Nationals Baseball: June 2018

Friday, June 29, 2018

Pivot point

Last night's low-effort loss feels like a turning point. Not for the Nats but for me. This is when the Nats' fans' confidence has fallen so much that my attempt at middle of the road analysis seems more positive than them rather than less.

The Nats are not out of it and in fact have a golden opportunity to stay in the hunt, if not get back into first, before the All-Star Break. It's those 11 games against mostly the dregs of the NL East. They can dominate those games. Two four game sets that are crying out for no worse than a 6-2 run. Add in that winnable series with Pittsburgh and you have a stretch that is almost certain to make up a couple games, if not more. If they can simply not get swept by Philly, and/or Boston I can see a scenario where a 7 game deficit after July 4th becomes a 3 game one by the break. Three games with two + months to go and lots of H2H remaining is not anywhere near impossible. And if they can split Philly and hold their own vs Boston then you are looking at likely ~5 game deficit on July 4th which then could be closed to around 1 before the break.

There is certainly a scenario though where the Nats are dead in the water come July 15th. If they do get swept out of Philly and lose the Boston series and sit ~7 games out on July 4th and then they sort of split the next 11 games, then you can give up the ghost. Then they are probably sitting 7 games out and have to play like the best team in baseball for two months to come back. Though not impossible, that is somewhere in the vicinity.

What do the Nats need to do to make this 11 game stretch, and honestly the rest of the season, work? They need to win at like a high 90s pace.  You know who won at a high 90s pace? Last year's Nats! So what did they have that the current Nats are lacking?

They had four players providing three and a half seasons of high-level offense (there were some missed games). They had another two seasons of above average batting from a mix of three players. They had a trade deadline deal bring in another bat that was good.  So basically they need a mix of six bats that range from great to above average. They can span that range but they have to hit all parts of it.

They also had three starters who pitched like they were among the Top 10 in the game and a mix of others that were bad but not terrible. (The bullpen was a mess last year for most of it and so they are probably at where that was in general right now - congrats?)

How do we turn this into the Nats of today? Well six batters need to range from great to above average.  It's not going to be Severino. It's not going to be Difo. So you are going to have to pull those bats from Soto, Bryce, Rendon, Eaton, Murphy, Turner, and Taylor. It almost works for the season right now. Soto has been great. Bryce and Rendon good, Eaton and Turner above or at average. But Soto and Eaton have played about a month a piece, and Bryce and Rendon and Eaton and Turner are all a half-step worse than the Nats of last year. So moving forward those four at least need to step it forward a little compared to the season so far AND the five need to stay healthy. They also need to be joined by a sixth and I'm not sure who that is going to be. First up would be Murphy but he looks like a shell of himself. He may be able to single his way to above averageness but without power he's probably going to forever remain a half-step behind where they need him to be. MAT has that potential, but is historically not a good all around hitter and if you are getting what you need from Soto, Eaton, and Bryce won't have enough at bats to be that sixth guy.  Zimmerman? Let him get back first.  So it almost feels necessary to make that trade and to make it for a hitting catcher (or second baseman if Murphy sticks at first). That's the only way to be sure you have six bats capable of being what you need this year, even if they don't do it.

Pitching wise is simpler. Two of Strasburg, Gio, and Roark need to pitch a lot better. That's it. You could trade for an arm, but it cost you a ton to get a pitcher in here you feel sure will dominate.  There may not even be that type available (Archer isn't this type. Stroman can be but is hurt. Hamels skirts that level. Fullmer is a better bet but isn't necessarily on the block) So this fix needs to come from within and watching these guys pitch (or not in Strasburg's case) over the past few weeks doesn't fill me with confidence.

That's where the Nats stand. They have a chance. A good one in a week and if they can not fall out of contention now, a decent one going forward. But they need at least 6 major players to do better than they have. They need their phenom and their ace to keep doing what they are doing and they probably need something more. A surprise trade, a miracle recovery, someone doing MUCH better, something.

If you ask me the way forward I'm looking for is this :
Soto hits almost as well as he has so far. Bryce becomes BRYCE again. Rendon hits like an MVP. Eaton hits like he has in the past. This takes a burden off the back end of the six if these four are all firing like All-Stars or better. Then Turner, Taylor, Murphy - two of them (or some catcher traded for) can be merely around average.  Pitching wise Strasburg does pitch as well as last year and while neither Gio and Roark hit that high standard they both are well above average moving forward - basically kind of like they were in April and May.

I'm not saying the above is likely, but I think it's the path of least resistance. You want to avoid relying on a lot of multiple events, so fewer batters are better. You want to avoid relying on things that haven't reliably happened before - so no Soto hits better than this going forward or Turner is a superstar. This asks for neither. It's all stuff we've seen before, either this year or in recent past. But it's still a lot of stuff going right.

But hey - back to the beginning. Split the Phillies, survive the Sox, be the team we just talked about above after that and dominate the 11 over two weeks. Then maybe the division breaks in your favor and you don't need ALL this for the entire second half. Do the work in front of you Nats. 

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Werth's legacy

Jayson Werth hung up his spikes yesterday. (It's not a spam site! It's who is paying Heyman right now) The tributes are coming fast and furious.  I said my piece on Twitter but to repeat here for those wisely not on there : I think Werth was underrated as a player and overrated as a culture changer.

As a player Werth made what was rightly viewed as an overpaid contract (again - don't come at me here. I truly believe that I've spent more time looking at that deal than anyone and the Nats went with both max years & max dollars when one or other likely would have sufficed) into one where he almost got the Nationals their full value.  That isn't faint praise. Most long term contracts are clearly losing affairs meant to give value only for the first half then be sucked up in the latter years. To make a seven year deal come close to value? That's crazy.

And Werth did it in a very unusual way, coming twice back from injury to perform at a higher level than could be reasonably expected at his age off of injury. By giving the Nats a better than you'd think baserunner for the front of this contract and staving off the worst of his defense as long as he could.  It was an extraordinary feat that is somehow put on the back burner.

Why is it put on the back burner? Because Werth has been more symbol than player in DC.  He was brought in right before the team got good as a big FA signing that signified the Nats were ready to move on. And they did.  And he started making noise in the clubhouse for changes and they made a lot of them. He endeared himself to the fans with his appearance and demeanor and to the scribes with his willingness to give a good quote. It all seemed to line-up as if he was the turning point, everyone wanted him to be the turning point, so let's just agree that he was.

Except if you follow sports long enough you know that the flow works far more in the "winning breeds a championship clubhouse" then the other way around. You win, people look for all the good you have to explain why.  And objectively Werth didn't do what was said he was going to do when brought in. There was the idea he would open the FA floodgates as guys would see DC was a desirable place to be and flock here. Instead FAs more often passed up DC (and their unusual salary structures) for other places. He was supposed to provide a veteran leadership that would toughen the team in adverse times. But nearly whenever challenged by a high-caliber team in the regular season or playoffs, the Nats folded, losing divisions and series. And that positive clubhouse you hear about was the same clubhouse where Werth helped set up the "2 year and out" manager cycle, went to jail for speeding with seemingly zero care about it, and revolted at least once, maybe twice (Riggleman's tenure possibly, Williams tenure definitely) with literal choking going on.  He may have been in control of the clubhouse but the clubhouse was not in control.

I'm resigned to be alone on this island though because people love Werth the symbol. For fans especially he marks the dividing line between awful and good and whether or not he was really a major reason why* is unimportant. HE'S important and that's that. When ultimately you are correlated with winning, causation gets left in the wind. 

*If you can't tell - I'd say he was a pretty big reason why... on the field.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The last mewling of the NL East

The Nats have been perennial contenders over the past few years not only because they've been good, but because their division has been bad. In six seasons the Nats have finished over .500 six times. The rest of the NL East has done it four times. The Braves, Phillies, Marlins, and Mets have finished with fewer than 70 wins more times than more than 80.  In the 2012-2017 time frame the Phillies and Marlins rank among the worst teams in the NL while the Braves and Mets are average at best.

There has never been a mutli-front battle for the Nationals. There has never been three teams over .500 in the same year.

This should change this year. But as the rest of the NL East kicks off the cobwebs of a half-decade of incompetence, the ghosts still linger. In a five game stretch at home against the Orioles and Reds, where the Braves should be putting away the rest of the division, they have gone 2-3. Fresh off a beating of the Nats in DC, the Phillies have been succintly handled by the Yankees.  So while the Nats have spent most of the last week and a half tripping over themselves (literally if you've watched their baserunning) they are still in it.

Still the last week and a half have been bad.  I was hoping for a 9-6 run, expecting an 8-7. But they never exceeded - only disappointed.  They split the Yankees series (1-1) . They got swept by Tor (0-3). Took one of the 1 1/2 make-up Yankees games (1-1). Beat the Orioles (2-1) but lost to the Phillies (1-2) then got swept in two by Tampa (0-2).  Meet, disappoint, meet, meet, disappoint, disappoint. 8-7 becomes 5-10. A team a half-game out and 2 1/2 over the Phillies is now four games out and a half game behind Philadelphia.

The Nats have a day off before playing 18 in a row. I don't have to tell you a repeat of this 15 games stretch .333 winning percentage would be disaster.  The Nats need to play better than average and it needs to start now. Luckily the back half offers the Nats a good opportunity to do just that.

We start with 4 in Philly.  Let's split (2-2).  They host Boston for 3.  Let's for now mark that as a loss (1-2).  Then they host Miami for 4. Gotta win that (3-1). Go to Pittsburgh who have settled into mediocrity. Should win that (2-1) and finally 4 with the Mets in NY.  Let's say they win that (3-1).  If you like they could split the Mets series and win the Boston one but I think one or the other is better than predicting both wins or both losses.  Add that up and we have an 11-7 stretch. Again it may not seem like much but 11-7 is a 99 win pace. It's a pace that probably makes up a couple games if not more. The Nats aren't far enough back yet that they need to do more than this.

The optimist run would beat the Phillies and beat the Sox and go something like 13-5.  That would probably be enough to put the Nats back on top of the East and would be a nice lead in to the hosted All-Star game.  The pessimist would lose that Phillies series and would struggle through the back end.  A split with the Mets and finding themselves unable to beat Miami or Pittsburgh. 8-10 or so.  If the Nats are lucky that would keep them close enough to have hope. If they are unlucky the Braves would streak and the Nats would have to start seriously thinking Wild Card.

On another schedule note - we can now consider the Mets bad.  What does this mean for ATL, PHI, and the Nats?

The Nats will have easy stretches from July 5-15 (MIA (4), @PIT, @NYM (4)), July 26th-Aug 5th (@MIA(4), NYM (2), CIN (4)), and not again until Sept 20th-26th (NYM (4), MIA)

The Braves will have an easy run July 23rd - Aug 5th (@MIA (2), LAD (4), MIA (3), @ NYM (4)), but that's pretty much it unless you like a PIT/MIA road trip as easy Aug 20th-26th.

The Phillies can make a big run with stretches from Jul 3rd-Jul 22nd (BAL (2), @PIT, @NYM (4), @BAL (1), @MIA, SDP), July 26th - Aug 5th (@CIN (4), @BOS (2), MIA (4)), Aug 10th -19th (@SDP (3), BOS (2), NYM (4)), and Sept 2nd-19th (@MIA, @NYM, WSN, MIA, NYM)

The other way of looking at is if you think MIA, NYM, CIN, SDP, and BAL as the "easy teams". The Nats have a bunch of Mets and Miami games left, but have mostly finished out the other games with only a Cincy series left. The Braves are done with all their out of conference cupcakes and have had more games with Mets and Marlins than either of the three. The Phillies have just a couple games fewer against the Mets and Marlins than the Nats do and still got games against Cincy, Baltimore and all the Padres ones.

If you want to look at this it's saying the Braves will need to hang on as the Phillies and the Nats make their runs. If the Phillies take a substantial lead on the Nats, the Nats will have to hope for the Phillies to burn out because the schedule favors them. 

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Roark, Gio, and Imprudence

The Nats had spent most of the first 2+ months thriving instead of surviving because of their pitching staff. Their line-up never fully collapsed but injuries and disappointments meant it was merely ok. It was the line-up for a .500 type team and to keep that line-up in a playoff hunt meant you'd have to have a pitching staff that was among the best in the league. The Nats did. And as the bullpen continued to have issues here and there, especially in the middle innings, it was the rotation specifically that was doing the heavy lifting.

At May 30th, here were the staff's numbers

Max : 1.92 ERA, 0.85 WHIP, 13.6 K/9
Stras : 3.13 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 10.4 K/9
Gio : 2.10 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 8.8 K/9
Roark : 3.17 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 8.0 K/9
Hellickson : 2.30 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 7.1 K/9

The highest ERA was 3.17.  Currently for qualified NL pitchers those numbers would be 9th best. The second highest WHIP was 1.06.  Currently for qualified NL pitchers - 6th best. The Nats rotation was cruising. But the Hellickson got hurt. Then Strasburg got hurt. Then we realized Roark and Gio have not been pitching well.  How poorly?

In Tanner's last 6 appearances he has a 6.91 ERA, 1.83 WHIP, 7.0 K/9. In his last 2 starts he's failed to get out of the 5th, and has put on 22 baserunners in 8 and a third.

In Gio's last 4 starts he has a 10.67 ERA, 2.38 WHIP, 6.4 K/9.   Ok you say that's unfair bc of last night's debacle. 3 before that - 7.43 ERA, 1.95 WHIP, 5.5 K/9.

Now these could be just slumps*, but if so they are incredibly ill-timed slumps. What had been at the end of May as in control a 5 man rotation as could be has been reduced in 3 weeks to Max and the AAAA All-Stars.

What do the Nats do? Not much right now. The schedule, with it's easy stretch into the ASB coming up in a week, makes panicking seem unnecessary.  Let's see if Roark and Gio can get their heads on straight against some lesser competition aftter the 4th. Hellickson, as we thought, should be back soon. Let see him get back into the groove. We've talked about Strasburg and how he's likely to be out until after the ASB just because the way timing works out.  See where the chips fall and then decide what's next.

That's fine... as long as the offense can pick up the slack. Right now they haven't shown they can. And if the Nats don't play well in the next week - with the Phillies and the Red Sox up before the easy stretch - well that's bad. 

What's the other option though? Or looking at it in a more tempered way - what do the Nats do if they go into the ASB a bunch back (say about 5) and 2 of the 4 pitchers not named Max are ineffective? Do they ride with 60% of a rotation hoping it comes together before it comes apart and enough so that they can make up that ground?

I, advocate, for something the Nats rarely do.  I advocate for the imprudent trade. Now, let me explain. When I talk of an imprudent trade I am talking about a trade that has a good chance to help Nats for a short period of time (no more than a year and a half) while giving up a good chance to help the Nats in the long run. The Nats rarely make these types of deal. They can trade for a good chance to help in the short term... but they give up middling chances at long term help**. They can trade good chance to help in the long run... but they get back good chances to help for multiple years now.***

Sometimes these don't work out for you. Pivetta wasn't a good bet to help - but he is turning out to be a quality pitcher. Sometimes they do. Roark wasn't a good bet to help - but he turned out to do it. But all in all this is a very safe way to trade. You rarely end up giving up something for what is ultimately nothing.

But the Nats have made an imprudent trade before and it highlights why one might do it. When the Nats traded Felipe Rivero for Mark Melancon they were giving up a good bet to help into the future for a good bet to be better for a couple months. You weren't sure what that meant for Rivero, middle innings arm or elite closer, but the Nats took the risk. Why? Because they needed a closer after failures in 2012 and 2014 with Storen and the mental breakdowns of Papelbon and Storen in 2015. Papelbon was starting to break down and they had no reliable alternatives. It was a no choice situation and the Nats, in my mind, acted accordingly.

You can argue it didn't work out but that wasn't necessarily the trade's fault. Melancon did what was asked of him. The Nats couldn't turn it into a playoff series win.

In my mind the Nats, in the scenario where they are down by 5 games and 2 starters down, are in a similar no-choice situation. You get a starter or you don't make the playoffs. You still may not make it if you do, but this isn't the 2012 Nats where you can convince yourself planning for the future is the straight up obvious play. The 2018 Nats don't have that luxury.

This job keeps getting harder for Rizzo. When things almost magically came together in 2012 it turned a plan that was likely "hope to be a true playoff contender in 2013, figure out what next steps are necesarry" into "OMG we are a dominant team in 2012, there are no next steps!" and it gave the Nats four years of almost assured playoff relevancy. Not only that but it gave them four years to plan what to do post 2015. Four years to see who developed and thus didn't have to be addressed for 2016 and 2017 as the original players started going off the stage. Bryce is a star! Don't need one of those! Rendon develops? No 3rd baseman needed! Roark is a real starter? That saves a bundle! Four years where you could plan for the future only.

But since that 2016 season the Nats have had to dual plan, for now and for later. They caught some breaks and made some nice work to help mitigate the need for these plans**** but they were never going to recreate the easy ride that fell into their lap with that set of talent and that division.  Now work has to be done. Now the Nats have to fight to win today and fight to win in the future.

To me that second part conjurs up a whole lot of fogginess on what exactly the Nats will be come 2020 even if they try to plan for it.  Continuing legit multi-year challengers? Brief relevancy? Nothing at all? I know what the Nats are in 2018. They are contenders. I don't know what they'll be. That speaks to making a move for today with little regard for the future. That speaks for imprudence.

It doesn't have to be - I've outlined a couple prudent deals that would hurt but still be helping the Nats for multiple years (like giving up a ton for Michael Fulmer) but if those don't work out this is not the year to retreat and regroup for the future. This is the year to push forward still.

*Roark's was passable before his last two starts, the main culprit on his ERA before that being a rare in game appearance that went terrible. Gio has a tendency to have bad stretches. 

**many examples - basically pick almost any trade Nats have done

***trade for Eaton is a good one. 

**** Max! Murphy! Turner trade! 

Monday, June 25, 2018

Monday Quickie - weekend saved

The Nats nearly got swept out of their own building by the Phillies, down 6-2 half-way through in part thanks to Martinez trying again to squeeze one more inning out of an arm that should have been sat down. But last night Bryce finally hit and Murphy hit and the Nats feasted on both the soft underbelly and hard candy coated outer shell of the Phillies bullpen. The Nats won, avoiding disaster and keeping them in the hunt.

But make no mistake that is what the Nats did - stay in the hunt. They don't "remain in control". They are in third place now. Luckily the Braves choked a little against the Orioles and lost that series keeping the Nats only 3 games out, but you can't rely on other teams playing bad baseball.

This week the Braves play the Reds, who are actually hot. The Phillies play the Yankees, who are actually not. The Nats have two versus Tampa and then a precious rest day.  How are they doing on the macro scale? Well I expected them to go 8-7 from the Yankee set to this break.  They've gone 5-8 instead meaning it will take a sweep of Tampa just to be a mild disappointment. Over that time they've lost three games to both the Braves (early) and the Phillies (late) who have played good but not great baseball.

From where the Nats were - basically in first - you can suffer through a 10-15 game stretch of poor play as long as it's not terrible and no one important plays great. You lose ground but not hope.  The Nats have done that. Now they need to turn it around, because while you can do that from around first, you can't do that from a few games out and in third. Another 10-15 game stretch like that into the All-Star Break and they'll be real trouble, while a good one will likely put them close to where they started. We'll talk about those expectations on the off day.

The Tampa Series

Tonight is Gio vs Blake Snell. A real starter starting for Tampa! Wild! Snell is actually really good. One of those guys that the Rays will likely trade in two years for prospects for their continual rebuild. He strikes out a lot and is hard to hit but he can give up the occasional homer and when he's off he can be very wild (Seven walks last game) The bad news for the Nats though is he's a lefty. Gio had a couple of bad games against San Fran and Toronto before pitching ok against the terrible Orioles in a rain-abbreviated start. He's not missing many bats - so expect hits and maybe a homer, but if he can not walk anyone (he had 0 walks through 4 against Baltimore) he should keep the Nats in it. It feels like a tough one for the Nats.

If they can win this one though - next is Max vs Nate Eovaldi. These two matched up in early June but Nate was just off of injury then and couldn't go deep into the game. Now he can... but that's in a philosophical sense. He's a righty who should be in regular season form by now and he doesn't strike people out and he gives up homers like Shawn Kelley. Max on the other hand handled the Rays around the same time as he does every one. 8 innings, 13 Ks, no walks, two runs.  If there is a worry about Max it's that he's given up 4 long balls in his last three starts. But since Max doesn't give up hits or walk anyone he still didn't give up more than 2 runs in any of those games. So he probably won't shut out the Rays but still the Nats have to be heavy favorites.

Feels like a split but the Nats have a much better chance to sweep than be swept.

Friday, June 22, 2018

These are the games

Max did what he needed. The Nats did what they needed. I would have liked the sweep but sweeps are hard and 5-1 against your terrible rival is good enough. But now...

Now the Nats play the Phillies who have hung around in the NL East 7 times in 9 games.  Now is when the Nats can bury the Phillies or can be buried themselves.

How have the Phillies hung around? Well after a 2-8 stretch where they fell out of direct competition with the Braves, they've gone 7-3. And they've done it against good competition, Brewers, Cardinals, Rockies. They could have been washed away.  They were not.

They've been hot offensively. Ryhs Hoskins is back and hitting well.  Odubel Herrerra continues his unlikely star story. Carlos Santana is still hitting after his terrible start. The rest of the team isn't doing much but outside of Altherr, who splits time with Nick Williams, right now they are all doing something and that's enough with three other guys hot.

The pitching hasn't been as good recently but it's been steady and keeping them in this over the course of the season. Nola's the star, Arrieta's the steady vet, and Pivetta and Eflin have matured into fine middle of the rotation arms. They's developed some star relief arms like Eudbray Ramos and Seranthony Dominguez and their trying to find dependable arms to get around them. 

There's no smoke and mirrors here. The Phillies are a good team. However they aren't great. The line-up isn't deep with good bats yet as they wait for one more guy to take that next step. The staff needs that one more starter to be dependable, especially given Pivetta's Jeckyll and Hyde tendencies. The pen needs the middle relief to solidify.

Thing is - these are all easy trade deadline fixes. Middle relief arms? 4th/5th starers. One more just above average bat at any position but 1st? They should be able to get any of these if they want it. It's kind of imperative then that the Nats make sure they DON'T want it.  Knock them down so they focus on next year, not this one.  The Phillies could go in either direction. In August could see Sixto Sanchez in the rotation, Adrian Beltre at third, and a returning Zach Britton in the pen. Or you could see none of that and Kingery back in AAA getting some reset playing time as the Phillies coast to a .500 record. The Nats can help make it the latter.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Bryce's Head, Revisited

First I guess I somehow failed to say whether I thought the trade was good or not. It's good. It's very good. The Nats got something they need, maybe not terribly so if Kintzler is healthy, but still a need and they get better. They gave up very little in general, and specifically nothing that would matter over the next two-three years, which is honestly all I think you can ever plan for with any certainty. You do this deal every time.

Second, I want to say in this year of bad injury luck for the Nats (Matt Adams now!) the Nats haven't been exactly snake bit. They've had good replacement luck and good SP health luck (up until possibly now) and one more fortune. Their interleague rival stinks. The Nats are 4-0 against the Orioles now, on the way to no worse than 5-1 in my mind. If the Nats had the Yankees or Red Sox? That could easily be a 2-4 record. No, nothing is certain with any set of games. You might catch them when they are hot or when you are cold.  Maybe you just lose a series of 1-runners. But the reality is you want to have as many games against bad teams as you can and hope your opponent has as many games against good teams as possible. This year the slight interleague advantage is working very very strongly in the Nats favor. If the division is won by a couple games, this could be the difference.*

Ok onto Bryce. He's been terrible and the numbers tell an obvious story of decline.

Apr : .247 / .458 /. 528
May : .221 / .293 / .558
June : .143 / .238 / .214

That's pretty stark.  There is a narrative going around that it's Bryce's failure to adjust to the shift that's the problem. Essentially it's all in his head. Let's set that aside for now. If you are looking for an injury the obvious demarcation line would be May 31st.  The May numbers are bad, don't get me wrong but there is a bad slump in the beginning of the month when he went 2-26 followed by a 20-day stretch very much like April without the other teams avoiding him .250 / .325 / .574. So it seems like that's just a slow start. Possibly a nagging injury related slow start but a slow start. After May 31st though not only does the average really plummet, the power disappears as well. That's telling.

Did anything happen around that time? Nothing that I can tell without watching the games again (maybe I will) but it was on June 3rd that Bryce got his unusual day off. I say that because the Nats were playing an important game vs the Braves, a mediocre righty was going to be on the mound, and there was a scheduled day off the next day. It seemed like a very odd time to sit Bryce then. In hindsight now it seems like something was/is up. Or at least warrants a little more digging into the dead blank wall that is how the Nats talk about injuries.

Is there anything in the fancy stats? Well we talked before about him pulling the ball more. But it's not more than ever - he did it this much in his vaunted 2015. In fact a lot of his pure hitting numbers - How Hard, Where, What Type are almost mirror images of 2015. Of course teams are shifting more now. There's some worthwhile numbers in here. But can a shift alone explain a drop in BABIP from .370 to .210? I can't imagine but I don't know.

Of course I'm looking overall and at this point, we're trying to distinguish something monthly.  In May, as that article noted he stopped walking and started striking out more. However his walk rate was INSANE in April, like 30%, so that wasn't keeping up, and his K-rate was low for him. The K-rate going up to around 24% isn't a big deal, a couple ticks above average, but the BB-rate down to 9%? That's unusually low.

More striking were his contact numbers. He wasn't seeing the ball well and was missing a lot in May. I can't parse out the monthly splits yet but at the time of that article his Z-Contact (in the zone) was maybe around 82% - low but not crazy. Now it's under 80% just two weeks later. His O-Contact rate is dropping still too. They mention that one specifically at being 53% at the time of the article. It's at 52.6% now.  Not as dramatic but still the same pattern. He's making contact with nothing.

If we look at the other stats in June we things get alarming. The K-rate, ok at 24%, is 36.5%  His HR/FB rates dropped to 8.3% Soft rate up to 24.2% Hard down 27.3%. He's not hitting the ball at all the same way.  Squint and May can look like a frustrated Bryce trying to bully his way through the shift with half-success.  June is something else.

What about history?  How unusual is Bryce's June with an OPS under .500? Well here are his monthly OPS over the past few seasons.

2017 : 1.281, 0.875, 0.837, 1.234, 0.804, 0.417
2016 : 1.121, 0.785, 0.801, 0.621, 0.934, 0.648
2015 : 0.985, 1.379, 1.143, 1.015, 0.909, 1.216
2014 : 0.773,          ,          , 0.671, 0.830, 0.773
2013 : 1.150, 0.687,          , 0.786, 0.872, 0.684
2012 :          , 0.860, 0.780, 0.619, 0.748, 1.043

He's only gone under .500 once, in a abbreviated Sept/Oct last year. He was out because of a bone bruise.** I also highlighted any months under the .850 OPS he put up in May.  There are a bunch of those in 2016 when it was obvious he was playing through a shoulder injury (and he admitted as much before last year started). There's a bunch in 2014 when he injured his thumb and was out for two months. There's a bunch in 2013 when he hurt his knee in May.

But there are too many to say these are related to injuries. I think Bryce, on a bad month, can find his OPS as low as .750. But I think there's a pretty strong correlation with anything under .700 and injury.

So where do I end up, assuming Bryce doesn't have a massive turnaround in the next week?  Historically, Bryce's stats tell us he doesn't have a month as bad as June without being hurt (or a teenager).  Fancy stats tell us something is way off recently. A casual glance suggest June has been different than the first two months. There's an odd day off right around where things seem to turn. All in all I have to land on injury, or perhaps as the Fangraphs piece suggest - eye issues.  Not for the season as a whole, though that might be true. April and May seem to be their own animals. But right now? Bryce is either hurt or has something else going on because he's not hitting like he ever has and it's not just a reaction to the shift because we saw that reaction in May and it wasn't like this.

*Which is terrible - yearly interleague is an abomination.  

** So if I'm watching those games I'm looking for anything that suggest reinjury of that bruise.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018


Trade! I like to do these things in Q&A for with myself so here goes:

Kelvin Herrera... I thought the closer for the Royals was still Soria. I guess I should pay more attention. Is he good?

Yes. He's been very good every year but last year. WHIPs in the 1.100s, FIPs in the 2.50-3.50 range. Very good at limiting the home runs because he's a pretty historically strong GB pitcher.

Sounds good, what happened last year? Injury?

Maybe? He did have a forearm injury later in the year, but I mean like September. He wasn't good all year. There doesn't seem to be much rhyme or reason to it. Just an off-year. He seems fine this year.

OMG I glanced at this year's stats. A 1.05 ERA?!?!  Tell me this is real

This is nowhere near real.  There are a couple of things that are going to come crashing down sooner or later.  A ridiculous 98.9% LOB rate (80% is very high - his career ave would be high 70s), a .246 BABIP (not impossible but on the low end and his career numbers are closer to .280-.290), a ridiculously low HR/FB rate of 6.7%.  (he's low but around 10% is a better guess).

So... did we get sold a lemon?

If he keeps pitching as he has then it just means he should have an ERA in the high 2.00s instead of around 1.00. That's still good right?

Phew. Well good. Now we can move on to




Tell me.

There are some things I don't like here. If you want to hear them.

I don't honestly. It's been a long 6 seasons

Too bad. The biggest reason his numbers should be in the high twos is a crazy drop in his walk-rate. Usually it's in the 3.00s, now it's under 1.00.   Also his K rate has dropped under 8.0 K/9 which isn't very good, and there's reason to believe that is going to stick.  Also he's been a great HR stopper because he's been a heavy GB pitcher. This year he's giving far fewer GBs (and far more FBs) then ever before. Also his soft-hit rate is the lowest of his career, hard hit is up matching last year. FB speed did drop over an MPH though to be fair he is starting super high (like 97 to 96)

 So what are you saying here? You said we didn't get sold a lemon!

Well actually I said if he keeps pitching like he has then the Nats are ok. So if he has really become a master of control giving up basically no walks, he'll be fine. More hits, more homers, higher ERA but still very good.

Is there any reason to believe that he can do that? Become a master of control?

Yes! Two years ago he dropped his BB/9 rate to 1.5 over the course of the year. So 0.7 might be too much but significantly under his historic 3.0+ rate has some precedent. And he's always been hard to hit, and hard to hit homers off of.  It's hard for me to see him becoming BAD. It's just there is definitely potential here that the Nats bought high - of course they didn't pay much.

What did they pay? I know maybe Kelvin Gutierrez, but I might be confusing him with the guy we got.

Don't feel bad. There aren't any big names here. I'll give a quick rundown
Kelvin Gutierrez is a Wilmer Difo type. Slick fielding, contact guy with minimal pop. He's the kind of guy, like Difo, who you can stick in the majors if not this year than next and he won't embarrass you but he should probably be on the bench. For a team like KC, who is likely to start rebuilding, he's a good guy to play to see if you get lucky. Chances are very good no you will not, but you need ML capable bodies.
Yohanse Morel is the talent. He's not yet 18 and can hit the mid 90s at least. He could develop into something special, but you can say that about dozens of 17 year olds every year. Only a handful make it. Plus he's years away, and not in the usual way we say it, which is more like "not this year or next" but in a literal sense. He's very possibly post 2021 if he ever makes it. He's not even in the traditional minors right now, pitching in the Dominican league.
Blake Perkins is the wild card. He has talent. Was deemed a plus outfielder and had shown some great patience for his age and level. But he can't hit. He's 21 in Advanced A and he's carrying a .234 average. His power showing from last year has gone away leaving him as nothing but maybe a slick fielding walk taker? That won't get him past AA. He'll have a couple years to turn things around but there isn't a strong sense from anyone he will.

This seems like not much at all

It isn't! This basically changes nothing in the Nats plans other than maybe make Difo more likely to stick around rather than be tossed into a trade or replaced from below. 

I'm still worried about the Kelvin Herrera stuff though

I know. It's weird. There's a lot of stats that are untenable or historically off. There are a couple of worrying signs. BUT if you have to guess you say "Yes, he does revert back to his norm" that means across the board though. So the hits start dropping in, he starts walking more, but also he starts throwing more GBs and gets some softer contact. If you just say the first part and not the second you are pulling out the pessimist scenario

That reminds me - you said you'd be more positive! 

Well I said I'd try to accurately present all sides so I will spell it out here. The likely scenario is Herrera pitches well (around a 3.00 ERA) getting his GBs and keeping the ball in the park but not being a DOMINANT force (as would be expected given what it took to get him).  The pessimist scenario is that the troubling numbers are real and the luck stats kick back and he goes from 60 to 30 pretty fast, a 4.00ERA+. The optimist scneario is that he has become a control master and he sort of corrects for the things I've seen I don't like (more GBs) and he puts up a under 2.50 ERA.

What I don't see is him being terrible - like a 5.00 ERA bust. I think his base level being hard to hit, being very hard to bomb, keeps that from happening. I also don't see him being dominant because the Ks aren't there.

Anything else? 

I do wonder what this means for Kintzler and Strasburg. Pitching wouldn't be the first area I would address with this team. It'd be the offense and the easiest area to improve would be catcher.

How are Kintzler and Strasburg?

Don't really know. Kintzler has a forearm strain which as you know from what we just talked about rehashing my take on Strasburg could really be nothing to worry about. He's had injuries before (shoulder in distant past, leg more recently) but this forearm doesn't seem like part of a pattern.

Strasburg still no word, but given I expect full rest to the ASG I don't expect more than the token "he's progressing" until we get into July.

In other words - there is no reason to worry about either yet. Yes, you can wonder, especially about Kintzler, but you gotta take the Nats at their word right now.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Monday Quickie - Bad Start

So I've talked about this stretch of baseball for a week now and now we're in it and things are going poorly.

First off the Nats couldn't manage the modest 2-3 goal I set out for them prior to the Yanks and Jays series. They started out right with the split in NY, but Toronto just swept them out. That's a minor problem as 1-4 means they'll have to go 8-2 now to hit the goal of 9-6 or 7-3 to hit the expectation of 8-7.  But being a game under where you wanted to be isn't the big issue with this most recent stretch. The upcoming games do favor the Nats right at this moment with those three Orioles games standing out like an potential oasis in the desert. It's never going to go exactly as planned and at times they will underperform and then overperform later.

The big issue is that the last game of the Blue Jays series fed into this odd quasi-doubleheader with the Yankees before going into the O's series. For the next three games you are likely going to see a lot of relief pitchers (finishing out the postponed game), a lot of relief pitchers (in relief of Fedde who may pitch well but won't pitch deep), and a lot of relief pitchers again (in relief of ? who is starting that first Orioles game in place of Strasburg). That's a lot of relief innings so it was paramount for Roark to go deep and save some arms. He did not. He only went 4 and the Nats ended up using 4 other arms yesterday trying to grab that win. Now the Nats are facing a precarious situation where they could really punish the pen if they aren't lucky and careful.

They almost have to choose today. Either go all in and try to win the first game. Use your best relievers in what amounts to a 3 inning game or save your best relievers and try to hang on with your other guys - not throwing more than 2 arms out there if at all possible - and save the better arms for use tonight if needed.  Strategy probably dictates the first one. Use Collins, Doolittle, Solis, maybe Miller or another guy. Get the win you know is possible. Don't save anyone for what may be a blowout in either direction tonight. But we'll see. If Suero or Grace starts then the Nats are going in the other direction.


Bryce is terrible right now.  So is Murphy. The best player hitting is MAT. So the line-up is topsy turvy. It's Dave Martinez so I expect him to tinker with it and move MAT up today.

Soto had his first bad series. Just a couple of hits in Toronto, 6 Ks, 0BBs.  Did they figure something out? We'll see

I imagine given his performance the other night we'll see Jefry Rodriguez again tomorrow. Baltimore, with it's 2nd worst lineup in the majors, is a nice second line-up to have to face for him.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Weekend placeholder - Am I negative? no, it is the children who are wrong.

Just giving a  fresh place to comment on this weekends games really.

From the comments - On Hellickson and Strasburg -

What do I THINK will happen? I think Hellickson will be out for a week or two. That's it. I'm very leery about Strasburg pitching much more this year because I'm very leery about shoulder stuff.

Of course it's been pointed out that I am a negative Nelly when it comes to pitcher injuries and even I know what I say above is a pessimistic take. As a soulless automaton, I'm generally fair. Sometimes I think good things, sometimes bad things, usually they are right, sometimes they are wrong. I talk about bad things more but that's just because they are more interesting to talk about, because there's not only the issue to talk about but what to do about it. Anyone here want to be on a third blog piece about "Tanner Roark has pitched well this year as expected. Fin."? Yawn.

But nope I'm not being fair to Strasburg. I DO think he'll be out until after the All-Star Break but that's more about timing than anything. Let's say they are cautious, which seems reasonable, and rest him for say three more starts. That puts him starting again around the 4th or so, about 2 1/2 weeks off. That could mean three starts before the break or it could be two (starting on the 5th is the cut-off). Let's say he starts on the 7th so a full 3 weeks off. He'd pitch the 7th, pitch the 12th and then... maybe the 20th?  You are getting him back only to force him into another awkward rest period very soon after. It just makes sense to keep him on the shelf until after*

But that's not about being hurt, like I said, that's timing. So after that he could pitch the whole rest of the year fine and there's no reason right now to not think that would happen. The fairest take is - he;ll probably be back right after the ASB and if he's pitching, he's probably ok. We'll have to keep a close eye on those first couple starts but you'd assume he's ready to go the rest of the season.

On the overall negativity - well look at Ross, look at Glover. Pitchers reguarly get hurt and stay hurt for a long time. It's not THAT crazy to believe that may happen to a Nats starter we care about. I WAS worried about Max a couple years ago with his bad start but looking back (the good thing about blogs is I can actually check what I said) my main thrust was "Max is probably going to only be real good, potentially win a Cy Young good, but not overly dominant #1 pitcher in NL great" I was wrong but given that we'd only seen dominance for one year I think that was a fair take at the time. And it's kind of similar with Strasburg. When he went out I said first "I told you so" because I harped on the fact he hadn't pitched to end 2016 so it was fair to expect some injury from the guy that always gets hurt.  Then I said he'd be back in a month if it was like 2016, but worst case would be another TJ. Instead Nats got a best case - he was back in 2 1/2 weeks or so. Then I said "Ok. Gotta trust he'll finish up year. Cross your fingers"  That's not exactly THAT negative. So I'm holding my ground here. I'm not overly negative in my expectations.

I will say that while I give a fair shake, I usually then present the worst case but not the best case. So I guess I'll try to do that as well. 

So Strasburg's best case, which I still didn't mention, is that he's back sometime in the first five games of the next homestand and he keeps pitching as he has this year - which is very good.

*unless he can come back pretty much as soon as they are back from the road trip, but I don't see the cautious Nats doing that. Nor does anything we hear suggest that he's going to jump back in the rotation soon.

Thursday, June 14, 2018


Another day, another team held to 4 or less by the Nats pitching staff. Fedde wasn't great but he managed to not be terrible and the bullpen of Miller, Madson, and Doolittle, plus whoever else is necessary finished the job. A couple scares here and there but the job got gotten done. The Nats offense, or more accurately Juan Soto, plated 5 runs and the Nats were able to get out of New York splitting the series.

One thing we have maybe only skirted at mentioning, what if the Nats don't win the NL East? I think we all just assume "well they'll have the Wild Card".  Will they? Currently the answer is Yes but only by a half-game. The Brewers, Braves, and Diamondbacks would take the titles and the Cubs (+2) and Nats would be the Wild Card game* The Cardinals though, sit only a half-game back of the Nats, the Phillies 2 games behind and the Dodgers 3.  Having teams fall into haves and have-nots so clearly means there is going to be a bunch of teams all crammed together at the top. This has all the makings for 1-2 90+ win teams to be shut out of the playoffs.

For a team used to cruising this year will almost certainly be different. How used to cruising are the Nats? Well at this point last year - the ideal year - the Nats were up 9.5 games.  They'd "fall to 7.5 by July 1st but that would be the low point from here on out. In 2016, they'd be up 5.  They'd go on their worst stretch of the year in a couple of days and be only up by 2 on the 25th but that would be the low point. There'd be one more minor scare - the lead would go to 4 going into August, but pretty much smooth sailing. In 2012 they'd be up 5. This was a more contested year** and the Braves would stick around through August but would never get closer than 2 games and would spend most of that time 3-4 games out. They'd close just enough at the end to make you think about it, but not worry.

Only 2014 wasn't decided by this point in hindsight. The Nats were tied at this moment, at a middling 35-32 and would take some small leads and fall into second here and there. It wasn't until August where the Nats would first separate a little as the Braves crashed then run off 10 in a row and 12 of 13 to put it out of reach.

Oh the non-playoffs seasons? The 2013 would already be 5.5 behind and would only breifly climb to 5 games back. 2015 Nats would be back by just a half a game. They would take a lead of as much as 4.5 games on July 4th before losing it getting swept at CitiField to start August. They'd collapse after that.

So historically the question is - is this a 2014, where the Nats would fight and then cruise, or 2015 where the Nats would fight then crash? Or is it something different entirely - a season where the Nats fight to the end?


Soto I said I'd talk about later - end of June. But it's obvious he (1) can hit major league fastballs, and (2) understands the strike zone. Working him away doesn't work either. I imagine he'll start seeing a lot of in the zone junk or maybe a concentrated effort to work up or down, but so far they haven't found a hole

Murphy looks unplayable. The swing isn't terrible but they were right - he seems ok sprinting but hobbles in a jog. That can't be good and I would not trust him at all in the field when moving over a few steps at a moderate speed is a requirement.

The day off helps the Nats avoid answering the Strasburg/Hellickson question for the time being. It's Gio Max and Tanner for the next three starting tomorrow, so it's not until Monday the 18th where someone has to be ready. Currently they are both on double secret injury probation - aka 10-Day DL with indefinite descriptions of the severity of their ailments. If one is out that's survivable. Strasburg would hurt more obviously. It's not only the talent but Hellickson is a limited innings pitcher so he doesn't do much to protect the pen. Strasburg can. If two are out though the Nats are dipping into their very shallow SP depth. That's not only bad for those games but bad overall as Gio isn't a gimme to go deep even when pitching well. You can't rely on Max going 8 and resetting the pen every go through for the next month.

Commenter Bx called me out on Trea and yes, he could be a star. Yesterday was about at the plate and when I said it's looking like Trea won't be a star I mean there. It doesn't look like he'll hit well over .300 and develop ~20 homer power, which I'm sure was running through heads about 21 months ago. But can he be a little better than last year? .280-.290 with 15+ homers and some patience? Sure! And if he does that because he can field and run he'd be an arguable star player. He won't compare well with his peers but we are in a strange super SS period in baseball where if Trea manages to be the 5th-7th best SS he's still putting out star production.

Of course watching last nights game showed you the difference between an elite fielding SS and Trea who's pretty good. That play by Didi in late innings was the 2nd place "Wow" moment of the game (after Soto's BOMB).  Here's Didi's play.  Trea's not doing that. Here's Soto's BOMB. Trea's not hitting that. Of course no one is asking him to.

Here we go. 30+ in 31 days leading up to the All-Star Break.

*I already hate this Joe Maddon filled scenario with all my heart and it is not real. 

**The Braves would essentially mirror the Nats for the next two months. The Nats went 15-16 for an extended stretch, but only lost 2.5 games to the Braves. The Nats would then go 17-4 and somehow only pick up 2 games!

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Offense is Offensive

Last year the Nationals offense was great. They scored 5.06 runs per game which was just under the Rockies (5.09) and just ahead of the Diamonbacks (5.01) two teams that played in offensively minded parks. They were up there with the Cubs (5.07) like 5% better than the next best team in a normal park (the Marlins at 4.80).  For a long time the Nats had been very good, but had peaked as "the best of the rest". Last year they truly were one of the best

This year they Nats sit at 4.26 runs per game. This is 8th in the NL and below average*.  What has happened? They were ok in April and May. Not great but their usual up around 5th/6th and above average. But the bottom has fallen out in June, they are hitting an anemic .198 / .268 / .297 in June, with an OPS that sits at 13th in the NL for the month with a cavern between them and 12th place (.565 to .643).

Alot of the blame has fallen on Bryce but the truth is nearly every planned starter has had an issue this year.

C: Wieters : Didn't underperform but we were expecting below average and he delivered.  Then he got hurt

1B : Zimmerman : Was awful then got hurt and disappeared from the face of the Earth outside of Capitals playoff games.

2B : Murphy was not ready to start the season. Kendrick who became Plan A, hit ok in his place but got injured.

SS : Turner (June : .175 / .214 / .250) has not only not become the star the Nats were hoping for after that incredible end to 2016, he's been decidedly average since then. He put up a modest .284 / .338 / .451 line last year and the hope was it was injury recovery that held him back.  .254 / .338 / .385 this year suggests not.

3B : Rendon (June : .194 / .256 / .250) is supposed to be a lynch pin to this squad. A guy hitting .280+ with good power and great in the field. He got hurt early but he's been back for a month and is struggling to be impactful at the plate

RF : Bryce (June : .188 / .297 / .281) has slumped noticeably, which highlights how well he had been doing before despite the low average to still be a well above average bat for 2018 overall. However, "well above average" isn't what the Nats expect. They expect "star". 

CF : Taylor (June : .333 / .400 / .556 !) had an incredibly bad start to the year. So much that the week and a half of June games hasn't gotten him anywhere near average. It was hoped that the 2017 season and the playoffs were a turning point but more likely they were a fluke of BABIP.

LF : Eaton (June : .250 / .333 / .250 in 2 games mind you) was injured almost immediately. His numbers for the season look good but he's had as many PAs in 2018 as a whole as Trea Turner has had in June.

Now the Nats lucked out in a lot of places at least for a while. Kendrick did well forced into starting duty. Zimmerman was replaced mostly by Adams (June : .267 / .267 / .533) who has been a lifesaver, and Reynolds (June : .143 / .217 / .143) who was effective early in his limited role. Soto (June : .320 / .452 / .600) has arguably started a ROY campaign despite being called up just a month ago. This has helped kept the Nats afloat. But as these guys cooled off or got hurt themselves the solutions not found for injured players stopped being hidden. Pedro Severino (June : .053 / .143 / .053)  took over. I say this again because you guys don't ever seem to get this - Severino is not a major league catcher. He cannot hit at the major league level. Not that he's below average but that he's terrible enough that you can't play him everyday. If you want to be generous, not now, but very likely not ever. Wilmer Difo was forced to play every day after Kendrick went out (June : .182 / .206 / .303) and looks every bit the last player on the bench we've been saying he is for four years now. A similar take can be had with the returning Goodwin (June : .000 / .154 / .000).  Sierra and Stevenson and Kieboom and Sanchez were all AAAA players who the Nats took fliers on in time of need that held no surprises.

The Nats offense is flailing. It's as if the entire team has taken a collective step back from 2017. That will happen on a player by player basis but if you take three supposed to be healthy players (Bryce, Rendon, Turner) you don't expect ALL to take steps back. And some of that (Zimm, MAT) was likely unsustainable but they shouldn't have dropped back as far as they have. Add to that the injury issues (Zimm, Murphy, Eaton, Kendrick) and the poor planning (Difo maybe, Severino definitely) and it's a perfect storm right now.

The Nats offense should get better. It is not the clear 13th best in the NL caliber it has been since the last few days in May. But can it be good enough? If the pitching maintains it's best in the NL status? Probably so. If not, and with recent starter injuries that's a bigger question than ever, then I honestly don't think so, not unless three of these guys end up on the All-Star level.

*How are they still winning games? The pitching is tops in the NL. A step above #2 Chicago and a quarter run ahead of third place at this point in the season. That's a lot!

Monday, June 11, 2018

Monday Quickie - A tale of two teams

The Nats finished what is likely to be their easiest stretch of the season* with a 12-9 record. That's pretty good, but it's also a 92-93 win pace which isn't all that impressive against this level of competition. What we've seen is a dichotomy that puts the Nats squarely as a middle of the road team, but in an unusual way.

What you hope to see is something like 2 out of every 3 against bad teams and .500 versus good teams. It'll differ home and away and when you catch these guys, but in general this is a good goal to have. If you catch the same number of games against good teams and bad teams** you'll win at like a .584 pace or 94-95 wins. That's enough to win a division. How did the Nats do? Well look at this stretch.

The Nats won 2 of 3 from the Padres, then swept the Marlins, Orioles, and two from Tampa. That's a 10-1 record against the worst teams they played. This is far better than the 2 out of 3 you aim for. That would have been 8-3 or 7-4. The Nats against bad teams look every bit the dominant team they have for the past half-decade

The Nats got swept by the Dodgers, took only 1 of 4 in Atlanta, then lost a series at home to the Giants. These are the three best teams the Nats faced and they went 2-8 against them. That's nowhere near the 5-5 you would hope for. The Nats against good teams look every bit the also ran.

If you're looking for a bright side here it's that for the season as a whole the "dominate bad teams" holds up. Won another series versus the Padres. Beat up Cincy to start year. Meanwhile the "also ran vs good teams" is less consistent. They swept a decent Pittsburgh squad and NL West leading D-backs.***  So there seems to be a path to where they should be.

Which brings us to the next stretch. They'll start with two in NY against the Yankees with rest on either side of the NY games. Then starting with Toronto they'll play 30.3 games in 31 days. It's a killer run that will test this team in a way they haven't been tested all year and with both Hellickson and Strasburg having issues this could easily be a time frame that breaks what has become a solid pen, at least until they can pause and regroup at the All-Star Break. We will break it up into the games before that precious day off on the 27th and games after.

They have five games away, two versus the Yankees and 3 against the Blue Jays. 2-3 would be a decent goal here. Then they go home to finish up the Yankees suspended game and play the other rained out game. That's followed by 3 against the O's and three against the Phillies. Split the Yankee games win both other series. That's 5-3. Before shooting down for a two game set against Tampa. We'll say a split there for now. That's an 8-7 expectation, with 9-6 as a goal and 7-8 as the floor.

What's the competition up to?

ATL : v NYM (2), v SDP (4), @TOR (2), v BAL, v CIN
PHI :  v COL, @ MIL, v STL, @WSN, v NYY

Atlanta's been treading water for a few weeks, but that's a potential cake walk for the Braves. You could see them going 11-3 and something like 9-5 should be their floor. If the Braves do that and the Nats do 8-7, the Nats only drop a game and a half behind. That's fine. If the Braves streak and the Nats stumble to like 6-9. That's a 5.5 game lead for Atlanta in the blink of an eye. 

This is Philly's tough stretch, which you could argue they've been in for a month now, and they have suffered for it. 8-14 over the long haul and 3-8 recently. If they can survive this run they'll have a chance to make a push with an easy group of games that surround the All-Star Break. However you look at this and I see 6-9. They do that and if the Nats and Braves do what I expect they'd be 5 games behind the Nats and 6.5 behind the Braves.  That's a problem. They almost have to defy expectations right now to stay in the division hunt.

We have a moment of calm now. Two games against the Yankees where if the Nats take one, which it more than possible, it's a good set. Rest on either side. Get ready. Enjoy these games, then prepare to dive headlong into the month that could this team.

*Now that the Mets are dying it's likely there will be a couple more easy stretches. However, this is also true for the Braves and Phillies. It'll have less effect on Atlanta, than Philly. The Braves have loaded up on Mets games (10) the Phillies have barely played them (4). Nats are at 6 

**This sounds like it should happen but a lot depends on your own division and interleague. The Nats, as we've mentioned in the past, have feasted on a weak NL East for years.  

*** Though the Dbacks are schizophrenic this year.  21-8 to start year, 5-18 next (this is where the Nats came in), 9-3 up to today. So what does winning over them during that 5-18 stretch really mean? Don't know.

Friday, June 08, 2018

Justin Miller - the reliever the Nats have been waiting for?

Every team that rolls deep into the playoffs seem to have that guy. The guy in the pen who can just come in and smoke through 3 guys when called upon. The young gun throwing 100MPH fastballs by guys be it to shut down the opponent before the regular back end comes in or to win an epic battle against the other team's star*.  This guy can be wild but the guy is unhittable if he's on.

The Nats have never really had that. Enny Romero could dial it up but was way too hittable. Shawn Kelley was almost that but didn't quite have the fastball and at the most crucial moment his arm died and it's never come back. Christian Garcia had that potential but rather than ride his arm until it broke the Nats decided to try to make him into a starter... and his arm broke anyway. Storen could have been that but was nearly immediately promoted to closer and then a million other things happened. Barrett? Too hittable. Clippard? Not dominating in that power way. But with Justin Miller the Nats might have found their man.

Now the funny thing is, Justin isn't quite this guy if you look at what he's done. He's not fast enough to throw a bunch of 100MPH fastballs by guy. He sits regularly in the mid 90s and there's just the expectation that he will be able to up that a few MPH based on his history. Guys aren't swinging through strikes but rather he's fooling guys to swing at more balls and those are the pitches they are missing. He's not a young buck throwing his arm out but a 31 year old reclamation project.

But what we are talking about here are feelings, and Justin feels like that type of pitcher. He does rely VERY heavily on the fastball - throwing it 2/3rds to 3/4 of the time. He is a big time strike out pitcher with control issues both in his past and possibly now. His minor league career shows flashes of being unhittable. 

Relievers are fungible. We say that a lot but we often don't dig into what it means. It's a statement about the replace-ability of relievers but based in the variability of them. They pitch such a relatively few innings that you should be able to find ones that work out for 40-50 innings in a year. Guys who might be 4.00 pitchers who throw 3.30 up for that time frame. The Nats have. As much as you may hate their scrimping and saving when it comes to relief the Nats have often had good to very good pens since 2012. But while the Nats have figured that right they've never really gotten the benefit of that variability while suffering the downsides. They've had it all kind of fall apart, but they haven't really seen it all come together.  2012 was close as the pen didn't have a bad arm, but it wasn't dominating. 2014 was close with peak Clippard and Storen, but a dead offense at the end meant what was actually a maybe great pen performance in the NLDS is remembered as a complete failure. 2016 was close, but it took the trade for Melancon to make it that way and the pen would do themselves in unable to hold games 3 and 5 in the NLDS.

Ultimately the playoffs, if they get there, is what will define the pen. But right now they are closing in on having a complete pen with a dominant closer, a strong set-up and maybe that middle reliever you believe can walk on water when necessary with the bulk of the season to go. That's something they haven't had. Maybe having it so early, getting it defined so early, will make it stick come October. That's the hope anyway.

*Or lose it - see Strickland, Hunter.

Thursday, June 07, 2018

Looks like a real team to me

Giants are slightly better? I don't know. Win at least 2 of 3 and start the next part of the season on a high note.

The comments erupted into a Michael A Taylor discussion so I figured I'd take that on as he has been hot basically ever since Brian Goodwin became available to replace him.

First off, regardless of how you feel about his bat, understand that MAT, or someone that fields like him, is necessary. Let's look at right now. Bryce who is manning RF doesn't seem to put defense as a priority. He's never been flat out bad but he never repeated what looked like a decent OF performance when he first came up. Now he is playing at a lower level. Is it age? Injury? Contract? Who knows but right now he's a negative. Juan Soto appears to be the rare prospect who maybe actually should have been kept down to work on his fielding*. There was talk about him playing solid defense as he got more time in the OF, but that appears to be wishful thinking based on raw talent, as opposed to anything actually seen. At best he might mature into an average fielding LF with an average arm. At worst he might age into some weird fast DH role. Today though he's not good. Matt Adams, who was manning the OF a lot before Ryan Zimmerman went down, and could do so in the future, is not an OF.

The future could be brighter but there's a lot of questions about that too. Adam Eaton, who you expect to play in the Nats OF the next couple years if he doesn't fall apart, has shown he's not a CF. He has been as could still be a pretty good corner OF, though it remains to be seen what the injuries do to him. It's better to project him as average and let him surprise. Brian Goodwin, who presumably has defensive talent, has never shown it consistently at the major league level and is well into his late 20s. Victor Robles is a real defensive talent but it remains to be seen what his major injury, incurred while fielding, does to his approach.

The Nats have one plus outfielder in hand. It's MAT. And if you are going to potentially have two negative fielders in the corners with 2018 Soto and 2018 Bryce, a third negative fielder would create some real problems.**

So it would be real helpful if MAT hit but here is the problem

2014: 75
2015: 73
2016: 70
2017: 105
2018: 76

One of these things is not like the other. One of these things seems like a fluke.If we look deeper

2014: .154
2015: .129
2016: .145
2017: .216
2018: .163

2014: 7.0%
2015: 6.8%
2016: 5.9%
2017: 6.7%
2018: 8.3%

2014: 39.5%
2015: 30.9%
2016: 32.5%
2017: 31.7%
2018: 29.3%

2014: .333
2015: .311
2016: .319
2017: .363
2018: .292

You see a a lot of consistency. I could show you hard hitting percentages  and contact percentages and swing percentages and they'd all show the same sort of thing, especially ignoring some things in that abbreviated 2014 campaign. MAT is this.

So what happened in 2017? We were hoping it was something learned but I'm starting to think it was a perfect storm. He hit the ball a little harder. He hit a lot more balls in the air*** A few more balls went out then usual. A LOT more balls went for hits than usual. It should have been his best year regardless but what should have been a season that projected to .230 25 HR season became a .270 25 HR projected season as everything found holes.

We are kind of hoping MAT would be like Ian Desmond, who found himself at 26. But Ian Desmond added one thing to his arsenal that didn't seem to be luck related. He hit he ball for a lot more power.  He went from a punch and judy hitter to a 25+ homer guy. Then he backed it up immediately. MAT already had the power, he added average and for the most part that seemed to be BABIP related. Then he showed it was probably a fluke. I'm afraid that MAT won't end up being much more than what we've seen for years now. He might luck into a season where more balls go out of the park and he's close to an average bat, but a season like last will require another perfect storm. There's only so many of those in a career.

Still I play him in CF for the foreseeable future. His bat is just dangerous enough that he can't be ignored, especially when he's hot (see now or NLDS last year) and his fielding is a true asset to the team. Get a better bat at catcher and 2B. CF isn't a problem as-is. It's a problem because other positions are problems. What does that mean for the future roster though? Well it means I want Bryce or Soto to pick up a first baseman's mitt. (or more likely it means they will watch Bryce go and it resolves itself that way). And it means he has his position until Robles can take it away, which could be early next season.
*Actually no - he hits too good to care.  

**We may actually get to see this in action though when Eaton comes back because how do you send Soto back right now? You can't. If he doesn't cool off the Nats may try this "all gaps" OF. 

*** his LD/GB/FB is something that has not been as consistent. Still it hasn't been inconsistent or changed dramatically enough to say something shifted last year. At least imo.

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

Standing today


Where are we on that path? Let's see 0-3, 2-1, 6-0, 1-3.... 9-7.  OK so the Nats have to sweep the Rays and Giants to stay on path.  That's a little bit of a tall order but this is the next step.  This 21 game swing basically had three parts; Play garbage teams, play the Braves, play fair teams. What we have now is mixed results. Great against the garbage, poor against the Braves. Against the fair teams is the deciding factor. There hasn't been much rhyme or reason to the Nats play so far. They helped start the Dbacks on their downswing when they were the best team in the NL and they swept the pesky Pirates out of the building. At the same time they couldn't win a game versus an injured Dodgers team in DC, and the rest of the middling NL West has owned them.

The Nats have been pretty much this team for a couple months. They've lost Kendrick and Zimmerman more recently but gained back Rendon and brought up Soto. It feels like, at least for now, this is who they have been and this is who they are. The question is - what is that? Is it a good team who is going to overtake the Braves eventually? Or a fair team who has to fight off the Phillies? Well here are two other fair teams coming into town. On home turf a good team should beat them. Maybe not a sweep but 4-1. A fair team will struggle to win these 5 games 3-2 if they are lucky, 2-3 if not.

Now of course you can't read a season by 5 games but we wouldn't be. We're adding one more set of data to what the season has led us to so far - this team, as-is, a couple starting and bench bats down, is maybe good. We're teetering between believing in them and not. And these type of borderline games help us decide. Beating up the Orioles or Marlins only tell us they aren't the worst team. If they lose those 2 in New York that only tells us they aren't maybe up there with the best. I think we already know these things. It's games like these, against the .500 teams that I'm most interested in.

ATL is on West Coast swing and PHI is taking on best part of Central. Again the schedule favored a big Nats move during this 21 game stretch. They've mostly made it but haven't finished it out. Finish it out or be finished? Nah too early for that. But finish it out.

Monday, June 04, 2018

Monday Quickie - The Braves are a threat

A third of the season is now passed and the Nats are not in first place. They had a chance to hold onto their one day half-game lead, or expand it, as long as they didn't lose the series to Atlanta in Atlanta, but they did. You'll hear it said they could have easily been swept and that's true, but it's also true that they could have easily won a couple more of these games. Game 1 was 3-2 Braves into the 7th, Game 2 was 0-0 going into the 7th, Game 4 was 2-1 Nats going into the 7th. Yes, the Nats bats weren't doing much (19 hits in 4 games... 41 innings!) but a lucky bounce in any one of those games and the Nats are still in first. The pitching is good enough to beat the Braves and in the battle of the Nats pen vs the high-scoring Braves offense... well the Braves offense won but it was hardly the decisive blowout feared.

This is what we can expect for the immediate future. The Nats have a pennant winning rotation (even with Hellickson hurt) and a good enough bullpen to back that up (and maybe more if Justin Miller can finally be the 1-2 season wonder the Nats never seem to find*) But the lineup is going to struggle against good pitching until something changes. It could be injury returns but I don't think that's enough on it's own. The Nats got Goodwin back but Goodwin is Goodwin - maybe a 4th OF. Murphy was supposed to be the big get but he doesn't look right. Zimmerman and his "oblique strain?" is MIA.  So really we are looking for Eaton to get back to spark the offense and while I like Eaton in the line-up he's hasn't been around long enough to bet on him (1) being good, (2) staying around long enough.

So the Nats also need some hitting help from what's here now.  MAT has finally turned his bat around but Trea Turner, Anthony Rendon, and Matt Adams are mired in some terrible recent slumps. Mark Reynolds is reminding us why he was basically a free pick-up. Severino and Kieboom are not major league hitters and it's looking more and more like Difo is not either, not even from the bench. The latter is important because it means the Nats are often looking at the dreaded "bottom third" issue where the opposing team can dismiss the Nats every third inning. A good offense 1-7 can carry an empty 8th. A good offense 1-6 has problems covering an empty 7th and 8th and if you have a couple guys slumping? Forget about it.

The Nats need guys who are here now to start hitting. Bryce needs to be, not just very good, but a superstar. Rendon needs to be an All-Star. Trea Turner needs to be well above average. Adams needs to right his ship. If the Nats are going to win this division they need to have a complete team and they don't have it right now.

Other thing 
We're starting to get our first Soto data that can be analyzed. The BABIP is high - but not crazy high especially given we don't know where he should be in the majors. He is hitting a lot of GBs and his soft hit % is not low so I'd guess some drop though. His walk rate is impressive (even accepting some pitching around) and his K-rate hasn't jumped too much. Swinging strike rate is low.

The Braves pitched him better than the teams before him. Only 3 hits over the series, though 2 walks and a homer make it acceptable. Three strikeouts isn't too bad, either.

It'll be interesting to see what happens in the next couple of series. Did the Braves have a sense of how to pitch to him? Was is a little BABIP correction? I like to go 2 months before truly evaluating a player for the season, so that means the ASB for a real analysis. So far so good though.

*Doolittle shutting down the 9th, Miller as the unstoppable force, Kintzler, Madson, Collins, Solis as the good enough other guys? That'll work. 

Friday, June 01, 2018

Second Place

The Nats lost last night. It's no big deal really. The Nats look to be favored in the last 2 games as the Braves throw out a couple of questionable starters and Strasburg goes today. You don't want to HAVE to win those last two, but in my head it was always "one of the first two - probably the Strasburg game, and one of the second two"

Now you may ask "Why probably the Strasburg game?" Well it's not because of Strasburg, or Roark, or Folty*. It's because of Sean Newcomb. Sean Newcomb is a left-handed starter and the Nats don't do well against left-handed starters.

v RHSP : .253 / .333 / .430
v LHSP : .214 / .299 / .376

The Nats favored RHSP last year as well but the difference was slight, a .762 OPS vs a .787. This year is stark. .675 vs .763 for those that don't want to add**. How is this a problem? It can't be injury, right, as some of the main guys lost, Eaton, Murphy, were lefties who were replaced in part by righties. Shouldn't that have made it better?

Well it's a mix of stuff. If I were to point to one thing it would be Rendon's failings.  Rendon KILLED lefties last year a 1.109 OPS over 37 games  This year Rendon is at .660 worse than most regulars. After that you look to Zimm's injury. Zimm isn't hitting lefties as well as last year (.954 OPS), but that's to be expected as his year last year screamed fluke. But his overall poor performance is because of a complete failure to hit righties - not because of his work with lefties. It was an decent .839 OPS prior to his injury. (Makes me scared to look up how he's doing vs RHSP)

After that it's a mix of things. Kendrick was much worse against lefties this year. Difo has hit much worse against lefties this year. Matt Adams has been the perfect Lind replacement...except when it comes to doing ok versus lefties. Moises Sierra was supposed to be the RH bat to complement Stevenson during emergency OF season. He was terrible.  Oddly enough no Brian Goodwin might matter.  It's possibly small sample size but apparently over the past few seasons Goodwin became the rare lefty that hit lefties better than righties. I'm not sure that would actually translate into the field (what do you do? Sit MAT vs lefties? He's much better against them. You'd have to then just sit him constantly I guess) but maybe.

So it's a perfect storm of things. Murphy back will help. He's a professional hitter and has done ok. Zimm coming back obviously will help. Mark Reynolds could be an answer but in his late career any LHP benefit has seemingly diminished. But in general if Rendon and the various bench guys don't hit lefties then there will be a significant issue here. In the regular season it probably won't matter too much. You'll see enough bad lefties or decent lefties on bad teams, that you can beat. But you don't want to be the team in the playoffs that can't beat lefties. You don't want to be the 2016 Dodgers -  run out of the playoffs because in part they couldn't score on John Lester***. 

*This is not a nickname of affection, it's a nickname of expediency

**As you can see the offense versus RHSP - a little off from last year but not much 

*** They'd score 8 runs in the Lester games. 2 on Lester in 13+ innings. 6 on the relief in 4+.