 24th then they were then. The Marlins are still 7 games back and the Mets have even lost ground, now down by 10.

You can take negatives from this. This isn't how a winning team plays*  The NL East sucks**  I prefer to take a positive. The Nats will make the playoffs.

Now let's talk about a couple of guys going in opposite directions.  Do you want the bad news or the good news first? How about the Danny Espinosa, I mean "bad news", first. Sorry, slip of the tongue.

Danny is hitting .220 / .318 / .400. As it stands now he is holding on to the "good enough" level that we've talked about with Danny at the beginning of his career. If he can walk ok and hit homers ok then the low average doesn't matter as much. But he's only holding onto it by the skin of his teeth.  .235 is ok. .215 is not.  You could say the trend is not good, that he's flailing recently but that's not really the truth.  Here's the truth.

Danny's first 57 games : .196 / .289 / .348
Danny's next 26 games : .357 / .455 / .762
Danny's last 39 games : .168 / .269 / .248

Danny had one great month and almost 100 games of offense so bad you'd have to sit him. Being streaky is fine, but that word suggests you go on and off streaks all year. You run hot and cold. Danny... he isn't doing this. This is more fluky that streaky. It's more 2014, where he started with a good month and that was it, than 2015, where he played well for most of the first half and had a decent 3 week stretch right around now.

Even if you are inclined to like Danny and think he's more of the pre-injury guy (hovering in the 90-100 OPS+ range) than the post-injury guy (somewhere from worse than that to "if I played baseball"), there isn't much to hang your hat on. There's no unfortunate BABIP (it's .286)  His K rate, the bane of his offensive existence, which had dropped to a reasonable mid 20s% is back up well over 30%. The crazy HR/FB rate that helped power June went away, as expected. He's hitting a lot of balls softly. He tanked the end of the last two years. While you can excuse that last one (circumstances differed) you can't deny it and hope for a late season explosion.

This is basically Danny. If he hits a little better you can take it. If the team as a whole is pretty good offensively, you can accept his flaws in the 8 hole. But at some point he won't hit enough, or the team will struggle too much, and it just won't be worth it to keep the slick fielding around. This is why Trea Turner was brought here and Daniel Murphy signed. Danny is short term. Let's hope that doesn't mean "last year"

But now good news and one Mr. Anthony Micelli Rendon. Wait. Nope. The "M" stands for Michael. How disappointing. And Boring. But knowing the Nats it's pronounced MY-CHEY-EL

Like Danny is Danny, Rendon is Rendon. He will hit if he's healthy. The problem was it was taking a long time for him to get healthy. It was a very slow April (.242 / .310 / .286). May was ok but June seemed to be a half-step back from that. Given that we were half-way through the year at that point, it was reasonable to ask if he'd ever get it going in 2016, or if fans would have to wait until next year.

But right around that half-way point he began to heat up and he hasn't slowed down since. .312 / .386 / .584 starting with game 82. Rendon does have a little high BABIP recently but for the 2nd half it's a reasonably high .327. His K-rate, up in the 23% range, has dropped like a rock under 12% in the second half.  He's stopped hitting ground balls (down to 28% from over 40% earlier). He's probably a little lucky but the question isn't if he can be hit like he's hit post-break. That'd be great but it would be a Murphy like transition to MVP favorite type. No, the question is can he hit like the .287 / .351 / .473 line from 2014? I think it's safe to say yes. That guy had a .314 BABIP a K rate around 15%, similar hit patterns and fancy stats. I can't promise you Rendon is better than that (though he might be - he's still youngish) but I feel pretty good saying I don't think he'll be worse.

The Nats aren't a perfect offensive team by any means, but there enough good pieces here when everyone's healthy to make a very good offense. While guys like Zimm and Rendon got their feet under them other guys have picked it up. Ramos, Drew, Turner.  For a month Danny put the team on his back, but that's probably all he can do. It is time for the injury guys to step up and they have. Rendon is back to being Rendon.

*Not true.  Did you know the Royals went 8-16 in September last year? In 2014 the Giants finished the year 6-9?  In 2012 the Giants spent the end of July and first half of August going 11-13? The 2011 Cardinals spent most of the month before Labor Day going 12-14? The 2010 Giants went 12-16 for a stretch in August. The 200... I hope you get the point. Middling, even bad stretches, late in the year don't mean you can't win in the playoffs. In fact August and September cover a third of a season. It's more likely that you have a middling stretch in there than you don't.

**Now this has some teeth. The Nats lost only a half-game to the Phillies and gained ground on the Braves which means that since August 5th the NL East as a whole has played like garbage. The Marlins have the worst record of a second place team right now. The Mets are 5 out of 6 for third place teams. The Phillies - hey the Phillies are ok! I mean in terms of rating 4th place teams. And the Braves are the worst team in baseball.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016


Strasburg is on the DL with elbow soreness. This was after the Nats said repeatedly that everything was fine and he wasn't hurt. It may be true that this isn't a serious injury but given that the Nats haven't been forthcoming at all (nor need they be, mind you) there isn't any good reason to believe them.

Well, perhaps there is - Tommy John injuries are usually preceded by a loss in velocity - or at least that's what we've been told.  You know I hate "just saying things".  Nate Eovaldi just underwent surgery. Let's check out his velocity. Check. Down to 94 in his last game from the 97-98 range.  That's promising I guess. Let's grab some other recent starters that had TJ mideseason.  I see Lance Lynn, Alex Cobb, and Homer Bailey. Lynn no. He did have the dreaded "forearm tightness" in early June and missed two starts but continued to pitch the rest of the year with no discernable change in speed - at least not to me. Granted Lynn is not a power guy, averaging around 93 MPH.  Alex Cobb... looks like that injury happened in ST, so no stats.  Bailey?  Yes. Down at 93.5 then 90 for a guy that was more a 95-96 type. Oh Jason Vargas, what about you? Yes. Down to 86 from 88+.

It seems like something is here but that Lynn one bothers me. He did get in in the offseason, but it's not like he was pitching much from the playoffs to Halloween to explain it. Let's look at some more. Jose Fernandez? Maybe. It was down but not as much as some of these others. Ivan Nova? Not particularly, not as convincing as Fernandez. Matt Moore? Again maybe? Let's end with Matt Harvey. If you are going to compare anyone to Strasburg, he seems the most fitting. Looking at the velocity, I would say yes. Like Fernandez it wasn't a sudden large drop but the average velocity was down at the end. If you are looking for the trend you see it.

OK so I guess I'd say yes. I don't think it's impossible that we don't see a drop in velocity but it does seem that you usually do. However the 95 MPH guy suddenly throwing 90 and grabbing his elbow isn't a given. Sometimes it's more subtle. Sometimes it's more of a drop over time as opposed to a singular event. So what about Strasburg? There is a VERY subtle drop from early in the year. Usually guys take a couple starts to warm up. This year Stras would get to 96+ by the end of April and he topped out at 97 on May 19th. Since July 8th though he hasn't topped 96 as an average and he even went under 95 for a game. The latter is not unheard of - he did it once last year, three times in 2014. But the former... a streak like that he's only done once. In 2014 he went a full 12 games without breaking 96 for an average fastball speed. That seems more like a concerted effort than an injury given he was faster before and after.

What about other Nats?  Do I see any gradual season long VERY subtle drops? Max - no. Stable. Gio - no. Actually going up. Tanner - maybe? What about other years? Does Strasburg just slow down typically over the course of a year? 2015 - No. 2014 - No. 2013 - No.

I'm going to have to stop now but what I was trying to do was eliminate the possibility that this is a big bad Tommy John surgery type injury and I'm afraid I cannot. Strasburg has not had a quick noticeable drop in velocity. That is good - it would clearly indicate an issue. But that itself doesn't eliminate the possibility. Clearly noticeable drops in velocity don't happen every time. Sometimes the drop is more gradual and limited. Rarely you don't see it at all. The latter though seems pretty rare, especially for a power pitcher. Therfore, if Strasburg had no drop in velocity I wouldn't be worried at all. But I do see a drop in velocity. Not a big one, I'd even struggle to call it a small one. But there is that very slight trend down. If I were able to dismiss that as a "all pitchers have that happen over course of season" or "Strasburg always slows down" that would help, but neither of those is true.

So do I think this is a major injury? I have no idea. But I can't say with certainty that I believe it's not one. I'm just waiting in the dark like I was as a 12 year old getting info from the nightly news and daily paper. 

Monday, August 22, 2016

Monday Quickie - See Last Monday

Are you still worried? Miami has won 3 in a row. The Mets 2 (like for the second time since June or something like that). The Nats have arguably played terribly and their pen was taxed to the max. God - it must be close now!

Nats Monday August 15th - 8.5 game lead over Marlins, 10.5 over Mets
Nats Monday August 22nd - 8.5 game lead over Marlins, 11.5 over Mets

Just saying your energy should probably be directed to making sure the Yankees sweep the Mariners to (1) hold onto their slim Wild Card chances and (2) keep Seattle from making it. Personally I'd rather have Detroit, or Kansas City or Houston before Seattle. Baltimore's kind of a toss-up for me. If it's Boston or Seattle, of course, Seattle. But pretty much everyone else above the Mariners.

Oh wait - Nats blog, right.

That was some pretty terrible baseball. Especially last night - five errors! But there were also four in the three games before and that led to a lot of runs being scored that shouldn't have. The Braves are not a sneaky good offensive team. They are a bad one. In the 8 games before the Nats series the Braves scored 3 or fewer runs 6 times. So the Nats should have won these handily, especially given the starters performances. Lopez did exactly what they all should have.* Roark was ok. Max and Gio were passable. But errors and some poorly timed failures to get outs forced the pen into progressively more work. 2 IP to 2 2/3 to 2 2/3 to 4. That's a lot of innings for a pen in four days. Worse, outside of Treinen, pretty much everyone got hit. Again, Braves have a bad offense, so it's a bit more concerning, right now just as something to note.

Now it's up to Strasburg to go deep into the game, 7+ one hopes, and give the pen some rest. But it's not just the pen that makes this a big start for Stras. He's been progressively worse the past three outings. He was SHELLED the last time. He needs a good outing. The incidentals all line up for him. The weather should be fine (sorry "sweat excusers"). He only threw 71 pitches last time, and has only gone over 100 once in his past 4 starts, so he shouldn't be gassed. If not at home, he's close enough that I assume he stayed in his own place last night. The game itself will be hard though because the Orioles have a good offense with the only real hole in the line-up being Weiters, who hasn't gotten himself going all year. Is that an excuse? The other team is good? Sorry, not for me. I think Stras has to be good tonight. If he's mediocre, oh well, I'll take it in the sense it won't make me worry more and that's something. If he's bad though - don't come here with that "don't worry" stuff.

Ok let's get this going. The 40 game race to get the Wild Card winner starts now and the Cubs have a 5 games lead. The Nats can't afford a slip up.

*Please remember this. We seem to treat all good major league performances the same. They are not. Lopez faced the Dodgers - an average offensive team - and got shelled.  He faced the Giants - with a below average post-break offense - and got hit a bit. It's only when he faced the Braves - worst offense in the NL, still below average post-break - when he had good performances. Show me something against Baltimore, Colorado, and a healthy Mets team and I'll buy into it. 

It's funny how optimistic fans can be some times. Strasburg has three bad outings against mediocre offenses. "It's not enough to judge him. Give him a couple more starts" Lopez has two good outings against mediocre offenses. "He's a stud! Keep him in the rotation! Trade Gio when Ross is back!"

Friday, August 19, 2016

The Amazing Jayson Werth

Jayson Werth's time with the Nats is amazing. It's not about this on-base streak thing. That's slightly interesting but far secondary to the fact that he's been good during that time. Maybe very good (.264 / .382 / .460 - borderline. I'd go "good") certainly not great, but good is great when you were expecting bad.

Is that right?

Yeah, I think that makes sense.

And it's not about the fuzzy leadership you get from a guy described anywhere from the ultimate gamer to a huge egotist who cares not for your laws.

No Jayson Werth's time is amazing because he's twice now brought his contract back from the brink to acceptable levels.

Understand a couple points. First, the Nats overbid themselves for Werth, and paid him way more than necessary. You may want to argue this. Don't. No one has looked into this more than me. That's usually hyperbole, but I honestly believe this. I can have long discussions about the market at the time, the public expectations from people in the know, the idea of bad teams having to pay more to get players, the level of contracts similar players got during the time period, etc. etc. Just trust me on this point and keep reading because it's becomes sort of a side note anyway.

Second, contracts for guys in their 30s are always some level of overpay. That's the way the system works. You get underpaid when you are young, partially because your performance is more variable, mostly because they can underpay you. You get overpaid when you are old, partially because your performance is less variable, mostly because you can work the scarcity angle to force them to overpay you.

In general then, a player will never be worth what he is going to be paid for a long contract that ends in his latter 30s. That's what you accept when you make a deal. Because the Nats overpaid, that near certainty stood out even more*. But it doesn't mean necessarily these are bad deals on the field. The goal of these deals is different. It is not to get value over the course of the contract (sorry fangraphs!) but to get value immediately and to turn that into wins. On a 7 year deal you probably expect something like this:

Current level, current level, lower, lower, lower, lower, whatever.

For Werth at the plate that would be an OPS+ of something like 140 140 125 115 105 95... I don't know 70. Consider those contract years 1 through 7 for continuing discussion.

When Werth started he immediately came in and at the plate gave Nats "contract year" number... six. That is a disastrous result.  Now of course he wasn't well but that doesn't make it better. He's 32, injured, and just put up a mediocre year. This could have easily lead to the Nats getting absolutely nothing out of their highest paid player for 6 years. You can hardly have a worse outcome from signing a player long term, especially one that had just put up 3+ years of high level performance.

He would come back the next year and give something akin to year 4 or 5. He hit better than that yes, but only played half a season. It was better but the prospects for ever coming close to either getting back what you paid for, or getting what you expected seemed grim. What was he going to do? Have an OPS+ around 140 at 34 and 35? Ha!


Amazingly the answer was yes. In 2013 he hit even better than that, with only missed time costing him the chance at exceeding "contract year 1" expectations. In 2014 he more or less hit them. So the Nats got "contract year 1" and "contract year 2" only instead of in actual year 1 and 2 they came in year 3 and 4. Now things looked pretty good. If he regressed slightly each year, not a terrible assumption at least for the next couple years, he would provide them with that year 3 and a year 4 and they'd be on target for expectations. Maybe, just maybe, if he pulled out one more great year, they could have gotten more. I blogged about this at the time, but coming from where things stood the middle of 2012, that was a goddamn miracle.

But Werth didn't slightly regress. He got hurt and crashed again, basically giving the Nats "contract year 7" in year 5. At 36 it was quite possible he would be done and that would be that. The Nats managed to squeak out enough value that the contract wasn't a disaster but it would still end up a loss with three albatross years at the end dragging it down.

But again, like a beardy phoenix rising from the ashes of a flaming high-speed car wreck, Werth has come back. He's far more limited today than he was a couple years ago but he's giving the Nats a year that again will hit that 4/5 year level. That will pretty much mean that Werth will hit his expectations for the 7 years when the Nats signed him. 

This is all very broad and macro-level but at the end of the day twice in the span of Werth's contract it looked like things were going to turn out badly. First it looked as if it would be a possible "worst contract ever" contestant, later, it looked to be more a typical bad contract where the player's viability went away too quickly. In both instances he performed above expectations to make sure things turned out ok. First performing at an All-Star level at age 34 and 35, later, giving the Nats above average play at the plate at age 37.  That's not nothing. How many 34/35s or older are giving their teams All-Star play at the plate this year? Just three. Ortiz, Cruz, and Beltran. How many 37s or older and giving above average OPSs? Just a handful more with Ortiz and Beltran - Victor Martinez, Suzuki, Beltre.

You probably noticed I haven't mentioned defense and yes, Werth quickly became a bad defender which does go into this. But defensive stats are still being worked out, so I prefer to talk about them only in the broadest multi-year sense. In general you would have hoped Werth 2010 was a fluke. He had been a good fielder early in his career, bordering on very good. At the same time you probably would have expected him to age out at some point. Year 2 was probably quicker than you hoped but it was always going to happen. Only elite defenders can keep their worth that long. Also not in here is baserunning. Werth is a savvy baserunner and that has helped. He basically kept up his Phillies levels through 2014 before age caught up to him. This all matters but because hitting has the most reliable numbers I'm focusing on that.

Barring getting a complete zero from him next year, something worse than last year, Jayson Werth the player has been a good signing for the Nats. Not a good contract, but a good signing. He has nearly met expectations. Not in the typical way at all, but he's done it. That's all you can ask. And while it's doubtful he'll unleash a 125ish OPS+ year next season, I'm not going to doubt it at this point. He's twice defied being kicked into the abyss. What's one more miracle year? 

*and it's the main reason I'll always say it was a bad deal off the field. If you can get something for $100 and you pay $120, even if you get $120 worth of value for it - you made a bad deal.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Time to worry about Strasburg?

Strasburg had a terrible outing yesterday. That in itself is not telling. The number of bad outings in Coors field is close to infinity.  However, that outing didn't happen in a vacuum.  Strasburg's last three outings have all been bad and it's got some of us concerned. Should we be?

First let's understand how out of place these bad outings were. On August 1st Strasburg shutdown Arizona over 6 innings and lowered his ERA to 2.63.  After yesterday's game, just three starts later, his ERA has ballooned to 3.59.   He's pitched to a 14.66 ERA during this time, with opponents hitting .414 / .462 / .776 off him.

It's been progressively worse too. On August 6th he faced a good Giants offense, and got hit around a bit, giving up 8 hits in 4 2/3rds.  That included two doubles and two triples, but he also walked only 1 and struck out 8.  On August 12th he faced a garbage Braves offense and got hit around again. It wasn't as many hits (7 in 5 1/3rds) but it included 3 doubles and 2 homeruns and he walked 2, and struck out 7. Given the decrease in talent he was facing that was definitely a step down performance.  Yesterday, he faced the Rockies in Coors, which is almost always a tough outing and got blasted. NINE hits in 1 2/3rds. No homers but 4 doubles and a triple and worse - 3 walks (and only 3 Ks but out of 5 outs that's about right).  At least it can't get any worse right?

Yesterday was his worst outing of the year. The game on the 12th was his second worst outing. The game on the 6th was his third worst outing. (his 4th worst outing was Jul 21st). Could it be the heat? I suppose it could be an issue getting used to it. July was a problem in 2012 and 2013, but he hasn't shown much of that in the past few years. Plus he was always ok in August. So it makes a nice excuse but probably not.

So is it trouble? Well the good news is that it is probably not arm based trouble if it is. Usually you look for a sudden drop in velocity when that happens and that isn't the case here.

Then what is it? It would be remiss to write off three bad starts, each worse than the last, as just "this happens". Let's speculate!

It's the pitches per game
Strasburg had pitched 20 games by the crash. In 16 of them he hit the "magical" 100 pitch threshold. In three of the other four he reached 95 pitches. Maybe Strasburg is just a 6 inning pitcher who has been overworked. Of course he hasn't been worked overly hard either. He's only hit 110 pitches 3 times and tops out at 114. I'm not sold on this.

It's the slider
After you look at velocity you look at movement and only pitch that looks to be different is the slider. It's moving less side to side and more up and down. Strasburg always seems to want to tinker with a fourth pitch to go along with the fastball, change, and curve. However, fancy stats don't say there is an issue with the slider.   He's been getting killed on his straight pitches - fastball and change. So the slider change is interesting but not telling.

It's the location of the straight stuff
From April to July Strasburg was able to mix things up pretty good. Looking at where those fastballs and changes went it was a pretty even distribution. More in the middle but a good 38% at the bottom of the zone or below it. In August though (first 3 starts) he's only been able to hit that spot about 27% of the time and out of the zone has dropped from 18% to 9%.  This goes along with the batted ball stats which show that the number of groundballs he's inducing is down to 27.3% from 35% or higher in every other month. Also the number of soft hits is down precipitously and hard hits are up. Hmm we seem to be onto something here. However, August data is slim so you have to take that into account and percentage of strikes don't suggest he's getting more wild in general.

If it is a locating issue than that still doesn't answer the question unless for some reason the Nats have told him not to throw low. If he's having an issue getting the fastball to stay down then the question is still why? Why is that? What I would do next is look at his other pre injury times. Did he have trouble keeping the fastball down then? If so a similar injury isn't a bad guess. But it's still just a guess. His form could just be off. His landing spot could have shifted slightly. This is what you are getting paid for Nats staff. Figure it out.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The failing fallacy

Commenter Donald brings up some points about calling it now that I'm sure are echoed by every one still worried about how the next ~45 games are going to play out. We've seen teams lose 3-4 in a row and win 3-4 in a row all year long. If the Nats were to do something like the former and the Marlins like the latter, and the Nats were only up by 5, 5 games from now, surely I wouldn't call it then.

He's right. I wouldn't. Not with six head to head games left. But there's something at play here that we need to address. Just because we've seen teams win and lose in streaks like that does not make it likely. It just makes it possible. How possible is what drives "calling it". If that wasn't the case, you'd never call it before mathematical elimination.

So how possible is the scenario described above? Well both teams play 5 games in 5 days and the Marlins are 8.5 games out so technically 5 games out at the end isn't possible. But let's give the Marlins a rain out. Let's make the Nats go 1-4 and the Marlins 4-0.  That would do it. Those don't seem that crazy do they?

Well let's look at how many times these two teams have actually hit those marks in a 5/4 game stretch this season. We'll include overlapping streaks because well, they count too.

The Marlins have had 116 four game stretches (from games 1-4, 2-5... all the way through games 116-119) They have won all four games in those stretches 6 times. The Nats have had 114 five game stretches. They have lost four or more games 11 times. So if we take these things to be completely random you'd figure the chances of the Marlins having a 4-0 streak right now while the Nats were to have a 1-4 streak to be 6/116 * 11/114. That would be 66/13224 or real close to 0.5%.

That's not 5%, that's 0.5%, meaning there would be a 99.5% chance of that NOT happening.

But why does it feel like it could? Well part of the reason is that you aren't just following your team generally. You are following your team, and the teams that they are playing now, and probably playing next, and their divisional opponents, and maybe a couple other teams of interest.  All in all at any point in the season you may know how, let's say 8, different teams are doing.  Let's say they all have the same chances of winning 4 in a row as the Marlins. (probably not bc the Marlins are in the top half of the league but bear with me here).  The chances that any one of them are on a 4-0 streak at any given time is the inverse of the chances that all of them are not (the latter is easier to calculate and then we can just subtract from one). At any given point the chances of one of them being 4-0 is like a 1/3.  Let's say the chances of 0-4 are the same* and thus you have a 1/3 chance of one of the eight being on that streak at any moment too. The end result is that you have a pretty good shot at any one time, about 2/3rds, to find one of the teams you follow on a winning or losing streak of 4 games (or more)

It may not seem right but it is. If you are watching a bunch of teams, chances are someone is streaking. It's almost certain in fact if you are paying attention to half the league or more. If you are an AL fan Boston's won 5 in a row, LA has lost 4. Three other teams are on 3 game streaks. In the NL San Diego has lost 4 in a row and 4 other teams are on 3 game streaks. However the chances of any one specific team streaking in a certain direction and another specific team streaking in another direction at the same time are very low. They get even lower if they are going against what they have done all year.

This is just one part of why calling it makes sense though. Here's what simple logic tells us. The Nats are better than the Marlins. Therefore the chances the Nats gain a game in the standings is better than the chances they lose a game in the standings. It is more likely that we find the Nats 9.5 games up tomorrow than 7.5 games up (making a lot of assumptions - yes). Starting from this point it is more likely the Nats will be 12 up than 5 up after 5 games.  The streak analysis doesn't necessarily have to hold for this latter claim, teams can differ in how streaky they are, but it usually will, and in fact it does here. The Nats are pretty much exactly as likely to go 5-0 as the Marlins were to go 4-0, but the Marlins are way more likely to go 1-3 (or worse) than the Nats were to go 1-4. The end result is a 1.2% chance of the Nats expanding their lead to 12 games by this imperfect analysis.

By asking if the Nats are 5 games out a week or less from now would I have picked them at that point is essentially asking, "If you were to know an extremely rare and bad event would happen to the Nats in the next week, would you pick them" I might say no. But from this point I'll take the very very good odds that that extremely rare and bad event doesn't happen. Also note that when I made the call the Nats were in the beginning of a longish stretch against bad competition. The Marlins had just lost Stanton for the year. I didn't include that in any of the scenarios above but it is in there affecting all those odds in the Nats favor.

Donald also asks if maybe the Nats are not this good just on a hot streak now (and he doesn't ask but conversely let's go with the Marlins are better than this and are just cold) maybe they will streak to balance it out? He's right on the first points - though 120 games is a pretty good indicator, we don't really know the Nats true level. Part of that is just because that's a shifting target, with injuries, development, etc. But maybe they are a 92 win team instead of the 96 win team they are on pace for. (or the 102 win team RS/RA suggest or any other such projection) Who can say? And the Marlins could be better.

The problem is, for this worry, is that the "streak to even out" is not very likely. It doesn't work that way. Regression to the mean doesn't mean if you are a .500 team and you go 5-0 that you'll go 0-5 to get back to .500. It means that you'll play around .500 ball the more games you play and that winning percentage will drift back down to .500. 5-0 and a 1.000 winning percentage becomes 10-5 and 0.667, 20-15 and .571, 55-50 and .524.  If the Nats are worse and the Marlins are better, even if the Marlins are better than the Nats, it's hard for them to catch them because the most likely scenario over 20 games puts the Nats going say 11-9 and the Marlins 12-8, with the chances of different levels of success and failure rapidly diminishing from these central points. It's is very unlikely for a team, even if they are better to make up more than a few games over the course of a time frame even as long as a month.

Take the Nats - how have they done in a month? They've gained 1.5 games on the Marlins, 3.5 on the Mets, lost 2 games to the Phillies, and gained two on the Braves.  The Cubs have gone 20-8. That's huge! Back to their "maybe a top season of all-time pace" But even they didn't expand their lead by more than 4.5 games for three of the four teams behind them.

I called the Nats because it is simply very very unlikely for a Nats team that is better than the Marlins to find themselves losing all this ground in what remains of the season. Even if you don't think that the Nats are better, it's still very unlikely. Hell, even if you thought the Marlins were the best team in baseball and the Nats the worst, an 8.5 game lead over 45 games is pretty safe. It's over.

*This isn't the case, especially if you are looking at teams like the Marlins who are better than .500 but we're just spitballing here.

Monday, August 15, 2016


The Nats are going to be NL East champions. Celebrate! 

For those of you who can't buy in to this yet. Sorry. But the facts have reached the overwhelming point for me. The Nats currently lead the Marlins by 8.5 games and the Mets by 10.5.  They face an easy schedule for the rest of the month. They are more likely to see the lead expand over the next 15 days, than contract. It's over.

The idea that the Marlins may be able to overtake the Nats was always built on the idea that they could slug their way to victory. The starting pitching is too mediocre for another path to be viable. Stanton is now out for the year. That closes that path.  The idea that the Mets could come back was based on the idea that they'd get healthy and get a surge in play much like last year. They aren't getting healthy fast enough as Cespedes might be back Friday. The Mets arguably began their run on July 31st last season going 19-6 to turn a 3 game deficit into a 6.5 game lead. In the same time frame this year they've gone 6-8 and lost 4 games of ground. This path is closed.

We can talk about paces now as well.  Despite being 22 games OVER .500 right now let's say Nats go .500? (23-23). That's a 92-70 team. To match that the Marlins would have to go 31-14.  Their season so far, with Stanton, suggests 24-21 being most likely. The Mets would have to go 33-12.  Their season so far would suggest 23-22.  The Mets' incredible run last year got to 37-17 at one point. Either of these paces needed to catch a .500 Nats team is better than that. Flip it. Let's say the Marlins go 24-21. That's an 85-77 win team. The Nats would have to go 16-30 to match that. That's a 96 win team through 70% of the season, playing like a 56 win team for the last 30%. It's done. Nats have all but won.

That's not to say the Mets or Marlins won't come back to bite the Nats in another way. Either could win the 2nd Wild Card because the NL Wild Card race, for the 2nd spot, is wide open. Get in the WC and you're in the playoffs and anything can happen. But that's for later. For now it's about the division and the division is set.

Even though it's an easy schedule, the next couple weeks will be hard. Why do I say that? It'll be hard because the Nats competition is bad enough that they'll probably go on a run and you'll be tempted to say "This team is coming together!" It may be. It may not be. Colorado, Atlanta, and Philly don't allow for a fair judgment on that.

They get Colorado in Denver and in DC. They get the Braves, a bad pitching team, again in Atlanta. They get the Phillies, a bad pitching team. They will very likely score a bunch of runs. Don't take this to mean the offense is fine. They should do well, very well in fact. If they hit - it's just par for course. If they DON'T hit, it's a problem. Hopefully they do score a bunch. Hopefully this run of bad arms and good hitting parks will get guys like Bryce and Revere and Espy back on track. But it'll be mid-September before we can judge that. Remember that when you start reading "Don't overlook the Nats" stories the weekend before Labor Day.

Though I'm getting to analytical on a day that should be about celebration. Pop those corks! Ask "Where's my pennant?" Say "NL East Champs or Bust".  This is done. The Washington Nationals are going to win the NL East. 

Friday, August 12, 2016

Ramos and Murphy

The Nats have been carried most of the year by two bats. Daniel "MVP" Murphy and Wilson "MVP" Ramos. (Yes - let them split it). They both rank in the Top 10 of OPS and wRC+ and haven't seemed to slow down a bit. However, there are still 50 games to go and that's like 30% of the season. Is there any chance these guys will stop hitting?

For Murphy, I'd say it's unlikely.  Murphy hits. That's what he does. His lowest batting average since 2011 is .281.  He has hit at least .280 in something like 21 out of 27 (over 75%) months of playing. His BABIP (.346) is high, but not strangely so, and it's not that out of line with BABIPs past (.345 .329 .315 .322)  He could slump, anyone can, but a profound one is unlikely. Instead the question with Murphy is one of power.

Murphy has hit 21 home runs this year, already well over his career high of 14. True he's hitting more fly balls (over 43% when his previous post 2011 high was around 36%) but the real driving force is a change in his HR/FB rate. It is up around 13.3% when it had previously peaked last year at 8.3%.  But that last year peak is part of the reason to feel optimistic about the power staying. Last year he started to pull the ball more in August and September and he started to hit more flyballs. In short, he started to go for the home runs. His HR/FB rate went over 10% and he hit 8 homers in two months after hitting 6 in the previous 3+. It looked like he fundamentally changed as a hitter.

He didn't quite pick up right where he left off when the season started. His April numbers were more average and doubles driven, and he ended the month and went into May on a 19 game homerless streak. But in early May he turned the homer power back on and it's mostly been on since then. He had a dip of 1 homer in 17 games in mid June (he hit 5 doubles and a triple during that time) He bounced back from that just fine.

So is there any cause for worry? Well if you are that type he may be on a similar snide right now (1 homer in 11 games) and while I'd expect a bounce back there's no guarantee that it has to be in the next week. This could drag on longer than the previous streaks especially with the built up fatigue of a season in place. The other thing that might cause a slight worry is there's been a minor drop in "hard" hit balls and increase in "soft" hit balls. These numbers (33.3% and 18.5%) are the lowest and highest of the season for him, respectively. At the same time in those months at the end of last year he "beat" both those low marks and he ended up with months that were perfectly fine.

If I had to guess I'd put money on Murphy's power slowing down a little bit. Along with the soft percentage steadily going up, there's a drop in his ability to get hits off high pitches. Small sample yes yes. But I'm just riffing here. I think he's getting a little tired. It's a long season and he's on pace to play 154 games, more than either of the past two years (143 and 130).  He may still hit over .300 these past two months, but I think with perhaps with a little less power, maybe similar to how he ended last year (which was very good!)..

Ramos is trickier. He doesn't have Murphy's same history of hitting and his current average (.336) would best his previous major league high by over 60 points. You'd have to go back to his minor league days to find a time where he hit for average. But that in itself might be telling because the question with Ramos is how much LASIK helped him. If he could see better when younger, a pretty fair assumption, then him being a high average hitter in the minors might be linked to how he should do now, with presumably clear vision.  But that's a LOT of speculation. For Ramos we really have to look at this year and see what we see.

One of Ramos' biggest issues is he's slow. Super slow. If the GB doesn't go exactly where it should then it's an out. This year the GBs are going exactly where he needs them to. Generally GBs are base hits at about a .230 clip. For Ramos this year it's happening at a .255 rate well above the .160 and .170 of previous years. Could something else be driving those low BABIPs? Well in the past two years he hit grounders very slowly. Only 12% of his grounders were hit hard. The softer they are hit the more that are gotten to and for Ramos the more outs that are made. This year it's up over 20%. So voila? Not quite. In 2012 and 2013 he hit GBs even harder, and had far fewer softly hit balls. In the two years combined (it's Ramos here - full seasons are rare) his BABIP was around .214.  So it really feels like for GBs things should be more like those years and that we're looking for a drop in average.

Of course if he's hitting more liners and homeruns this year that would soften that fall. Well we get half that - he is hitting more line drives this year. While his average there is also a little high - he is crushing the liners and his leg speed matters a lot less here. I'm not going to knock him here like I did for the GBs. However, he isn't hitting more homers, or at least his HR/FB rate isn't any higher. So that isn't going to help the average stay up.

What will though is the decrease in strikeouts. Ramos' K rate had climbed to 20% last year. his swinging strike rate rose to 12.1%, his contact rate down to 77.5% all career worst. This year those numbers are much improved surpassing the numbers he put up in the 2012-13 years.

Looking at this data - there is clearly a Ramos that existed pre 2014 and one that existed in 2014-2015.  The one that existed previous to 2014 hit the ball hard and hit a lot of homers (16 in 287 at bats in 2013, better pace than this year). There was some bad luck involved, especially in 2013 that kept how well he was actually hitting from being immediately apparent. The 2014-15 Ramos didn't hit the ball hard, and struck out a lot. There was probably a little good luck involved to make 2014 look ok, but it all came to a head last year. What is 2016? It feels like the natural progression from 2012-2013. He's hitting the ball so much like he did in those years, it makes you feel like 2014-5 were anomalies. I'd say he is player who is healthy, learning to ID pitches better and make better contact, not necessarily hitting the ball differently but becoming a better hitter around the edges.

I don't think Ramos will be the hitter he was in 2015. I don't think that's possible from the player I see today. But I do think he'll probably hit in the .280 range from here on out. That just fits the data better than the .335+ he's hitting now. But with Ramos because he's so slow, I can see the opportunity for a deeper slump. He's not going to luck into swinging bunts and legged out hits that might help a Murphy in the midst of a run of bad luck. So he could hit something like .240 pretty easy, it's just one or two hits breaking the wrong way.

In either case though I don't see any reason to believe these guys have lucked into being productive offensive players. I think Murphy is a changed man, finally figuring out how to turn his innate ability to make good contact into one that generates power. He might tire a bit down the stretch costing him some homers but that's the worst I see. Ramos is a player finally completely 100% ready, with a healthy body and, we assume, sharp eyes. He is back to hitting as he had before and even better continuing the progression that a hitter can take as they get used to playing in the majors.  He might stop lucking into grounders going where they ain't and maybe even have that luck turn but he's not going to shut off like a faucet, not if he keeps hitting the ball as he is now.

These two can and should keep hitting. Obviously you never know but that's how I see it. Now - if Murphy slows down the pop and Ramos' average drops well then they become less likely as a pair to carry the team. Two very good hitters are not enough. So the offense still needs more, but it doesn't need to worry about these guys.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

8 games

A while back looking at this stretch I said that if the Nats ended up here 9 games up that would be enough. I even thought to myself that 8 games might be enough to call it.  Where are we? 7.5 games up on the Marlins. RIGHT THERE

So basically we enter a time frame where a Nats win and Marlins loss means I'll probably call it. The Mets have an outside chance, I suppose, if you are being technical about it, to get back in there but why would you think that? The talk has been about the Mets not winning back to back games in forever but the reality is they haven't won a series since taking one from MIA. The Mets have in fact been a great friend to the Nats. Since June 27th when the Nats had a modest 3 game lead on the Mets and Marlins, the Mets have gone 4-2 versus the Marlins and 1-6 versus the Nats. Flip the Marlins games and make the Nats series competitive (say 3-4) and the Marlins are an honest threat rather than holding on by their fingernails. Thanks Mets!

The Nats still have potential to have offensive problems heading down the stretch. If Bryce doesn't come back healthy and right, then the bottom of the line-up is a hole and the top is relying on a couple of injury risks and a rookie to keep it from being a two-man show. But the Nats are ok skating on this for as long as their NL East opponents can't capitalize and the pitching remains very strong. As long as it is set and ready at game 162 then it can take it's time finding its feet again. Will it? We'll see. Yesterday gave you an idea of how Werth and Rendon can compliment Ramos and Murphy. In itself not enough but the base from where a returning Bryce and one more solid bat (Turner?) can finish off the thing.

Gio was old Gio. He's been pretty good recently but I think, looking to playoffs, that he's just the fourth arm, not the fourth starter. If the Nats are up 3-0, maybe 3-1, maaaaaaybe 2-1 in a 7 gamer, then you can roll with Gio in that next game, especially if the team has some strong lefty bats. Otherwise he's mopping up for Stras - Max - Roark.

OK day off. Relax. Put up the plastic and wheel the champagne out, but don't bring the cameras in yet. We don't want to be gauche.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Espinosa - the bottom third key

So going through those questions the next one is about Danny Espinosa. Is his season coming to a crashing halt?

It may not be something that you've noticed. There have been bigger issues, like first base, centerfield, and Bryce, to focus on. Danny is not asked to do much so slumps from him are more tolerable. Danny is known as a defense first player so what he does at the plate overall is less important. Yet with Nats trying to plug two holes with one rookie and creative shifting, the end result is a decent Danny may be the difference between a decent lineup and one where a good starter can downshift for three batters.

How bad has Danny been? Well his July was abysmal .193 / .283 / .341 and his August has been arguably worse .227 / .320 / .273.  Since the All-Star break, admittedly a short time frame, Espinosa ranks 159 out of 169 qualified batters in OPS.*

Now normally we'd start going through fancy stats right now trying to explain such a fall but the truth is, with Danny this isn't an aberration. His 2014 (.219 / .283 / .351) was just as bad. As was his 2nd half of 2015 (.206 / .259 / .346). As was his April (.185 / .316 / .246) and May (.208 / .283 / .376) of this year. The exception is not Danny performing poorly. The exception is Danny performing well.

What is Danny's main problem? It's striking out. When things are going very poorly for him he doesn't make contact at all. That 2014 season had him striking out at a staggering 33.5% rate. This July had him striking out 36% of the time. These are untenable numbers. If you are putting the ball in play about 2/3rd of the time a decently lucky BABIP of .333 would only get you to a .222 average.

Of course Danny isn't Ben Revere. He doesn't rely on average. He relies on power and a bit of patience. If he can have them both going on - well even a .230 average is passable. But he's only had it going on like that once this year. In June, when he was hitting well too. Thus his All-Star month  of .309 / .418 / .704. Otherwise both have been more off than on and that's been the case for much of his post injury 2013 career as well. I looked at the months** for Danny and saw where his BB% or ISO were over about the average for the time frame (ISO .160, BB% 7.5%). There were six times out of 13 where he hit with better than average power, and five times out of 13 where he walked more than average. The rough effect, if you assume random distribution***,  is that about one month out of the year he'll do both, and for the most part he needs to do both.

All this is pointing out the same thing, though. Danny is not a good offensive player. Not at this point in his career (maybe not ever). But what about his defense? It's still very good according to the metrics. Shortstop is a position loaded with talent and Danny still ranks in the Top 10 according the fangraphs Def stat, and that feels right to me. Defensive stats can be fluky but Danny was nearly this good last year. He was around this good in 2013 and 2012. This isn't a fluke - he's a top defensive shortstop and that means a lot.

I'm not advocating sitting Danny. I'm just clarifying who he is and what that means. Danny is a great defensive shortstop who's secondary offensive skills (power and patience) are good enough to make him an interesting bat at the bottom of a line-up. But he can fully tank and in fact probably should be expected to for at least a third of a season. Still he offers about as much offensively as a consistent slap-hitting no patience .280 SS who fans would more likely accept. For a season, Danny is a decent player to have as your starting shortstop. For a shorter period of time though - things can get very dicey. This terrible second half? It could easily last all the way to the end of the year. His most likely finish to 2016 from here on out is "not good"

And I think that should be ok. That Nats shouldn't need him to be good. They should have decent bats in most of the other positions so they can have this great D, interesting bat guy starting. The problem isn't with Danny, or probably more accurately, the problem with Danny is a problem you solve last. The problem is the first base / center field issue. 

Of course if Murphy and Ramos keep fighting it out for an MVP, you can probably suck up those issues and Danny as well, but that's a question for an upcoming day.  See I can be positive! We'll talk about Murphy and Ramos!

*You know who ranks 168th? bryce.

**disregards August 2016, Sept 2015 (did not play enough) and groups 2nd half of 2014 into a psuedo-month

*** might seem silly - if he's hitting well he should be more likely to do everything well at same time, but it didn't really seem to hold.

Monday, August 08, 2016

Too far not to call

Is what I could be saying in just a couple days.

The Nats continue to play quality baseball, and while the season has had it's ups and downs, the ups climb higher than the downs dig low. A 2-6 run, followed by a 8-3 sprint. The Marlins don't look talented enough to make go at it, and the Mets are too injured.  Honestly I would be surprised if this thing doesn't get called by week's end. But we'll still wait. Cleveland is a formidable opponent and if the Nats stumble for some reason against the Braves they'll be travelling to Colorado probably facing a team desperate for wins. Meanwhile the Mets play nobody (ARI, SD, @ARI) and the Marlins, well they play a decent schedule (SF, CHW, @CIN) but nothing crushing.

This is the last stand for the other teams in the NL East. Gain ground now, keep it in the 6 games out area until H2Hs come back, or cede the division. That's how I feel.

Going through our questions - the Nats can start to look toward shoring up the team's holes and arguably their biggest hole is at first base*. Zimmerman has had a terrible year. While the power is still sorta there and he's walking just a little bit less than he usually does, he is hitting a mere .222, rather than the .280+ he seemed to settle into after his MVP worthy peak.**  This turns a guy from a fringe All-Star to an Espinosa. Behind him, Clint Robinson, who filled in ably last year, has seen his production plummet across the board.

Is there any coming back from these drops? For Zimm, it's hard to believe so.  You could point to a low BABIP (.247) and the fact that his batted ball stats (GB/FB rate, where he hits it, how hard he hits it) don't look all that different to suggest he may hit again. But I would point to the fact that the things that are changing are not just a single year anomaly but part of a larger trend.  That BABIP? It was low last year (.268). His LD% is dropping like a rock, suggesting he can't square up on the ball. To back that up I see an increased swinging strike rate up to the highest of his career. Worse yet, the "pitch value" scores, numbers that try to tell how well a player hits certain pitches, shows a player having increased difficulty with a basic fastball.

If this were really an issue - that he can't hit a good fastball anymore that it should show up in power/finesse splits***. How do the power/finesse stats look?  You may want to shield your eyes and remove small children from the room.

vs. Power : .104 / .167 / .194  for an OPS of .361

If it makes you feel any better, he hits those finesse guys well! (.278 / .353 / .478)

There is one last thing. If he really couldn't hit the fastball they could just throw high heat right by him.  Onto the great Brooks Baseball to see his Whiff Rate on Hard Pitches.


Maybe it is an injury thing, but right now Ryan Zimmerman is simply not a capable major leaguer hitter.

So what about Robinson? Well he's having a similar mix of issues. Low BABIP (.211) likely driven by a low LD rate (11.4%) and trouble with the fast ball. Unlike Zimm though, there is no trend downward. These numbers are not just low but they are conspicuously so. It's 152 PAs or a little over a month worth's of games.  All that would have me lean toward "not enough evidence - assume it's just a fluke issue".  I'm not saying Robinson is going to light the world on fire, but I do think if put into a regular every day role at first base he should be about league average.

Is that good enough? For most teams no, but for the Nats it should be fine. They are getting best in the majors performance from catcher and second base, so a first baseman that only hits ok is workable. However, the Nats are not going in this direction. Instead they are shifting Murphy, moving Turner back to the IF and putting Revere back in the game. I don't think that's the right move.  Revere has had basically twice as many PAs as Robinson and has shown himself to be completely incapable at the plate. There are no signs it is getting better, in fact he's hitting worse. And while Robinson gives you some pop and patience, Revere is all average. If he isn't hitting, and he isn't, he is a complete zero at the plate. While this improves the defense, I think the Nats are adding a dangerous hole to a line-up that with Espy's troubles could find itself with a gaping bottom third heading into the playoffs.

Give Robinson a true shot. 2-3 weeks. During this time let Revere rest (I believe his drop off is too severe and sudden not to be injury related) If Robinson is ok by the end, let him keep at it. If not, give Revere a shot I guess. Zimmerman? He's done. At least for this year. The Nats have 3 more seasons to think about. Shut it down.

*Only Phillies have had a worst 1B situation and that's the moldering corpse of Ryan Howard.

**Seriously. Disregard the vote totals because they are driven by the wins of the team.  He wasn't better than Pujols, but for a brief 2-years span (09-10) Ryan Zimmerman was a Top 5 player in the game. 

***Power guys strikeout a lot of guys but walk a lot of guys.  Finesse guys do neither. This works pretty well as a measure of power because strikeouts generally drive this number.

Thursday, August 04, 2016

Tick Tick Tick



These are the paces the Mets and Marlins would have to play to catch a Nats team that goes .500 over the course of the last 54 games.

The Nats could possibly pull that off. They've played roughly .500, maybe even a couple games under, for a couple of long-ish stretches. But they've always bounced back and over 54 games their worst stretch this year is 29-25. It would have to be a disappointing finish to say the least. The Marlins have peaked with a 32-22 streak this year - close to what they need but not quite there. The Mets over 55 games 32 wins as well, a little further off a 36 win pace.

You can see why I'm enthused and also why I can't call it just yet. I'm enthused because for the Nats to lose the East would take them playing the worst they have all year over such a long stretch and one of the team's chasing them playing the best they have over the same time frame. That's not very likely. At the same time it is a third of the season that remains and that's a long time for things to happen that can derail a season. And while the Nats have to play the worst they have and the other teams have to play the best they have, the paces aren't that far off the worst and best they've done so far. It's not likely, but it's just possible enough that you can't write it off. Yet.

What would it take to write it off? If the Nats can gain a couple more games over the next 5 games (SF, CLE) then that might be enough. At that point you are asking the Nats to go .500 over 50 games, where they play 13 vs ATL, 7 vs PHI, and 4 vs ARI. That's almost half against some of the bottom feeders of the NL. So while Baltimore has maintained its status and Colorado has streaked to become a decent match-up it would still be hard for me to envision the Nats going .500 over that time frame. If they do better than .500 and are starting with 9 games in hand? I'm sorry but now you are asking the Mets or Marlins to have historic finishes.

We're getting close people. But not yet.

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Not calling it... yet

The Nats won and while the Mets won the Marlins lost, putting the Nats 6 games over their nearest competitor for the NL East crown. The end of the Nats difficult run (which Arizona is technically in, like a limp piece of lettuce hiding in your sandwich) comes up in a week and the Nats are looking very likely to end the run in as just as good as shape as they started.  They've gone  9-8 during this time, which is completely respectable given the schedule but leaves the door open for a hot team to close some ground. Neither the Mets or Marlins could do it though.  The Marlins going 10-9 and the Mets 8-10.  Assuming nothing goes wrong the Nats will hit the easy part of the schedule, the part where you should see them pull away, at the edge of having the division wrapped up.  It's not going to matter if they have 6 games H2H versus the Marlins or Mets if they are 10 games up at the end of the month.

But I won't call it just yet*. The Mets and Marlins made just enough improvements at the deadline to give their teams punchers chances and the Nats hard schedule isn't over. Soon though, it could happen real soon.

As for the trade deadline talk, I'm going to put it to bed.  I'll hold to the fact that all you can count on by holding onto prospects is an increase in projected value. As a team that may mean a lot. You care about stuff like profits and long term budget planning. As a fan, projected value in of itself is of little importance. You want the tangential benefits of more wins and more playoffs. But you can't count on wins because wins will take those players making that projected value a reality, the team committing to using that value and the expected free money in the budget to sign FAs, and the FAs being willing to come to your team over other offers.**  You really can't count on playoffs because playoffs take even more things going your way such as luck with injuries, breakouts vs collapses, and how your opponents develop over that time frame. For the fans, trading for now vs keeping prospects for later is a philosophical choice. There is no general right and wrong, merely opinion.

That is past now it's onto the stretch run and answering relevant 2016 questions such as - Can Bryce get his mojo back? Is there a solution to the giant sucking first base hole?  Is Espinosa's season dying on the vine? Will Murphy and Ramos ever stop hitting? Are the bursts for Werth/Rendon going to last? Who's going to be the big bat off the bench? How well does the talented, but slightly erratic bullpen come together now? What happens to Papelbon? Do the Nats keep stumbling with a starter every 5th day because they can?*** 

And answering questions not relevant to 2016 such as - How much money is Ramos going to get paid and will the Nats pay it? Will Murphy hit over .350? Will he win the MVP?  How many more triples can Trea Turner hit? Will he ever get caught stealing?  Can he win the ROY? How many Nats will hit over 15 HRs this year? Can the Nats get Strasburg to 20 wins? 25? Will he win the Cy Young? Will Scherzer lead the league in HRs given up and still win 18 games?****

It's fun times when you can do stuff like that rather than scoreboard watch incessantly.

*Some of you will cry "But you called it last year and jinxed the team!". Ignoring the fact that I don't hold jinx powers (at least not ones I don't use directly) this ignores the fact that my super early call last year was made with the caveat that the Mets didn't change their roster significantly. When they added Uribe and Johnson and Clippard AND Cespedes, that obviously changed the roster significantly. Does anyone think without adding those players they would have overtaken the Nats? I hope not. Also I'll note that I called the 2014 race on 9/4 and the 2012 race on 9/5 with no caveats. It comes when it comes, how it comes. 

**Plus you can pretty much just spend your way to wins. Not playoffs, but wins. 

*** Yes? No. Yes. Doesn't look like it. No/Yes. No one. Pretty damn well. Middle innings then dumped in a waiver trade. Yeah probably. 

**** A LOT and no. No, but over .340. Yes! 5 more. Not this year. Have you heard of Corey Seager? Seven. Yes. No, but close. Yes! No and no.

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Trade Deadline talk

The Nats did nothing on the last day of trading and at this point we have to accept the pattern.

They will not give up any meaningful prospects for a top player available in trade. They will not (pending further information and trades) spend any significant money mid-season.  These facts mean its unlikely the Nats will stock up at the trade deadline, fixing all potential issues. Instead they are limited to finding one useful piece that fits these criteria.  This is what they did this year for Melancon, and last year (Papelbon), and in 2014 (Cabrera), and in 2013 (Hairston), and in 2012 (Suzuki - actually mixing it up with a wavier trade 3 days after the deadline!)

So next year when the Nats need a... i don't know, 1st baseman, LOOGY, and could use a bench OF, expect them to pick up one of those for what seems like a great deal and do nothing else. Twice is a pattern. Five times is a corporate philosophy.

What about the Bruce trade? It makes the Mets competent. To me, it's the equivalent to the Johnson/Uribe trade they made last year.  It sets them up with a major league line-up again but it doesn't provide a game changing player. Like with the Marlins deal I take this to mean I can't dismiss the Mets out of hand. However, I may very well soon be able to dismiss them given the circumstances. Adding Lucroy as well would have made me worried.

Anything else from the deadline? Yes, the Giants, even year juggernauts, solidified a spotty rotation and shored up a tired pen. Wil Smith is just good. Matt Moore is merely fine. But the important part is they keep the Giants from having to use players that are not good and not fine.

The overall trade deadline certainly felt like the Nats are saying, "this is the team we are rolling with" against more aggressive moves from the likes of the Giants, Cubs, and Dodgers. The Pirates even seemed to try to re-tool on the fly. It's understandable in the face of the Mets and the Marlins, why the Nats don't really need to do more. But come October they aren't playing the Mets and the Marlins anymore and the "this is the team we are rolling with" philosophy has gotten the Nats all of two early October trips to St. Louis and San Francisco during this time.

Am I too down? Perhaps. But I feel like the constant moderate budget prospect driven success that the Nats are going for is extremely hard to obtain. I think the end result is what we've seen so far, on and off years, playoffs and not. Yes the Braves did it but the Braves run was based around three, THREE, Hall of Fame pitchers in their relative prime pitching for the team at the same time, boosted mid run by a HOF third baseman.That's a hard thing to replicate, even when handed two "generational" talents.

OK but there's the season to finish out and a pennant to take. Nats KILL. Mets lose. Marlins lose. Feeling pretty good about things so I take that to mean the Nats will lose the next two?

Monday, August 01, 2016

Melancon Q & A

We could talk about the road trip but it's progressing like the Nats season has progressed for 100+ games now. Solid play making you think the Nats are about to finally put the rest of the NL East behind them followed by some slip-ups to make you worry just a teensy little bit. Like you can see worry coming, but it's not here yet. In the grand scheme of things the Nats played the homestand a couple games worse than I would have liked, but are likely to come out of the road trip at least a game better than I expected. Basically don't get swept in these three games and it's passable road trip, albeit one with a sad finish.

But who wants to talk about that. Let's talk about trades! Like last year I'll do it in self-questioning format.

Q: Same opening question - does this make the Nats better? 

Yes. Losing Rivero isn't nothing but Melancon has been one of the top relief pitchers in baseball for four seasons now. The question of "who is going to close" may be a silly one but it's one that matters because it seems to have a psychological effect on the bullpen, the manager, and possibly the team. This answers that question with no uncertainty. Melancon, who is a great closer, will close. This lets Kelley fall into the much-hated by me but a fact of current baseball life "set-up role" and then let's Dusty do his match-up magic, with a more than competent collection of arms in the 7th and if necessary the 6th.

Q. What happens to Papelbon now? 

I'm not exactly sure. He knows he's likely out as closer and he seems at peace with that idea. I assume that means he can feel something is up with how he's pitching, because he doesn't seem the type to accept this type of move if he thought he still "had it".  Of course if you shift Papelbon into the set-up role you are simply moving the problem, not eliminating it. The best move and best guess of what happens now is that Kelley sticks in 8th and Pap joins the group of other guys for use whenever is necessary. There hasn't been a situation yet which would confirm this, but Papelbon was warming in relief of a losing game yesterday and Kelley was not. If that is his role, can he adapt to it and will he take to it? He may have been fine with the Melancon addition assuming he would be set-up.  Also - as you can probably guess, Papelbon will not be back next year.

Q. Melancon for Rivero and a minor leaguer! Steal! Rizzo did it again! 

Sort of. The Pirates were in a peculiar situation. They are still in contention for a Wild Card so they didn't want to give up on the season entirely, which trading Melancon for prospects would have been signifying. So they dangled Melancon out there with the price tag of "decent young middle relief arm already producing". That is a far cry from Melancon but it's also a hard piece for contenders to give up. You bring in Melancon you make your pen immediately much better. You bring in Melancon but give up a good young middle reliever you've been using, and that improvement is dulled. And that's even if you have a good young reliever. I looked around and found maybe 3 other arms on contenders that may have beaten a Rivero deal. If the Nats were willing to part with Rivero it was almost certain they would get Melancon. But still kudos to Rizzo for doing it.

Q. Did we lose too much? I keep hearing Rivero is great now that he's gone. 

This is what it has come to. A 24/25 year old middle reliever with a 4.00+ ERA is considered too much for a rental closer. Look, if you go by value nearly ANYTHING is going to be too much for a rental closer. So if you buy that you can skip to the next paragraph now. Everything is too much for you in this kind of trade. If you are still around I'll tell you that relievers of the quality Rivero has shown so far are pretty fungible. He does seemingly have all the skills to be better. He doesn't get hit a lot, doesn't give up a lot of homers, has decent control and can strike people out. It wouldn't take much improvement for him to be elite. But that improvement still has to happen and he's starting to get into his peak years. If he doesn't do it say, in the next two years, I would be very doubtful that he will ever be anything more than another good pen arm. One of the things that concerned the Nats is that he seemed to wear out. He was ridden pretty hard by Dusty though so I'd be willing to bet that a lighter touch keeps him effective and ironically if the Pirates do make him a set-up or closer guy soon he should get less work. Arms though, who knows?

Q.  What about this Hearn kid? 

Taylor Hearn is a 5th round draft pick of the Nats last year. He was actually drafted four times, once by the Pirates, but kept staying in school for a better situation and got it. He was a starter but his middling results in low A, and live but fragile arm (multiple college injuries) made the Nats move him into a long relief role. He's a project who the Pirates are going to have to decide whether to keep trying as a starter or try to work into a reliever. Complete roll of the dice, but the physical ability means he's not a throw-in, he's a piece.

Q. So who gets lefties late in the game now that Rivero is gone? 

Same guy that did before. Perez.  Rivero wasn't actually great versus lefties this year. I'll chalk that up to small sample size, etc. but the fact is Perez was the LOOGY guy. Rivero was the full inning guy who could get out both. That's lefty is who needs to be replaced and the question right now is if Sammy Solis can do it. I don't personally think so but I also don't worry too much about it because the 8th and 9th look very good right now and the Nats have three arms right now in Stras, Max, and Roark who minimize the need for 7th inning help.

Q. What about the money! The Lerners added payroll, right? 

Ummmm maybe? They got cash back from the Pirates but early rumors (and someone point me to an official source if you know one) is that it wasn't enough to cover all Melancon's remaining salary. Even factoring in what they don't have to pay Rivero, that still means they may be adding 2.5 - 3 million dollars. That's the most they've ever added and while it still leaves the payroll comparatively low, I can't complain too much. However, if this is indeed the case we do have to see the rest of the season play out. The 2nd most money they added in-season, a mere 1.5 million for Hairston way back in 2013, was wiped out by a dump waiver trade of Suzuki later that year. Could the Nats find a team to take a similar deal? They would LOVE to do it for Papelbon I bet and he'll be out there. They'll try this I guarantee and there goes the "added" salary. If Turner keeps playing it's also not crazy that Revere could be gone as well, though I'll admit it's doubtful.

Q. This is a lot of words. Would you do this deal? Do you think it's good?

Yes and yes. I think it makes the Nats pen better for 2016 and solves a current baseball problem. Should a closer be a big deal, probably not. But it is! You can't deny reality just because you don't think it should be that way. Rivero is good. I liked him. I'm sure the Nats started with "How about Treinen?" in talks with the Pirates. But I'm also sure the Nats are fine rolling with Kelley, Petit, Treinen, Glover and maybe a resigned Belisle to start 2017's pen. That's a decent base to which we'll see what the Nats add.

Q. What about the Marlins deal? 

Eh. I'll tell you this, it makes it possible that the Marlins win the NL East. Not that it was IMpossible before. Sports are too unpredictable for that to be true. But before the trade the Marlins would have to go through August and September with the offense crushing it, Fernandez cruising, and the rest of the rotation not screwing things up. Given the quality of the rotation it was just as likely, if not more, that if the offense crushed and Fernandez cruised, the rest of the rotation would collapse and Miami still would be completely out of it.  Now (if Rea is ok sooner rather than later) I don't see the rotation collapsing. It won't be good, but it just needed not to collapse to keep the Marlins in the playoff hunt and give them an outside chance of the East depending on what the Nats do. So basically the trade means the Nats can't put it into cruise control just yet. This Marlins team could end up with  90 wins (or 82!)

Q. What are you looking at today? 

I want to see if Mets get Lucroy or Bruce or someone else to help an offense that desperately needs it. Last year the Mets and Cespedes immediately reacted to that deal to push the team through the last two months. There could be that muscle memory there if they make a similar deal.  I want to see if the Marlins snag another blah rental starter (about what they can afford with that minor league system)