Nationals Arm Race

"… the reason you win or lose is darn near always the same – pitching.” — Earl Weaver

Archive for August, 2012

Giolito to have TJ surgery; Not good

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Giolito scheduled for TJ surgery, to the surprise of few apparently. Photo Eric Dearborn via win for teddy blog

Frequent readers of this blog have told me lately that i’m too pessimistic, that I’m “not having fun” with the team and its best record in baseball.  Fair enough; its kind of difficult to write opinion pieces on a team in first place.  But even given that, i’ve tried to write some more positive stuff lately.

However, beware; this is going to be another negative post.  Because we just learned that our 2012 #1 draft pick Lucas Giolito needs to have Tommy John surgery after just TWO professional innings.

I made my point the day we drafted Giolito; you can read this June 5th post or read this executive summary; Giolito by himself wasn’t a bad risk, but combining him with Matthew Purke (on the DL all year) and Anthony Rendon (who has had significant injuries in 3 out of the last 4 seasons) puts all of this team’s proverbial eggs into one dangerous basket.  I thought it was negligent to draft an injury risk, given the major injury risk drafted just the previous year in Purke and the ongoing injury issues of Rendon.

Make no mistake; the Nats essentially sacrificed most of this draft for the express purpose of freeing up enough money to sign Giolito out of his UCLA committment.  Check out the known bonuses paid in the top 10 rounds; most of them were below-slot and a number of college seniors (with no leverage) were picked.  Now, every team in the majors was also doing this (an unanticipated side effect of the new CBA draft rules that are not are good for the game, at all, as with most of the new CBA when it comes to amateur players), but the consensus in the industry was that the Nats essentially “punted” the 2012 draft in the hopes of signing Giolito.

Which would be great, if Giolito was healthy.  But he wasn’t.  Here’s a tidbit that I didn’t know: I listened to a Baseball Prospectus podcast two weeks ago and one of Kevin Goldstein‘s guests was none other than Lucas Giolito’s father.  The conversation/intervew was great; Giolito talked about what it was like having a superstar baseball kid growing up, what it was like having a little leaguer who could throw 78mph as a 12yr old, and what it was like having a 16-yr old rising HS junior at the Area Code games.  He also talked through their whole spring of 2012, from the injury to getting drafted to the decision to sign.  All interesting stuff.

One tidbit I learned though, having not heard it anywhere else previously, was this: Lucas didn’t have a “sprained UCL” as was widely mentioned at the time.  According to his father, he had a PARTIAL TEAR of the UCL, NOT a sprain.  And the Nats drafted him anyway.  Knowing this, is it ANY surprise whatsoever that the kid blows out the elbow 2 innings into his pro career??   Lets get this straight; a kid who throws 100mph has a partial tear of the main tendon that allows him to throw 100mph, and we think this tendon is just going to magically heal itself?  A normal person may heal that tendon to the point where you can live your life and not be bothered.  A professional pitcher, upon tearing that tendon, is always going to have a weakness that eventually will require surgical repair.

Lets face it; the Nats have had some good fortune with their pitchers having TJ surgery lately and coming back.  Zimmermann and Strasburg examples 1A and 1B.  Former top prospect Jack McGeary had it and is still in the low minors, struggling to regain his form, an example of a guy who didn’t exactly come back roses from the surgery.  Taylor Jordan and Sammy Solis both had it earlier this year, one representing a promising underrated arm and the other representing a significant blow to the farm system depth, and they’ll be more test cases.  And now we have Giolito.

I read another nats blog this morning who cheerily said something along the lines of, “Well, he’ll get the surgery and we’ll have a 20-yr old in 2014 who can throw 100mph.”  That statement represents the absolutely 100% best case scenario here.  Tommy John recoveries are pretty high percentage wise, but they’re not 100%.  18yr olds pitchers who get cut aren’t exactly 100% to return to their prior form either.  He may never come back from this surgery, he may never regain his velocity.

Prospect development in baseball is already risky enough; a huge percentage of first rounders never even make the majors.  But that being said … first rounders who DO make the majors are the core of the stars in this league (don’t believe me?  Get a list of the 20 best pitchers and look at their draft position; more than half of the “Aces” in this league were first round picks).  My point is (and was in June) that we should have drafted a safer guy, a known quantity, so that we actually have something to show for the 2012 draft in a few years time.

Mitch Williams on 106.7 inre Strasburg Shutdown, Mechanics

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Would you listen if this guy was criticising your pitching mechanics? Photo unknown via insidesocal.com

I just happened to catch former MLB pitcher and current MLB.com analyst Mitch Williams calling into the morning show on 106.7 this am.  And I felt compelled to immediately call into the show to rebut some of the more arguable statements he made.  Of course, this being Washington DC they only took 2 calls (one of which immediately changed the subject to golf; nice screening there WJFK) before moving onto a football-related segment, so I’ll exhaust my need to speak up in this space.

Williams had lots to say about Stephen Strasburg‘s mechanics, Mike Rizzo‘s decision to shut him down, and other fun stuff.

First off, I find it ironic that a guy with some of the worst mechanics in the last 25 years has the audacity to question Strasburg’s mechanics.  Williams nearly dislocated his left shoulder on every delivery and fell off to the 3rd base side so badly that he nearly hit the ground on each pitch (as is displayed in the photo above).  Strasburg, on the other hand, was considered to have impeccable mechanics upon hitting the draft and you really had to squint to find flaws in his delivery.  Google searches on the topic are so muddied with opinions that its hard to find actual scouting reports from his amateur days versus “hindsight is 20/20″ pieces that look for flaws to explain his 2010 injury.  But its ironic that Strasburg suddenly has all these mechanical issues according to pundits, because he got injured.

Speaking of that 2010 injury, Williams intimated that the infamous “Inverted W” was the reason Strasburg got hurt.  I just have an awful hard time with that theory.  First, its a THEORY and is merely a coincidental piece of evidence in pitcher injuries.  You can find examples of pitchers who get into this position pre-delivery who have never had any injury issues just as easily as you can cherry-pick guys like Strasburg or Mark Prior who have suffered injuries.  More importantly, the Inverted W is more indicative of SHOULDER injuries in pitchers, not elbow ligament tears.  Shoulder injuries in pitchers are by and large wear-and-tear injuries, caused by over use and over-throwing over hundreds and thousands of pitches.  You don’t generally throw one pitch and tear completely through your labrum or rotator cuff.   However, elbow injuries to the UCL are almost entirely singular, acute injuries caused on a specific pitch.  We all can remember the exact pitch Strasburg threw to injure his arm and the grimace on his face after he threw it (as well as the blowhard Rob Dibble comments …. but we’ll choose to ignore those).

I wrote at the time my opinion on why Strasburg got hurt, and it had nothing to do with his pitching mechanics (my pet theory: Ivan Rodriguez fell in love with Strasburg’s change-up, had him throwing too many of them, and the vastly increased stress on his elbow caused the injury.  See the Aug 2010 post linked above for more detail).  I think its irresponsible for Williams to get onto a local radio show and opine that Strasburg “needs to change his mechanics” because of the injury, or else he’ll always be an injury concern.  Because in reality, nobody knows.  Personally I think teams trying to “change mechanics” in pitchers is a mistake; you throw one way your entire life, from age 5-6 onwards, and your entire shoulder/arm combination becomes inured to that method of throwing.  How can anyone think that suddenly as a 25 yr old you can even change the fundamental way you throw a baseball and be successful?  Adjustments, no problem.  Fix slight timing issues or slight changes to your wind up?  Sure.  Core changes to arm slots and arm loading?  Problematic.

Williams continued with the same tired themes we’ve been hearing from National writers (i.e., the Veterans aren’t going to like this, its a team game, the Nats should have managed this better, the Nats are foolish not to go for it, etc).  But he fails to mention what most fail to mention; Rizzo arrived at this shutdown decision with Strasburg the SAME way he did with Jordan Zimmermann last year; he talked with the surgeon who performed the surgery (Dr. Lewis Yocum in LA, the same doctor apparently about to pronounce the same fate on our 2012 #1 draft pick Lucas Giolito) and arrived at a prescribed, pre-defined innings limit.  You notice we’re in the EXACT same position as we were with Zimmermann in 2011, yet without any of the national media interest.  (And so far, that limit has worked out pretty darn well for the Nats and Zimmermann; right now, he’s 2nd best in the NL in several macro pitching categories; bWAR, ERA and ERA+, while being top 10 in WHIP, K/BB, and BB/9).

The way I look at it is thus: if you or I had Heart Surgery, your Cardiologist probably would recommend a course of recovery.  For the first X months, avoid any activity, then ease your way back to vigorous activity over a period of Y more months.  And you’d follow that advice, right?  Well, the pitching arm of a Major League Starter pretty much is equivalent to the heart of a normal person; without that arm, you’re not a major leaguer any more.  So when you get surgery on it, you listen to your doctor and do exactly what he says.  If someone told that same heart patient that, well because we’re really close to the World Series, you should really ignore your surgeon and just go for it for the betterment of the team, what would you say?  You’d probably say, “well, this may help the team make this one short term goal but I may be dead a lot sooner because of it.”  In my mind, that’s what Strasburg/Rizzo are doing; they’re following the same advice that has now led to Zimmermann having a fantastic (and healthy) 2012 season.

And one caller, to his credit, did point out a very important fact: the story on Strasburg hasn’t really changed all year.  There was a communicated shutdown expectation to Strasburg and the team in spring training.  Its only the National media that is now catching onto this and thrusting microphones into our players’ faces and asking for reactions that are getting over blown and taken out of context.   I guess this is what its like day in, day out in New York and Boston…

There are no absolutes in life; Strasburg could absolutely re-injure himself in 2 years time and turn into this generation’s Mark Prior.  Or he could be like Chris Carpenter, who had the TJ surgery in 2007 then recovered to a 17-4 record in 2009 as a guy in his mid 30s.  But anyone who thinks they know otherwise is just stating an opinion.  And everyone has an opinion.  I support the shutdown, I think its prudent for the longer term position of this team, and I don’t think 2012 is a once-in-a-lifetime shot for this franchise.  Of the “core 15″ of the Nats (8 positional players, 5 starters and 2 relievers) exactly ONE guy is a free agent or not presented with at least an option for 2013.  Most of these guys are either signed long term or under team control for at least another FOUR seasons.  So this team isn’t going anywhere.  You play it safe and get ready for a 4-5 year run.

That’s MY opinion.  :-)

Wang gets stay of execution with latest “injury”

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Wang on his signing day. There won't be a press conference on his release day. Photo Jeff Saffelle/Nats320 blog

Chien-Ming Wang‘s latest (and last) rehab start in Harrisburg ended with him “complaining of soreness in his right hip” and being pulled after the latest of his ineffective starts for AA Harrisburg.

This has to be the least surprising bit of news related to Wang’s injury and rehab assignment imaginable.

Do you mean to tell me that the Nats most ineffective starter, one who lost his starting role and was banished to the bullpen to do mop-up long man duty, and then was ineffective even in that role, was sent to the DL with a questionable hip injury, and when it came time to either re-instate the player to the active roster or to Desginate him for Assignment (since he’s out of Minor League Options) he suddently has a re-occurence of the same hip injury, meaning his rehab time clock resets to 30-days and allows him to wallow in the minors until the roster expansion date of September 1st (as I predicted in my July 3rd posting)?

I’m shocked.

Clearly there’s no place for Wang on the team, both in the short term and the longer term.  In his last three starts for Harrisburg he was alternatively lit up or highly ineffective (considering his pedigree and who he was pitching against).  Ross Detwiler has clearly grasped the #5 starter role and has a higher ERA+ than both Edwin Jackson and Gio Gonzalez for the season (hard to imagine, but Gio’s last 8-10 starts have really knocked his seasonal numbers down, even given last night’s CG and his excellent 7ip, 2H performance against the woeful Mets two weeks ago).   If/When Stephen Strasburg gets shut down (which honestly at this point I cannot believe will actually happen, given Mike Rizzo‘s cryptic statements about Strasburg having to pass an “eye-test” and backing away from any specific quantitiative innings limit), John Lannan has had two shots to prove he belongs and completely earned whatever work he will get.  Unless someone goes down with injury, Wang now sits easily as 7th on the starter depth chart and perhaps even further down, given Yunesky Maya‘s recent string of decent-to-excellent starts in Syracuse.

The Wang experiment was a worthy one, and certainly I supported his re-signing and the continued payment on the hope that Wang would return to his 19-win Yankees glory.  Maybe he’ll get a few more innings in September, as the team fights its way for a divisional title.  But you have to think he’ll be looking for work in another organization in 2013.

Written by Todd Boss

August 9th, 2012 at 11:05 am

More and more I’m liking the 2nd Wild Card

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Will the Greinke acquisition get the Angels out of the WC game? Photo Jeff Golden/Getty Images

Baseball Purist Alert: this opinion piece may not entirely please you.

I have to admit; as a life-long baseball fan I find myself constantly being at odds with myself over the “purity” of the game dating to its roots versus the natural progression of modern baseball as it adjusts to the current  sports climate.  Every change we’ve seen, from divisional play to wild cards to instant replay seems like an attack on the sanctity of the National Pasttime, and the sport which routinely traces its roots to stars from 70 years ago.

The latest Collective Bargaining Agreement added a second Wild Card in each league, and a one-game playoff between the two wild-card teams to advance into the divisional series.  Some purists were aghast with the addition of yet another non-divisional champ to the post season party.  However, as we’ve seen this season play out the second wild-card inarguably has some side-effects that I think are good for the game.  Lets talk about these intended (or unintended) impacts:

1. The additional Wild Card has kept more teams in the Playoff Race.  Here’s the standings as of 7/31/12 (a fantastic new feature I found at baseball-reference.com; you can pull standings as of any date in the history of the game).  8 of the 16 teams in the NL and arguably 9 or 10 of the teams in the AL were technically still “in” the race for a playoff spot.  More teams in the playoff race means longer sustained fan interest and less tanking or selling off of assets.

2. By virtue of #1, more teams were trying to improve at the Trade Deadline.  You can argue that more teams in the playoff hunt meant that fewer teams were sellers, and that lead to gridlock at the trade deadline.  But, some surprise selling teams (namely Miami and Philadelphia) injected new life to the trade deadline and had some teams making significant and crucial pickups.

3. An additional Wild Card still leaves Baseball with the lowest percentage of its teams in Post Season Play.  Hey; at least we’re not the NBA, where more than half the teams make the playoffs.  It still means something to make the playoffs, which is important.

4. The play-in game will be fantastic.  Nothing is as amazing as a one-game playoff to advance, and some of baseball’s most historic moments have come during these games.  Who would know who Bucky Dent was if not for his amazing home-run in the 1978 playoffs?  Both teams will be sending their Aces, both teams will be playing like its Game 7, and the neutral fan will be in heaven.

5. The additional Wild Card will mean that teams will play harder, longer into the season.  Why do you think we’re seeing the massive trade-deadline arms race between Western divisional rivals in both leagues?  The Angels/Rangers and the Dodgers/Giants were by far the most active teams at the deadline because they all know that the difference this year between winning the division and the wild-card is significant.  In years past we’ve seen teams almost not care if they won the division or dropped to the wild card; you were guaranteed not to meet your divisional rival until the LCS and the home field advantage in baseball is so slight that sometimes you could argue that playing away in a short series is more advantageous.

Why?  In a short series, its pretty easy to “steal” a game on the road and then hold serve and win 2 straight at home, knowing that the pressure is on the favorite and knowing that the under-dog can drop a game at home but still get a 5th/deciding game on the road.  In a 7-game series the same rule of thumb applies; its really difficult to get a 3-game sweep, but its really easy to get a 2-game split.  Especially considering that the home-field advantage in baseball is only about 56% but has been as low as 52% in the past decade (see this link at Baseball-Reference.com, which has the home-team winning percentage over the years).

Now we see the immedicate impact; the Angels and Rangers absolutely do not want any part of a coin-flip game with the 2nd wild card for this reason.  Primarily because…

6. The one-game play-in will significantly impact the advancing Wild Card Team.  You have to think that teams will send their Ace/#1 starter to the hill in the play-in game.  Why possibly save him for a series that you may not get to?  As a result, the wild card winner advances to play either the #1 seed or the #2 seed (if the #1 team is in their same division) having already spent their big arm.

Why do I see this as a good thing?  Because one major beef I’ve always had with Wild Cards is their relatively easy path to advance to the World Series.  Up until the last day of last season, the Cardinals were not even set to be a playoff team, and then they run to the World Series title.  We’ve already talked about the relatively small home field advantage baseball teams have.  Wild Card teams, more often than not, come into the playoffs “hotter” than the divisional champ that they then face.  This results in a significant number of Wild Card “upsets” in our history of divisional play and having Wild Cards advance far further than I’d normally like to see them, at the expense of divisional winners losing short series.  In the 17 years of divisional play/wild cards we’ve had:

  • 5 Wild Card WS champions (including most recent St. Louis Cardinals plus 3-straight from 2002-4)
  • Another 5 Wild Card WS runner-ups (including 3 straight from 2005-7)
  • Overall, 10 of 34 World Series participants being Wild Cards, a rate of nearly 30%.
  • 18 Wild Cards overall who won their Divisional Series out of 68 such series being played, a success rate of more than 25%.

Perhaps this is one last vestige of “baseball purism” in me, but I think the game needs to have more World Series winners who not only won the 8-team (now 10-team) playoff derby, but who also succeeded all year long and won their divisions.  Only three times in the divisional era has the team with the best record also won the World Series, 3 times out of 17 (the spreadsheet linked here is also available in the links section to the right-hand side of the blog, called “Best versus Winner.”  It needs updating for 2011 and 2012 champions in all sports, but shows just how infrequently the best regular season team wins in any sport.  A side effect of expanded playoffs in all sports, true, but a concerning trend for any sport purist).

In any rate, I’m hoping that the diminishing of the Wild Card one-game winner means that fewer Wild Cards run through the playoffs, which will lead to more “deserving” World Series participants.


Do I wish that Baseball would revert to the old, old days where there was one division and two pennant winners?  No, of course not.  In fact, I think Baseball would be best served by adopting the NFL’s 8 division alignment with 2 wild cards for a very neat post-season tournament where the two best teams got byes (in the link above, I posted some possible alignment possibilities when the whole re-alignment discussions really took hold in July 2011; my two expansion target cities were San Antonio and Portland).  But expansion in Baseball seems like such a difficult proposition that it may never happen (for the reasons explained in this post).  But the 2nd wild card seems to be setting up baseball fans for an exiting and “fairer” post season in 2012 and beyond.

Written by Todd Boss

August 7th, 2012 at 1:47 pm

A look at Oakland’s amazing 2012 season so far

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Tommy Milone has made Oakland’s 2012 rotation surprisingly good. Photo AP/Ben Margot via dailyrepublic.com

I’ll admit it; after watching Billy Beane wheel and deal this past off-season, trading away most of his starting rotation and letting most of his FA hitters walk, I was predicting a 55 win season for this team.  They were banking on a proposed move to San Jose and I saw these moves as a purposeful bottoming out while playing out the string in Oakland, ahead of a lucrative move to the South Bay.  Well, that move seems interminably stalled, and many pundits predicted a near record loss season for this team, especially considering the massive moves that the Angels had made, coupled with the 2-time defending AL champs Texas being in the same division.

Instead, they sit at 56-48 and if the season ended today, right now on August 2nd, the Oakland A’s and their $55M payroll (2nd lowest in the league by a couple hundred thousand dollars) would be the 2nd wild-card and would play the Los Angeles Angels, they of the $154M payroll (and counting, considering this was their opening day payroll and they’ve taken on with the Zack Greinke deal at the trade deadline).

How did this happen?  Lets look at the evolution of the Starting Rotation, because what this group is doing is nothing short of amazing.

In 2011, the Oakland had 10 different guys start games for them.  Here’s a quick summary (* indicates a left hander on baseball-reference.com pages):

Name Age W L W-L% ERA G GS
Trevor Cahill 23 12 14 0.462 4.16 34 34
Gio Gonzalez* 25 16 12 0.571 3.12 32 32
Brandon McCarthy 27 9 9 0.5 3.32 25 25
Guillermo Moscoso 27 8 10 0.444 3.38 23 21
Rich Harden 29 4 4 0.5 5.12 15 15
Brett Anderson* 23 3 6 0.333 4 13 13
Josh Outman* 26 3 5 0.375 3.7 13 9
Tyson Ross 24 3 3 0.5 2.75 9 6
Graham Godfrey 26 1 2 0.333 3.96 5 4
Dallas Braden* 27 1 1 0.5 3 3 3

Here’s what happened to each of these guys (good link for trade details from baseball-reference.com here; this link shows the latest trade between Oakland and all other teams but quickly shows all these 2011 deals listed here):

  • Cahill traded to Arizona
  • Gonzalez traded to Washington
  • Moscoso traded to Colorado
  • Harden left via free agency, and as far as I can tell he remains unsigned.
  • Outman traded (with Moscoso) to Colorado.
  • Anderson had Tommy John surgery in June of 2011 and is in the minors rehabbing now.
  • Braden had shoulder surgery in April of 2011 and has not pitched since.

They traded or released the starters who made nearly 80% of their starts in 2011.  That leaves 3 guys who had any MLB starts last year: Brandon McCarthy, Tyson Ross and Graham Godfrey, a total of 35 starts.  To add insult to injury, Oakland traded their 2011 closer Andrew Bailey to Boston last December.

So, what does the Oakland rotation look like this year?  Here’s the same data through August 1st:

Name Age W L W-L% ERA G GS
Tommy Milone* 25 9 8 0.529 3.68 21 21
Bartolo Colon 39 7 8 0.467 3.78 20 20
Jarrod Parker 23 7 5 0.583 3.44 18 18
Brandon McCarthy 28 6 3 0.667 2.54 12 12
Travis Blackley* 29 3 3 0.5 3.15 14 10
Tyson Ross 25 2 8 0.2 6.35 12 12
A.J. Griffin 24 3 0 1 2.51 7 7
Graham Godfrey 27 0 4 0 6.43 5 4

So, where’d all these guys come from?

  • Milone: acquired from Washington in the Gonzalez Deal
  • Colon: bottom-of-the-barrel FA signing (1yr/$2M).
  • Parker: acquired from Arizona in the Cahill deal.
  • McCarthy; signed a 1yr/$4.275M FA deal after accepting arbitration from the team after last year
  • Blackley: selected OFF WAIVERS from San Francisco earlier this year
  • Ross: homegrown: a 2nd round pick in 2008
  • Griffen: also homegrown; he was a 13th round draft pick by Oakland in 2010.
  • Godfrey: acquired from Toronto in the 2007 Scutaro deal

Ross and Godfrey got demoted after poor performance, and McCarthy currently sits on the DL, giving Oakland this current rotation: Colon, Blackley, Griffen, Milone, Parker.  All 5 guys with ERAs under 3.78 and all with ERA+ of at least 104 and mostly greater than that.  And, when McCarthy comes back he’s essentially the best pitcher of any of them.  AND, this is all being done with out Dalles Braden and Brett Anderson, two guys who were core components of the 2010 rotation and who would clearly be in the 2012 rotation if not for injury.  AND, Oakland just announced today they’re promoting one of their best starter prospects in Dan Straily for a spot start this coming friday.

Wow.

And, when Braden, Anderson and McCarthy come back, that gives Oakland a major surplus of pitching that can be flipped in the coming off-season for even more prospects and hitting (much as they did this past off-season).

Combine this pitching revolution with the schrewd Yoenis Cespedes signing (who immediately became the highest paid player on the team), the explosion of Josh Reddick (acquired in the Andrew Bailey deal from Boston), unexpected output from DH/FA signee (and ex-Nat) Jonny Gomes and a solid season from Seth Smith (acquired in the Moscoso deal) and you’ve got a team that is producing enough to win.  They’re not an offensive juggernaut (mostly ranked 12th-13th in the 14-team AL in the major offensive categories) but you don’t need to score 8 runs a game when you have a staff ERA of 3.47.

As much as Moneyball critics will hate to hear it, I think Billy Beane is your easy choice for AL Executive of the year right now.