Nationals Baseball: April 2019

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

What is wrong?

It's the bullpen. That's what we hear. It isn't wrong.  The Nats bullpen is 2nd worst in the major leagues, worst in the NL, a good 3/4 of a run worse than the Mets, who along with Miami are themselves a good 3/4 of a run worse than the 12th "best" in the NL Dodgers. It's bad. Historically so.  But does that explain a 12-15 start?

How good would the Nats be with an average pen? Let's off the top it first. 15-12? Well then the bullpen is worse 3 wins over 27 games or probably something like 18 over the course of the season.  Do we really think a pen this bad would transform a 90 win team to a 72 win squad? Remember that's not a 90 win team with a great pen. That's a 90 win team with an average one. Seems like a bit of a stretch.

Ok let's be a bit more realistic.  The Nats pen has given up 59 runs in 80.2 innings so far, 56 earned. The average NL squad has an ERA of 4.29.  So over 80.2 innings that average squad would give up.... 38-39 earned runs.  About 20 runs less.  Plug that into the pythag and 13-14 (their current pythag record) becomes... 15.  Or technically being as precise as I can be it's a difference of just under 2 wins, like 1.6.  But remember that's 15 from 13 not 12.  Basically what the numbers say is the difference between this and an average pen is something more like 9-10 wins over the course of a year.  It's not 18 but that's HUGE. It could take a playoff team fighting for best record in the league of 95 wins and make it a 85 win also-ran.  That's the power of a historically bad bullpen, a run and a half worse than what the bottom of the league probably should be.

But there's another point here - where does that leave the Nats overall?  Well given an average pen the Nats expected W/L record would be 90-72.  That feels kind of right. They are a game unlucky so far (which is why they are 12-15 and not 13-14) so that doesn't go away... 89 wins? With out Trea.  I suppose that is right. But while it's right it's not NL East worthy. So even with an average pen this team is not a division winner.  Part of that is Turner and Rendon, but this early giving each of their missed time a game seems extravagent.  maybe together a game? Point is - it's not injuries either. With an average pen this team had been a Wild Card team.

And that's taking the overview. If we break the season into parts the first part - the NL East gautlet, ended with the Nats 6-5 when really they probably should have been 7-4 or better. Four of their losses were within 3 runs, while only 3 of their wins were and they had several blowout victories. It was team that just wasn't quite catching the breaks.  Since the end of the Phillies series though - 16 games, the Nats have scored 4.18 runs per game and given up 5.125.  They've gone 6-10. They have been deservedly bad and a good part of that is a below average offense.

This could easily change once Rendon is healthy and Turner is back. Rendon is star worthy, Turner a plus offensive player. This jives with what I see looking at the two week and one week batting splits it's not really one thing (though Robles is having a tough time - and probably will until he Ks less). It's more a lack of balance. There aren't enough hitters doing well to balance out those doing poorly. It's one or two batters off. 

There are two issues here - the first is as long as Rendon and Turner are out this isn't a good offensive team (nor should it be expected to be). The relief pitching is bad, meaning the starting pitching needs to be flawless to carry it through. Instead it's been an off start for the better pitchers and a bad one for the back of the rotation.  There is no recourse here other than to batten down the hatches and hope. Once Rendon and Turner are back though - this is still a ~90 win team and that's if the pen gets to average. If they fall too far behind now there isn't enough talent to catch up.  Perhaps I'm wrong. Perhaps Stras, Max, and Corbin will be in the Cy Young race. Perhaps Rendon will continue being an MVP and Robles and Kieboom will fight for the MVP. That's a squad that could roll with an average pen. But I don't think so. I think the Nats need some real luck over the next few weeks.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Monday - Hope Spring Eternal which is how old the Nats are

Yesterday's win was punctuated by 3 homers; one by Robles, one by Soto, one by Kieboom.  The interpretation by many hopeful that this season won't be another lost one, is that the kids are here and ready to take over. These three will carry the Nats with youthful exuberance to the promised land.The future has arrived!

And yet...

The Nats are still pretty old.  While this number will go down with continued Kieboom at bats and the eventual return of Turner, the Nats sit older than league average for batting age (28.8 vs 28.6). Gomes is in his 31 season*, Suzuki 35, Zimm 34, Dozier 32, Kendrick 35, Eaton 30, Adams 30.  Even the guys you thought of as young aren't really young anymore.  Rendon will turn 29 in a month, MAT is 28, Difo 27.  So while there is this true core of talent sitting around at under 22 there is a massive crater of talent between them and where the rest of the Nationals sit, on the downslope of the hill.  Seven years between Robles and Rendon with only Turner manning the gates.

Now take that and strip away the good young players and you have the pitching staff, second oldest in the NL.The over 30 club includes Scherzer, Strasburg, Sanchez, and Hellickson. Doolittle, Grace, Sipp, Miller. Instead of being balanced by a group of talented early 20s, instead it's a mess of middling mid to laters, the youngest being Joe Ross who will be 26 in a couple weeks.

While Soto, Robles, and Kieboom are an exciting trio they are an island unto themselves. They can't keep up the winning when the current generation fades because they have no help. They aren't a vanguard because the Nats minor leagues are top heavy with Robles and Kieboom being the important pieces. 

When the Nats first came up they were filled with young pieces Ramos, Espy, Zimm, Desmond, Bryce, Gio, ZNN, Stras, Clippard, Storen.  Not a one over 27 in 2012 and a bunch of other pieces that weren't old.  Of pieces that mattered only Werth, LaRoche, and Morse 30 or older. It wasn't a team with some exciting young players. It was a young team. That's what kept it up over the years.  This? I don't see that. And while it's good to have something - and these guys definitely are something - well no team has nothing.  It certainly is something to build around but then that begs the comment - why aren't they? Why are they pulling this "good enough" angle again aiming for 90 wins and a chance at the playoffs, where they could fall into 86 wins and a seat at home for October? If these are the guys to rebuild around then... well... rebuild.

But we'll see.  The hopeful ones are saying this comeback might spark the Nats to a run. I guess, unlike the last comeback that was supposed to spark the Nats to a run.

*Age on July 1

Friday, April 26, 2019

Weekend Edition

The Nats are 11-12. That's not good, but it's clearly not insurmountable.  They would be 2.5 (AL Central), 3 (NL West), 3.5 (NL Central), 3.5 (AL West), or 4 games out (AL East), in other divisions, but thanks to our earlier discussion of the false god of the 2019 NL East the Nats are only 1.5 games out and look about as good as anyone else at this point.

This weekend marks the start of a homestand against the Padres and the Cardinals. This is a mildly important trip for what follows - a rematch with the Phillies at the start of a 3 team road trip that will take them across three time zones. That's the first real pitfall potential in the season and going into it on a high note would be much preferable to needing a surprisingly good showing to feel hope for this team at the end of it.

The Padres have a good record but it's mostly smoke and mirrors. They are 11-3 in games decided by 1 or 2 runs, which means they have gotten the breaks more often than not.  The pitching has been admittedly good but with guys you never heard of like Matt Strahm and Nick Marquevicius leading the way you can't be too confident in it. Other guys like Lucchesi are adequate but nothing more.  Chris Paddack is the legit prospect but the Nats will miss him.  The pen is the real star as Kirby Yates has developed into an elite guy and they go 5 deep in solid arms including former Nat Craig Stammen.  Warren can be a little homer prone if you are looking for a weak link.  The offense  though is dead. Tatis is a star and Wil "Turner/Ross/Souza trade" Myers is hitting as he does. But Machado is doing worse than Bryce - which means not bad, but decidedly average and Hosmer looks terrible. Kinsler is no Dozier somehow. Hedges hasn't come through.  It's a line-up where you get past the first 4 you are set for two innings. They strike-out a lot. They don't walk.  If Scherzer can't dominate these guys - be worried. The only saving grace is a little bit of pop.

The Nats have to take 2 of 3 here.

The Cardinals on the other hand, free of Matheny, might be the best team in the NL, as sad as that is to say. And have followed a 3-5 start with a 12-4 run where they have pounded teams into submission. They've scored 6 or more runs, eight times in the last 13 games, and have gone under 4 once. Sure guys like Wong, DeJong, and Ozuna who are hitting like stars currently are probably over their heads, but this is what adding a legit star - Goldschmidt can do. When they come down they'll still have Jose Martinez, and Dexter Fowler who are pretty good, and Carpenter will likely rise. As shallow as the Padres line-up is the Cards almost go 8 deep, the last man being ol' Molina who is trying to push out one last non-horrible year.  The pitching is less impressive, with the rotation feeling the losses of Wacha and Martinez. It's a rotation that can be gotten, but you better do it because the bullpen is utterly dominant and that's with Andrew Miller being off.  There's a little early season magic here but these are good arms getting lucky. The residue of design stuff.

It'll be a tough fight to win this series.

Overall the Nats have to be looking at 3-3 being an acceptable outcome, even though it's a home series. Anything more would be a nice showing, less a bad omen heading into the Phillies series unless it's one of those lose 4 win 2 things.

Carter Kieboom is up! Who is off the 40 man? We don't know yet.  Smart money is on an Rosenthal 60 day DL "injury" though an outright DFA for him is possible. More cruel would be a DFA for Austen Williams  but given his track record and injury status it's certainly possible he'll make it back down without issue.

What to expect from Kieboom? He tore up AAA early and while the .380 average is nothing to hang a hat on - he can hit. He can hit for good average (more of a .280-.290 guy), good power (20+ right now), and will take a walk.  He's a solid fielder with a strong arm. He's 21 (22 in Sept) so certainly has time to get better.  What's the downside? He strikes more than you like and as we've seen with Soto - when major league caliber pitchers figure out how to do it to you, there are going to punish you for it. He may be able to adjust but not everyone can (see MAT) The Nats minor league staff seem to be focusing more on him swinging for the fences than cutting down the Ks so we'll have to see if they got that balance right. He's kind of right on the edge really. More Ks and you'd be honestly worried he'll hit like .150. Fewer and he'd be a Robles/Soto prospect. He's not really a SS, more of a corner IF or 2B given his general lack of speed (14 SB in 21 attempts in 260 minor league games, 6 triples despite good power - 61 doubles, 32 homers).

While I like Kieboom as a decent 2b (or 3B for the future - god forbid). I'm not sure I like him this year or I like him playing SS. I can easily see this year be a little rough - like a .230 BA with the occasional HR that makes you remember why the Nats like him. In other words like Dozier, but if you are going to get that why not get it with decent fielding (once Turner comes back and Kieboom can slide over) and as prep for 2020 and beyond?

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

NL Least is Dead. Long Live the NL Least

The Nats window has had many important parts. Early drafting success. No losing trades for a long while. Consistently great starting pitching. But one of these parts has been the overall mediocrity of the NL East.  From 2012-2017 the Nats had the 2nd best record in baseball.  The Phillies were 30th, the Marlins 27th, the Mets 19th and the Braves 18th.  The Nats took advantage of having no challengers to create a good enough team and watch it (mostly) succeed.

This year was supposed to be different but nearly a month into the season and it isn't. As far as the NL East goes they have the worst combined record in the NL 1 through 5. And lest you think it's just because the Marlins are complete garbage (they are). They have the worst combined record 1-4, 1-3, 1 & 2, and worst division leader.

Ostensibly the best team in the league is the 13-10 Mets, but they harbor the second worst ERA in the league. Some of that is bad luck, but Matz and Vargas look to make the Mets rotation 3 men deep and deGrom is already hurting. The back end of the pen is improved as expected, but Familia has flopped in a set-up role and Justin Wilson is hurt leaving it paper thin.

On paper the best team is probably Atlanta but their pitching isn't much better than the Mets. Beyond Fried, who's blossomed, and Gausman who is going along in his Gausman way, the starters have really been bad. We might finally be at the end of the "maybe THIS year Teheran will be great again" journey. While the Braves are replete with pitching prospects, sorting through them to find the ones that may stick, and then having them stick this year, still has to happen.

The hotness was the Phillies, who started 4-0, only to taper off recently giving Phillies fans an immediate recollection of last years "playoff ready... nope we stink" season. Bryce has been good to very good, but not great - and that's a problem because no one has. Combine that with a terrible bench (the combined performances for Altherr, Quinn, and Williams would register league worst if it was a single player) and the offense isn't carrying the team.  The pitching is what we expected with again the back end of the rotation struggling. But the real killer is Aaron Nola having a terrible start, so while they are getting some decent outings from Eflin (not last night) and Velasquez - there's no traction and it's still a mediocre staff

The tried and true Nationals - well you know about them. They've had a mixed bag of performances at the plate but a solid bench and a star run by Rendon so far has given them the 2nd most potent offense in the NL East at a nice 5.45 R/G clip. The rotation though hasn't been what it should be with Scherzer and Strasburg both underperforming. And the less said about the pen the better

The crazy thing about this is Keuchel would be a difference maker for the Braves, Phillies, or Mets, even just throwing to a 4.00 ERA. Kimbrel would make a huge difference for any team but could put the Mets or Nats over the top. Yet here we are, watching four teams try to budget themselves to a better version of .500 than everyone else

Monday, April 22, 2019

Monday Quickie - Winners win

Around a week ago, we had a moderately good feeling around this team, or at least a hoepful one. Yes, the bullpen stunk but the Nats were doing what they needed to and their 6-5 record after 11 NL East rival games (6 on the road) was right on target.  Even if things didn't go exactly as planned, if the outcomes were as wanted, who cares?

Well part of doing what is expected is beating up on the dregs.  6 games against the Giants and Marlins, two of the worst teams in the majors, should end up with 4 maybe 5 wins. The Nats got 3.  Performing against good teams? Good! Underperforming against bad teams? Bad!

This week is a tough one. The Nats swing over to Colorado today, after being in Miami yesterday.  Given the Nats penchant for already complaining about things beyond their control, I imagine this has gotten on their nerves and will lead to subpar performance as well, but we shall see. This is important though because for the most part Colorado hasn't been good this year. After the Nats face them it's a run of at least "so far" solid opponents until you get close to Memorial Day. Another series loss heading into a PHI MIL LA road trip... I don't know. It feels like a set-up for a run that puts the Nats behind the 8-ball early.

We're now 20 games in or about 12% of the season, so we can start to look at the hitting stats and see if there is anything that stands out....

CATCHER - This is the expected situation but one the Nats hoped to avoid. Gomes, the younger better defender, is not hitting and Suzuki, the tried and true bat, is. This is why you got both - you can balance this - but the hope was Gomes would hit and become the A choice with Suzuki as the back-up. Instead expect more platooning.

FIRST - Zimm was dead in the water, then hit two solo shots yesterday. He's typically a slow starter, so it's hard to look at anything here with certainty.  He is yanking the ball but that's better than being late on everything.  Adams is swinging from his heels early - hard, pull, pop - but that's it. It's a PH line not a part timer one.

SECOND - Kendrick has been great too but it's a crazy unsustainable power surge and it's only over 35 ABs so really we should get back to him in about 2 weeks when he has gotten to enough PAs. Dozier has also been swinging for the fences like Adams but he's worse. Contact way down. Swing and miss way up. Swinging at more.  If there's something that looks like a take-away out of all these early stats it might be that Dozier is done.

SHORT - Turner got hurt. Difo is not an everyday player but we knew that.

THIRD - Rendon has been awesome.

LEFT FIELD - Juan Soto's K rate has jumped from 20% to 27.3%.  That's not necessarily bad - such things can be accompanied by more power - but his isn't. His pop is a little lower than last year. As he's 20 we don't worry about this for the long haul but for 2019 this is why you can't just assume he's going to step up and be a team-carrying star.

CENTER - Robles seems to be teetering on the brink.  His K rate is super high - like nearly twice as high as usual. But as I noted talking about Soto that's made up for by a continued jump in power. He's sort of become the best MAT. The question is what will win out. Can the pitchers work that K-rate and make him ineffective, can he learn make better contact, or will a balance be found. This is the fun of a rookie season.

RIGHT - The worry about Eaton is a continued decline in power. He's down to a guy the Nats thought might give you 15 homers to something under 10. 40 doubles and triples is most likely 30.  If this isn't an early season fluke (and the drop in power last year suggest it's not) he'll have to start leaning into taking more pitches to maximize his offensive value.

My big worry is Dozier - but if Kendrick is simply good that negates that. Rendon fills the superstar void that Bryce leaving caused*, but who then fills in for Rendon, or last year's Soto? Currently they are relying on Robles to pound the ball (not expected) and a high BABIP for Eaton who otherwise is doing nothing. These could all be early issues, and we could see some improvements especially with the Soto/Robles duo but there are some concerns to keep an eye on. And of course, Turner coming back will turn a hole into a likely plus. This offense right now needs help, but there are places where you can see it coming from.

*Hey - you may not have liked the average but he got on base and hit homers like a star. 

Friday, April 19, 2019

The National Way

Great Starting Pitching
Solid Offense
Questionable Bullpen
Kind of Shoddy Fundamentals

This is the Nationals Way. And what it basically comes down to is that first item. Here are the Nats ranks in SP ERA,  Runs Scored, and Reliever ERA*

2012: 2nd, 10th, 7th
2013: 7th, 15th, 17th
2014: 1st, 9th, 4th
2015: 7th, 10th, 10th
2016: 2nd, 8th, 2nd
2017: 4th, 5th, 23rd
2018: 13th, 8th, 15th.

The bolded teams are playoff teams and you'll note the Nats have made the playoffs with good, but not great offenses, and missed with the same (in fact they've been pretty consistent in producing good to very good offenses).  They have made the playoffs with great relief pitching and terrible relief pitching. But they have never made the playoffs with anything but great starting pitching. That's what this team is built on. That's why they spent money on Patrick Corbin. That's why they need him to perform more like yesterday.

The Nats way isn't the only way to win. You can certainly try bludgeoning the other team into submission, something the Nats have only really done once (remember these are MLB ranks not NL so 5th is very good without a DH. You can 6-7-8-9 and fundamentals your way to a good team and from there hope things break for you (hey 2015 Royals!).  You can just get both a dominant staff and offense. But starting pitching is like winning the line in football, or out rebounding in basketball, it's the base victory that can cover up your other mistakes if you are superior at it. Great starting pitching means fewer IP from relievers, mitigating bullpen issues. Close games go either way. With great starting pitching you make sure that when your team doesn't score they still have a chance and when they do, it's not close.

Where do the Nats stand currently in these?

2019: 8th, 9th, 30th.  Though it's still early. The Nats starting pitching ERA is good and within striking distance of the top.  It's more than fluky performances dominate the outer ends of the rankings.

How the Nats get to a good spot can differ but generally you have a couple guys under 3.00 ERA and a couple more under 3.50.  If you can get three under 3.00 you can have more leeway in the other spots but that might bite you in the playoffs**  Often when the rotation is "bad" it's still good. It's just that the number of great, under 3.00 ERA performances are limited to 1 or 2, and the number of good performances around 3.50 take up the bulk of the rotation. That's a very good rotation still - but it can't carry a team and demands the other parts of the equation - the offense and the relief - be good as well***

This is all just a way of saying - the Nats can't win like they have been playing this season and it's not just the pen. The Nats have had two great starter performances, one good one, and two poor ones. That's not a distribution that'll work for this team in any situation. Assuming Hellickson (currently great) and Max (currently good) swap they'll need Sanchez to step up or Stras to find himself. The offense is fine but is kind of walking a tightrope and shouldn't be relied on. The bullpen is what it is. These can bury the Nats but they can't save them. The rotation can save them.

*Yes imperfect measurements. 

** Like the 2017 Nats where Max, Stras, and Gio finished 1-3-6 in Cy Young voting and Roark 

*** that WAS the case in 2015 so what happened? The Nats got unlucky three times over. They lost a bunch more close games then they probably should, underperforming they Pythag record by 6 games. The Mets had a healthy season from their rotation getting 29 starts or more from 4 of them and 24 from Syndergaard. The Wild Card was won with record records of 98 and 97 wins.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Worry About Strasburg?

Stepehn Strasburg had another poor outing yesterday.  People had been worried about him, most noting a lack of velocity.  What exactly is going on?

Like any stat, velocity isn't something that is easy to judge off a few starts. It has an ebb and flow during a season often being lower during the first months of the season as the arm warms up and the last months of it as fatigue sets in.  So to really get a good judge of any velocity issues you do have to look by month.  The easiest place to do that (imo) is Brooks Baseball.  Here is Strasburg's page.

If we look at his April veolcity's in his career we get

2012 : 96.95
2013 : 96.53
2014 : 93.99
2015 : 95.24
2016 : 95.68
2017 : 96.21
2018 : 95.61
2019 : 93.93

Now there is at least one more start for him in the month so the number could pick up but we are seeing a velocity that we haven't seen in April since 2014. However, we have seen numbers this low before. In August and September of last season.  That suggests a bigger issue than may have been seen in 2014, but we'll dig into both.

First, for interests sake - how did he do in these three months?

April 2014:  4.24 ERA  1.412 WHIP 4.42 K/BB
August 2018 : 6.30 ERA  1.600 WHIP 2.50 K/BB
September 2018 : 2.60 ERA  1.212 WHIP  3.46 K/BB
April 2019 :  5.56 ERA, 1.279 WHIP, 4.00 K/BB

Not great news but interesting in that he seemed to learn to pitch around the velocity loss last year but this year, despite the relatively same WHIP and better K/BB he's having a worse season.  Why is that? Likely HRs...  Yep last Sept he gave up 4 homers - about one every 9 innings. This year already 5 in 22 innings.

That could be bad luck... or it could be more FBs or harder hit balls. Lets check it out.  FB%? Sept 41.2%  April  33.9%   Nope.   Hard hit %? Sept 27.6%   April 25.4% Nope. HR/FB? Sept 11.4% April 23.8%  Yep.

So bad luck is an option here. But this isn't definitive. It could just as easily be when he throws a bad pitch it gets WRECKED and he's throwing more bad pitches while around that pitching pretty much the same as last September. Well Brooks Baseball has a measurement for that as well with "grooved pitches" (off fastballs)

Sept 2018 :  9.13
April 2019 : 10.10

that isn't much of a difference and if you threw March into 2019 it'd be a wash.

I guess currently if I had to choose a reason, I would say a little bit of bad luck.  Yes his velocity is down but that didn't make him terribly less effective in September of last year, and peripheral stats suggest that if the homers go back down, he'll be perfectly fine.

But what causes Strasburg to have these velocity dips? In 2014 there wasn't anything telling. He had a lat strain in June of 2013 but came back to pitch fine after that.  Last year it was a shoulder/neck injury.  You could try to say it was a back related issue but he missed time in 2015 and 2016 with back issues. There's no pattern here to discern. In 2015 he hurt his back much earlier in the year but then injured his oblique. 2016 was a lot like last year - back injury, didn't miss much time, seemed fine going forward and it didn't effect his velocity at the start of 2017.  So... nothing? Well maybe or maybe not - the truth is as you get older injuries get harder to recover from and even two years might make a big difference given the wear and tear these guys go through. What he could bounce back from in the offseason of 2016 at 28 might be something he couldn't in the offseason of 2018 at 30.

My take away from this quick look through is cautious optimism. The early season struggles seem most likely related to a couple more balls going over the fence at inopportune times. As that even outs he should revert back to the pitcher he was at the end of last year.  That may not be the pitcher you want to see - his velocity is still down and it may not come back up much more than a MPH which would be low for him - but it's a good pitcher nonetheless. But this is cautious, as with each passing year there are greater chances for these changes to be real and lasting. 30 isn't old, but it isn't young and while I doubt he's a 5.50 ERA pitcher now, he could be inching closer to a 4.00 ERA guy

Monday, April 15, 2019

Monday Quickie

Almost there - almost to the point where I'll take a more critical look at the stats. Next week. But until then we are still dealing with a aingle 0-4, 2-4, 4-4 game being the difference between  a current batting average of .227, .273, or .318.  We need a little bit more time.

We can look at the team however and find why the Nats are .500.  Of course we all know the main issue - the relief pitching.  Worst ERA in the majors currently at 7.75. If there is a silver lining here (and there isn't - it's more like a possibly long term cancer causing BPA lining) its that the Nats aren't THAT bad.  They don't really have the worst pen in the league. But they aren't a good bullpen cursed with bad luck. They don't strike out a lot, they walk too many, give up too many hits, give up too many homers, don't induce a lot of easy out (not great in getting pop-outs, league low in GB rate). Take it all together and you have a mediocre bullpen at best, which is what you'd probably expect from Doolittle + 6 guys who are all ok guys to have as your last 1-2 men in the pen. Rosenthal being the complete failure is the biggest issue but Barraclough, who was hoped to be the next guy up, has traded his control issue for being hittable, and Tony Sipp, who may have been a great late pick-up has basically tossed batting practice out there. That's 0-3 in your first go around trying to figure out who could fill in that 7-8 roles. Rosenthal and Barraclough at least will have a few more chances, especially with no one beating down the door, but the failure to get a more secure very good reliever to fill in the pen is the biggest issue the Nats face.

The Nats starters have been very good, as you'd probably expect, but not exactly as it was written up.  It's limited starter Jeremy Hellickson who is doing well so far to counter a strugglinlg Strasburg.  At this point takes can be dominated by a single bad start so it's important not to take too much from this. Just know to make up for something like the reliever probelms above the rotation would have to be special, and they have not been that. Max has been merely good. Stras struggling.

That combination is kind of an average team but a great or terrible offense could swing the Nats record in either direction. The Nats offense has also been good, but it's a bit of a mirage. The Nats have the second best OPS with RISP leading them to score more runs than you might expect looking at their other stats ok batting average, pretty average batting across the board otherwise. This is likely due to the fact that the Nats offense is the haves and have nots.  Kendrick, Rendon, and Robles, all have been very hot to start the year.  Zimm, Dozier, Difo and the Cs have been cold.  The same guys are getting on and being driven in by the same guys. 

In the long run this makes me a bit worried. The relief pitching should get better, but there's no reason to think it will be good. The offense, I feel, has great potential for collapse as while I like Soto to pick it up past average, there isn't any reason for me to think the cold guys will rise up to take place of the production that the Nats will lose when the hot guys cool down. If the offense collapses then you don't have enough to take this team to the playoffs.  The path to victory though is there. Strasburg starts pitching better. The SP gets dominant and Turner coming back balances out the offensive issues I see happening down the like. Dominant SP, Good Offense, Poor Relief pitching. That can make the playoffs. Of course the easiest solution would be to clear up the relief pitching problem but I don't expect to see that happen.

OK Sweep the Giants, or at least really beat them up in a couple of these games. A lost series here would be a big problem if any of the other NL East teams make a push

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Exactly where they need to be

If we had done the whole "this set of games" outlook like we like to do here sometimes, and you had presented me with 11 games versus the Phillies and Mets, 5 home 6 away, I would have put the Nats goal at 6-5.  It's not dominant - but it shouldn't be if these teams are any good. But it is above expectations if all these teams were the same (that'd be 5-6). What it shows is that the Nats still have a leg up on these teams, a slight advantage that over the long haul could push the Nats to another division crown.

Where are the Nats now?  6-5. Right on target.

But we also see the flaw in this.  The Nats are 6-5 and still in 4th place in the East.  They only trail the other teams by one game - they aren't significantly better, at least not right now, but they are there.  The Nats may have an advantage but they can't expect the advantage alone to get them to the finish line. They can't slip. They may need some luck, too.

The bullpen had a couple of good games in a row and that will happen. The bullpen is still an issue but the bullpen shouldn't be a season ending thing. Grace, Miller, Barraclough, Suero - these guys are all fine.  The problem isn't with any of them individually, but that if Doolittle is stuck in the closer role and Rosenthal doesn't shape up to be lights-out (smart money is on no for that) that important situations are going to be coin flips for this pen.  Sometimes it'll work out fine. Other times it won't.  You like to have a little more assurance than that - but don't expect that to come for the Nats before the trade deadline.  This pen is "good enough" and the Nats love "good enough"

We'll still let the numbers stew until around game 20 so let's take a look at the schedule. The Nats will be home for 6 games starting tomorrow 3 v PIT and 3 v SFG. Pittsburgh is a solid team relying on a really quite good starting staff to carry a less impressive offense. The Nats will get their best three (Taillion, Archer, and Williams) making this a tough series to win, but one you still have to expect the Nats to pull out.  The Giants are as mediocre as expected with a pretty hideous looking offense but a good enough pen to maybe keep things above disaster.  The rotation actually might be ok, but still it's hard to worry about it. The Nats should miss Bumgarner but he might sneak in there in the last game if the Giants are trying to maximize his outings. This is a 4-2 home stand at least.  Maybe 5-1.

In the meantime the Mets take on the Braves then the Phillies, so someone is going to lose ground to the Nats unless the Nats blow it.  The other team the Phillies face is the Marlins and the Braves will take on the D-Backs early next week.  Given these match-ups I think in a week the Nats should be hoping to be in 2nd by themselves, a game behind the Phillies

Tuesday, April 09, 2019

Early numbers

It's hard not to look at these numbers. Unlike Spring Training, these numbers mean something. Everyone is really trying now. What happens here goes on the "permanent record" of the season. We have no other information so this, while limited, is what we have to go on.

However it is still just 9 games. In any 9 game stretch you can have Matt Wieters hit like an MVP (From Aug 5th - Aug 15th Wieters hit .345 / .394 / .517) and you can have an MVP hit like... well Matt Wieters. (From May 9th - May 17th  Mike Trout hit .111 / .333 / .111) So we really have to back off from looking at these numbers. Except...

Except we can start to look at them to see if any preconceived notions/worries are playing out. We aren't coming in fresh and trying to say something just based on 9 games. We have something we are thinking about and want to see how it's coming along.  That's fair right?

Yan Gomes should be starting more than Kurt Suzuki - Defensive stats heavily favor Gomes. His age makes him the one with potential.  Technically this has been the way it's been with Gomes starting 5 games to Suzuki's 4.  That's probably a little more even then I'd like right now but it's a bit hard to judge with this few games.

Is Dozier done? In the fall Dozier looked old, hitting .111 in the NLCS, and going hitless in the World Series while providing pretty terrible defense. This Spring? Arguably more of the same .103, 9Ks to 1 BB, just one homer, with uninspiring D. If you want to look on the bright side -  that homer was just last game so maybe things are turning around now. If you want to be more honest - at lesat Howie is healthy now.

How will Rendon hit in his walk year? Rendon has put together MVP vote worthy seasons before but predicated on a plus bat mixed with plus defense. There's still a sense peak Rendon could hit .320 with 30 home runs in a couple seasons if healthy.  .412 with 4 homers suggests this may be the year which is both good news (good Rendon!) and bad ($$$$)

How will Robles hit long term in the majors? Last year's 20 game trial was very positive but it was just 20 games. Minor league numbers suggested high average with questionable power and patience. Last years suggested more power.  This year? Power seems to still be there as well as patience. K's are way up though and the average could take an unexpected dip. Where this all balances out will be interesting

Sophomore Slump for Soto? Last year was a revelation as Soto had the greatest teenage season of all-time. Hidden in that though was "trouble with the curve" so to speak. Soto couldn't hit off-speed pitches but it didn't matter because he had a great sense of strike zone and no one threw him off-speed pitches in the zone. This year they've upped the off-speed stuff and Soto has suffered. His walk rate is about the same but the K-rate is way up.  He's 20 so this isn't a "He can't hit this stuff! He's done for!" situation but how does he adjust this year, will be very important as his bat was supposed to help cover for the loss of Bryce's  

Corbin : Max2, as advertised, or bought high?  Only two starts but seems like as advertised. Starters are hardest to judge this early though.

Can Rosenthal rebound to dominance? HAHAHAHAHHAHAHA

There you go.  Things look like a mix of good news (Robles could be better, Rendon could be an MVP) and bad (Dozier and Rosenthal could both be big fat zeros) which is what teams expect to have.  That might be a problem since luck isn't evenly distributed there may be a team in the East that gets all the luck.*  But that's all you can expect.

*Right now   I'd say Philly is looking pretty good here.  Hoskins is rebounding to STAR with Bryce in the lineup. Franco is showing improved patience which makes him a very good overall player as opposed to the up and down player he has been. Eflin may be taking a step up.  The only bad news based on pre-season questions for them right now is Kingey doesn't look any better.

Monday, April 08, 2019

Monday Quickie - Don't get swept

The Nats have set themselves mostly right after a stumbling start. They took the 2nd game of a two game homestand against the Phillies and won an away series against the Mets, making up for a series lost to the Mets to start the year.

But it hasn't been a clear turnaround. While the team has started scoring runs and winning games, the pitching has continued to struggle. The bullpen is the main issue, most notably the fact that Trevor Rosenthal still hasn't gotten a single batter out, but things get even more scarier when you think a little bit more. The Nats have been able to use the early season plethora of off days to their advantage. The breakdown of these 8 games includes only 1 game not started by Max, Stras, or Corbin. Only one pitcher (Matt Grace) has been forced to throw three days in a row. There's a couple more break days coming up which means a little more manipulation is possible but starting April 16th the Nationals will get into the meat of the season. They'll be forced to use their fourth and fifth starters, and forced to use a tired pen. What happens then?

This series against the Phillies is a pop quiz of sorts for that question. This is the first stretch of 5 games in a row where the Nats will have to dig into their 5th starter. Davey managed to only use one relief pitcher twice in the past two days (Suero) giving him as deep a bullpen as possible but still a bullpen where no one has more than one day of rest.  This series will test how bad this thing, that already looks bad, can get.

What I have as a goal going forward is simple. Don't get swept. If the Nats get swept they'd be 5 games behind the Phillies with 5 H2H games in the past. It's a big gap with decidedly less opportunity to make that up (compared to say 19 full games left to even any gaps they may have with the Braves). Even a series loss (the most likely scenario) only puts the Nats 3 games out.  So don't get swept. 

Wednesday, April 03, 2019

A night to boo

Yesterday was supposed to be a moral reckoning for the Nationals fans. Logically Bryce Harper did nothing wrong. He played (mostly) hard in DC for 7 seasons, then grabbed the largest contract he could in free agency. 99% if us would do the same thing.  But fandom isn't supposed to be rational, and Bryce also always had a foot out the door and never quite connected with fans because of that. He turned down what could be taken as a fair contract and signed with a direct rival instead.  It was easy enough to turn "nothing wrong" into "Benedict Harper"

And so the Nats fans rained down the Boos with unexpected force, the "fake fan base filled with half-hearted transient fans" proving they could be just as crazily passionate as fans anywhere else.

And that should have been it. Boos. Bryce vs Max. A K or a hit and the game moves on.  But after the cathartic K in an otherwise shaky top half of the first things started to unravel. Trea took a pitch off the hand on a strange bunt attempt.  Max gave up a bomb and couldn't close out innings fast enough. Matt Adams tumbled over the railing. Max struck out Bryce again for another pop but rather than a rising crescendo it was a muted saving grace at that point.

In his third and final Max AB, Bryce would double, putting an end to hope of complete humiliation for Bryce. Then Max had to come out and the bullpen burned the park down. Suero and Grace were almost out of it. 2 on but 2 out. McCutchen walks to load the bases and the Nats face a do or die situation. Segura up, Bryce just missing out on the huge AB on deck. In hindsight it's clear Doolittle should have been brought in here. A hit blows the game open, likely losing it. It is time for a good reliever and frankly the Nats only have one of those right now. But Fake Davey stuck with Grace, Grace grooved on down the middle, and Segura cleared the bases. Bryce's follow-up single, scoring Segura was anti-climatic at that point. The game was pretty much lost as no one thought the Nats could score 7 in 4 AND the bullpen could hold the Phillies where they were.

But even then the indignities didn't end. With one last at bat against "We don't have a real long man so you are it" Hellickson, Bryce crushed a homer into deep right center putting an exclamation point on this disaster. The game could have hardly gone worse.

It's a game that you feel can send a team reeling, but as we've noted before this is more fiction than fact. The truth is win tonight and the season feels a lot better. Win tomorrow too and while the slow start isn't forgotten (Trea is still hurt) it's seen for a minor overcome able stumble. That's all it takes - two wins.

What to do about Trea?

Difo has to play SS right now. Dozier can't. Kendrick is still out and also can't.  Young Kieboom should be up even if unready because the Nats shouldn't try to carry Difo's bat for any longer than they have to.  Kieboom may be no good, but the Nats have to take that gamble and start this clock.

Tuesday, April 02, 2019

Five- Alarm Philly

Bryce is back!  Barry had a sitdown with Bryce and we get what is likely final clarity on the timeline Bryce and the Nationals had this off-season.

Sept 26th - Last Home Game of Season - Nats offer Bryce the 10/300 with deferred money deal we all heard about. Bryce offers more specifics here but I'm gonna leave it out for now bc it may be wrong or misremembered. Suffice to say - it a lot.

Sept 27th - Boras calls Nats to open negotiations. Lerners say there is nothing to negotiate. That's the offer and they need an answer by FA so they can plan going forward with or without him

No discussions for a month

Oct 29th - Free Agency Opens - Bryce enters FA

Dec 23rd - Bryce flies to Palm Springs and meets with the Lerners. In the intervening time the Nats sign Patrick Corbin. Bryce only officially meets with the White Sox.

Jan 3rd - Lerners offer Bryce a new offer. While it has more years (12) it has substantially less money (250 million) and a longer deferral period. Bryce rejects deal and begins looking elsewhere.

It is clear, as it was at the time, that the Lerners offered Bryce what was considered a low market deal (10 years for under 300 mill taking into accoutn deferrals) to start. It's clear they never offered him another deal until January in which, as I suspected, they took advantage of more clarity in the market to bump the offer down to the "new low market" The sticking point on how you feel about this is how you feel about that month with no discussions. 

If you hate Bryce now, as many Nats fans do, you could see that time frame as when Bryce could have made a hard push to stay.  That doesn't necessarily mean taking less than what was offered, or exactly what was offered, but instead countering with an offer that seems more fair. But no counter came. Bryce wanted to be blown out of the water. He was not. He then decided to test the market.

If you don't hate Bryce though, or are a soulless collection of bolts and fuses, that's a harsh take. You don't know how clear the Lerners made their "this is all we can do" statement to Boras that day after. And given the offers here the Lerners clearly were never going to give Bryce a fair market deal. So the question really is - would Bryce sell himself short to stay in DC. I don't believe he should of.

Tonight should be fun. My guess is Max strikes Bryce out in first inning, but Bryce takes him deep when once again Max stays in a few batters too long.

Monday, April 01, 2019

Monday Quickie - the regression to the mean talk

The Nats salvaged the last game of the series with Trea Turner heroics but the issues which we thought might come up with the pen, seemingly have. Tony Sipp and Matt Grace both have had issues leaving the question of "who's our go-to lefty" open, as well as the question of "which Sipp did we get?" Trevor Rosenthal has been a mitigated disaster, only saved from unmitigated by the fact it has been 2 appearances not 10. If the pen is this bad - which is terrible - yes the Nats will really struggle. But for now you have to suck it up, say small sample size, and see what happens in the next series.

Three games are just three games. Trea Turner is unlikely to be a Triple Crown threat with 100+ steals. Juan Soto is probably not going to be outslugged by Victor Robles. Dozier will get a hit. I swear.

But while we can try to wait on players we can't ignore that these games matter. I say it every year. I'll say it every year. A game in April counts the same as a game in September.  Games the Nats lose here, ground the Nats lose here, has to be made up. Some people rely on the idea of regression to the mean to make that happen but don't quite understand what it means. It does not mean everything that has happened before will be wiped out.

Take a coin flip. Fair odds so 50/50 heads/tails. You expect to see 50% heads. You flip it four times. You get four tails. You see 0% heads.  Regression to the mean means that we should see as we move forward, that 0% get closer to 50%, but it doesn't mean we HAVE to get to 50%. In fact you wouldn't expect it to for a very long time.

What you expect is every flipped group after this to be at 50% and that to drag up your heads percentage.  Flip 6 more. Expect 3H/3T. Total becomes 3H/7T.  30% Heads, much closer to 50% than 0%.  Flip 96 more. Expect 48H/48T.  Total becomes 48H/52T.  48% Heads.  Almost there!  But still not.

Anyway this doesn't quite work in the same way for baseball because we don't know the "real" win percentage like we know 50% for H/T, and the win percentage changes in baseball, which doesn't for your flipped coin. But the general idea holds.

If you think the Nats are a 94 win team say - then you expect them to play like it for the next 159 games and get to 93 or 94 wins because of the lost series. If you expect the Phillies to get to 90 wins - they you expect them to play like it for the next 159 games and end up with 91 to 92 wins after that sweep. So right now if those were your preconceptions, they were correct, and they play out that way for the rest of the year - the Nats are still good.

What happens if the Phillies get too far ahead? Well then things change and you might like the Phillies better.  But even then, when you have one team you liked less quickly get out ahead, hope is far from lost. Look at last year. The Mets started hot. So hot, that I bet the odds favored them coming out of those first few weeks. But all the Nats needed to pass them was the Mets to play a little worse than expected and the Nats to play as expected.  The Nats didn't hold up their end, playing middling baseball, but the Mets played like one of the worst teams in the game. Voila! The Nats passed them.

Now they didn't do well - they also dug a hole in comparison with the Phillies and Braves. Much smaller holes, but still holes and when the Braves played well and the Nats middling, that was enough.  And that's really the lesson - If you like the Nats and they start slow it's nothing to be worried about. It's probably nothing to be worried about even if someone else starts pretty hot. BUT if the Nats dig enough holes, there's a decent chance they can't play well enough the rest of the year to climb out of every hole. Now, with the above analysis, this early things almost have to be out of whack. Three coin flips, for example, can only give you 66%/33% which is off anyway you look at it. So don't focus too much on this now, this is more for a week down the road at least

And that brings us to the next few series. The Nats play the Phillies twice, Mets three times, and Phillies three times. Can a season be over by April 10th? Not officially, but if the Nats do REALLY poorly and the Phillies and Mets do REALLY well.  Well then that's two holes to dig out of.  What would that look like? Something like 2-9 / 3-8 at the end of this stretch for the Nats while both these teams are around 8-3/ 9-2.  Let that happen and let the worries flow.  Anything else - like the more likely coming out of this 5-6 and maybe the Phillies 8-3 at the time, that's fine.