Nationals Baseball: May 2018

Thursday, May 31, 2018

First Place

It didn't quite take as long as I thought it might, and didn't come as quickly as others wanted but the Nats are back in first place. Since bottoming out at 11-16 they've gone 21-6, so it was mostly the Nats crushing it. First a 13-2 run against some solid teams and now an 8-1 run against the bottom of the barrel. The first run had some luck to it. 8 out of 13 were wins where the margin of victory were two runs or fewer. But that's to be expected. You have to get some luck to go 13-2, especially against decent competition. They haven't squeaked out a bunch of 1-run wins in this latest run. They've won 5 of 8 by at least three runs. This is what you want to see. They are clearly better than these teams, even with some injury issues.

But remember they were 4.5, 5.5, and 6 games back of the Braves, Phillies, and Mets respectively. They still needed other things to go their way to get to this point in 4 weeks instead of 6 or 8.  They got those things as the teams ahead of them performed inversely to their position at that point.  The Braves have gone 17-12 during that time. That's very good! The Phillies a respectable 14-13. That's ok! The Mets 11-17. That's garbage!  If the Phillies went 16-11 or the Mets 16-12? The Nats would be in 2nd still (by a half game).  The Mets laid down for them, the Phillies played like we thought the Phillies should, and the Braves were just close enough to be caught.

So everything is coming up Nationals, but again it needed to. The Nats strength of schedule, which was Top 5 after the Yankee washout - is now down at 23.  (Phillies 14, Mets 3, Braves 1, if you are wondering).  They've feasted on the dregs for two weeks. It can only get harder.

The Phillies being the .500 ish team? We can pass that off to expectation. The Mets being garbage is something that deserves a moments time.  The Mets were a fragile team to begin with, but it hasn't exactly gone down like you'd think. They were expected to be propped up by their rotation but had  rotation injury questions. But deGrom and Syndergaard have mostly made every start. Instead the injuries struck the bullpen, which now only goes 3 pitchers deep.  This was exacerbated by the fact that beyond the Top 2 the rotation has been an issue. Harvey flamed out. Wheeler's been terrible. Vargas worse until last night. Matz has been ok but can't go deep. At the plate the injuries have taken their toll just as strongly with only Asdrubal playing a full season so far. Possibly because of injuries Cespedes, Conforto, and Bruce are all underperforming. If you think the Nats have it bad the Mets have it worse and the Mets were starting from a more precarious position as the season started. Can they come back? I suppose but they need to get healthy and why would you believe that would happen at this point?

But we're not here for the Mets. We're here for the Braves! They are on a mini slump (4-6 in last 10) but still they are doing way better than expected. What's up? Well, things have mostly shaken out as expected. Ryan Flaherty and Kurt Suzuki's fast start? Not so fast anymore. Preston Tucker superstar? Nope. But the Braves are deeper than just Freddie Freeman. Markakis and now back Flowers (yes it's been 2+ years now - we have to accept Flower is this) are good offensive bats. Albies is a slugging star as a rookie. Swanson and Inciarte aren't performing as you'd like but they've proven to be not holes in the lineup. That's 6 deep. Acuna made 7 somewhere inbetween the ok Swanson and good Albies, but he's temporarily out. In his place the Braves have gotten solid play from Charlie Culberson and Johan Camargo has spelled Flaherty enough that that spot isn't terrible. It's not necessarily an impressive line-up but it's a deep one that can hurt you from any spot right now. Assuming Acuna is back this will probably hold for the season.

Joining the offense is a killer bullpen who's back end of Vizcaino, Carle, and Winkler has been great and there's more arms that are decent, if not better, like Sam Freeman who dominates lefty bats.  So the key to beating the Braves is getting to their rotation. They don't have an ace pitcher.  Folty and Sean Newcomb have finally matured but right now they are merely good. Teheran still can't get it together. The back of the rotation is equally in flux. McCarthy is more of a Colon type, filling out the back of a rotation and they haven't nailed down a 5th guy yet.  They want it to be Anibal Sanchez but it's more likely he's no better than McCarthy.  It's not a bad rotation, but it's a rotation a good offense should be able to get to.

The Nats offense and pitching have been humming along recently but on some of the worst pitching in the majors and THE worst batting in the majors**.  How will they do matched up against decent pitching and some good bats. The starting pitching I don't worry about. We've seen them for years, but this injured make-shift line-up I'm not convinced is ok. So I think that's the key. The Nats will give up a few more runs because of the better offense but probably won't get blown out. 3 runs? 4 a game? 5, maybe? Can the Nats offense score enough against the Braves starters to negate their pen?

The match-ups are
 Stras - Folty
 Gio - McCarthy

Let's go find out.

*basically this is the contrast to the Nats - who's deep and healthy and performing rotation helps cover up a bullpen that may also be only a few arms deep.  

**seriously the Padres Marlins and Orioles and the last three in the majors in runs scored per game.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

First Pla... DAMMIT METS

The Nats are soaring. The Braves are also doing well and the Nats can't quite catch them...but that hardly matters as there are still over 100 games to go and there are H2H games coming up in about... 36 hours. Catch them or not tonight, they will be close enough that a series win against the Braves will put the Nationals in first. They control their destiny this week.

Jeremy Hellickson has had another good game and it's shocking honestly. His walks are less than half what they were last year and well below his career average. His homers are less than half of last year (a third actually) and well below his career average. It's not just a fluke though as he's keeping the ball down and getting ground ball after ground ball which the defense* is gobbling up. He's getting first pitch strikes as well which keeps him in control. It's as simple as that. Pitching 101 you might say. 

Is there any changes to what he's throwing or where? Yep. He's mixing in a lot more off-speed stuff, throwing his fastball barely more than a third of the time (usually closer to 50%) and throwing the curve a quarter of the time, almost double what he usually did over his career. Both these pitches have been very effective this year. Most of those curves are going to lefties and he's hitting his spot (low and inside) over and over. Same sort of thing is going on with RHB. He's throwing what he usually throws (sinkers in) and this time in about the same amount, but he's hitting his spots.

Are there any signs this will come crashing down? Well not crashing but there is a high LOB% (85.2%) which unless you believe Hellickson has learned to bear down a decade into his career will drift back to normal.  So he will give up more runs and some of those ground balls find holes. But his BABIP is usually pretty low so you aren't necessarily expecting it to jump much.

Oh, the whole "third time through the order" thing, maybe there is something to it but he wasn't good the second or even first times through the order in most of his recent years. I guess thinking you aren't going deep can change how you pitch but I think he's simply pitching better.

Eventually it's likely that his control, which seems pinpoint this year will get a little out of whack. It's what his entire career tells us. But until that happens Hellickson can take the pitching basics, get ahead, keep the ball down and on the ground, and have success. 

*minus Murphy and Zimmerman - when you wish to have them back you get the whole package which includes two pinball bumpers that you hope the opponents hit the ball at in the field.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Tuesday Quickie - Holding up their end of the bargain

The Nats started the easy part of their schedule as bad as they could have, getting swept out of their own building by the Dodgers*.  At that point the goal of 14-7 looked grim. But the Nats managed to take 2 out of 3 from the awful Padres, then sweep the hideous Marlins and now have 1 game in pocket against the maybe even worse Orioles. The Nats are now at 6-4 and a 8-3 finish isn't THAT crazy, at least in comparison to a 14-4 one.

Of course what's important to remember - which seems to be forgotten here - is that the Nats need to win here to give themselves a cushion.  I've talked about the schedule a lot the past few days and the Braves and the Phillies will both have longer "easy" stretches later in the year** that the Nats will not have. The ones ATL and PHI get at those points may not be this long, but they are there. They'll be expected to make up ground then. The Nats need to climb to first here and start trying to hold opponents off. They'll have one more brief run starting in late July (@MIA, v NYM, v CIN) but that's it***

If they can get to first and maybe get a couple game lead by the time this stretch is over then the guys coming back from injury means more to me. Because what's good about these guys coming back is having options so you can finding the guy doing ok and sit the guy doing bad. It's about maintaining your level. We should not be expecting Murphy to hit like an MVP or Eaton to play like he has in his brief times on the field and somehow carry the team to the front from behind. That's asking too much.

So keep beating the Orioles. Sweep them. Get in first and let's get to that Braves series.

*The Dodgers have been 5-2 since the sweep but that includes a 3 game set versus the Padres, so still inconclusive on how good this team is without Kershaw. Of course doesn't matter really as he's scheduled to be back on Thursday. 

**Basically the Nats in 2nd half will have easy games spread out. The Braves are pretty much like that all year. The Phillies on the other hand have bunches. They already had a easy stretch (v MIA, v CIN, @ TB) and went 8-2 and will have one again
ATL : In June will see a vSD, @TOR(2), vBAL, vCIN, stretch
PHI : Before and after the ASB will go @BAL(1), @MIA, vSD, vLD, @CIN, @BOS(2), vMIA. 

***unless the Mets crash and burn but of course if they do that the Braves and Phillies will also benefit. 

Friday, May 25, 2018

Reality check

Things haven't been as bad for the Nationals as you think

On the pitching front that's easy to see. No starter has missed a start. They've all at least pitched to their ability, and Hellickson has been unexpectedly good. Out of the "Big 3" only Madson has been on the DL and that's just recently.  This easily overcomes the "bad" of the Nats not finding the middle relief (again) from the bunch of middling players they throw out there.

On the offensive side it has been troubling but this talk of a AAA team? In my mind the AAA players are Difo, Keiboom, Stevenson, Sierra, Sanchez, and probably Goodwin. You might be saying Severino! I'll get to that in a second. So how many games did any three of these AAA players start at the same time? Two.  4/25 and 5/5 that's it.  They've have 2 AAA players in the line-up plenty of times but to me that's not a AAA team. That's your average major league team.

The Nats had injuries, yes, but the immediate back-up plans worked. Kendrick was solid before going down himself. Adams has been great. Reynolds has been great. Soto deserves a shot and fate has given it to him. It's enough that the Nats have been fine covering two injuries at anytime. Eaton and Rendon down? Eaton and Zimmerman? They can handle that. And let's not kid ourselves because of his slumping Zimm's injury only matters in terms of flexibility. Adams had to then play 1st - either to replace Zimm or to face a righty - so he couldn't play OF which meant Kendrick had to play OF which meant he couldn't play 2nd which meant Difo had to play 2nd.  And Weiters injury only matters if you thought he'd be appreciably better than Severino has been. I'd say most of you didn't think that (I did, but only because I thought Severino would have been awful rather than merely below average as he has been so far)

This is not to say the injuries haven't mattered. Like I said - it's a flexibility thing for the most part. They don't have flexibility to deal with slumping players. Zimm was terrible before? Too bad, gotta play.  MAT is terrible now? Too bad, gotta play. Severino is below average as expected? Too bad, gotta play. But this isn't the same as forcing a guy to play that you didn't want in there.

I'm rambling bu the point is this - the injuries to Murphy and Eaton and Rendon etc mattered but it didn't turn this squad into a .500 team because the starting pitching has been consistently very good, the back of the pen has been fine, and Rizzo did a good job on roster construction (outside of the pen).  Also - they got some luck so far (Adams should be ok, Reynolds who knows, you know I still don't buy Severino).  This is a team on an 88 win pace because as we've seen them this is an 88 win team. That tells you how good a healthy team would be - IF Eaton and Murphy hit like you thought they should - and it takes away any excuse about losing to bad team.  An 88 win team should still take 2 of 3 (minimum) from the likes of the Orioles and the Marlins away.  There is no excuses for these guys. If they don't do what they should to stay in it over the next couple weeks before guys start coming back it'll be because guys that should perform have not. It'll be because Rendon has been just ok and Zimm was bad when he was in there and MAT has been flat out terrible.  The guys that shouldn't perform are bringing them down to a WC contender - nothing more.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Not good enough

After the rain washed out the Yankees two-gamer, the Nats had the Dodgers and the Padres at home for six.  They should win 4 of those games regardless of what you think of the Dodgers. 5-1 is probably more reasonable that 3-3. But the Nats can't do any of these and end up going 2-4. That's unacceptable.

And I mean it in the frame of the season. You have to beat the bad teams in order to get enough wins. Every win you don't get against a San Diego is a win you have to get against a Milwaukee. Even if you say LA is good - let's ignore them. The Padres are BAD - 4-2 is just enough against them. Who are the middling teams in the NL? The Giants? 1-2. The Mets (probably)? 2-4.  The Nats have weathered this by beating teams a step better 5-2 vs Arizona, 4-0 vs Pittsburgh, but that's not a workable long term strategy.  Hell it doesn't even work in the short term as the Nats are 3 games out of first and on an 88 win pace.

Yes, it's because of injuries. I know that. But the reality is the season doesn't stop until you can get healthy. We want the Nats to win the East. We'll grudgingly accept a Wild Card if necessary. That means they have to win the games they should win now, regardless of health. The next 6 games are away but are against two of the worst teams in baseball, the worse than their record 19-30 Marlins and the deserved 15-34 Orioles. 5-1 is the goal. 4-2 is the floor. It's not getting easier than this stretch and so far they are 2-4. They need to turn it around now.

Other Notes

Juan Soto - I love the patience. I also understand the NL is going through their paces right now. Can I get him out with normal fastballs? Can I get him to chase anything? Can I get him out with in zone junk? Do I have to really pitch to him?  As they do this some crazy stats might pop up for a while. Give it time. We are just now talking about how we can look at the stats for the guys who started the season with the team. Kid needs a good 150+ more PAs before we can start making judgments (unless he hits like 1000 homers)

Mark Reynolds + Matt Adams = something like .310 / .400 / .718 which would be challenging for the league lead in OPS. Yes this is fluke-y (Matt Adams has dropped as he's gotten more ABs. Mark Reynolds is still at 25 PA) but is anyone here rooting for Zimm to come back ASAP? To be fair to Zimm in his 5 games in May he did have 7 hits, 2 walks and a homer, which is actually really good.

On the flip side in May MAT, Stevenson, and Sierra would combine to hit something like .140 / .175 / .150.   Four XBH between them in 122 PAs! THIS is why Soto is up. Good, ok, fair, poor, even flat out bad is better than this.

Bryce is not walking as much any more (5 in May) but still hitting for power. But don't let your "this guy should be carrying us!" take blind you to Rendon hitting .208 / .323 / .434 in May. Things aren't dropping for him either. Rendon's BABIP is low (.264) but Bryce's is unsustainably so (.198) even if he's just smashing it into shifts. We should see some turn around (which should mitigate the eventual Reynolds/Adams slow down)

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Schedule talk

So commenter Jay and I are having a disagreement about the schedule. He thinks, and there are others, that the Nats have had a particularly tough schedule in comparison to the rest of the NL East leaders. I say poppycock.  POPPYCOCK! So let's review

Overall the Strength of Schedule is very high for the NL East. Currently Miami is #1, Braves #2, Mets #3, Phillies #5, and the Nationals down at #11 thanks to the recent bout against the bottom of the NL West. This seems to suggest the Nationals have had the easiest schedule so far (in terms of teams played)

Jay's argument though makes three points 1) The Nats have had two West Coast swings already while only the Mets have made a road trip that includes the NL West yet. 2) The Nats have played a lot more games against teams who made the playoffs last year.  3) The other NL East teams have played a lot of games against eachother inflating their own SOS number

Let's take these in reverse order. Does it matter that you play a lot of games in dvision and can that inflate your SOS ranking? Generally I don't think so, but early enough in the year it may under certain circumstances and those circumstances would be - you play a lot of bad teams other than the teams we are comparing AND you do very well against those teams AND you basically split your games against the competition. It's the old SEC football out of conference thing that you hear talked about. They play lousy teams build up 3 wins so when they play eachother everyone seems stronger.

For example let's say PHI plays ATL 6 times in the first 12 games and the other 6 games they flip-flop series versus the Marlins and Padres. They go 6-0 against those teams and the games against eachother are now worth a lot more. 

ATL : 5 Cubs, 4 Reds, 3 Rockies, 7 Marlins, 3 Giants, 2 Rays
PHI :  3 Dbacks, 1 Orioles, 3 Reds, 6 Marlins, 4 Pirates, 4 Giants, 4 Cardinals, 3 Rays
NYM : 3 Dbacks, 3 Reds, 3 Rockies, 5 Marlins, 3 Brewers, 3 Padres, 6 Cardinals, 2 Blue Jays
WSN : 7 Dbacks, 3 Reds, 4 Rockies, 6 Dodgers, 4 Pirates, 5 Padres, 3 Giants

OK so I went ahead and quickly underlined the teams currently +2 over .500 and better and bolded the teams -2 or worse. It's not perfect because SOS is an at the time measurement but it gives us an idea of the good / bad breakdown

ATL : 8 Good, 11 Bad
PHI : 8 Good, 10 Bad
NYM : 12 Good, 11 Bad
WSN : 8 Good, 14 Bad

OK so what this would suggest is that the *gasp* the Nationals might be benefitting from an easier schedule and thus have their records inflated. Now their SOS wouldn't be inflated but the teams who have played them the most might.

ATL : 6 games
PHI : 3 games
NYM : 6 games

This is kind of a double edged sword here. It could be argued that the Braves and the Mets have had their SOS a bit inflated by playing a team that has had THEIR record inflated by some lousy out of conference scheduling. But that team we are talking about is the Nationals.

But now we need to move onto point 2 - this is dependent a lot on the idea that this season is what matters and being only 1/3rd or so into it - is that reliable? Or to put it more bluntly - are the Dodgers "bad"?  No one doubts that any of the other teams bolded above are bad. You probably only glance a side-eye at the Pirates being good but it's not crazy enough to dismiss it. But the Dodgers being bad? Last year's NL Champ? A team most had winning the West?  To me the "made playoffs last year" isn't fair. Teams do get bad and good all the time. Outside of the first few weeks of the year I wouldn't rely on last year's record at all. But that doesn't mean that the Dodgers are as bad as their record right now. There are other things to look at even if we disregard last year.

It's hard to say the Dodgers are turning around - yeah they've won 5 of their last 6, but that's with the 3-0 against the Nats mucking things up. So we'll have to wait on the record to show us anything, but what about the peripheral stats?  Pythag has the Dodgers at 25-23, not world beating as predicted but FAR from the terrible team the record would suggest. They are 5-8 in one-run games, and 1-7 in two runs games. This also suggest luck has played a big part in their current poor record and it isn't actually reflective of their talent. There's nothing to suggest though that they are getting better - April is a lot like May, the bad luck has stayed around at about the same clip.

If we look at the Dodgers like this though -it's fair to look at possible outliers for anyone else. Genearly outside of +-2 pythag wins.  Unlucky with the Dodgers, seems to be the Cubs.  Lucky seem to be the Rockies - maybe the Mets, Brewers, Giants and Marlins.

What does this do to the above? Braves schedule seems a little weaker, Phillies a little weaker, Mets more than that weaker, the Nationals probably a push (Dodgers up, Rockies, Giants down - this makes sense bc likely most of LAs bad luck would be transferred to good luck for other NL West teams)

Then we get to the final part which is the West Coast swings and at this point I throw up my hands and say I don't know. I've searched for evidence that these matter but haven't found any.  It's anecdotal.  I will say that as someone that's followed baseball I've never felt that West Coast swings themselves were that bad. I focused more on road trips that jump mulitple time zones with no rest, and stretches of play, home or away, with no days off. Only one of the Nats road trips here potentially qualify - a trip to SD then AZ with no day off before the swing started at the end of a 17 games no-rest swing. Of course that is when they did the best.

People study these things pretty relentlessly. I feel if there were a link it would have been found and presented. So I'm inclined to dismiss this. As much as we feel there might be something here, the history of baseball has shown there really isn't, at least not in the face of talent and other sports randomness

So what do I think at the end of all this?

I think the Nationals schedule is a bit better than it's getting credit for and the other NL East teams a bit worse and given that there's a little, emphasis on a little, of the internal boosting going on here. I also think the west coast trips don't matter nearly as much as you'd think. Even if you do buy into it, they did it would be a wash when the West Coast teams come east and pretty much all of the Nats West Coast opponents have.

All in all I think the numbers that currently state that the Nats have had an easier schedule are probably inflated, but not enough to say that the reverse is true, that the Nats have had a tougher schedule. I'd be inclined to say that things have been pretty even with the NL East teams so far and that what we've seen is indicative of the talent on the field currently. The Nats have a good chance to prove that wrong though - Beat up Atlanta in Atlanta. 

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Soto comparisons

Juan Soto is doing something few players has ever done. He's playing in the major at 19.  Here's a tweet that grabbed the names of the guys that did it since 2001 and it give you an interesting cross section of talent to look at.  There are future Hall of Famers and complete busts, but the general take away is Soto is likely to be a useful player. But just as important as what they became is when they became it. The Nats need help today and the primary question is if Soto can give them that help.  There's a small enough number here that we can actually go through all of these guys and see what they became and when they became it.  We'll skip Julio Urias and Felix Hernandez because they are pitchers.

Wilson Betemit -  Signed at 14 1/2*, worked up minors, he had 200 good PA in AA before getting a September call-up. He'd start the next season in AAA and not do great, getting slightly better the year after and the year after but still not good in full AAA seasons. Eventually though the Braves stuck him in the majors for good and at 23 he was an average player. He'd remain so for most of the rest of his career.

Jose Reyes - Had 295 AA PAs in one year, started next season in AAA, and was ok over 180 plate appearances. Then the Mets called him up was ok for half the season, then injuries and a position change helped him regress in his second year. His third year wasn't much better but he finally got a full good season under his belt at age 23, which he'd then repeat for a decade. A speed and defense call-up primarily.

BJ Upton - Was hitting very well over 120 PAs in AA and 300+ PAs in AAA. Didn't do so well in call-up so sent back down and spent all of next year in AAA hitting well but being kept down. He'd be back-up in 2006 and for good in 2007 at 22. That would be his best year though as he'd bop around the game and the diamond as an average player until 2016.

Justin Upton - crushed it in 150 High A and 300 AA PAs before getting call-up. Wouldn't go back down. He'd have his first better than average season at the plate at age 21. Never quite put it together after that as he'd have very good seasons intermixed with good ones but no prolonged stretches of greatness.

Mike Trout  - At 18 had great 370 PAs in A ball, a good 230 in High A. Followed with a great 400+ PAs in AA before being called up. Was below average that first fall, but next year at 20 was a ROY and MVP candidate and hasn't looked back since

Bryce Harper - Was merely good in 150 PAs AA at 18 and 80 PAs in AAA at 19, but called up due to need. He would immediately be pretty good. But injuries would dog him. When healthy he put up one of the best 50 seasons in baseball, but having a hard time fighting through niggling injuries and proving he's a dependable transformative player rather than a merely very good one.

Jurickson Profar - Great in 500+ A ball at bats at 18, Good in 500+ AA at bats at 19. Was pretty bad in his short stint so started next season in AAA, where he was good for 170 PAs before being called up again. Would then hurt his shoulder and miss 2014 and pretty much all of 2015. Since coming back has continued to not be very good.

So we see a couple things of note here.

On the negative side - only Bryce really was very impactful at 19, playing enough games at a high enough level to matter. Trout became what he was at 20, Justin Upton at 21,  BJ at 22, and Reyes and Betemit at 23.  That would suggest that Soto is likely not to be impactful this year. It is also possible to be a highly thought of prospect brought up at a young age and amount to nothing. 

On the neutral side - Soto has gotten a very very small  number of at bats in comparison to this group. The only other ones to have anywhere near as few in High A and higher is Bryce. Of course we don't know if that actually means anything. Bryce is the one that did fine and I don't see any correlation between time spent in the high minors and major league performance**.  I can say we have less assuredness about what Soto might be given that limited exposure, but that's all I can say.

On the positive side - none of these guys were hitting it like Soto. Now, probably that goes hand in had with the neutral point. If you only get like 30 or 60 PAs it's easier to put on an impressive show. In comparison A-Rod crushed in in AAA (over two seasons at 18 and 19) in 350 PAs.  However Soto did crush it as opposed to not crushing it

What will Juan Soto be? Chances are, given the team's belief in his ability to call him up at 19, his minor league stats, and the comparisons (here's some more) a pretty damn good player. There's bust potential but HOF potential too but that is probably the case with any group of minor leaguers if you think about it - so what are really saying? But the chances of Soto being a pretty damn good player this year are slim as even the best ever - Trout, A-Rod - didn't put up that type of season at 19.*** So expect to enjoy Juan Soto playing for the Nationals for a long time, either as a great player or a solid one, but don't expect to enjoy Juan Soto carrying the Nationals to the playoffs this year. He may help a little, but more likely he's along for whatever ride the Nats take this year****

*Against the rules. The Braves got punished for it.
**and even if I did - only 7 guys here. That's not a meaningful sample.
***Which is why we made a big deal of what Bryce did at 19 - however "merely good" it was
****If he IS good this year - then get very hyped 

Monday, May 21, 2018

Monday Quickie - Almost as bad as it could have been

The Nats got swept out of their own building this weekend by the Dodgers.  Meanwhile the Phillies took their expected single game in St. Louis and stand 2.5 games ahead of the Nationas. The Braves didn't manage to sweep the Marlins but did take 2 of 3 and increased their lead over the Nats to 4 games. Even the Mets surprisingly swept the Diamondbacks* and have once again passed the Nationals.

The Nationals are in fourth place. It may be because of injuries. It may still be early (just past a quarter of the season done). But it's also a cold hard fact. The Nats needed to start making a move and instead they've stumbled. I wanted 14-7 out of a 21 game stretch that began with the Dodgers series. Now I need 14-4 to make that happen. They just had a 13-2 stretch so it's possible, but I'm not going to bet on it.

Other things

Juan Soto is up. This is both a move born out of desperation and a deserved move. The Nats would rather keep Soto down. While he crushed A ball and then crushed high A and then crushed AA the at bats were 60, 60, and 30.  No one believe that 30 at bats tells you all you need to know about a player. But the facts were the Nats needed another bat in the majors and by attrition, Juan Soto was easily the most justifiable call-up on a talent level.

Ideally you'd call-up a 2B/3B to replace Kendrick but the choice in AAA is Irving Falu, a 35 year old journeyman with no real talent to speak of who's not on the 40-man, who is there in case of emergency. Do you really want to DFA a guy for someone with no more talent who you may never want to play again in the majors after this stretch? In AA there is a player on the 40-man, Kelvin Gutierrez, but he's struck out so much and has no patience or power that you'd have to think a major league call-up would be feeding him to the wolves. And remember these are the best choices.

So you look to the OF instead, except anybody with any talent has already been called up.  Who is left? Stevenson is up. Sierra is up. Robles is hurt. Bautista is hurt. Jose Marmolejos, eaten up by AAA pitching and not a true OF. Yadiel Hernandez, who just got moved to AAA and is 30 and not on the 40-man. Hunter Jones, not on the 40-man, a last chance organizational depth pick-up who's having a nice start to 2018, but all history says it's a fluke? Maybe if these were temporary 5th OFs, but the call-up will likely play and you can't want any of these playing even occasionally. There are no good choices, so you make the best bad one and in this case it's bringing up the guy that might be able to hang in the majors, the guy that you figure will get to the 40-man if not by the end of this year, to start next.

I don't expect success from Soto this time out. We'll talk more tomorrow but the base expectation is - good player in a couple of years - with a huge amount of variability. But let him play a little, get a taste, see what he may need to work on to be successful up here, and then get him back down to work on those things on an everyday basis.

Ryan Madson is hurt. This isn't too surprising. He was kind of hurt at the end of last year, is the oldest of the Kintzler, Madson, Doolittle trio and frankly pitchers will get hurt. One of these guys was likely to go down at some point.

The starting pitching was good enough to win a couple games that series. The Nats could only score 1 run game 1, Doolittle blew G2 (hey, it'll happen), and the middle relief let the game get out of hand in G3 (hey, it'll happen... like every third game probably).  This is what I talked about. The starters + KMD can't compensate for the offense forever.

Most telling about the offense is the complete inability to hit lefties. A split of .220 / .304 / .356 against all LHP and .201 / .294 / .341 against lefty starters. It's easy and perhaps right to put some blame on Bryce for this. But here's the thing - Bryce has a split of .163 / .393 / .372 against lefty starters.  That gives him the 5th highest OPS on the team against lefty starters. Even average wise. Difo is worse. Turner is at .175. Rendon at .217. MAT at .218.   The team isn't doing their job.

*That Nats sweep seems way less impressive now.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Will the Nationals ever play baseball again?

The cries of "why did they even bother to try to play on Tuesday?" should have turned into "thank god they played a little on Tuesday" because with out those 6+ innings the Nats would be sitting on a 4 day layoff with more days off in sight. While I'd listen to arguments that such a long layoff is fine, I'm more inclined to believe it throws players off just a little bit. A little bit is enough to get into their heads and make a little bit a lot. But we'll see... once they actually play again.

The rain should knock out tonight's game and make doubleheaders on Saturday and Sunday unlikely.  They'll probably try anyway for one on Sunday but don't hold your breath.

With no game action to talk about and realistically not bothering to preview tonight's game let's go back to those points and cover the outfield ones.

Adam Eaton - Comeback Player of the Year 2019 
Eaton revealed that his injury last year also involved an injured ankle.  (And some of you acted like these guys would never hide stuff from us!  Ah, to be so innocent)  He got that surgered on and thinks he'll be back playing in 6 weeks, which would be the very end of June.  No one believes that.  After All-Star Game maybe? We'll see.

In the long run do we just stick Matt Adams in LF?
 Matt Adams is hitting better than he ever has.  That's almost not an exaggeration. He's hitting better than he ever has since Rookie ball where he was hitting .365 with modest power for 32 games. That tells you that this isn't going to last. That shouldn't suprise you that Matt Adams won't be an MVP candidate. However Adams can hit. Always has. So just hiding him away on the bench when Zimmerman returns would be silly.  No he doesn't hit lefties all that well, even this year, but he has shown patience against them and enough ability to hit them to change the dynamic from "never face lefties" to "sit against tough lefties". But where to you play him? Right now the answer is easy. He's at 1B. When Zimm comes back the answer gets a little tougher. Matt's not a great OF but still sticking him in LF makes sense. Neither Sierra or Stevenson are making a case to play over him. The next thing that could happen, though, will force a choice. If Murphy is back that means Kendrick can't play 2B. Do you stick him in the OF or Adams? (probably a strict platoon happens I bet).  If Eaton comes back then you have to consider sitting MAT (we'll check on that in a second) but the D would take a big hit with an Adams - recovering Eaton - Bryce OF.  I don't think I have an answer here other than if he's still hitting when the time comes you find a place for him until he's not. And sports has a way of answering these tough questions for you.

What IS up with MAT? 
I can't say I don't like to gloat because I do like to point out that I was wary about MAT having only a limited window of success (and Eaton staying healthy and Robles contributing) and everyone said I was crazy YET HERE WE ARE.  Three things have changed for MAT that are related but not necessarily joined at the hip. He's hitting more balls into the ground. He's hitting softer balls. He's seen a big drop in his BABIP.  I say they aren't joined at the hip because you can hit the ball hard into the ground (see Zimm 2016) and MAT's BABIP from 2017 was unsustainably high. It was coming down. But .264 is ahistorical, and very low for a speedy player who's not popping it up all the time (he's not).  So it's connected to the soft ground balls (obviously), but it's not the only reason for the drop. Is there a difference in how pitchers are going after him? In pitches - yes, the number of straight pitches is down (mostly fewer change-ups) and pitches with movement (sliders, cutters, curves) up. The location doesn't seem to change much but there may be something with offering up those movement pitches not only low, as they always have been, but catching a bit more of the plate. MAT never had much success with them and he's not having it now, turning these balls over into weak ground balls. Last year he made a stride by being able to hit the fastball and the change, but if he's not getting those he's going to have to learn to distinguish between balls and strikes with the movement pitches as they work them at his knees and his eye has never been his strong point. At 27 there may be time for one last adjustment but pretty soon the raw skills will start to diminish as well. It's kind of now or never for MAT.

Anyone remember Brian Goodwin?
Former prospect, turned has-been prospect, turned prospect again Brian Goodwin was providing some OF stability until he hurt his wrist in mid April. The jury is still out on how much he can contribute.  I'm skeptical. His good 2017 seemed real but his K-rate exploded this year. This is to be expected as pitchers learn how to pitch to him. His decent stats are all due to a .385 BABIP and a 25% HR/FB rate which will not last. (well I mean come on he has only 32 PA this year) That doesn't mean he can't be useful. I just don't see him as an above average bat. I'm digressing though. We'd all like to see him back just to see who's right and wrong. So where is he? We don't know. On May 9th he resumed swinging after being shutdown on May 1st while trying to get back and Janes said he was closer to returning than Murphy.  Well Murphy might be starting some minor league games by month's end.  Time for a re-evaluation?  I'll end with this though - pinning any OF hope on a returning from injury Brian Goodwin is not where you want to be.

(Ed Note - The WaPo crew takes on some Qs and the first one is about Goodwin! Their answer isn't all that more informative than the above though. They do add in more injury news and a take on Turner's walk rate)

The Nats OF has been middling this year. Bryce hasn't been BRYCE and the other two positions have flopped around. The good news is that they haven't been BAD yet and so haven't cost the Nats anything. However, how long that lasts is up in the air. Yes, the Nats are 5th in runs/game but I warned you about rankings. They are closer to 8th than 4th. They are more average than good. That's impressive for a team that's had so many injuries. It's also indicative of a team that has to rely on it's pitching.

If you want it framed in a good way though - the Nats weak stretch is here. So if there is anytime a suspect line-up can be carried over the line by a great rotation and solid back of the pen, it's now. Do that and then you could have a healthy team ready to hold off any challengers as we head deep into the season.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Let's play One and Seven-Eighteenths!

The Nats had the rare "suspended" game last night as they rightly figured they could sneak in enough innings to make it official, but were screwed by the fact the Nats and Yankees were tied at the time it would matter. The fact they started the 6th was kind of a joke, but when you tried hard to force the game in, it's too tempting to think "Well if the Nats can get the Yankees out quick and then score right away..."

So what do the Nats do? Well in theory tomorrow is an offday so they should have their full pens and what they do today shouldn't really matter. In practice though today looks spotty so you have to consider the possibility that there will be a game tomorrow. That's ok for the Nats (only Wander Suero might be out for that one) but it also would set up several pitchers who would have pitched in back to back games going into a stretch of six straight. It's a tricky thing to manuever around. Even if they do play both games tonight, it's very rare to see the same guys pitch in both games. The question then becomes how do you split up Kintzler, Madson, and Doolittle? How do you do it knowing Scherzer is on deck?

What I would do it try to Wander Suero the first game till it's finish. Three innings is probably too much but two shouldn't be and maybe you get lucky with quick swings from guys that know they'll have to be forced into some scheduling acrobatics if they don't end this game here. If he throws too many pitches - you go with one of KMD depending if you are winning (Doolittle) or close (one of the other two). If you aren't close (in either direction) then anyone else can pitch the top of the 9th. But Wander gets two, even if he gets in trouble. Consider it a learning experience.

Game 2 then you just treat as a normal game with Suero and whoever else pitched not available. Ideally Scherzer goes deep enough and the game is settled enough that all you need is the two of KMD you didn't use.

There are ways this can break down sure. Suero can be sitting at 33 pitches with one out and men on in the 8th. You'd have to pull him. Either game can go extra innings. The second game can also get suspended, or feature multiple rain delays. Scherzer can get knocked around, I suppose. But I kind of feel this is the best plan. Use one pitcher to eat up as many innings in G1 as possible (Suero makes the most sense to me as he pitched yesterday and thus already had his rest clock reset.)

Interesting game last night where it felt the Nats were both lucky to be in it (Gio seemed to be on the brink of giving up runs every inning) and unlucky to be only tied (the Nats were hitting Tanaka hard, especially early).  It was kind of fun it was leading to a tight finish but oh well. 162 games means 162 chances for something to happen.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Sean Doolittle - the elite reliever gets his elite closing gig

Here's some stats for you

A 2.92 ERA,  2.46 FIP,  0.912 WHIP,  0.8 HR/9,  6.5 H/9,  1.7 BB/9,  10.7 K/9.

That's Sean Doolittle's career.  It's good right? It's very good in fact. Maybe even scraping great. It's not elite no but wait...

A 2.88 ERA,  0.896 WHIP,  0.8 HR/9,  1.7 BB/9,  10.8 K/9

A little better, right? This is what happens when you remove the year Doolittle was injured. It was only 13.2 IP but it was clearly his worst year.

Ok can we do even better. Normally I like to look at the last three years before the current one when judging a player before the year starts. But injuries can screw that up, especially if you think the player is now over whatever plagued them. In Doolittle's case because the year after his injury wasn't a full year but a 2/3rds injury recovery year I'm tempted to remove that. So let's not include that. I think that's pretty fair.  But that only leaves us with one year before this current one as the injury years were years 2 and 3 previous. Given his relatively young age, and the fact it wasn't a rookie year I think it's ok to grab that year 4 years ago. So in essence we're looking at his last 2 full years before 2018 and throwing in what he's done so far.  What do we see then?

A 2.56 ERA,  0.748 WHIP,  0.8 HR/9,  1.4 BB/9,  12.1 K/9

Guys we're getting pretty close to elite here. Given that it's 2 years let's look at say... Kenely Jansen's past two years

A 1.58 ERA,  0.708 WHIP,  0.6 HR/9,  1.2 BB/9,  14.0 K/9

It's not quite at this level. Even if you ignore the ERA which can be an iffy the FIP would likely be something like 2.15 for Doolittle and 1.40 for Jansen. So Doolittle isn't prime Jansen, but prime Jansen was probably the best closer in baseball the past five years. A dominant force, really. How would these numbers over the past two seasons compare to a...

Greg Holland? Doolittle is better.
Roberto Osuna? Doolittle is equal*
Craig Kimbrel? Doolittle is equal**
Wade Davis? Doolittle is better.
Alex Colome? Doolittle is better.

Chapman? Iglesias? Allen?  Better. Better. Better.

Now I'm sure you could dig in a little more and quibble about the exact positioning. But that misses the point.  Doolittle is not peak Kenley Jansen or peak Andrew Miller but these guys are singular talents, the Mike Trouts of the relief world.  After them is there anyone better than Doolittle? Stats wise it doesn't seem so.

So why doesn't Doolittle get praise? Even when we look at that very top stat line he was still very good and that was including his injury years.  Well, because he never really got to close. He was a set-up man his first two seasons behind the very competent Grant Balfour. In 2014 it took a month and half for him to be named closer as the A's were planning on relying on Jim Johnson who crashed and burned.  He'd also miss 3 weeks late in the year leaving him with only 22 saves. He'd be injured early into 2015 and when he came back in 2016 Ryan Madson has established himself in the closer role. In 2017 Santiago Casilla was brought in AND the A's wanted to use Blake Treinen*** in that role so Doolittle would only get a chance here and there. In the end that meant despite being a top relief guy since 2012 Doolittle only amassed 36 saves in 5 1/2 seasons. That's not going to get noticed.

But with Jansen struggling, Doolittle is as good a closer as anyone in baseball currently. He's the guy the Nats have been looking for years****  Now will that hold into the playoffs? That I can't tell you. But what I will tell you is I don't see the Nats trading for anyone better to close out games this year. Doolittle is the guy.

I forgot to add the homestand goals. The minimum would be split v Yankees, and winning both the Padres and Dodgers series. But winning or sweeping?  The Dodgers and Padres are both playing awful so sweeps are certainly in play and you should sweep some bad teams at home (because you'll probably lose some series to bad teams away). But it's hard to go out and say they should sweep BOTH so I'll say sweep one, win one.  That'll put the homestand at 1-1 plus 5-1 combined or a 6-2 homestand overall and likely a game or two in the standings.  5-3 is acceptable. 4-4 is not.

*Forced to choose I'd say Osuna would have edge bc youth and bc most recent year he did pitch much better, but now he's injured  currently not playing because he's a bad person and Doolittle's not so that's moot. 

**Kimbrel strikes out a ton more but is prone to problems. Walks in 2016. HRs so far this year

*** 0.93 ERA currently! No he's not that good but he can close.  Problem was something in his head. Don't discount the Nationals tendency to always be looking for the next closing arm. 

****Now I'd argue that despite what you'd think the Nats closer situation has been EXCELLENT over this whole time period. These names of guys you hate - they were all good to really good. Storen's 2015? Fantastic. Melancon's time before and with Nats? Depressing for both runs and other teams. But failures in the playoffs, even if fluky and singular, aren't overlooked by fans. 

Monday, May 14, 2018

Monday Quickie - Sweep

If I want to state my feelings right now about the Nationals it would come down to three factoids

The Nats have gone 12-2 in their last 14 games.
The Mets have gone 4-10 in their last 14 games.
The Nats are still not in first place. 

The Nats have picked up 8 games in 14 games on their presumed main competition. Rather than a slow two-month slog back to topping the Mets the Nats have placed themselves where they thought they should be relative to New York in just over two weeks. That's amazing. Yet the Nats are not only not in first place, they are in third place and are at least two games away from being in first place. That's surprising.

This is a perfect immediate example of the warning we talked about earlier. The Nats can catch one team. In fact it would be expected. Catching three teams? That's a lot harder. The Nats just went 12-2. To not just pass but to put real space between them and the Braves and Phillies by the end of the month they'll likely have to repeat that.

This all sounds negative - but really the Nats are having the problems I expected in mid June in mid May. So that's great. The more time to come back the better, especially when you think you have the better team.

Do the Nats have the better team?... probably! Although relying on Matt Adams (he's good - not All-Star), Mark Reynolds, Andrew Stevenson, Wilmer Difo, Pedro Severino, whatever is this messed up mess that is MAT... well that's why you score 8 runs in the four games prior to last night. But having Max, Stras, Roark, Gio, Doolittle, Kintzler, Madson, Kelley for the oh-so-brief windows of health, that's why you hold teams to 5 runs in the FIVE games before last night. If the Nats don't get out of kilter with some odd short starting performances, or extra-inning games and get a few rest up days off (like they have 3 between now and the 25th), this is a recipe for winning. Not 12-2 winning of course, more like 8-6 winning which may not seem like a lot but that's a 92-93 wins pace.

Things we'll talk about this week :
- Adam Eaton - Comeback Player of the Year 2019
- In the long run do we just stick Matt Adams in LF?
- Trea Turner's Walking Machine
- What IS up with MAT?
- Anyone remember Brian Goodwin?
- Max Scherzer, now officially best pitcher in baseball
- Sean Doolittle, now officially in talks for best closer in baseball
- How the Hellickson is he doing this?
- Shhh Don't tell Roark he's not this good
- So... still rolling with this pen huh?

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

Hard Shell - Soft Underbelly

The Nats took out San Diego, as they should, in game 1 with Strasburg on the mound. Matt Adams, continues to be the Adam Lind replacement we expected him to be but were kind of sad to see because we liked Adam Lind. If you doubt that remember that Lind hit .303 / .362 / .513 over 115 games last year.It's to the point, with Adams hitting like he is and Zimm out that you wonder if they'll officially platoon the two (if not more). They should, but I doubt they will.

If you are looking for a downside there is one. The relief pitching continues to be shaky. They've allowed a run in half the games they've pitched in this winning streak and honestly it should be more.  The only pitcher who is both keeping teams off the board and off the basepaths in recent weeks is Doolittle.

This was kind of a known issue and will continue to be one, but what you are seeing right now is essentially the Nats plan for the season. Have the Nats offense and Top 4 starting pitching carry the team and use the first three months of the year to try to find other reliable arms to complement / replace if necessary Kintzler, Madson, Doolittle and find a 5th starter.  Is it Hellickson? Quite possible.  Is it Suero and Solis? In some fashion going forward, yes.

You can see how the plan falls apart when the Nats aren't hitting, but you also see how the plan works when things are basically going as planned. It can even absorb an injury (Eaton) or two. Like we said over and over - it's not a bad plan as long as not NL East team becomes really good.  In a related side note : Mets and Phillies won last night. 

 Just do your job Nats. Finish out this series. Keep winning the games you should.

Monday, May 07, 2018

Monday Quickie : SUCCESS

Yes, Gabe Kapler gawking at Neris' in the 9th inning like a rubbernecker passing a car crash helped but the end result is the same as if the Nats led off the 9th with 3 homers. They won. They took the series from the Phillies, went 7-3 on the homestand and just were successful all around. Bask in these good feelings as for one weekend at least the old NL East returned. Not only did the Phillies help* blow that final game but the Mets got swept by the good but not great Rockies at home, and the Braves got blown out of the water by the maybe good? Giants at home.

The Nationals are now possibly a series away from taking back the NL East.  Could it happen right away? I gotta keep this short so let's get to the next set of games.Three at the Padres, four at the Diamondbacks. When you go on the road the goal is to hold serve. If you can make it out without losing ground it's a success. The Nats though are hot and Padres are garbage. So maybe you think about something more. They should take 2 of three from San Diego.  The four against the Diamondbacks is harder to gauge. You'd say the Nats should take 1 out of 3 games in Arizona, but is one out of four more fair or a split? I think for the Nats a split should be the goal. Especially after the Diamondbacks won the series at home. I want to see the Nats bounce back and show the Diamondbacks they are just as good as them.  So 4-3 for this brief away trip is the goal, but if they go 3-4 I won't be too upset.

Will that be enough to get back into first?

The Mets, who seem to be on a mission every year to prove exceptions exist, started 11-1 and have gone 6-14 since. So Best Team Ever to Worst Team Ever in a snap. They go on the road, but it's the Reds first and the Reds are legit bad. Then the Phillies which is good and bad for the Nats. It means they'll make up ground on someone with each win but it also means they'll be sure not to as well. Mets probably go 3-3 which puts the Nats in a tie with them

The Phillies play San Fran next who just swept the Braves but you can't expect that - you can say though they'll split that 4 game set and then take two of three from the Mets at home 4-3, holding ground one game ahead of the Nats

The Braves have to go back on the road after a brief stop at home to get swept but it's not far - just over to Florida to play the Rays and Marlins, two bad teams. It's only six games total I'll give a split at Tampa and a 3-1 four game series win in Miami. That'll make them 4-2 and give them a half-game more on the Nats.

So no - with the Braves having a relatively easy road trip I don't think the Nats can play three games better than them and take back first. However I do think they can hold their ground as expected and likely passing the Mets and Philly by the time we get to the 20th. Then it's just a question of where the Braves are as the Nats stare down the easy part of their schedule.  At least this is how I see it.

The Nationals finally had a stand of games where they did what they were supposed to and the rest of the NL East complied by crashing hard. They aren't the AL Central but the same NL East that bouyed the Nats over the past 6 years might have come back.  If they have then it's not a question of if the Nats will get back in first but when.  I'll be watching these NL East games closely to see where exactly these teams are heading before that unofficial Memorial Day "ok now we can really judge things" deadline gets here.

*It only helped, didn't make it happen. Look, a smart manager pulls Neris after two batters. A not dumb manager pulls him after three. Kapler did his thing. But in either case the Nats have multiple men on with no one out. Chances are very good they add a run at least to send it to extras. Maybe it doesn't happen but it wasn't Kapler that put the Nats in position to win, he just bumped up the odds a little bit.

Friday, May 04, 2018

King of the NL... Central

The Nats have yet to lose a game to the NL Central, opening the season with a three game sweep of the Reds and yesterday completing a four game crushing of Pittsburgh. One one hand these are probably the two worst teams in the Central* but on the other you don't go expecting 3 game sweeps on the road or four game sweeps at home versus anyone.

A hat tip to Davey on moving Bryce up in the line-up. It was a late move and not where I'd put him (I'd put him 2nd) but he did it - making Bryce feel better and maybe giving him a few more pitches to see when the lineup extends behind him more than one batter. Hey, if I'm going to blame him in part for the slow start (and I am) I am going to credit him when things turn around a bit.

Now comes the fun part.  The Phillies.  For all the talk of the Mets and Braves, who actually have better records, the Phillies were the hot team coming into the season, signing the big name free agents in Santana and Arrieta and seemingly setting up the team for 2019 with a run at 2018 possible. The season so far has been a mixed bag

They started slow (1-4, 3-5) which, since no one really likes Kapler, led to numerous stories about the clubhouse being a problem, etc. etc.  The things that may or may not be really true, but you expect to hear when a team is down (see the Nats 4 games ago) Then the Phillies went on a tear winning 11 of their next 13 to get to 14-7 including familiar sweeps of the Pirates and the Reds. But a recent 3-6 swing has dropped them back to Earth and now withing striking distance for the Nats. 

The offense hasn't found it's stride yet, relying on timely hitting to make up for the fact the young players aren't doing to well. JP Crawford on the DL with "forearm strain" and Scott Kingery have stumbled badly.  Jorge Alfaro had too but is starting to come out of it. Worst Carlos Santana, who was supposed to stabilize the lineup with his big bat, has been only offering walks to the line-up hitting .151 currently but drawing 22 base on balls. What's keeping the Phillies from complete collapse is the continued hitting of last year's phenom Rhys Hoskins, and a resurgance from the "old" new players Maikel Franco and Odubel Herrera. There's also the "wait, he's actually good" thing going on with Cesar Hernandez at second. It's a mixed bag but one that's enough to win... when the right guys are on the mound.

Aaron Nola is good. That's no surprise. Jake Arrieta is doing just fine. That's no surprise. Nick Pivetta is picking up slack as the third big arm. That's no surp... SAY WHAT? That's right, the Nats trade piece in the ill-fated Papelbon trade has had a great first month striking out plenty while walking next to nobody and keeping the homers down. The walk thing is important. Pivetta has never been unhittable, but he has always kept the homers away, meaning his development was going to hinge on developing an ability to K guys and developing control. Well after being traded to the Phillies , Pivetta was able to immediately up his K game and keep improving on it. However, he didn't immediately get the control down. This kind of slotted him as a back of the rotation guy. But early in 2018 he had a nice run of three games with no walks and 0, 2, and 1 runs given up respectively. A breakthrough? Well if so it didn't last long. The last two games though control has re-emerged as a problem. This is going to be the key in facing him tonight. Is his control off? Can the Nats  (1st in walks - but in a very Bryce heavy way) take advantage of that.

Beyond these three Vince Velazquez and Ben Lively have both been hit pretty hard. Velasquez is the guy the Nats will face (along with Pivetta and Arrieta) and well, he's an imperfect pitcher. Great stuff but wild and hittable. The pen was fortified with Neshek and Tommy Hunter, but neither have made much of an impact. But that doesn't mean the Phillies have struggled in the pen, in fact they have shown themselves to go pretty deep, even with several losses.

It'll be interesting to see which of the Phillies are hot or not at the plate in the first two games. With Nola not pitching this series and Arrieta matched up against Max there isn't a game you point to here and say the Nats should lose it. They should win game 2 (Velasquez vs Roark) and then all they need to do is take one of the others to accomplish my goal. I think it should happen.

This is where the Nats are. 5-2 for the homestand so far, back to .500 and potentially able to climb over the Phillies with a sweep. Couldn't have asked for a better set-up a week ago. Now follow through.

*Yeah I know the Pirates were in first but I said just a couple weeks ago I didn't buy into them.  Don't you remember?

Thursday, May 03, 2018

Excited? Well...

I am the umbrella in a down pour, but I am the sprinkles keeping a day from being perfect.

In baseball,  all it takes is three games to change the feeling in the room. Three wins in a row and the team feels unbeatable. Three losses in a row and it feels like you'll never win again. That's why I back up - grab a bunch of games - set a goal - then see how it plays out.  4 in a row is great. Rendon coming back is great. The Mets and Phillies working on finding their levels is great. But don't forget the big picture. Still in 4th. Still under .500. Still gotta catch and pass three teams.

I noticed yesterday that after this weekend series with the Phillies the Nationals only have one 4 game set with any of the other three relevant NL East teams until schools out in the North East (this would be around the first day of Summer for people not from there). Chances for quick pick-up in standings go way down when you winning doesn't automatically mean the team in front of you losing. So it would be really nice for the Nats to beat the Phillies and get that given game (or three!) from them now and not have to rely on other teams keeping their end of the bargain.

After Summer starts the Nats have plenty of H2H chances through the rest of the season but it'll be weighted - more Phillies, less Braves. (The Braves are that 4 game set above) so ideally the Nats would not be chasing down the Braves but rather the Phillies or the Mets at that point. Right now of course, it isn't looking that way but that four game set is still there so it's not a worry until we're past that.


Rendon is set to go to Potomac today or tomorrow for a game or two. Of course that's the difference between playing the full Phillies series or missing the whole thing.  If you want me to guess I'd say he misses the whole thing, especially if the Nats win today.

Matt Adams is killing the ball but he only has 7 bats against LHP, so don't expect him to be a regular.  Will he platoon with Zimmerman? That's an interesting question but one that doesn't need to be answered until two of Rendon (soon!) and Eaton and Murphy (not soon!) are back because you can always stick Adams in the OF and hope he doesn't get a bunch of balls hit to him.

Strasburg pitched well enough with 11 K to only 1 BB keeping the Pirates from turning hits into runs. However I'll note again that he couldn't make it through the game without giving up a home runs. That's 8 for the season and continues his 35+ season pace which is more than troubling. Give up a homer+ a game and it will catch up with you unless you do everything else perfectly - no walks, few hits, lots of Ks. Strasburg can do that but I'd rather he just give up fewer home runs. 

Relief bad news - guys pitching at the end of these blowouts haven't exactly done well.  Relief good news - Doolittle, Kintzler, and Madson have all gotten a nice rest.

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

Three game streak

Gain a game.  One bag at a time. One truck at a time. Remember the pre home stand goal.  6-4 and beat the Phillies.

You want an impossible thing to root for this year? How about Max Scherzer and the quest for 30 wins. Max pitches well pretty much every game. The team is scoring for him. Of course this is a nearly impossible task for a modern rotation. Guys in a year where you are trying to finagle as many starts as possible only top out at like 36. Guys don't pitch games to completion ruling out any chances of late comebacks giving them the W. But hey, it's not impossible today. Why not dream?

While the Nats are having a run finally go their way the NL East is reshaping a bit.  The Braves have basically caught the Mets and the next couple of games between the two will determine who the Nats and Phillies will be chasing when they meet up.  Acuna looks like every bit the player the Nats hope Robles will be and Albies is one behind the league leader in homers. If these guys keep it up there will be enough offense after Markakis and Suzuki wake-up from their dream starts to carry the team until all those young guns are ready to chip in.  Meanwhile, the Mets are watching the pitching blow-up every few games which is eating up a pen that's good but not 8 man deep. Conforto and Cespedes aren't carrying the team like they need them to. The tide is turning toward the Braves right now, but feelings in baseball can change every other day.  Let's see the Braves beat deGrom tonight before you get too excited.

The Phillies / Nationals series looks to be important (well pretty much every NL East non Marlins series is going to be important for a while) in both keeping the Phillies a major player in the division or in setting up the Nationals as resurgent and ready to get back into it. The Phillies pitching has been sort of good enough to keep things up but they can't get the offense going to help and are quickly coming down. They might be ready for a staggering blow if the Nats can deliver. unfortunately that's going to have to be a still depleted team as it looks like Rendon will be heading to a rehab assignment first.  If that happens you can write him off for the rest of this home stand.

It's kind of fun having important games every week. Let's finish up this Pirates thing so we can get to it

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

What does history tell us?

Boz in his chat yesterday once again brought up the 1978 AL East pennant race. That was a crazy race where the Yankees would find themselves at 14 games behind the Red Sox soon after the All-Star break (mainly because the Red Sox were on a likely unsustainable 111 win pace). They'd not only catch the Red Sox but blow by them. They'd lead by 3.5 games with a little over two weeks to go. But Boston would come back and catch the Yankees forcing the one game playoff and Bucky Dent, etc. etc.

Anyway that's a great story that's meant to show that anything can happen in baseball and that you should maintain hope. However it's also an isolated incident from 40 years ago. There's having hope, and then there is the existence of a realistic possibility of a comeback. Looking at one isolated incident tells you nothing about that. Neither does cherry picking the half-dozen amazing 2nd half comebacks over the past 4 decades. So I went ahead and looked at the seasons since 2000 (that would be 18 of them or 108 pennant races) to see how often a team down by at least 5 games on May 1st came back to win the division. Note that this isn't making the playoffs or winning a playoff series - which is what the Nats and their fans are really after - it's winning the division.

What did I find? 14 such comebacks as described. That's about 13%. That's not a great chance but it's not terrible. You'd expect one such comeback at least every other year. Also it doesn't factor in a very important caveat. How many times has the consensus pre-season favorite been down 5+ games at the end of May and how many times did that end up with a division win. That's probably more applicable and I would think bump the numbers up a bit (though I don't know - could be a lot of these 5+ comebackers are surprises).

To me this is enough to think it's definitely possible for the Nats to catch the Mets, who lead them by 5.5 games.  Doesn't mean it's likely but if the Nats get healthy sooner (say in next couple of weeks have all but Murphy back) I still think they are better and they might have enough time to close the gap.  However, as I noted before there is a complication with this analysis. The Nats are not just 5.5 games behind the Mets. They are 5.5 games behind the Mets AND 4 games behind the Braves AND 3.5 games behind the Phillies.  All these comeback stories are great but they usually are about one team chasing down another with any other team involved being an early speed bump passed along the way. That's because they are usually have the floundering team still around .500 chasing down a leading team that is on some sort of crazy pace. To have multiple teams ahead of you means the floundering team is likely playing pretty poorly. So the question is has a team ever come back to take the division being down by this far to this many teams?

The answer is yes! In 2006 the Twins were down 3.5 to Cleveland, 6.5 to Detroit, and 8 to the White Sox and came back to win the division.   In the same year the Padres were down 2.5 to LA and ARI, 4 to SF, and 5.5 to Colorado and took the NL West. Not quite as far behind but 4 teams!  And...

Well nothing more really. There are a couple that would be similar. Chasing down two teams or three teams that aren't quite as far ahead as the Nats opponents but the Nats would obviously rank as a harder task than these (not knowing anything of the teams - but honestly at the time it would be like we are today - just guessing about how far off we might have been on our pre-season thinking).  So it can happn but now instead of around 14 out of 108 we're around 2 of 108 or about 2%.  You'd expect something like that to happen about once every 8-9 seasons or so.

I don't mean to discourage you at this point but I want to make clear that Boz's blase "Anything can happen so if the Nats are 12 games out at the All-Star break that's ok!" attitude is a little delusional. The Nats can win this division. However, it'll take a lot of work to make it happen and don't be surprised if the Nats are looking at trying to grab the Wild Card, not the NL East crown, come Labor Day weekend.