Nationals Arm Race

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

Two months in; Stuck in Neutral

13 comments

So my dad calls me the other day and immediately exclaims, “What’s wrong with this team?!?

Today, the season is 57 games old.  Two months old.  Almost exactly 1/3 old.  And the Nationals, the supposed power houses, next-coming-of the 1927 Yankees, the possible 110 win Nationals, are a .500 team.  Actually, a game under .500 with the weekend series loss to Atlanta.

We’ve talked about the Nats early schedule (as has Tom Boswell recently), chock full of 2012 playoff contenders.   But 2013 is a new season and in reality the Nats as of two months in have played the 14th ranked schedule of 30 teams (3 days ago it was 19th ranked … so these rankings move fast).   We’ve talked about the injuries, the offense in general, defense, the bench, Drew StorenDanny Espinosa, and Dan Haren all as contributing factors. A couple of prominent national baseball writers pipped in on 5/31/13 on this topic: Jay Jaffe on si.com and then Rob Neyer on BaseballNation.com, offering some suggestions, possible trades (Ian Kinsler?) and possible call-ups (the obvious Anthony Rendon).

But here’s my scary thought, as proposed to my dad.  What if .500 is exactly what this team is?

The 2011 Nationals finished .500.  The 2012 Nationals surprised us all and won 98 games.  Now the team is back to its 2011 levels.  Is it possible that this was always a .500 team for whom everything went perfectly right in 2012?  All the stars were in alignment in 2012 in terms of hitting, bench play and coming out parties for guys like Ian Desmond and Bryce Harper and Gio Gonzalez.   Now in 2013 are we just seeing all these guys revert to their normal production levels?

Were we just spoiled by the amazing bench production we got last year?  Here’s a quick table (stats as of 5/31/13):

player 2012 OPS+ 2013 OPS+ Career OPS+
Bernadina 113 34 85
Moore 125 27 90
Lombardozzi 83 55 74
Tracy 112 19 97

In other words, all four primary bench guys outperformed their career OPS+ values (mostly by a 25-30% factor) in 2012, and now all four guys are hitting so far below replacement level as to be drastically hurting the club.

I think the answer to the above questions goes along the following, topic by topic:

  • No, this is better than a .500 team.  The 2013 team is absolutely better than the 2011 team that rallied in September to finish 80-81.  The rotation now is leaps and bounds better than the 2011 rotation.  The offense (on potential anyway) is better.
  • This team is by-and-large the exact same team as the 2012 98 win team.  You can quibble about the loss of Michael Morse‘s charisma and power versus the fire-starting abilities of Denard Span at the top of the order, but then you also have to acknowledge the runs-saved so far this season by having an additional plus-plus defender in the outfield.  Haren versus Edwin Jackson?  At least a wash.  Bullpen additions and subtractions?  Perhaps replacing Burnett, Gorzelanny and Gonzalez with just Zach Duke and Rafael Soriano has weakened the bullpen.  Perhaps not, considering Soriano’s pedigree as a closer and its cascading effect on the rest of the bullpen.
  • The bench over produced in 2012 and is underproducing thus far in 2013, per career averages.  A bit of expected regression to the mean should indicate rising bench offensive production from here on out.  It almost has to; there’s just no way that these four guys are going to hit THIS badly the rest of the season.

But, the early season damage as been done.  At this point, just for the team to match its 2012 win total they’d have to finish the season 70-35.  That’s a .667 winning percentage.  That’s a 110-win pace for a season.  The NL Central right now has three teams with better records than either Atlanta or Washington, the two pre-season NL favorites, meaning there may not even be a NL Wild-Card to fall back on.  This team needs to focus on winning the division or there may not be an October.

This sounds like something Yogi Berra would say, but here goes: you have to score to win.  For me, if they start scoring runs and out-hitting teams, the issues we have with defense, the bullpen and injured starters will become secondary concerns.  As we speak, these Nationals are hitting .229 AS A TEAM.  That’s unbelievable.   Almost amazingly bad.  They’re 28th in batting average.  They’re dead last in team OBP (on a pace for a modern seasonal low OBP in fact), 27th in team slugging, 29th in wOBA and 28th in wRC+.

They need Werth back in the middle of the order.  They need a healthy Harper, who hasn’t been the same since the LA wall crash but really hasn’t been the same since hitting the wall in Atlanta in late April (from a tweet by Mark Zuckerman: Bryce Harper’s stats before April 29 collision in ATL: .356/.437/.744. His stats since: .183/.315/.350).  They’re finally getting LaRoche back on track, and Zimmerman is hitting well.  They need to stop giving at bats to Espinosa, and they need Ramos back to help spell Suzuki (he’s catching nearly every game and his offense has bottomed out in the last month).

I’m going under the assumption, by the way, that Strasburg misses at most one start and that Detwiler returns straight away.  I don’t think Nathan Karns is ready for the big time and the team needs to find another spot starter in the short term (Stammen?).

June is here; a weak schedule and an opportunity to get some wins.  If we’re still .500 on July 1st, then we’ll probably have run out of excuses and decided that we are who we are.

13 Responses to 'Two months in; Stuck in Neutral'

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  1. So in other words, your conditions for the Nats to get back into contention is that EVERYTHING goes exactly right from here on out. Sorry, I just don’t see it. I think it’s more likely Stras and Harper will be out at least through the end of this month.

    I see a team that for whatever reason is being very poorly managed from a roster management and team discipline standpoint, and it seems unlikely that that will change anytime soon. I see an active roster with far too much dead wood dragging the better players down with them like a big ol’ anchor.

    I see a bullpen that has become, while not a total disaster, far too unreliable to buoy a team that has so much trouble scoring runs–and now has even more pressure placed on it with the SP injuries. I also see a team that had no real Plan B if any of its starting pitchers went down–and now two have.

    I agree that this team is a lot better than the 2011 version, but that is when fully healthy (or reasonably close to fully healthy). Since that does not appear to be in the cards anytime soon, my prediction is the Braves will have run away with the division before the Nats can get things righted.

    bdrube

    3 Jun 13 at 9:31 am

  2. You’re right; in order to win this division yeah everything is going to have to go right for this team. And you’re also right in saying that its likely not going to happen.

    Atlanta isn’t exactly a perfect team either; 3 of the top 5 guys in the league in strikeouts are in their starting lineup. They’re not getting all the performance they want out of their starters right now and their bullpen is falling apart. But they’ve been able to squeak their way to a great start and a great record. Are they going to continue falling apart and coming back to us, or vice versa and run away with divisoin like you think?

    Todd Boss

    3 Jun 13 at 11:40 am

  3. The Braves are also enjoying the psychological benefit of no one breathing down their necks, kind of like the Nats did last year. So they are weathering their problems without dropping 3 games back. That is a huge help.

    As for the team, I say it is clearly better than 2011, even as is, since 2011 had a mad rush at the end to close to within a game of .500. Plus, the pitching is off the charts better. Compared to pre-season expectations, to me the problem is the obvious one that Todd cites: the lineup. The rotation and bullpen seem to be under performing their true talent levels, but I would be comfortable just tweaking it and waiting for reversion to the mean.

    But I think that Rizzo, and all of us, overestimated this line up’s quality. I see only 4 hitters that can make a good case for being average or better at their position: Harper, Zim, ALR and Desi. OK, maybe Span. And Harper is the only one who can be elite. Espy, Suzuki and Werth are below average hitters, and some of the first group of guys are good but not as good as 2012 indicated (ALR and Desmond. Desi is not likely a 5 WAR player, more like 3 WAR). 3 below average hitters is a lot for a line up to carry, especially when only 1 is maybe elite. Look at the Brewers, who have 3 guys having elite seasons (Segura, Gomez, Braun) and then a huge fall off. They cannot score either.

    So I think that this team, as currently constructed, is a slightly better than .500 team based on true ability, and could get a few ‘lucky’ seasons to move above 90 wins, but to get to the next level, we need three line up spot upgrades. The question becomes, can you count on rendon and Ramos filling two of them? That might be the biggest reason to give Rendon a chance, to see if he can play 2B next year.

    Wally

    3 Jun 13 at 12:01 pm

  4. If this team is going to make a run to get back into a much more managable position in the divisional race this is the week to do it. The Braves have 3 games against the Pirates before having to make a west coast swing.

    The Nationals on the other hand this week have 6 games at home (where they are much better) and the best starting pitcher for either of the opposing teams is Kevin Correa. Talk about a week to get the bats going. They miss Matt Harvey luckily and the Twins have no rotation.

    The return of Werth mixed with very poor opposition pitching equals a good chance to go 5-1 over the next 6 games and hopefully pick up a game or two. I’m not saying it will happen but this is by far the teams best chance this year to put together a good winning streak.

    Tuesday – Jeremy Hefner – 1-5 4.74 ERA
    Wednesday – Dillon Gee – 3-6 5.68 ERA
    Thursday – Shaun Marcum – 0-6 5.71 ERA
    Friday – Kevin Correia – 5-4 4.09 ERA
    Saturday – Scott Diamond – 4-4 4.66 ERA
    Sunday – Samuel Deduno – 1-1 5.11 ERA

    PDowdy

    3 Jun 13 at 12:49 pm

  5. If the team stops being stubborn and goes with this lineup for the next week it would show signs of what Davey was talking about when he said chagnes would be made.

    Span – CF
    Lombardozzi – 2B
    Zimmerman – 3B
    LaRoche – 1B
    Werth – RF
    Desmond – SS
    Bernadina/Moore – LF
    Suzuki/Solano – C

    No, it isn’t the best lineup ever but Desmond seemed very comfortable hitting 6th last year and Werth will be more steady than having to have both Bernadina and Moore playing outfield at the same time. I feel there is a pretty strong correlation that when Danny was NOT in the line up last week the team scored 25 runs in 5 games. With Danny back they scored 13 in 5 games. There is no room in a struggling offense for his recent performance whether he is healthy or not.

    PDowdy

    3 Jun 13 at 12:55 pm

  6. I like Werth at #2 more than Lombo but otherwise no issues here. Push Desmond to #5 (he can hit for power, unlike Lombo) and push Lombo to 6 or 7 depending on matchups.

    OR, get really crazy, send Moore down, call up Marrero and say F it and stick him in LF. how bad could it be? :-) Hell, try Kobernus out there. Either way, its been two months, Espinosa is killing the team, something had to change there. D/L him, tell him to work on his injuries and then send him on a lengthy rehab assignment to work on his swing for a couple of weeks.

    Todd Boss

    3 Jun 13 at 1:39 pm

  7. I would be fine with that too. I really wouldn’t mind seeing Marrero up and am not sure why the heck Kobernus didn’t get a start yesterday. It was a lefty starter and Espinosa is still awful right now. It would have only made sense. He has been playing LF in AAA some this year too so you would think Davey would have been able to get him in a game.

    I think this is one of the most frustrating things about Davey’s managing this year. You are sporting 4 guys with sub .550 OPS lines right now and you have a kid that hitt .333 at AAA and you haven’t even given him 1 start. The most troubling thing to me is that Kobernus’ flexibility would have allowed him to start in any of Bernadina/Moore/Lombo/Espinosa’s spots.

    PDowdy

    3 Jun 13 at 1:52 pm

  8. At least they’re sending a shot across Espinosa’s bow by promoting Rendon and sticking him at 2B full time. I’m sure Will Rhymes is pleased at this development.

    Todd Boss

    3 Jun 13 at 2:14 pm

  9. Everyone knows my opinion on this.

    First priority has to be the bullpen. And it appears Davey seems to agree. He has nine relievers on his roster even with 2 starters potentially down for an extended period of time. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him push that number to 9 in an attempt to reconstruct the bullpen by staging an in situ or in season competition.

    The stats I look at indicate this is the critical difference between last season and this at this point in time. The performance of the bullpen. Last season the offense was dismal starting in June. Morse was out with an oblique issue. LaRoche was hot, Zimmerman was close to as pathetic as Espinosa. Harper was still finding his way, Ankiel was even more pathetic than Zim, but Desmond was starting to come into his own. It was an offense of fits and starts. So? Definitely the bullpen. Hand-in-hand with the bullpen is the defense. Unfortunately, that starts and ends with Zim having a horrendous year at third base likely due to the recent shoulder surgery. As one of you excellent articles pointed out, that’s not a change you make in season as long as he is competent unless they drop far out of contention. And then? Sure, why not?

    Would a trade fix what ails them? Not unless by some miracle they can trade for Robinson Cano and sign him to a long-term contract. Then? Maybe. But, they’d still have the defensive issue at third base which would of course be remedied by moving Zim to first base and Rendon to third base.

    You’d lose LaRoche but if you look at LaRoche’s current numbers he looks like the 2012 version of Danny Espinosa with the rotator cuff injury. He will undoubtedly end up leading the team in strike outs and probably hit between .230 and .240 with around 20 homers. He might have a few more walks than Espinosa but he will also have far fewer than the 37 doubles Espinosa produced in 2012.

    peric

    3 Jun 13 at 3:33 pm

  10. Peric, I don’t agree at all with your Espinosa/LaRoche comparison. LaRoche is a historically slow starter. He had a bad April. He has bad Aprils almost every year. Now he has had an excellent May and has put himself back on a pace for a 30 homer season. He has raised his OBP .123 points in a month and brought his OPS up .325 points in that same span. I don’t get why you constantly rag on LaRoche. He is not the problem on this team. Basically you are suggesting the removal of one of the NON issues to try to come up with potential fixes for other problems which is never the best idea.

    I do agree that one of the biggest issues is the bullpen and the way Davey has been using them. I can see the team not wanting to give Gorzelanny or Burnett multi year commitments but not going harder after JP Howell or making a trade for a proven lefty looks like a poor move. What is even stranger is that Davey keeps trying to use Duke in important situations instead of turning to Abad who has strike out stuff vs being a soft tosser.

    The defense is a real head scratcher. They had looked much better recently. There was a stretch of 6 or 8 games in a row before yesterday without an error. Desmond has really calmed down since the first few weeks. As you said Zimmerman is an issue but he isn’t one you can fix in season more than likely.

    PDowdy

    3 Jun 13 at 4:31 pm

  11. Is the Bullpen the issue? Doing some team reliever splits at fangraphs, I find the following:
    – 2012 season: 26-19 with 51 saves. Bullpen ERA of 3.23 (7th), FIP of 3.70 (12th), xFIP of 4.01 (20th).
    – 2013 thus far: 8-6 with 16 saves. Bullpen ERA of 4.00 (ranked 18th in the league), FIP of 3.58 (10th), xFIP of 4.06 (20th).

    Notice that the Wins, Losses and Saves are almost exactly on track through the first third of 2013 as they were for 2012. The era/fip are worse but xFip is identical.

    So i’m going to say that, Yes the bullpen has been worse in 2013. But its not the root of their issues. To Peric’s points, yes the Nats offense was struggling in Apr and May of last year, but they were not nearly as bad as the offense has been this year. And the 2012 starters were lights out night after night. There was no Haren slow start, no every-other-start Gio blow ups, and no injuries causing AA starters to come up and hang losses on the team.

    Trading for someone: Who exactly in the Nats farm system is a tradeable asset at this point? Of our top 10 prospects (Rendon, Giolito, Goodwin, Cole, Skole, Karns, Garcia, Perez, Solis, Purke by BA’s rankings); 5 are either injured or just coming back from injury now (Giolito, Skoke, Garcia, Solis, Purke). Goodwin and Cole are struggling at their levels right now. Perez is who he is; a speedy OF type with no power (how good of a prospect can he be). That leaves Karns (whose 2 starts have been decent for a guy barely into AA but who lots of people think is bound to be a reliever) and Rendon (our clear-cut #1 guy who probably should be in the majors now). Who among that list are we going to get equal value for?? We don’t have a guy like Alex Meyer anymore; a healthy guy putting up strong numbers who can fetch an established MLBer.

    Laroche: absolutely disagree with the peric characterization; he’s on fire right now. He started slow (as he was prone to do prior to coming here) and he’s been great in May.

    Todd Boss

    4 Jun 13 at 8:52 am

  12. The bullpen issues stem deaper than the numbers you posted. Last season they stranded runners at a 77% rate. This year they are only stranding 71%. The other problem is Davey can’t seem to figure out how to manage them this year. Duke had no business even being in Sunday’s game. If he did need to be used he had no business being allowed to stay in the game after allowing 2 base runners the next inning. Similar to Henry on Saturday night. Once he walks the first 2 batters its time for him to be yanked. Davey’s overall managing has been a big let down so far for me this year. He just doesn’t seem to have the same swagger this year that he had last year and a lot of his decisions pitching wise are head scratchers.

    I saw an interesting speculation on MLBtraderumors.com about Yvonni Gallardo possibly being available and the Brewers looking for pitchers similar to Nate Karns (he was mentioned by name in the post). I think most of that was author speculation but I was a bit surprised someone outside of Nats world was high enough on Karns to include him as a centerpiece to land a player like Gallardo.

    PDowdy

    4 Jun 13 at 9:17 am

  13. Good point on strand rate. I was just doing a quickie analysis in the comments. You’re preaching to the choir on Johnson’s mismanagement of the bullpen.

    If Karns could fetch Gallardo in trade, you do that yesterday. Gallardo is at least a league-wide #2 or #3 pitcher, and has a great track record. I can’t entirely believe that trade rumor if it was characterized as one-for-one. But, we only need to do that if someone goes down long term; you can’t get Gallardo and then have 6 starters for 5 spots. You can’t really send one of these guys to the bullpen; i mean you can, but it’d be a severe slap in the face/plays bad in the clubhouse kind of move.

    Todd Boss

    4 Jun 13 at 9:27 am

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