Nationals Baseball: Keeping on

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Keeping on

The Nats won the first two of the "should be a sweep, must be a win" Marlins series, ensuring them of a series win. Now they go for the "extra" game with Strasburg on the mound.

I've seen people say that the Nats need to win more than 8 games during this stretch, 9-3 or even 10-2. That's kind of crazy. The formula for success for division winning teams is pretty simple. Win 2 out of every 3 games against bad teams (basically win those series) and win 1 out of every 2 games against good teams (win series at home, lose them away).  If you have an equal number of good and bad teams you'll end up on a 94-95 win pace.  True the slow start means the Nats have to pick things up but they have already done some of that. They won at a 2 out of 3 pace in the 27 games coming into this stretch* against good teams and bad. That gives them leeway to simply play as a division winning team the rest of the way.  That would give them 86-87 wins.  Is that enough? Maybe! Right now WC2 is on an 85 win pace. I expect that to pick up but we can evaluate needs more as the season progresses. 8-4 keeps them on track.  That's all they need right now.

For the Nats - they should put their heads down, win the games in front of them, and occasionally check on the landscape of the league. They aren't in position yet to check out what other teams are doing and even if they squeak into a WC spot by ASB - better to keep doing what you are doing and not worry about everyone else until you have to.

But that's for the Nats. You don't have to do this. What is your fandom going to get distracted and you aren't going to cheer like you should at the games in front of you? So now that some teams are 81 games in let's check out the teams the Nats will be fighting for playoffs spots.

Atlanta - currently 48-33, pythag 45-36, 18-6 in June, 7-3 in the last 10.   What's to say? Atlanta is now on a 96 win pace and is good. Their offense lacks a second star behind Freeman, but Albies, Acuna, or Riley could all make that step, or perhaps the older Donaldson has a run in him. They have good enough depth. They brought in Kuechel to round out the rotation. If they have an issue it's that the back end of the bullpen is solid though not spectacular, and the deep bullpen has issues but there's no reason to knock them far off 96 wins. If that's the case, and you are aiming for the Nats to win the division, then yes 10-2 is what they need here because they'll probably have to be the best team in baseball the rest of the way to catch the Braves

Dodgers - 55-27 (54-28), 16-8, 7-3 we should ignore the Dodgers because they are going to win the West and not fall into the WC race, but for completeness they are the best team in baseball. The offense does have a couple holes but 1-6 is as strong as any team with the worst of the bunch still good. The rotation is best in baseball. The bullpen is 5 deep.

Cubs - 43-27 (46-34), 12-13, 4-6. The Cubs are the next team up but have enough issues you can see them falling back. Three guys, Almora, Descalso, and Zobrist are doing poor enough that they are having real issues filling 2B and CF.  The rotation is ok, but big name acquisitions Darvish and Quintana have never developed into the aces the Cubs though. The bullpen is ok too but it's got the usual back end issues. Really they are waiting for Kimbrel here which could nail it down. If I were to rate all the teams the Cubs would be the last team better than the Nats, but it's close.

Brewers 42-38 (39-41), 10-12, 3-7.  The Brewers can't get going. Offensively Yelich is now a verified superstar, Moustakas is having a rebirth and Grandal is showing everyone (including the Nats) that yes, they should have signed him. But Aguilar, Shaw, and Cain are all dramatically worse giving them nothing more than a .500 offense. The pitching is in a similar boat with a bunch of guys doing worse than last year, but that's less surprising giving the names. Bullpen is ok - would be better if they didn't have to throw so many innings (10% more than any other NL team). There's a potential for an offensive breakout and if they do trade for Bumgarner the team could be very good again, but as of now it's .500 or bust

Phillies 42-38 (40-40),  9-14,  3-7.  Another .500 team for the season. We talked a lot about this team but suffice to say every offensive player except Kingery is between mildy and majorly disappointing, though Bruce has been a good pick up. With Nola not pitching like a star the rotation doesn't work, as it's a bunch of 3-4-5s.  Bullpen is actually not terrible but it hasn't been good lately and it certainly isn't team saving.  This team needed pitching and hitting. It got one and is suffering as that one fails to carry the team.

Colorado 42-38 (42-38), 13-11, 5-5.  You may have seen me mention that Desmond and Murphy were doing much better. The Rockies are always going to score runs but early on, with those guys struggling the offense couldn't work even in Denver's thin air. Now it's back to Rockies as usual. Still it's not an offense that will scare anyone away. It's half a line-up. On the flip side the pitching staff is as expected terrible but taking the same things into account as with the line-up the bullpen looks pretty good. The rotation though is not. They have a couple good arms and a lot of bad ones.

Cardinals 40-39 (40-39),  12-11, 5-5.  The strength of the Carindals is their pen which is almost completely filled with usable arms and even with their preferred closer, Hicks, injured, they are very good. The rotation ahead of them is pretty mediocre but outside of that last starter they are all usable and the last guy is Wacha who'd you'd expect to be better. The lineup is not good, a mix of mediocre and below average bats. The saving grace is that only Molina is outright terrible (and Wieters is back to being worse than that) but all that means is they are the worst lineup of teams trying to make the playoffs. It's a team that could quickly get better through trade but it would mean kicking out guys they've relied on for a while : Molina, Wong, Carpenter. Not sure they will do it but if they will they could vault to the top of the WC set.

Diamondbacks 41-41 (45-37), 13-11, 3-7.  The D-backs are a snakebit team (ha!) having a terrible record in 1 and 2 run games (14-22) holding back what should be a solid WC team. Their offense is very good, kind of one good bat switched for a below average one from the Braves. Their rotation doesn't quite have an ace, Grienke is slowing down at 35, but goes 5 deep when healthy. Right now though it's just 3 deep. The pen is ok with the back end very strong but the rest weak. Honestly they are a lesser Braves team, though with a better back end of the pen. I'd expect a run from this squad more than any other up here.

Padres 40-40 (37-43), 10-13, 6-4. The Padres are the anti-Dbacks, looking at an 18-9 record in one run games that hides the fact they aren't really a contender - or at least haven't played like one. The offense is a beast through 5 batters, then joke at the bottom. As it stands now, pitchers can and do work around this. The starting pitching is just allright, with some surprises making the first half interesting, but that shouldn't hold up and the bullpen isn't good enough to hold on.  Most likely I see another selling of parts from this team come July to gear up for the real try at the playoffs in 2020.

oh to be fair -
Nationals 39-40 (41-38), 15-7, 7-3.  The offense can be good, the only real hole is Gomes and when Kendrick and Suzuki is in it's a deep line-up. When they are out it isn't but it isn't bad, just kind of average and top heavy.  The top 3 in the rotation are are good as any teams, but the back end, especially the 5th spot, has the expected problems. Anibal is kind of the key here. The bullpen has been better but that just means they've found some usable arms in front of Doolittle, not that they have a bullpen to worry about. Still if Sanchez is good, they have to be used less and everything kind of fits in. It's a good starter away sort of from really becoming a machine. 

What I see here is three teams right now better than the Nats - Braves, Dodgers, and Cubs, and the Cubs just barely. Out of the WC teams the Diamondbacks are about as good and I think they can stay ahead of the Nats, especially if the Padres come crashing down and give them another set of easy games. The Cardinals and Brewers both have real potential for passing the Nats (if the Nats do nothing). I see the Brewers showing more commitment to that than the Cardinals though. The Phillies are next - and I'd rank them as an annoyance. Not bad enough to dismiss and with a bunch of H2H games to go. The Rockies have to be paid attention to if only because it's a fluky place to play and things might happen. The Padres should fold.

I can see why the Nats are favored. If you twisted my arm I might have them in the playoffs (with the D-backs) but I won't say it just yet. I want to see two things (1) I want them to get to the ASB without stumbling - so far so good. and (2) I want to see what teams do after the ASB in terms of trades, including the Nats. If the Cardinals, Brewers, Phillies are still ahead of them and all get better? The Nats chances take a severe dive. If the Nats have passed them and make a move? Let's get wild.

But for now we wait. We watch. We hope they don't screw it up. It's worked for almost 30 games now. 10 more.

*exactly so going 18-9


BxJaycobb said...

@Harper. The thing about the Phillies can they possibly be this bad in the second half? You can expect almost every player to regress to expected level of production. Realmuto, Harper, segura, any additions they make to compensate for McCutchen, and then of course Nola will be better. I would bet anything. Now maybe Eflin gives it back but I don’t really think so. His peripherals suggest a good pitcher. There are just too many players underperforming for me to think this is a .500 team.

BxJaycobb said...

Like, besides Kingery and Eflin, I would argue they’ve had zero players play like they’re capable. That’s scary if I’m the Nats.

Anonymous said...

BXJ, this was from a prior thread, but you're just wrong about the Phillies' starting pitchers. DezoPenguin thinks you're wrong about the Phillies' hitters too, but I will let Dezo repost.

BXJ re Phillies: I think you can make a decent/strong argument that we should expect the Phillies' bullpen to perform better as injured players return. And I'll concede that certain hitters (e.g., Bryce) ought to be expected to perform better, though I am not going to take the time to figure out whether the number of players you'd expect to perform better is larger than the number of players you wouldn't so expect, or to think about magnitudes.

But you're just wrong about the Phillies' starting pitchers. They stink, and they're not going to get better unless they replace the guys they have with new guys who might pitch better. As a first cut, every single starter on the team who has made 10+ starts has an ERA better than his FIP, with one exception: Nola, whose FIP is a tiny .15 better than his ERA. This suggests the starters are going to get WORSE, not better. As a second cut, xFIP tells a slightly less bad story. Nola's ERA is worse than his xFIP (by a fair amount). Pivetta and Eickhoff too, but their xFIP's are 4.5 2 and 5.23 respectively. If they "improve" their ERAs to be more like their xFIPs, they're still going to be shitty pitchers.

What about the ERA projections (ZIPS)?

Eflin 4.55 projected (3.26 actual)
Nola 3.54 (4.55)
Arrieta 4.59 (4.33)
Velasquez 4.74 (4.42)
Pivetta 4.93 (5.63)
Eickhoff 5.31 (5.71)

The improvement you might reasonably expect from Nola is entirely canceled out by the worse performance you might reasonably expect from Eflin. Arrieta and Velasquez are projected to be worse, not better. Pivetta and Eickhoff are projected to be better, but still projected to be bad at pitching baseballs.

Indeed, thinking about whether they're going to be better or worse than they have been obscures how terrible these guys are. THERE IS ONLY ONE GUY IN THE ROTATION PROJECTED TO HAVE AN ERA UNDER 4.5! This is a bad rotation. It's so bad it cannot be overcome unless the offense destroys.

BxJaycobb said...

@Harper. Acuna I would definitely say is a hitting star. Maybe not as *consistent* as Freeman but honestly he’s almosf as good, due to more power. Not same category as Albies (just worse) or Riley (need to see more). Acuna we know is a guy who can jack 40 bombs and have a .900 OPS. He’s a stud.

blovy8 said...

It's not crazy to demand 10-2 or 9-3 if you're trying to decide if the club should make a move (or moves) to get better. If they are still behind half a dozen teams for the 2nd wildcard in mid-July, it's not a very good bet to trade for pitching improvements at the cost of a future benefit, and we've discussed the many excellent young players dealt in the recent past that have kept the farm system mediocre, and that indirectly caused the inflexible payroll now. Even winning a wildcard game just leads to a punchers chance when likely facing the significant advantages of the Dodger roster. A better roster matches up better with them even if you can't catch the Braves.

So I'd say they have to climb the standings enough to feel more certain about getting in the playoffs. Then it's a matter of how much is Rizzo willing to give up, yet again, for the bullpen they'll need to improve? In the playoffs, you can live without that better 5 you're advocating for Harper, a better bullpen helps you weather the lesser innings from 4/5. You really can't avoid the dearth of very good relievers or even potential ones developing in the next three months on this team. Help is not coming. But so many teams figure to be looking for relievers, that it forces me to think the asking price will be too high or not really possible for Rizzo. The owners would have to allow the team to go over the luxury tax again, and the team's performance in the next few weeks will have to force things IMO. They have to look like they can compete with the Braves for the division or be at least become a team with any sort of shot at a postseason series win. It may not even be enough, but it's a start.

Anonymous said...

Harper, I like this analysis, but I'd wish you'd taken it one step further and included the BaseRuns' records in addition to the pythag.

Here's what we have for the teams you covered:

Atlanta 45-36 (3 wins worse than actual)
Philly 35-45 (7 wins worse than actual)
Cubs 46-34 (3 wins better than actual)
Brewers 42-38 (same)
Cardinals 40-39 (same)
Dodgers 57-25 (2 wins better than actual)
Dbacks 45-37 (4 wins better than actual)
Rockies 39-41 (3 wins worse than actual)
Padres 38-42 (2 wins worse than actual)

Nats 42-37 (3 wins better than actual)

This shows that the Dodgers are clearly in a class by themselves. The next tier includes the Cubs, Dbacks, and Atlanta. The next tier includes the Nats, Brewers, and arguably the Cardinals. The next tier includes the Rockies and Padres. And in the bottom tier is the Phillies, whose BaseRuns record is worse than the Mets and Reds, and closer to the Pirates than any other team on this list.

BaseRuns suggests that we should worry most about the Central teams for WC2, and that Arizona and Atlanta are of similar quality (though Arizona much easier to catch than Atlanta because they are not so far ahead).

JWLumley said...

Good analysis Harper, although the Phillies series highlighted something to me: Sometimes, it's not who you play, it's when you play them. I mean, the Phillies came into the Nats series in a tailspin, whereas they ran into the Padres when the Padres were hot IIRC. If you were to ask me which team is better, I'd probably say the Phillies, still some of it comes down not just to who you play, but when you play them because while I don't believe in momentum for teams, individual players--especially hitters--get hot and cold.

Also, Suzuki should be getting 2/3's of the starts and should be treated as the starter at this point. Gomes is on the verge of putting up MAT numbers at the plate. The wild card for the Nats is Voth. He looked very good against the Braves outside of the one homerun (1 homer was a wallscraper that only gets out during a day game). If Voth can continue to pitch like that, the Nats don't need Sanchez to be as good and if Sanchez is actually good, they could put some real streaks together and have a legitimate chance of catching the Barves provided they can patch the bullpen together.

BxJaycobb said...

I also don’t really understand why Gomes is getting more starts than Suzuki. It’s kind of bizarre. Yeah maybe he’s a bit better on defense but Suzuki’s hitting isn’t even close

coolsny said...

@ BxJaycobb

perhaps its similar to the situation with Kendrick who admitted his body just isn't up to it every day- Suzuki is getting up there in age as well and maybe they have an understanding about his playing time.

secondly, i take issue with your analysis of Acuna. we don't *know* he can jack 40 with a 900 ops, he is not even on track for that this year. no projections have him doing that in the next few years either. note that i say this as a fierce Soto defender in the Acuna Soto debate. very triggered by any Acuna commendations.

DezoPenguin said...

@Bx and Anon:

I'm going to take Anonymous's invitation and repost what I said in the last thread. The Phillies' hitters, especially with McCutchen out for the year, really aren't as good as I think Bx gives them credit for, when you look at the cold numbers the computer spits out:

"And really, I don't think that the lineup is all that, either. Compare current wRC+ to projected ROS per The Site Which Shall Not Be Named (going by Depth Charts since that incorporates multiple systems):

LF (Bruce): 146 / 103
CF (Quinn): 3 / 70
RF (Harper): 114 / 134
3B (Franco): 63 /95
SS (Segura): 102 /98
2B (Hernandez): 102 / 97
1B (Hoskins): 141 / 127
C (Realmuto): 96 /107
3B/CF (Kingery): 151 /84

Yeah, some improvement from players like Harper and Realmuto are expected, but negative regression from Hoskins, Bruce and Kingery would offset that, whichever slot between 3B and CF isn't played by Kingery is going to be manned by a bad player (even if you believe Kingery's a better hitter than his projections), and Hernandez and Segura are basically doing what they're supposed to do, maybe even a little better.

Combine that with the rotation problems in which, as Anonymous has pointed out, is basically pitching to its bad expectations except that Nola is stinking it up and Eflin is over his head, basically cancelling each other out, and then add in the bullpen injuries (the Phillies' pen is actually--believe it or not--WORSE than the Nats' in WAR and FIP, basically because they don't have a Doolittle, and 20th in MLB by ERA). The Phillies are not a powerhouse waiting to explode, they're a potential WC team who got derailed by injuries. They could certainly improve through trades or blind luck, but they're a team that unless the Nats run into lousy injury luck themselves they ought to be able to catch."

(The rest of my post Harper covered in this post with much more analysis and specificity.)

Re: Acuna/Soto. I think the numbers sum this one up accurately--Soto is a better hitter (worth noting: his current 140 wRC+ is almost up to last year's 146), while Acuna's competent baserunning and good defense (especially now that ATL has him in CF) make him the better overall player, especially as his 126 wRC+ isn't bad at all, hence him being worth 3.0 fWAR to Soto's 1.5. Really, it's Soto's baserunning and defense rather than his bat that have run into the "sophomore slump" this year; they're both down while his hitting's remarkably consistent.

Harper said...

BxJay - on Phillies - if you think it might be a Kapler thing they could keep underperforming.
on Acuna - I think he's s stud too and will show it in his career but he hasn't quite lived up to it so far in 2019 and might not for the next half. All I care about here is the next 80 games.

blovy - ok - if that's your ulitmate goal - being in an obvious playoff spot by end of July... they'll have to get more games somewhere - but a couple games after the ASB would work too. Over expectation is over expectation regardless of when it is.

Anon @ 9:42 - haven't put much time into BaseRuns and found you generally end up in same place looking at Pythag. Here Phillies end up worse, Brewers better, rest pretty much same. If we had just one or two teams to pick apart I think I'd dig into it more.

JWL - sure but you assume over the course of the season to get a mix of hot/not hot teams AND teams, like hitters, go from one to the other without warning. So you can't really analyze it too much, even though you know it's there.

Josh Higham said...

This is really part of a whole different conversation, but per Statcast's Outs Above Average, Soto is actually fine in the field. Certainly not a great defender of any kind, but in a sample as small as his, the eye test (which suggests bad but getting a little better) and Statcast (which suggests he's done a competent job this year) is probably more valuable than the defensive component of WAR, based on UZR or DRS.

Over the course of a few more years we'll get a more conclusive idea about what kind of defender Soto is (especially as the 1B slot opens up for the Nats and we see if they think he's a bad enough outfielder to make the move before his physical peak). For now though, I'm highly skeptical that WAR is treating his defense right. It's not good, but I'm dubious he's a 3.0 WAR guy for the full season, with how good his offensive production is.

BxJaycobb said...

@coolsny, @Harper. This is in response to coolsny saying we don’t know Acuna is a .900 OPS, 40 homer stud (and to Harper saying Acuna may not have lived up to being a stud yet). The facts are as follows.
Acuna has played in 191 games in his career. His 162 game pace (and career line) is: .290/.367/.531 (.898 OPS), and 38 homers per 162. Comparing 2018 to 2019, he’s hit for slightly* less power this year (and he has 19 homers), plus the league is hitting more, so his wRC+ is lower.....but if you go by what he’s done in his career, the guy is going to finish the year with like 35-40 bombs hitting .900 OPS. So what am i missing here? He’s already a great offensive player. MVP level? No. But All Star level for sure. And that’s ignoring his base stealing and speed on bases, which are obviously part of offense. So maybe we’re splitting hairs here, but the Braves definitely have two stars in the lineup IMO (Riley, Donaldson, Albies are just not in that category...unless Riley keeps this up, which he wont).

BxJaycobb said...

@Harper: one idea for you for a post, once we’re at the AS break is maybe is this: He’s only had roughly 1/4 season’s worth of ABs, but has Turner upped his game, or small sample? Differences: (1)Trea is slugging this something he’s doing differently or is somebody with his level of pop, like Kendrick, just benefiting from the super ball? (2) he also seems to be stealing more efficiently this year. Only been thrown out once in 15 tries. (3) downside: the metrics don’t love his defense as much this year, which seems to be entirely due to his bout of throwing errors the first month he was back (understandable, since apparently he still can’t fully grip the ball).

coolsny said...

@bxJaycobb I am definitely splitting hairs, I thought I made that clear haha. I do think that we should pay more attention to his numbers this year than last years though, and this years OPS will be significantly lower i predict.

he probably is better overall than Soto as he is more of an athlete, and that makes me quite sad

Anonymous said...

coolsny - it makes me sad too. The Nats have had two of the five best seasons in history by a 19 year old player, and each season was overshadowed by a better season by a 20 year old! Note: I say this with the full knowledge that the difference between Trout and Harper was much larger than the difference between Acuna and Soto. Not only that, but Trout did literally everything better than Harper, whereas Soto has been a better overall hitter than Acuna, but a worse baserunner and fielder.

BxJaycobb said...

@Anon, @coolsny. You guys shouldn’t be sad. Yes i think it’s likely Acuna will end up being a better player. That said, it’s entirely possible given how young he is, that we have an outcome where Soto makes an additional leap soon....sorta like the Harper 2015 leap, and it sticks....and Acuna never quite becomes a *dominant* hitter and willing remain some version of this....and then they will be roughly equivalent in value. That possibility is definitely in play. What is more frustrating to me (and should be to every Nats fan) is that for some reason the Nats front office makes no apparent effort to lock up players like robles and Soto and Trea early on, whereas the Braves constantly lock up every rising star they have for more than the 6 years. (Freeman, Acuna, Albies), oftentimes at crazy bargains! THAT is nobody’s fault by the Lerners being cash-obsessed. And it’s financially foolish. Like they easily could have extended Rendon beyond his FA after his first 4-5-ish WAR year. Or even after his rookie year! They just never do that, and it hurts the team.

ssln said...


Let me quote your insight into the Phils. "We talk about this team but suffice to say every offensive player except Kingery is between mildly and majorly disappointing...". Great analysis. I have been asking you to write about the Boy Wonder but you have been steadfast in ignoring me. Your call.
In you stead a guy called G Cracka X used fWar to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the Boy Wonder is worth "36M" this year and no one disagreed with this wonderful insight.
So the question becomes if Cracka has proven beyond all reasonable doubt that Bryce is having a season for the ages or at least one that is worth 36M, how can you say that he is having a mildly or majorly disappointing season?

Nattydread said...

The Nats' 5 week climb back to .500 has been both under the radar and extraordinary. Around May 24th, most pundits had weighed in on the team and called the season. No bullpen. Bad coaching. Could-have-been good but too flawed to succeed.

The question now: Is the team we've seen over the past weeks the real 2019 Nationals?

Sweeping the Marlins is hardly something to write home about. Still, the team seems to be transformed --- locked in and embracing the challenges that faced it 5 weeks ago. We'll see if this keeps up.

BxJaycobb said...

@Nattydread. I will be honest. I did not believe they were capable of this when they were 19-31. Let’s give some credit to Davey (I know I know) for getting them to bear down and keep fighting. I was ready to give up. Let’s see if they can turn it into something.